Indian civil servants were recently ordered to use only Hindi in their social media statements. This followed Prime Minister Narendra Modi taking his oath of office in Hindi, a break from his predecessor. The change reflects a broader difference between the previous Congress Party-led government and Modi's BJP, a difference that will play out in foreign policy: culture.
While the BJP is more overtly culturo-nationalist, culture has influenced the foreign policy approaches of both major parties. It has impacted leaders' preferences and perceptions and, to a lesser extent, public opinion.
The role of culture in Congress' foreign policy has been subtle. Ancient cultural values like non-violence feature prominently in the preferred national image, and non-violent preferences for global peace and cooperation flavoured Congress' 2014 election manifesto. This is partly spin, but the cultural preference for non-violence helps explain India's relative restraint in conflict, despite provocations. Nuclear weapons are seen largely as a status symbol and consideration of their actual use has been shunned. Values like pluralism and tolerance fostered the 'live and let live' attitude embodied in Nehru's 'peaceful coexistence' policy, underpinning a disdain for forceful humanitarian intervention.
The BJP's foreign policy in the 1990s and 2000s featured another component of culture: identity. The BJP made much of what it called 'Indian values', and we will likely see even more of this under Modi.
Despite the BJP's reputation, a focus on cultural identity won't necessarily convert to hyper-nationalism; it can also be part of India's enormous potential in the field of 'soft power'. For instance, Modi justified the maintenance of India's 'no first use' (NFU) nuclear policy by calling it a reflection of the country's cultural heritage. Granted, India's nuclear competitors don't trust the NFU pledge, but it is likely that Modi's statement is more than just spin.
Modi is likely to follow the tradition of the last BJP government (1998-2004), which did not seriously consider nuclear weapons as useable war-fighting instruments.
This government delayed development of an integrated nuclear doctrine, neglected serial production of weapons, and sought to 'multilateralise' NFU by seeking commitments from other nations. Nukes were considered largely an avenue to prestige, another important cultural value. Prestige underpins the BJP's ambition for India to attain its 'rightful place in the comity of nations', a dream peppered throughout the party's election manifesto. Under Modi, nuclear advancement will likely be motivated by prestige and tempered by the preferred image of a non-violent India.
As for relations with China, shared religious and cultural history can provide a foundation for strengthening peaceful ties. For millennia, Asia's two giants were bonded by Buddhism. Modi's hard image gives him more leeway to employ this form of soft power, as he does not have to prove his hawkishness to the domestic public.
Cultural identity and values are likely to play a role in relations with the US too. Speaking to Delhi's elite while posted there as a diplomat, one of the most striking justifications I heard for closer ties with America was shared values (particularly among BJP supporters). This included pluralism, tolerance and liberal democracy. Both countries also place a high value on religion. Moreover, the bolstered sense of cultural identity that comes from living as a minority has led many in India's diaspora in America (notably Modi's fellow Gujaratis) to support the BJP. Given Indians constitute one of the wealthiest and best educated minorities in the US, they will likely play a key role in facilitating and advocating stronger economic ties with India.
In South Asia, the search for prestige will supercharge Delhi's efforts to promote its regional leadership. Recently in Bhutan, Modi touted that a strong India is good for South Asia. Delhi may even use a sense of shared cultural identity to coax India's smaller neighbours to swallow this pill.
The desire for prestige may also play a role in improving relations with Pakistan. Neutralising the proverbial thorn in India's side is a pre-requisite to the country achieving great power status. Modi has freedom to manoeuvre because of his proven 'tough on Pakistan' credentials, and he has already displayed magnanimity with his unprecedented invitation to the Pakistani President to attend Modi's inauguration. There are also plans for future visits, official-level talks, and progression on the Lahore Declaration.
The Prime Minister's innovative plan to give states more say in foreign policy will further increase the role of cultural identity. Bengali identity will impact on Bangladesh policy. Tamil Nadu identity will further shape relations with Sri Lanka. The recent promotion of ethno-cultural links between Bengal, Odisha and Sri Lanka's Sinhalese may also now play a role.
The less well known civilisational links with Southeast Asia might also be exploited. These include Indian cultural exports like Hinduism, Buddhism, Sanskrit and the Brahmi script. It remains to be seen whether the BJP can harness these without emitting the odour of cultural superiority.
And Australia? Like America, we share values of democracy, pluralism and tolerance. Indians are becoming one of Australia's fastest-growing migrant groups, many supporting Modi. Both countries are now being led by conservatives with strong religious and pro-business values. Culture in BJP foreign policy may indeed prove to be a positive for a relationship that many believe has the greatest untapped potential for Australia.
Photo by Flickr user Narendra Modi.