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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First Published on: September 1, 2015 12:41 am
  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.
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    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.
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      1. S
        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 .
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          satyananda
          Sep 1, 2015 at 9:18 pm
          Spoken like a true communist that he is..
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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.
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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.
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                    Murthy
                    Sep 2, 2015 at 2:49 am
                    I would have thought India's foreign policy towards Muslim countries has the very same involvement of religion that this leftist narrative discourages in relation to Buddhism. India has spent Crores of rupees to build hostels in Mecca and Medina for Indian Muslims on Haj. Subsidising the Haj Pilgrimage itself was started for 'vote bank' reasons by the Congress Party but it has a foreign policy connotation as well. Not restricting Saudi funds coming into India for spreading Wahabism also has a foreign policy angle. So, in what manner does the author suggest India increase its Islam-involvement in foreign policy?
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                      Avinash
                      Sep 1, 2015 at 9:01 am
                      Highlighting one religion does not mean denigration of others, Sri Raja Saheb. For six decades Indian leadership has treated the major religion in India as an unwanted 'child.' Now that Modi is correctly addressing long needed neglect, everyone and their dogs are advising him not to do this or that. Hey Modi is not Nehru who had a twisted view of 'friendship' and swore by Panchsheel. He got a gift from his friend Chou En Lai on 1962. Even the Indian communists cheered if you recall. Split them right in the middle. Jyoti Bose even chastised the Indian Army for wasting its resources trying to protect a 'hill' against the invincible chinese army. Leave Modi alone. Thank God he is leading the Nation.
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                        Prasanna Khakre
                        Sep 1, 2015 at 9:22 am
                        Good move at last, it seems that somethings have changed under current govt. Else if there would have been older so-called secular govt. they would have gone on the same diplomatic lines like a broken record.
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                          rs
                          Sep 1, 2015 at 7:55 pm
                          What ever Modi does is in the interest of the country. He knows the limit.
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                            rohitchandavarker
                            Sep 1, 2015 at 11:20 pm
                            The unusual path adopted by Modi of inculcating Buddhist ideals in foreign affairs would go some way in cementing ties with the East Asian countries. However, today realpolitik means more than just religious confluence or religious commonality. Modi has used yet another innovative approach in forging closer cooperation with Asian nations. Buddhism is largely prevalent in most Asian nations as well as in neighbouring countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar & Bhutan. Modi must create a similar outreach to the Muslim world though this might have to be carefully calibrated considering the deep fissures within the Muslim world. A conscious effort will have to be undertaken to infuse greater cooperation with the Middle East, Bangladesh & Maldives. A close relationship with Iran would have to go side by side with ties with Saudi Arabia & Israel. A balancing act of deft & delicate maneuvering. Modi's zeal on the foreign policy front is commendable & rather surprising.
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                              Sameer
                              Sep 2, 2015 at 8:40 pm
                              Modi may use religion on international politics as it is global trend but not in India.that is the minimum request. I am proud Hindu.beleives in seculirism but not in pseudo seculirism.ie appeasment politics
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                                SP
                                Sep 1, 2015 at 1:25 pm
                                I think we have to face the reality. For example NATO or European Union are essentially alliance of Christian countries. Otherwise what will explain their reluctance to admit Turkey into EU and enthusiasm to wean away Ukraine from Russia. Organization of Islamic Countries not even once supported India on Kashmir, despite the fact that all sects of Islam are safer in India than stan. Even Palastine does not support India. In such a situation, India being the only Hindu country needs to reach out to Bhuddist countries to spread its influence. We can also revive links between Indians and Arabs that pre-date Islam, same way links between rest of West Asia which pre-date Islam may it be Iran or Syria. Even secular France acts as a Christian country when they raise issue about any incident related to church but keep quite about destruction of statues and temples. I think we should be proactive in our approach to spread the sphere of influence in the world. India also connected with Central Asian countries which are Islamic but they don't support terrorism.
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                                  sk
                                  Sep 2, 2015 at 4:55 am
                                  Raja Mohan, you are dead wrong on your contention. First of all, the conference is being organized by two societies in two countries, that are in no way connected to the govt. You seem to have forgotten the fundamental fact that these two organizations are not governmental, nor do that they govt support. Is it wrong to take care of the guests while they are in our country? Shows how you may treat your guests.
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                                    Surendra Srivastava
                                    Sep 1, 2015 at 9:33 am
                                    Vivekanand called for unity of religions. hi , to his critics for use of religion , countered , "a polity without religion?" By religion he meant of no formal religion but underlined all religions. It had a universal character and identical to morality. RamRajya was symbolic to ideal polity. Politics needs virtues to maintian social order, equality , communal harmony and a balance between man and nature. Any use of Religion in self motive is evil, as evident with parion changing the course of history of Indian independence and geography , and we are suffering. The writer is right in saying that Modi needs to be careful because it can be exploited in self motive or misunderstood in our multi-religious society .
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                                      Suren Singh
                                      Sep 2, 2015 at 2:15 am
                                      National Interests is paramount to sectional interest.
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                                        Curious onlooker
                                        Sep 1, 2015 at 8:36 pm
                                        All religions preach morality and that being the common denominator, no one particular religion could claim, it alone is possessed of that attribute. To rule in the name of religion being a sensitive issue as it might produce rival claims, the founding fathers of India rightly decided not to govern in the name of religion, but the morality as advocated by the religion was retained to guide and enlighten the ruler. Secularism must be understood only in this sense not in the expulsion of God.
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                                          Curious onlooker
                                          Sep 1, 2015 at 7:25 am
                                          Modi knows nothing about statecraft except Hindu religious theology. His eagerness to administer foreign policy by claiming divine commission is a medieval thinking which the world has left far behind in its advancement. Raja Mohan touched lightly off on the dangers of reverting to an archaic notion, a transition fraught with the peril of dragging India back to dark ages with its susceptibility to extremism.
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