27 September, 2021


Emerging Cultural Emphasis In India’s Foreign Policy Under Modi

By Bandu de Silva

Bandu de Silva

Bandu de Silva

Emerging Cultural emphasis in India’s foreign policy under Modi: The signals from the first “Reaching East” visits

Something not sufficiently articulated, if not altogether missing in the commentaries about Prime Minister Modi’s first official visits to the three countries in the East last week which were euphemistically called “reaching East,” is the notable paradigm shift which is being increasingly used as a tool for foreign policy approach by the new Indian Prime Minister. This is the emphasis on the historical and cultural equation arising from India’s ancient cultural links with Asian countries. This was, as I have been pointing out repeatedly in my writing, a great resource available to Indian diplomacy but one that it had overlooked since independence, in preference first to the imperialist outlook which India inherited from the British Raj and applied in her relations with neighbours; and secondly, the hegemonic diplomacy applied to her immediate neighbours like SriLanka in the 1980s and others. That is to say that the outwardly liberal outlook of Indian leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru at the time of independence, had not been fully successful in liberating Indian thought from the imperialist inheritance left behind by the British; and later, India set herself upon a hegemonic course to safeguard her security interests. The war in former East Pakistan which saw the dismemberment of Pakistan secured India’s east front from a hostile neighbor. Similarly, the war in Sri Lanka, where India was but less involved, also had as its root the achievement of India’s security interests through, the weakening of Sri Lanka’s stability.

When one peeps into events around mid 1950s one may see India wanting to play a lead role guiding Asian diplomacy and even using such Indian origin terminology like “panchaseela” (Five Precepts) to guide inter-state relations as was demonstrated at the Bandung Conference of 1955 and later applied to Sino-Indian relations. But these culture-related manifestations simmered down after confining them to mere extracting the familiar Indian terminology when strategic competition began to build up with her once chummy Asian neighbor China from 1960s onwards.

Modi Sri Lanka 2015Strategic relations with other Asian neighbours as well as major powers began, by and large, to gravitate on this new confrontational relationship with Pakistan on one hand and China, on the other hand. For example, more strategic and even hegemonic type relations began to be exercised towards India’s close neighbor, Sri Lanka. Vietnam whose relations had soured with China also came into India’s orbit. An Indian Oil Company took part in two oil exploration projects in the South China Sea islands claimed to be disputed by China. In another direction, India began to develop relations with Mongolia in China’s backyard, a country which China had delayed to recognize for historical reasons and participate in development projects till after the thaw in Sino-Russian relations.

Cultural equation with Sri Lanka

There was nothing beyond that by way of India’s cultural equation with Asian countries till Prime Minister Modi with his BJP background started laying emphasis on that equation. In fact, India’s foreign policy relations record with Sri Lanka was not marked with any positive signs but signified in negative terms as a “problem”, which entered the historical record as “Indo-Ceylon problem ”. Indian diplomacy later under young Rajiv Gandhi much misled by his advisors including Indian High Commissioner, J.N.Dixit, in Colombo, preferred to exert a hegemonic outlook towards Sri Lanka much influenced by her subservience to Tamil Nadu politics. Even on the more recent attack on Mahabodhi temple in Bihar, much hallowed by Buddhists, I had to comment on the lack of sensitivity on the part of the Indian High Commission in Colombo in dealing with Sri Lankan sensitivity. Under Modi administration, we have now marched a long distance away from India’s former ‘negative’ diplomatic attitudes in creating what was termed “peoples-to –peoples’ contacts”.

The first manifestation was seen during Modi’s official visit to Sri Lanka as Prime Minister, when he chose to visit Sri Lanka’s first Capital and the Jaya Sri Mahabodhi at Anuradhapura which still symbolizes the hallowed memory of Sri Lanka’s ancient historical link with India and cultural indebtedness. The Capital itself which has a continued its existence for over one millennium was closely linked with India historically and culturally, as the centre which received waves of Indian cultural influence. Modi’s other visit to Jaffna though had other political ramifications, was not without its historical and culture –related relevance. The cultural aspect of the entire visit was compounded with Modi’s visit to pay respect to the relics of Buddha’s two chief disciples gifted to Sri Lanka, now deposited at Mahabodhi Temple in Colombo.

