In the post-Cold War era, a number of scholars have observed and encouraged greater ‘pragmatism’ in India's foreign policy. A ‘pragmatic’ foreign policy has been understood as one that rejects India's earlier reliance on Nehruvian ‘idealism’ or ‘moral posturing’, and instead pursues power and material interests. In the wake of his election to power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, has been celebrated by scholars and the media as a pragmatic leader who will be able to dispense with earlier ideas and ideologies and bring about radical changes to Indian foreign policy. In this article, we problematize these ‘substantive’ readings of pragmatism. Instead we present an alternative, ‘procedural’ reading of foreign policy pragmatism that emphasises the selection and fusion—rather than the abandonment—of different ideas and ideological commitments in order to effect foreign policy change. By demonstrating procedural pragmatism at work in two case-studies under Modi's leadership—the resolution of India's territorial dispute with Bangladesh, and the establishment and public celebration of a UN-recognized International Day of Yoga—we show how Modi's pragmatic approach to foreign policy-making is responsive to both Hindutva (Hindu nationalist ideology) and entrenched foreign policy ideas in India. Our central argument is that Modi is neither unique nor uniquely pragmatic, and like many Indian leaders before him, his pragmatism cannot simply abandon ideas and ideology, but is compelled to respond to them in response to domestic and international political logics.
‘Pragmatism’—and its promise as a medium of change—has a distinctive connotation in the context of India's foreign policy. In the post-Cold War era, a number of scholars within and outside India's foreign policy establishment have both identified and championed greater ‘pragmatism’.1 A ‘pragmatic’ foreign policy implies a rejection of India's earlier reliance on Nehruvian ‘idealism’ or ‘moral posturing’ and, instead, a focus on power and material interests. Many argue that ‘idealism’, indelibly associated with the premiership of Jawaharlal Nehru, led to major foreign policy failures2 as well as the entrenchment of redundant policies.3 Thus, post-Cold War pragmatism is warmly welcomed by these scholars. Indeed, they argue that pragmatism represents the approach that India must follow in order to become a ‘normal power that is no longer focused on transforming the world’, and to emerge on the world stage as a materially powerful state in the twenty-first century.4
The discourse on pragmatism in Indian foreign policy—consistent with the post-Cold War scholarship and most evident in sections of India's print media—has experienced a resurgence since the assumption of the premiership by Narendra Modi in May 2014. Modi's election was heralded as a seminal moment for India's foreign policy.5 As one commentator pronounced: ‘There is little question that Modi's foreign policy constitutes a departure from India's stances of the past.’6 These predictions of change have been based on hopes and alleged signs that Modi's approach to foreign policy-making will be even more pragmatic than that of previous leaders. Not only, it is said, will he bypass the long-held idealistic notions of Nehruvianism, he will also set aside cultural and religious ideologies or entrenched principles,7 specifically, his own party's Hindutva or Hindu nationalist ideology.
In this article, we engage critically with the scholarly work that identifies a shift to pragmatism in India's foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, and problematize the claims that Modi is a pragmatic leader who is able to dispense with earlier ideas and ideologies in foreign policy-making. Not only have a number of commentators already offered empirical evidence to counter claims that Modi can readily escape the constraints of India's foreign policy ideas, discourses and processes,8 but, as we show in this article, the characterization of India's post-Cold War foreign policies as ‘pragmatic’ stands in contrast to much of the theoretical scholarship on the role of ideas in transforming foreign policy, which emphasizes the constraints posed by institutionalized discourse and praxis.
Our article proceeds as follows. First, we show how the term ‘pragmatism’, as applied to shifts in India's post-Cold War foreign policy, has generally been interpreted substantively: that is, to denote a foreign policy that has expunged one form of ‘content’ (earlier ideational frameworks) and adopted a new ‘content’, namely a set of realist assumptions that frame the national interest in terms of material power. We argue that the characterization by the media and some academics of the premiership of Narendra Modi as strongly pragmatic similarly builds on substantive pragmatism. We call into question this substantive reading of pragmatism and show that it is analytically weak and unable to predict change in foreign policy. Moreover, it falsely signals to outside observers that India's foreign policy is driven entirely by considerations of power and interest whereas in actuality it continues to draw on domestic sets of ideas.
