Raja-Mandala: Faith and diplomacy

In being unafraid of bringing religion into foreign policy, Modi treads new ground in India. But there are dangers.

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Updated: September 1, 2015 9:23 am
Narendra Modi, PM Narendra Modi,  PM Modi, Vivekananda International Foundation, Modi government, Sangh Parivar, Indian express, Hindu religiosity , Buddhism, World Buddhist Forum, express column Modi will join the delegates in Bodh Gaya, where they will travel to after the conference concludes in New Delhi.

One of the distinguishing features of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s diplomacy has been his effort to rebuild the long-neglected Buddhist bridge to the world. Modi’s plans are likely to come into sharper focus this week as he addresses a conference called “A Global Hindu-Buddhist Initiative on Conflict Avoidance and Environment Consciousness” in the capital.

Ignore the ungainly title of the conference. But do note that it is being organised by the Vivekananda International Foundation, which is close to the Modi government and the Sangh Parivar, in partnership with the Tokyo Foundation and the International Buddhist Confederation.

A number of leading political and religious figures from across Buddhist Asia are participating in the initiative. Modi will also join the delegates in Bodh Gaya, where they will travel to after the conference concludes in New Delhi. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj will deliver the valedictory address to the conference.

From a seeming personal fad of the PM, Buddhism has begun to acquire an unprecedented weight in India’s Asian policy. In his address to the parliament of Mongolia in June this year, Modi went beyond the notion of promoting India’s soft power to highlight the importance of Buddhism in dealing with the contemporary political challenges before Asia and the world. For one, he insisted that the spiritual values of Buddhism are deeply connected to the principles of democracy. “If we follow the ‘right path’ of the master,” Modi said, “it will also be natural to walk on the path of democratic values.” Modi added that “the convergence of Buddhism and democracy provides us a path to build an Asia of peace and cooperation, harmony and equality.” Modi also argued that Buddhism is “a call for each of us, as individuals and as nations, to assume the universal responsibility to mankind and our planet”.

That Modi was not being quirky in injecting religion into the messy debate on climate change was confirmed by none other than Pope Francis, who released the encyclical on climate change a few days later, insisting on our collective moral responsibility to pass on a clean planet to the next generations.

In Delhi, there is bound to be some unease at Modi’s attempt to bring religion into the conduct of Indian foreign policy. After all, independent India has consciously kept its diplomacy apart from religion all these decades. Even when India talked of shared culture and deep civilisational links with its Asian friends, Delhi was quite careful to edit religion out of it.

In being unafraid of bringing faith into foreign policy, Modi may be treading new ground in India. But he is quite in tune with an emerging international trend. Many leading powers are getting their foreign offices to be more attentive to religious issues. While many secular states have traditionally seen religion as a source of international conflict, some are beginning to argue that it might, under certain conditions, be a force for some good.

The avowedly godless Chinese Communist Party now deploys Buddhism as a major diplomatic tool to win friends and influence religious communities across the world. The deeply secular West European states are acknowledging the resurgence of religion as a major factor in world politics, especially on their doorstep in the Middle East, and are finding ways to cope with it. Although the professional US diplomatic corps has no religious bias, America’s political leaders have long seen the nation as the “chosen one” and its foreign policy as “god’s work”. More recently, Washington has begun to strengthen the institutional capacity of the United States government to deal with matters of faith. The US Department of State now has an Office of Religion and Global Affairs that advises the secretary of state on policy issues relating to faith and helps the US government agencies engage religious communities around the world.

While Modi must bring Indian foreign policy in line with this trend, he must also guard against the real dangers of faith-based diplomacy. Delhi must recognise that putting religion into statecraft does not mean privileging one faith over another. If Buddhism has the potential to reinforce India’s engagement with many East Asian countries, a similar outreach on Islam might boost India’s ties with the Muslim world. As the power of Christian groups rises across the world, Delhi also has a good reason to engage them.

India must also avoid creating any impression that its new interest in Buddhism is directed against any particular country. Even more important, Delhi must be acutely conscious of being drawn into religious quarrels of others or allowing external intervention in its own multiple contentions on faith. A purposeful engagement with key religious communities around the world could certainly lend new effectiveness to India’s international relations, but only when it is handled with great political care and diplomatic competence.

The writer is a consulting editor on foreign affairs for ‘The Indian Express’ and a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi.

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  1. R
    Rob
    Sep 1, 2015 at 3:25 pm
    Under the Congress vote bank politics, we were not secular. Instead, we were "favor the Muslims" & call it secular. We have become so conditioned to that line of thought that anytime you don't favor Muslims, it is being non-secular. So, changing the name of Aurangzeb road in Delhi is being opposed by the Muslims & Rahul Pappu is just waiting in the wings to oppose the move. So, please don't tell me that Congress raj didn't have religion in their foreign or domestic policies.
    Reply
    1. Z
      Zina
      Sep 1, 2015 at 9:47 pm
      Didn't Modi go to a mosque in his recent visit to UAE? ....Government of India's emblem includes both Ashoka chakra and satyameva jayate from the Upanishads. So this does not seem contradictory. The current Congress Party lost the pulse of the people and the values of the old Indian National Congress. Supporting the minorities is very important but they totally forgot the majority.
      Reply
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        Shoaib Ahmed
        Sep 3, 2015 at 3:43 am
        India is a country of civilization rather than religion a broader aspect from Greek to china heavy influence . modi government should focus more cultural aspect it will provide impetus . religion should be in backyard .
        Reply
      2. S
        satyananda
        Sep 1, 2015 at 9:18 pm
        Spoken like a true communist that he is..
        Reply
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          Rufus Gonsalves
          Sep 1, 2015 at 9:13 am
          Religion can be a mobilizing force of good and also a force of bad. Religion plays a integral part in our life no matter what government think. “A Global Hindu-Buddhist Initiative on Conflict Avoidance and Environment Consciousness” will be integral for statecraft to mobilize religion as a force of good which would otherwise be hijacked by opportunist archaic militant self seekers.
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            BharatK
            Sep 2, 2015 at 2:37 am
            Dharmic religions - Hindu, Buddha, Jaina and Sikhs- derived their strengths from Dharma. They belong to the greater Dharmic religion. A person who do not follow dharma is adharmic. Politics must be based on Dharma. Dharma is not narrow religion. Dharma is inclusive, where as religions like Islam and christianity are exclusive. It is natural that dharmic religions work together, for common good.
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              BharatK
              Sep 2, 2015 at 2:31 am
              Why supporting the minorities is very important? Are so-called minorities special species? Are not other communties important? Congress Party is the mother of anti-Hindu forces in India.
              Reply
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                BharatK
                Sep 2, 2015 at 2:31 am
                Why supporting the minorities is very important? Are so-called minorities special species? Are not other communties important? Congress Party is the mother of anti-Hindu forces in India.
                Reply
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