The other Asian Visits

Coming to his recent official visit to China, Modi’s visit to the ancient Capital, Xian, the birth place of the present Chinese President, Xi Jinping, and his visits to ancient sites there, some which have recorded ancient links with India were far more than symbolic. In Mongolia, where Modi’s visit marked the first such occasion by an Indian Prime Minister, again, the links established through Buddhism which reached the country from India, was emphasized. Here, India was obviously taking note of the fact that the Mongolians , a predominantly Buddhist country, was looking up to India more than to neighbouring China as the source of cultural inspiration. Even today, the rulers there preferred to have their names in Sanskrit than in their own language.

In Korea, which has become more Christianized no such visible emphasis on the cultural equation though Bodhidharma (Daruma in Japan), the dark-complexioned South Indian featured in sculpture, is acknowledged as a main exponent of Buddhism in the peninsula and Japan.

In the final analysis, however, viewed against the plethora of two dozen agreements signed with China and a lesser number with Mongolia, and the US $ 10 million worth investment related agreements signed with South Korea, where emphasis was mainly on investment and technology- transfer matters, the emphasis on cultural aspects may seem a mere tool to create a congenial environment to promote other issues at stake. Though such a conclusion is irresistible, Prime Minister Modi’s genuine interest in promoting the cultural links with Asian neighbours as a definite foreign policy tool cannot be missed. This is seen also from his agenda in India like the participation, for the first time, in Buddha “Purnima” celebrations in India along with his government’s proposal to deposit Buddha relics now confined to the New Delhi Museum in more appropriate sanctuaries where thy would receive higher degree of veneration as well as a symbol of india’s religio-cultural contribution to the world at large.

That makes him different from his predecessors in office including the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, who, as I said earlier, displayed beneath his outward tendency for liberalism, a hardcore legacy of imperialism as successor to British Raj and Commander-in-Chief of the then world’s third largest army bequeathed to him by the British. This was to manifest itself in his outlook on the border dispute with China when he based his claims to territory on the British imposed McMohan line rather than going for a political settlement with China, as much as in his dealings over the issue of Indian indentured labour in Sri Lanka, not to speak of the issue of Kashmir over which relations with Pakistan remain ever soured.

Modi’s China Visit

Modi was no stranger to China. As Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat he had visited China earlier and successfully enlisted Chinese foreign development investments (FDI) in the state of Gujarat in his endeavor to make that state the economic hub of India. In other words, he was a friend of China for quite sometime. When the Chinese President Xi Jinping visited India last year, his visit to Gujarat on the way to New Delhi, ostensibly with a view to visiting the Ashram of Mahatma Gandhi. That visit also coincided with the birthday of Prime Minister Modi who too happened to be there paying respect to his aged mother, observing a traditional custom of his. This coincidence, too has its symbolic significance, all of which go to show how far Chinese themselves had advanced cultural diplomacy to successfully touch the heart of the people of countries with which she has or intends to build friendly relations.

The Chinese were far ahead , in deed, India in using cultural links as a prelude and to buttress other developing relations with countries in the present day context while India, as I said, lagged behind, China because of the hardcore imperialist inheritance from the days of Jawaharlal Nehru. To amplify, this was amply demonstrated in the course of the border war issue with China when Nehru wanted to fight to the last till Ambassador Galbriath warned him that the US air cover which he was expecting for such an adventure would not be forthcoming. Similar imperialistic attitudes were seen projected towards Sri Lanka also over the issue of Indian indentured labour in the island until the Agreement was reached between Bahadur Shasri and Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike.

