October 26, 2010Pax Indicageopolitics

Religion is the missing ingredient in India’s soft power

The idea of secularism is meaningless in the amoral world of international relations. What is an excellent principle to order our diverse, plural nation is a millstone around India's neck when it comes to foreign policy.

This is an unedited draft of my Pax Indica column for Yahoo! (2010-2011)

This is going to make you uncomfortable.

The idea of secularism is meaningless in the amoral world of international relations. What is an excellent principle to order our diverse, plural nation is a millstone around India’s neck when it comes to foreign policy.

By believing that our foreign policy must be secular’ we have automatically tuned out a number of strategic options that we could use. By eschewing the use of religion as a lever, the Indian republic finds itself unable to use its historical sources and reserves of geopolitical power. So much that in an era where the rise of political Islam, on the wings of globalisation, is challenging the established international order, India finds itself unable to play despite having a decent hand of cards.

It’s a double whammy actually. We have perverted secularism at home and suffered for it. We have practised secularism abroad and suffered for it too. This is in keeping with the overall upside-downness of our contemporary statecraft where we practise amoral realpolitik at home but see international relations as a morality play. Vote-bank politics, competitive intolerance and the entitlements have perverted secular values at home. This classic divide-and-rule strategy is masterful but immoral in the domestic context. Yet, the same politicians who play this game so well at home do not play it at all abroad.

For much of our history, religion, culture and wealth have been a sources of India’s overall geopolitical power. For more than two millennia, Hinduism and Buddhism were sources of influence on a scale unimaginable today, where we celebrate the popularity of Hindi films as examples of our soft power. In fifth century Vietnam for instance, the grandson of Fan-Wen, the Chinese founder of the second Champa dynasty assumed the Sanskrit name of Bhadravarman, built numerous Shiva temples and made Hinduism the court religion. Even as Champa paid nominal tribute to the neighbouring Chinese emperor, Bhadravarman’s son, Gangaraja abdicated the throne to undertake a pilgrimage to India. This is just one example, but even from a cursory reading of history it is obvious that religion created cultural affinities for India in distant lands and peoples. The Nalanda University project stands out as an exception to the general neglect of culture in promoting India’s interests abroad. For all the talk about promoting India’s soft power, we have allowed our misunderstanding of secularism to keep religion out of the foreign policy toolkit.

No one bats an eyelid when someone argues that we should use democracy, free-market capitalism, socialism or South-South solidarity” to promote India’s interests abroad. But mention religion and all sorts of people jump at you. The first objection you hear is that it’s against our secular values”. This is absurd, as I’ve just argued, because secularism applies only to India’s internal affairs.

The second objection warns you about the double-edgedness of employing religion. A line connecting the United States’ use of Islamism in the 1980s in Afghanistan and the blowback on 9/11 is drawn and offered in support of this argument. Fair enough. There are dangers and side-effects to any strategy, not least ones involving the use of ideologies. Who can say that promoting economic freedom in China isn’t to blame for the relative decline of the United States? Who can say that supporting a democratic Bangladesh has been without negative consequences for India? Who can say that the Soviet Union didn’t suffer after supporting Communism in China?

The fact that employing religion as a foreign policy tool has costs, side-effects and carries the risk of unintended consequences is not an argument against its use. Rather, it is an argument for the exercise of great caution and care. Religion has paid foreign policy dividends, even in recent times. The West’s support for the Vatican and its role in challenging Communism in Poland and elsewhere contributed to its victory in the Cold War. Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical influence is disproportionate to the size of its population, economy and armed forces. Tibetan Buddhism is one of the important reasons why the world sympathises with the Dalai Lama’s struggle.

The third — and perhaps the most serious — objection is that India’s domestic politics either prevents the use of religion in foreign policy, complicates it or makes it counter-productive. It is reasonable to argue that promoting one religion abroad will make it appear, to the people at home, that that religion is being advantaged. The implications cannot be dismissed flippantly, but it is important not to overstate the political effects. Foreign policy issues seldom affect electoral verdicts. Other than handing one or the other party a rhetorical stick to beat its opponent with, the political effect might be less significant that what conventional wisdom suggests. Moreover, who says foreign policy must promote only one religion?

But why is this issue important now? Because regardless of whether you believe that there are civil wars within the Islamic faith or that political Islam is in a grand contest with the rest, India finds itself without any significant voice or influence in the matter. It is a business of immense importance to us, because more than 160 million of Indians are Muslims. And to the extent that there is a clash of civilisations as a consequence of the global strengthening of political Islam, India cannot afford to sit out the contest and just accept the outcome as a fait accompli.

India must influence the global Islamic dynamic. We cannot do so unless we are able to promote the Indian alternative to the petro-dollar powered Middle Eastern doctrines that are today dominating Muslim communities around the world. We cannot do so as long as the institutions and the leaderships of our Muslim community are in awe of imported doctrines and foreign funding. We cannot do so as long as our Muslim intellectuals do not have the conviction, courage and wherewithal to stand up for the ten centuries of knowledge and wisdom that go into India’s Islamic traditions.

There are many more Pax Indica columns here

It is unacceptable for a country with one of the world’s largest Muslim populations, one with the longest experience of practising the Islamic faith in a multi-religious society to have no voice at all in one of the most important geopolitical dynamics of our time. India’s lack of Islamic soft power is a symptom of its, well, secular rejection of religious soft power. If we are serious about being a major global power, if soft power is to be something more than a feel-good story, and indeed for our own survival and security, we must dispassionately begin to make strategic use of our religion and culture.

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