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New Delhi: There have been urgent whispers about the “saffronisation” of India’s foreign policy establishment ever since Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014.
In 2017, the Ministry of External Affairs released an official publication on the Bharatiya Janata Party ideologue, Deendayal Upadhyaya, titled Integral Humanism. As if this were not odd enough – the ministry has never involved itself with domestic politics – its contents were also unusual: it equated ‘Indian thought’ with ‘Hindu thought’ and spoke of how “Hindu society has begun the work of organising itself”.
Though evidence of the transformation of India’s outward projection from Nehruvian internationalism to Hindutva is all around us, there is an official reluctance to acknowledge the change.
With rare exceptions, even Indian analysts and think tanks have avoided the subject and focused more on the officially vaunted successes of Modi’s diplomacy.
Our best sources of information on the change in India’s diplomacy have been foreign: mainly international journals and research publications. The March issue of the U.K.-based International Affairs provides valuable details about the influence of Hindu nationalism on Indian diplomacy and how the elite Indian Foreign Service (IFS) reacted to the radical transformation.
Written by Kira Huju, a lecturer at Oxford University, the 18-page ‘draft analysis’ is largely based on 85 private interviews she had with both serving and retired IFS cadre as well as newly inducted “saffron” (or Hindutva-oriented) officials.
The study covered such topics as the transition from ‘Nehruvian internationalism to Modi’s Hindutva’, ‘Hindutva and everyday diplomatic practices’, ‘adaptation and resistance’, ‘ideological departures and social fault lines’, and ‘the cosmopolitan elite as the internal other’.
It will be apparent to readers that her analysis does, at times, go the extra mile to present the Hindutva version of the saffronisation process, to discourage charges of partisanship.
Slow but visible churn
When it comes to everyday diplomatic practice, the study mentions the proliferation of Hindu events held at or sponsored by Indian embassies. Many of these were organised by the ‘paramilitary Hindutva organisation’ Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or its affiliates.
It quotes a serving officer as saying that such partisan functions evoked immediate backlash from the service’s secular-minded Hindu officers and religious minorities.
The author also quotes Ashis Ray, a former foreign affairs correspondent, to suggest that such interferences had forced senior diplomats to look over their shoulders for RSS activists planted at embassies and high commissions. Also, local loyalists of Modi have started bossing it over the “pliant or petrified mission heads”. The author, however, found it difficult to verify the levels of such outside interference in embassies and high commissions.
The study talks of the conscientious efforts being made to replace the dominant Anglophone class of diplomats by a new cadre invested in Hinduism and the Hindi language, with a less cosmopolitan sense of nationalistic pride.
In the interviews, many diplomats said they personally felt excluded from this narrative of “authentic” Indianness, marked by an aggressive push in favour of Hindi and a marginalisation of English in diplomatic communication. This is being sold to foreign audiences as a delayed but necessary “decolonisation of the mind”. The new message: Under the Modi administration, India is shedding the language of its former coloniser.
At the time of the interviews in 2019, the International Affairs article says, the very first Hindi-language book for the Indian Council of World Affairs was close to publication, the first Hindi-language foreign policy conference was being planned, and the prime minister’s conference for heads of missions had been held in Hindi, with even non-northern ambassadors who struggle with Hindi required to speak in the language.
The study cites many changes in diplomatic training, which successful IFS applicants undertake before assuming their first post. These are “an offshoot of this government”, as one diplomat sympathetic to the administration phrased it. Accordingly, they have to follow the mandate of the ‘Ayush’ ministry. Ayurveda, homeopathy and yoga are accorded centrality. While ‘protocol attachments’ usually involve diplomatic probationers joining international summits or conferences, in 2019 they were also dispatched to the Kumbh Mela religious festival.
Hindu nationalism in India, the study notes, emphasises the spiritual superiority of Hinduism and insists on a narrative of Hindu victimisation at the hands of Muslims (who are cast in the role of an internal “other”). In its diplomatic garb, Hindutva challenges the need to represent India as diverse and secular. “What it offers instead is a political investment in civilisational greatness, hyper-masculine conceptions of international security, and anti-Western ideologies of Hindu revivalism.”
“Slowly,” the study says, “the blurry edges of ambiguous Indian identity, traditionally more civic than ethnic or religious in nature among India’s ruling elites, are being drawn in sharper strokes: a once almost ethereal conversation about Indian culture is, one Muslim officer argued, becoming a conversation about ‘blood and soil’.”
Thus a soft end of saffronisation overlaps with a seemingly innocuous celebration of Indian culture. For example, Modi insists on visits to Hindu and Buddhist temples as part of his itinerary on foreign trips and chooses artefacts like the Bhagavad Gita – a revered Hindu text – as gifts to political counterparts.
Modi rejects the importance of cosmopolitanism in diplomacy. The newly elected prime minister is quoted as comparing foreign nations to a haughty aunt, never as deserving of diplomats’ loyalty as Bharat Mata, in an address to diplomatic probationers in 2014.
The author quotes a visibly concerned retired officer who says that the service’s growing number of RSS sympathisers signifies a cultural project of re-education. A Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) affiliate working as a contractor for the ministry of external affairs expressed confidence in the slow churn of promotion patterns, estimating that it would take about 15 years for attitudinal change to take root, with Nehruvian diplomats retiring and more nationalist-minded colleagues filling their place.
During an interview, an elderly Sikh officer broke into tears describing a battle to uphold the values of diversity and secularism he had spent his career defending. “One retired Muslim officer offered the comment that ‘five years ago all of us were cosmopolitan’, but that ‘in today’s polarized environment, narrower assertions of identity have come to the surface’. ‘Not once’ having had to justify his cosmopolitanism or Indianness in his almost 40 years of service, ‘now I own ten books on the topic of culture and identity’, he exclaimed.”
Huju says that in the Hindutva constructions of self and other, traditional IFS elites are counted among “a powerful foreign ‘other’ within India in the form of a pseudo-secular, neocolonial, and illegitimately powerful establishment that colludes with dangerous minorities who, in turn, have links to India’s external enemies”. In this narrative, the saffronisation of the IFS is justified as an anti-elite move that seeks to champion true pluralism.
‘This foreign policy method neither promotes security nor economic interests’
The Wire discussed Huju’s paper with some serving and retired IFS officers, most of whom readily acknowledged that many of the tendencies she describes are very much part of the Indian diplomatic landscape today. “We always pushed a very national agenda but it was one based on interests more than ideology,” said one former ambassador. “There is no doubt that missions have been reduced to event management companies and there is pressure and competition to profile the man and message on social media. Another development is the taking over of ICCR. The Indian Cultural Centres are now manned by the committed with strong political clout – and there have been run-ins with heads of missions, not to speak of the content of projection of Indian culture.”
One old-timer compared the present drive with the manner in which diplomacy was conducted the first time the BJP was in power. “Why is the current nationalism different from NDA 1 when the foreign office and missions were not impacted? Was (national security adviser) Brijesh Mishra, who belonged to this now hated elite, responsible?”.
Another IFS hand said that Huju’s survey “does not reflect the fact that quite a few officers don’t like what is happening – even if they keep quiet, out of fear of imperilling their careers.” They added: “Also, this method of conducting foreign policy neither promotes security or economic interests, nor does it increase our international acceptability as one of the big powers capable of preserving the international system (recall the remarkable nature of the Indo-US nuclear agreement).”
P. Raman has covered politics for national dailies since 1978. He is the author of Strong Leader Populism: How Modi’s Hybrid Regime Model is Reshaping India’s Political Narrative, Ecosystem and Symbols.