Diplomatic direction under Prime Minister Modi has not been slow to learn a lesson from Chinese diplomacy, if that be the case, by reciprocating with a visit to the historic capital of Xian, the birth place of the Chinese President, and the city from which the 7th century Chinese Buddhist pilgrims departed for China and the home of China’s fascinating China’s life sized-terracota army. Whether or not, Modi’s visit there before coming over to Beijing for official meetings with his counterpart, Prime Minister Li Kequiang, was arranged by the Chinese visitor as reciprocation to his visit as it was made out to be, it would seem that it fitted Modi’s own new diplomacy of seeking to visit places where it touches the heart of people most. We can then conclude that both China and India now under the new dispensation are endeavouring to advance what once was seen as “Peoples to Peoples-contact” by Indian diplomats, but was not sufficiently articulated. It is only now that this ‘peoples-to-peoples-contact’ is being really made meaningful by India through demonstration than paying lip-service as before.

Pre-Modi visit Chinese commentaries pointed to some concerns which China expected might be raised during Modi’s visit. Though the Chinese would have been ready to face any situation, it appeared that she wished to send a message across that raising any controversial issues like the vexed border dispute between the two countries may not be conducive to the development of cooperation in a variety of other fields where progress has been made or initiated. Reference can be made to the dozen agreements signed between the two countries during the visit of the former Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh to Beijing which included an agreement on border defence cooperation to ensure peace and tranquility along the line of control. There was some reason for this considering that Modi had before the General Election visited the controversial Arunachal state announced that it would be well defended. Though this may have been part of pre-election rhetoric it could have disturbed the Chinese hierarchy including the armed forces to be let off without a response. However, the Chinese response was mild and came from a spokesperson somewhat lower down in the hierarchy. Obviously, China viewed Modi as a potential asset which need not be overtly disturbed. This may be compared with the way China reacts when Japanese leaders undertake official or private visits to the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo evoking war memories.

As Modi’s recent visit to China unfolded, everything seemed, at least outwardly, to have worked on lines of a pre-tailored framework and only the fit-on was needed. Signing two dozen varied agreements in itself was no simple task and much pre-preparatory work could have gone into it. For Modi, the emphasis was on attracting Chinese FD Investment into India and finding ways to bridge the balance of payment gap which was in favour of China. The 24 agreements signed during the visit this time, related to trade, consular affairs, scientific affairs including cooperation in Space research, twining of cities and establishment of a Yoga school in Kunming. No agreement was signed on the border issue, not even on defence cooperation to ensure peace and tranquility along the line of control. This should not be taken as a negative pointer, but needs to be considered in the light of Modi’s larger objective of attracting Chinese FD investments of which his address to the Chinese business forum was a major landmark. It has also to be examined against the background of the series of agreements signed between the two countries since the first visit of former Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jibao to India in 2005 and again five years later, the dozen agreements signed during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to China in 2013 and during Chinese President, Xi Jinping’s visit to India in 2014.

Concerns expressed

However, from reports now filtering out it would appear that everything had not been smooth as expected. According to a post-visit Deccan Herald report, India had resisted China’s pressure for signing a new Border Code of Conduct even as both sides ensured that the Indian Prime Minister’s visit was not marred by any stand-off along the disputed boundary. This was because the Indian government was keen to continue negotiations on a border pact to make sure that China would never infringe upon India’s sovereign right to develop infrastructure along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The Hindu of 21 May 2015 in contrast, carried a Beijing-based report to say that India and China have established a detailed framework of partnership during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit, but the delay in clarification of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and Beijing’s proposed forays into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) are hampering the full development of ties. Whether both reports refer to aspects of the same discussions or whether they reflect two different issues is not clear. The Hindu report says that India’s core concerns that are restraining ties, which include LAC clarification and the use of PoK territory in defining the Pakistan-China economic corridor, were covered in remarks by the Prime Minster at the Great Hall of the People. What is patently clear is that the overall border issue had not been completely excluded from talks between the two sides during Modi visit though it did not form a major agenda item, and only peripheral matters to it had engaged the attention of leaders.

