Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fluent Hindi, through which he engages foreign interlocutors and the rhetorical instinct for catchy phrases, is helping expand India’s diplomatic lexicon. In Kathmandu last month, his play on “Buddha” and “yuddha” captured the essence of the contemporary political dynamic in Nepal. In Tokyo this week, Modi framed an interesting antinomy in Asia: the tension between what he called “vistar vaad” or “expansionism” and “vikas vaad” or peaceful development.
We will get in a minute to the political significance of Modi’s indirect criticism of China’s assertive approach to territorial disputes. Staying with Modi’s vocabulary, the persistent use of new phrases by leaders of major powers shapes international discourse. For example, Chinese leaders over the decades have popularised such terms as “three worlds”, “social imperialism”, “peaceful rise”, “maritime rights” and “active defence”. More recently, Chinese President Xi Jinping has popularised the phrase “a new type of major power relationship”, which even the American strategic community has adopted.
In India, the debate has unfortunately been framed in terms of English versus Hindi. If the PM feels comfortable in Hindi, is confident to speak extempore and is making a big impact, then so be it. The fact, however, is not everyone in India or the world understands Hindi. The PMO and the foreign office, then, must quickly deliver translations of his speeches into English and other Indian languages and ensure their widespread distribution.
Some in the East say the rising Asian powers must develop their own concepts for international relations and discard the ones borrowed from the West. That too is a false proposition. Over the last three decades, Chinese scholars have mastered the Western discourse on international relations. Chinese universities and think-tanks today are littered with political science PhDs from the US.
As it engages the Western world on its own terms, Chinese scholarship has also invested a lot of energy in reviving classical Chinese studies on statecraft and diplomacy. There is excitement in Beijing and Shanghai about building a “Chinese school” of international relations. Some of them have sought to inject old Chinese concepts like “Tian Xia” — all under heaven — with contemporary relevance. In New Delhi, Modi and his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, have often recalled the idea of “vasudhaiva kutumbakam” — the entire world is a family — to underline India’s enduring commitment to universalism.
The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in Delhi had initiated a focused effort a couple of years ago to renew the study of Kautilya’s writings and assess their relevance to India’s contemporary foreign policy and national security. Much more, though, remains to be done. Kautilya’s strategic realism continued…