Second, we posit that pragmatism, treated seriously and theorized, can nonetheless offer a useful framework for understanding change in India's foreign policy. We present the concept of procedural pragmatism and argue that foreign policy pragmatism is a process of engaging with all and any ideas that are contextually and politically expedient to achieving a given policy end. In doing so, we build on work on agency in ideational change, and specifically on the notion of pragmatism as ‘bricolage’:9 that is, the selection and fusion of different—and sometimes competing—ideas and ideological commitments in order to improvise new policy positions. Such a reading of pragmatism is therefore procedural in that it focuses on the process of bringing about policy innovation, rather than substantive, in that it denies or embraces a particular content. Thus, we argue that Modi is not unique or uniquely pragmatic, and that, like many Indian leaders before him, his pragmatism is of the procedural kind.
Finally, we demonstrate Modi's procedural pragmatism through two case-studies that have been heralded in the Indian media as examples of his ‘transformational’ policy but are yet to receive scholarly attention: the ‘high politics’, security-centric, territorial diplomacy case of the swapping of enclaves with Bangladesh, and the ‘low politics’, cultural diplomacy case of the establishment of an International Day of Yoga (IDY). At first glance, these policy successes appear to showcase a change in policy direction as well as a disregard for ideology and/or entrenched ideas. In the first case, Modi set aside the longstanding objections of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the land deal with Bangladesh and actually ceded territory to settle the border dispute. In the second case, the Modi government appeared to disregard institutionalized ideas regarding the value and appeal of India's pluralist cultural heritage in order to promote a version of yoga that privileged a narrow, ‘Hinduized’ interpretation of the country's cultural traditions. However, in both cases Modi was required to engage explicitly with both ideology and ideational frameworks, rather than to dismiss them. We illustrate this with reference both to Hindu nationalist ideas embodied in Hindutva and to two sets of institutionalized ideational frameworks, post-imperial ideology (PII) and Indian exceptionalism, that have been shown to affect Indian foreign policy over time.
We conclude that Modi's policies are indeed constrained by both ideology and institutionalized ideas, and that, as a result, like most other leaders, his pragmatism entails bricolage, that is, improvising with influential and institutionalized ideas rather than without them. In the Indian context, this finding is significant since it suggests that Modi cannot always set aside the personal and domestic beliefs of Hindutva that are so closely aligned with his leadership, and, equally, that he is not entirely free to move away from India's entrenched foreign policy positions of the past. Moreover, our characterization and theorization of foreign policy pragmatism as a process opens the way for a deeper understanding of policy shifts since the end of the Cold War. While realist assumptions about the desirability and necessity of acquiring material power have indeed gradually entered Indian foreign policy discourse and practice, they too need to be explicitly understood as ideas held by influential individuals or groups, and the concept of agency needs to be seriously treated. By seeking to understand pragmatism as a process, we open a way to capture the nuances of ideational change in Indian foreign policy, moving away from the caricatured abandonment and adoption of blocks of content that substantive readings of pragmatism imply.
Pragmatism in India's foreign policy
‘Substantive’ readings of pragmatism in the post-Cold War era
In the aftermath of the end of the Cold War, with the decline of India's historically dominant party, the Indian National Congress, and the concurrent rise of the ‘Hindu nationalist’ BJP, India made a significant break with its Nehruvian heritage.10 The advent of a post-Nehruvian phase of foreign policy-making was most conspicuously signalled by India's 1998 nuclear tests, marking a break from its long and principled adherence to global nuclear disarmament. The scholarship that recounts India's foreign policy history describes this, as we will discuss, as a shift from Nehruvian ‘idealism’ to a new post-Cold War ‘pragmatism’.
The Indian foreign policy literature generally concurs on what constitutes Nehruvian idealism and how it played out in Indian foreign policy. Scholars agree that the earlier framework emphasized a set of world-changing principles,11 including ‘liberal internationalism’,12 ‘eradicating colonialism and racism’,13 ‘organizing the uplift of the world's poor and dispossessed’,14 ‘a suspicion of superpowers’,15 and, of course, non-alignment. It has been pointed out that Nehruvianism, used interchangeably with idealism, was not monolithic.16 But even across its variations, the scholarly consensus is that, at its core, there existed notions of morality in international relations, and a strong belief in India's moral leadership.