There were other issues which disturbed the Chinese over was India’s growing cooperation with other neighbours. One such was the cooperation with Vietnam the relations of which country has soured further over China’s claim to South China Sea islands, sovereignty over which is claimed by Vietnam also. Here India is already involved in oil exploration work in two areas on behalf of Vietnamese companies. During Vietnamese Prime Minister’s visit to India, both countries agreed to India participating in three more oil exploration projects in offshore area. Besides this India’s agreement to help Vietnam to upgrade self defence forces, offer of US$ 100 million to purchase Indian patrol craft, and above all to sell Indian manufactured Brahmos anti-vessel supersonic missiles, had become a thorn in Sino-India relations. Though there was no clear indication that these particular issues had been raised in relation to Modi’s visit, the disturbed climate has to be noted. India had tried to take the steam off by pointing out that the new oil exploration projects would be in islands where Vietnam had undisputed sovereignty, and the proposal to sell Brahoms missiles had been sidetracked.
Yet another point that had disturbed the Chinese was India’s growing relations with Mongolia which country was in Modi’s itinerary this time, that being the first visit by an Indian head of government. This is a country which China had for long years refused to recognize for historical reasons, being conceived as part of Chinese territory, while India was the first country outside the Soviet bloc to recognize her and sponsor her admission to the UN in 1961 (Mongolia reciprocated to the Indian gesture by becoming the second country after Bhutan to recognise Bangladesh as an independent country following the liberation of Bangladesh by Indian troops). It is only after the thaw in relations between the former Soviet Union and China that the latter has replaced Russia in economic cooperation with Mongolia. However, the Indian interest especially in space matters which is being developed with Mongolia has been watched by China with some concern as it is feared that the opportunity could be used for monitoring China’s nuclear development programmes from the advantageous position in Mongolia. There was no clear indications that the issue figured in Modi’s meeting with Chinese leaders but the issue remains one of concern to China.

Response to China’s ambitious projects

There is no doubt that India has reservations over China’s mega New Silk Road and Maritime Silk Road plans to promote which China has allocated a massive US $ 40 billion in funds. According to both Indian and Chinese sources, China admitted “mistrust” among other countries over “strategic motivations” behind these projects and sought to allay them, which of course, was primarily a reference to India. The Xinhua news agency was at pains to explain that the “One Belt and One Road” was not aimed at furthering China’s “regional hegemony”. While India is taking part in the discussions of the Bangladesh-China-India-and Myanmar (BCIM), it has been observed that the economic corridor project connecting China and Pakistan through the Pakistan-ruled part of Kashmir and the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) connecting China with different ports in South East, South and west Asia and East Africa have evoked mixed responses from India. This is because of apprehensions that they are aimed at enhancing China’s role in India’s backyard,(the Indian Ocean). India has come up with its own counter proposal of a Spice route and ‘Mausum’ projects. The idea of even linking the Chinese projects with that of India’s own counter plans has also been mooted by the Chinese side in order to get India’s cooperation. The indications are that China may not abandon these projects because of Indian reservations.

As against the above projects, the China-backed Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has had a positive response from India. India is expected to contribute up to 15 per cent of funding as against China’s 30 per cent.


Despite both positive and not so positive elements which crept into the discussions during Modi’s visit to China, if one thinks in terms of cooperation in the field of Foreign Development Investment an balancing of trade which Modi was seeking, with near US $ 10 billion of projects claimed to be in the bag, India’s performance could be considered a positive development. Though there are still impediments to achieving hundred percent in confidence building in strategic partnership areas is far from being achieved, the two countries need to consolidate n the gains made so far and keep the dialogue on to fill the remaining gap. On the border issue, India cannot expect to hang on to imperialistic claims and needs to seek a political solution.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 1

