Why Narendra Modi is a radical departure in Indian thinking about the world
The prime minister pitches India as the source of ideas, and not just as a successful implementer of ideas
In 2014, long before the narrative of the centrality of the Indian Ocean, and the term ‘Indo-Pacific’, in world politics, soon after Narendra Modi became prime minister of India for the first time, the organisation he had been part of all adult life announced that it would be celebrating a thousand-year anniversary.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which had groomed Modi as a political organiser and leader since he was a young man, declared that it would celebrate the thousand-year anniversary of the coronation of Rajendra Chola I (reign 1012-1044 CE), considered the greatest among the Chola kings of Tamil Nadu. The naval might of the Cholas spread their influence and empire across Southeast Asia.
Soon afterwards the Indian Navy announced that it would mark the accession to the throne of the Chola king with its own exercises including involving INS Sudarshini, a sailing and training ship.
This incident is an insight into the worldview of Modi which I would describe as rational civilisation-ism. What do I mean by this? My argument is that Narendra Modi has always inherently understood that India’s pitch in, and to, the world must be as a civilisation. But he also understands that sometimes that is not enough, and other more immediate concerns may override any civilisational connect. Therefore, he is rational about that pitch.
Even when he was not in public office, Narendra Modi travelled around the world, especially to the United States, where he built a strong and lasting connection with the Indian community. In understanding that the Indian community in different countries is the pivotal ambassador of Indian cultural and social values. If the good word about Indian civilisational virtues had to be spread, then who better than Indians themselves living in different countries to spread it?
But his outreach has always considered much more than the West. As chief minister of Gujarat, some of his earliest state guests were from Africa. In 2008, at that time Chief Minister Modi visited Kenya and Uganda, which led to an invitation to the then Kenyan prime minister Raila Odinga to visit Gujarat, which Odinga did in 2009 at the Vibrant Gujarat business summit. Leaders of Mozambique, Uganda and Zambia followed. Modi converted the Vibrant Gujarat venue, a site for economic deal-making, into a place to conduct regional international relations, or conduct ties between his state, Gujarat, and other countries.
As a two-time prime minister, Narendra Modi has made around 110 foreign trips visiting about 60 countries. The world has always been an important, even urgent, site to conduct negotiations and politics for Modi who sees India not as a net recipient but as a net contributor to global goods and services as a ‘vishwa guru’ or world teacher. Carrying forward that thought process, Modi started giving the Bhagavad Gita as a present when he first became prime minister in his international trips, and successfully promoted the adoption of an International Day of Yoga by the United Nations.
Modi recognises that for India to be accepted as a world provider of goods of well-being, it needs more than just culture and civilisation. Therefore, his vaccine diplomacy has underlined again and again the role of India as a holistic provider of well-being — mass manufacturing vaccines on one side, and promoting yoga, and Ayurveda, the ancient medicinal science of India as an alternative path to good health, not just physically but also mentally.
India was one of the prime movers of the Paris Agreement on global warming and has announced that it might in fact do better than its commitments under the Agreement as it pushes forward to fulfil ambitious solar power installation targets and a rapid transformation to electric vehicles that is underway.
Modi is not afraid to borrow good ideas from elsewhere — for instance in his efforts to promote the bullet train from Japan in India — but his big idea has always been to showcase India as a supplier of big ideas.
In this he had discovered digitisation as an effective tool and in a country that is still in the process of rolling out basic infrastructure for all, Modi has used digitisation to change the narrative about India. When questions about India’s vaccine authenticity were raised in the United Kingdom, the country could swiftly reply that not only was it the mass manufacturer of the vaccine researched at Oxford, but also its verification system, entirely digitally registered and transmitted, was more efficient and fool-proof than the more analog British system.
Also, and this is rarely highlighted, among Indian prime ministers, Modi is far more rooted to the idea of Asia than merely correlating value systems with, and to, the West. That’s why Modi is a natural enthusiast of the idea of the Indo-Pacific.
After becoming prime minister in 2014, seven of his nine international trips that year were to countries of the Indian subcontinent or the Indo-Pacific — including to Japan, Australia, and Fiji.
India now speaks of the Quad (India, Japan, United States, and Australia) grouping as a coming together of shared values. These values, Modi has stressed, for instance in his recent speech at the United Nations General Assembly, are not derivative for India. For India is the ‘mother of democracy’.
So, Modi’s global vision involves two strains — embracing useful ideas from the world, but more importantly, showcasing where India could be a contributor for the world, not just in goods and services, but also ideas. In this, more than other Indian prime ministers, he seeks to embrace and project elements of ancient Indian history and culture.
It is important to understand here why Modi is a break from his predecessors in India. Every Indian prime minister has sought to project the uniqueness of the country, and so does Modi. So why is he different?
He is different because the earlier idea of the uniqueness of India was based on a sort of successful application of derivative values, for instance secularism, in India. India was unique because it had successfully applied democracy and secularism is an almost impossibly more complex context than where these ideas were first born, that is the West — or so went the earlier argument known as the idea of India.
But Modi pitches something quite different — he is arguing that India is special because of its application of ideas that emerged from its soil, and derivatives of which are also seen in the West. India is secular not because of the application of a Western theory but because of the innate pluralism born out of the diversity accommodated within its own ancient texts and traditions. Pluralism is not derivative to India, but India is the source of the idea of plural coexistence. This is perhaps the most important Modi intervention in defining India for the world.
In his mind, and pitch, India is important not only because of the successful application of ideas, but as the source stream of the ideas themselves.
The writer is a multiple award-winning historian and author. The views expressed are personal.
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