When the shift in Indian foreign policy began in the 1990s, many Indian foreign policy scholars heralded this as a positive and radical break from the ‘idealist’ policies of the past. Nehruvianism as a whole was declared by such scholars to have been a failure. These scholars argued that there was now a new and welcome ‘pragmatism’ in Indian foreign policy.17 Pragmatism was defined in terms of an absence of a particular content, but also in terms of the introduction of a new content, synonymous with the assumptions of realism—‘the adoption of a “self-help” (structural realist) approach to foreign policy’.18
Indeed, the new, so-called pragmatic approach to Indian foreign policy was defined as viewing the world ‘in terms of a clash of interests and the pursuit of power by individual states’.19 A pragmatic India would focus on material interests, grasp the significance of power as the most important dynamic in world politics,20 turn to the use of force as necessary in international politics, and pursue rapid economic growth and great power.21 Pragmatism meant India would emphasize the national interest, be less doctrinaire about alliances, expand influence through international regimes and treaties, and move away from moral claims in international relations.22 ‘The centre of gravity of Indian foreign policy had shifted from idealism to realism.’ Pragmatism was seen, therefore, as liberated from prior beliefs and ideologies. India had become ‘less ideological’23 and realized that ‘grand ideological coalitions ill-serve[d] India's material interests’.24 It was not simply that Nehruvianism had failed; rather, scholars blamed the moralist and liberal internationalist ideas of Nehruvianism for India's ‘strategic missteps’, because it was ideological positions rather than the national interest that had hitherto dominated Indian foreign policy.25 ‘India was now able to devise a foreign policy free from the “mind-forged manacles” … of Cold War thinking … Indian policymakers have now ceased berat[ing] the United States and the Western alliance over a range of real and imagined grievances.’26 In short, Indian foreign policy was now finally pragmatic, in that it was realist in orientation, and shorn of the morality and ideational constraints of Nehruvianism.27
In recounting this narrative of foreign policy change, some scholars linked pragmatism particularly to periods of BJP leadership. This is partly because realist assumptions resonate with the Hindu nationalist drive to develop a materially and martially strong India,28 but also because of the BJP's politicized critique of Nehruvianism as a foreign policy staple of its rival party, the Indian National Congress. Chaulia observes that, in the 1990s, the BJP was the only party to declare that non-alignment had become irrelevant with the fall of the Soviet Union.29 Moreover, as one key party member during the leadership of BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee recounted, Nehruvianism had failed to build up national strength and India now faced unprecedented external threats.30 The BJP leadership emphasized that India was weak and marginalized and lacked power. They pledged to recreate a ‘strong India recognized as an autonomous power center in the world’.31 With or without a reference to the role of the BJP, the accounts of Indian foreign policy's post-Cold War shift that centre on the advent of pragmatism almost uniformly present it substantively, that is, in terms of an expunged earlier content of ‘idealism’ and a newly ‘discovered’ content that centres on realist assumptions about the behaviour of states—a focus on material interests, and maximizing hard power.
The pragmatism of Narendra Modi
The premiership of Narendra Modi has stimulated a reinvigorated discussion of the merits of pragmatism in Indian foreign policy. While it is too early in his tenure to analyse scholarly writing on Modi, a search of the Indian print media reveals that the term ‘pragmatism’ is more closely linked with Modi than with his predecessors,32 and that it broadly corresponds with the scholarship on substantive pragmatism. We searched articles in three influential national newspapers, the Indian Express, Times of India and Economic Times, from 1 January 2014 to 1 March 2016. These newspapers were selected for their wide circulation as well as the quality of their journalism. This particular time period was selected to capture the emergence of Modi as a national figure and a viable candidate for prime minister, as well as the term of his office to date. Searching for the terms ‘Modi’, ‘pragmatism’, ‘pragmatic’ and ‘pragmatist’ yielded a total of 135 articles. Of these, 115 articles either directly asserted or anticipated that Modi or a Modi government is, or would be, pragmatic, to a degree in domestic politics but mostly in foreign policy.