    A lengthy harangue in the guise of explaining India’s cultural diplomacy. The author says this is something not suffiently articulated …about the visit of PM Modi to the three countries in East Asia. Two ways to look at it. There is nothing special in it. Or there is everything special in it. But the truth lies in the mid-point. Although it was packaged as “Reaching East”, it was only an important adjuct in the overall strategy that could be branded as “Global India”. India envisions a part of it everywhere from a cultural perspective, or an economic perspective, or a political perspective, or from a mix of two or more. When PM seeks to undertake official visits, it identifies countries acoording to specific geographic region, for visit purposes. Following this pattern, Modi has already visited Americas, Europe, South Asia. So, it is logical that he has just completed a visit to East Asia. In East Asia, politics has only made the relations polarised, it would make sense therefore to emphasize only economic and cultural perspectives which may bring them closer, thereby creating a congenial milieu in the long term to address some of the political challenges. In my view, this is function of realist foreign policy, and nothing is serious or unique about it in the current era as the author claims. Contrary to his assertion that since independence India has not put accent on advancing cultural relations, it should be mentioned that India is one among a handful of countries, which has a fully dedicated external
    cultural promotion wing under an executive director with a separate financial provision, to actively advance cultural cooperation with foreign countries.

  • 0

    The presence of a Cultural section in the Indian M/E.Adoes not mean a thing if it has not been able to exert a visible influence on the overall policy. If one compares the role of a succession of Indian Prime Ministers from Jawaharlal Nehru through Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and others, Manmohan Singh to Naredra Modi, surely, one cannot fail to observe that there is a discernible change under Modi in the direction of cultural emphasis. I have cited enough evidence of this almost to the extent of repetition. I raised the question if it was by way of a tool for achieving other high priority objectives of diplomacy or if it arose from a an ingrained interest in the character of the new prime minister. I was prepared to cast the die on the latter.
    One is free to make one’s own evaluation but to be convincing such evaluation has to be through critical observation of the policies followed under different leadership and not through superficial look at things.

  • 1

    The reputed author, Bandu Silva, says in his defence:

    “I cited enough evidence of this almost to the point of repetition”.
    Thank you for your forthright admission. But, the word “almost” is an understatement. In some respects, it is exceedingly repetitive. Hence, my categorisation of it as “lengthy harangue”. Regrets for calling it so!

    The point I made was simple: cultural dimension was very much part of India’s foreign policy, or of a strategy advancing foreign relations since independence. But the acultural Butof this component varied depending on
    which country, or which region it focussed on. It coverged with other
    components such as economic, science and technolgy, education and
    research, polItical etc., to the extent the specific context in which the overall
    relations with a particular country, or a particular region demanded.

    The only example the author has given in support of his ‘finding’ that there is
    a cultural emphasis in India’s foreign policy is the recent visit of Indian PM
    Modi to East Asia – which the author brands as ‘Reaching India’. My point is, if so, it is specific to this region – in reality, India’s Neighbourhood eastwards!
    Even so, other components or factors in the foreign policy would have
    adjusted among themselves, to arrive at the equation the specific regional
    context demaded. For example, India can not naturally overplay the ‘political
    factor’ uniformly in this region given regional and bilateral ‘animosities’.
    Emphasis on economic cooperation and promotion of cultural relations
    therefore was a logical function of foreign policy in this particular region.

    It is difficult to generalise and conclude that promotion of cultual relations was being emphasized by PM Modi alone or someting to similar effect.


    Despite both positive and not so positive elements which crept
    into the discussions during Modi’s visit to China, if one thinks in terms of cooperation in the field of Foreign Development Investment an balancing of trade which Modi was seeking, with near US $ 10 billion of projects claimed to be in the bag, India’s performance could be considered a positive development. Though there are still impediments to achieving hundred percent in confidence building in strategic partnership areas is far from being achieved, the two countries need to consolidate n the gains made so far and keep the dialogue on to fill the remaining gap. On the border issue, India cannot expect to hang on to imperialistic claims and needs to seek a political solution.
    “…..Modi (is) in the direction of cultural emphasis. I have cited enough evidence of this almost to the extent of repetition.”

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 7 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.