Readings of Modi's pragmatism in these newspapers as well as other sections of the Indian print media echo the substantive understanding of pragmatism described in the scholarship above in that they imply a shift away from an earlier content and an embrace of the content of realist assumptions. However, in Modi's case, earlier content refers not just to ‘idealism’ but also to the religious and cultural ideas of Hindutva with which he is most closely associated. More than any other leader, including the previous BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Narendra Modi is closely associated with Hindutva as both a personal belief system and a source of domestic political support.33
Media assessments broadly concur that Modi is pragmatic in that he will be able to distance himself from India's past foreign policy frameworks (‘Modi has articulated India's concerns and interests without falling into the familiar ideological traps that Delhi used to set for itself’34), and there is a hope that he will continue to repudiate these ideas (‘As far as the PM's challenge on the global stage is concerned, he has to signal a full reorientation of India's multilateralism away from its hitherto defensive approach to a confident pragmatism’35). At the same time, he will be willing to abandon ideological and institutionalized ideational stances of all kinds, where necessary36 (‘Modi will be more interested in development than pushing the Hindutva agenda’).37
Reports suggest that Modi's pragmatism will lead him instead to follow realist assumptions: ‘Modi brings a rare pragmatism in dealing with the many differences with the US on trade, climate change and civil nuclear liability. Modi's eager pursuit of American investment in India is matched by his recognition of the unprecedented possibilities for geopolitical cooperation with the US.’38 ‘The nuclear deal between Iran and the US is a vindication of Delhi's diplomatic pragmatism that [has] unfolded since India conducted nuclear tests in May 1998.’39
The problems of ‘substantive’ pragmatism
Substantive pragmatism, both in the scholarship and as applied to Modi in the media, is analytically weak and offers an inadequate means of capturing change in Indian foreign policy. Much of the criticism we could level at a reading of pragmatism as synonymous with realism would echo the broader challenge to rationalist International Relations theories posed by critical theorists since the 1980s—a set of debates which, in the main, are yet to influence many scholars of Indian foreign policy.40 Some critiques, however, are specific to the way that substantive pragmatism has been set up in relation to Indian foreign policy, and should be outlined here. To begin with, relating pragmatism to the ‘adoption’ of or a ‘shift’ to realism in world politics is problematic. The assumptions of realism as envisioned by classical theorists such as Morgenthau or neo-realists such as Waltz are a function of either the nature of states or the structural constraints of the international system.41 States do not suddenly adopt realist assumptions; rather, those assumptions are simply and universally part of their nature and/or the structure of the international system. As Reus-Smit observes, the assumptions of neo-realism render ‘actors' interests … exogenous to social interaction’.42 Second, since the scholarship on substantive pragmatism ignores key assumptions of realism by presenting its adoption in Indian foreign policy as a conscious choice, we might expect an accompanying discussion of agency or an unpacking of these assumptions as social ideas or individual beliefs, but this does not form part of the scholarship.
Third, since substantive pragmatism is presented as leading to radical shifts in foreign policy, the corollary is that once India's leaders have fully embraced ‘realism’, India's foreign policy will continue to change radically. Yet much of the scholarship on ideational change and foreign policy suggests that institutionalized ideas are ‘sticky’ and lead only to incremental changes in policy.43 In the case of India, it has been argued elsewhere that even such a radical ‘shift’ as India testing nuclear weapons in 1998 was not a drastic departure from previous governments.44
Last, substantive pragmatism also implies that Indian foreign policy is reaching an ‘optimal’ content that presumably will extend indefinitely into the future. This implicit prognosis of ideational stasis represents a paradox: it suggests, on one hand, that ideas—such as those at the heart of Nehruvian idealism or Modi's personal religious beliefs—can simply disappear. And yet, on the other hand, by implying that a static set of ‘realist’ assumptions underpin Indian foreign policy's new pragmatism, it suggests that ideas will remain the same.
In contrast to these substantive characterizations of Modi's pragmatism as ‘empty’ of past foreign policy thinking and Hindutva, and ‘filled’ with realist principles, we present an alternative, procedural characterization of both Modi's pragmatism and India's foreign policy pragmatism more generally. As we argue in the next section, procedural pragmatism is a process of ideational innovation in foreign policy, rather than the content-rich blueprint for change—namely, to a foreign policy built on realist assumptions—that foreign policy revisionists envisage. As a process, pragmatism means working creatively with ideas and ideology, but it does not prescribe which ideas and ideologies are relevant, since these are defined by the given political and historical context.
In Modi's case, the intention to bring change to Indian foreign policy is necessarily interwoven with a conscious engagement with, and adaptation of, both his Hindutva ideology and pre-existing institutionalized sets of ideas in Indian foreign policy. While pragmatism would appear to be in tension with Hindutva—requiring Modi to subordinate his political religious nationalism to the pursuit of economic and other strategic goals45—in fact Modi must continue to appeal to his Hindu nationalist base, a key source of his political support. Modi has indeed himself stated that Hindutva is ‘an asset in foreign affairs’.46 Moreover, just like his predecessors, he must also confront institutionalized foreign policy ideas that have enjoyed longevity and stability in their influence on Indian foreign policy. A procedural conception of pragmatism shows him as actively navigating between these forces.
Reconceptualizing pragmatism in Indian foreign policy: ‘procedural pragmatism’
In contrast to the substantive framing of Indian foreign policy pragmatism outlined above, we present as an alternative a procedural definition. Only a small number of scholars of India's foreign policy implicitly allow for the possibility of such a conceptualization. Basrur, for example, observes that Indian leaders have always been pragmatic, but that the content of their pragmatism has undergone gradual change.47 Basrur's allowance for a shifting content of pragmatism fits with the procedural definition of pragmatism we present here. In another vein, Datta's analysis of the BJP and its pragmatism centres on the idea of political opportunism.48 According to her account, pragmatism is neither divorced from ideology, nor necessarily based on realist principles, nor equivalent to Hindutva. Rather, the pragmatic shift in Indian foreign policy under BJP leadership has resulted from the picking and choosing of ideas within Hindutva. Datta's rendition of pragmatism hints at the creative deployment of ideas to serve distinctive political ends.
Our explicitly procedural definition of pragmatism in the context of India's foreign policy draws on existing work on agency and ideational change.49 We conceive of pragmatic action as a process of, as Carstensen states, ‘putting ideas together that may not be logically compatible but rather answer political and cultural logics’.50 Politicians and officials can create innovative policy by introducing new ideas or questioning old ones, but they do (and usually must) refer to certain pre-existing, institutionalized ideas to make those proposed changes more palatable. Both entrenched ideas and ideologies are complex constructs that function ‘outside the minds of actors’, that is, as ‘a resource—a toolkit’. The essence of pragmatism is the manner in which politicians and officials introduce new policy ideas by choosing to ‘construct strategies of action based on pre-constructed ideational and political institutions’. In the language of Carstensen, they engage in ‘bricolage’. The need for bricolage explains why Modi cannot simply pursue a foreign policy guided only by, for example, his personal Hindutva beliefs. Rather than seeing the world through a Hindutva lens, Modi has to approach Hindutva as simply one belief-system or resource upon which he can, and to some degree must, draw to gain support for his policy choices. In practice, the procedural pragmatism implied by bricolage means leveraging institutionalized sets of ideas that ‘are often unquestionable’.51 While, in principle, all ideas ‘are open to questioning [and] rearrangement’ since ‘their meanings are never settled’,52 some institutionalized sets of ideas are ‘fundamental’ to broadly accepted understandings of ‘politics, culture, and society’. They ‘form the normative and cognitive backbone of a polity’ and are very difficult to change.53 It is these sets of ideas or ideational frameworks, we argue, that Modi must take seriously if he is to successfully construct innovative policies. Ideational frameworks are robust sets of interrelated and collectively held ideas that are ‘social and holistic’; that is, they ‘have an intersubjective existence that … is typically embodied in symbols, discourse, and institutions’.54 Importantly, these sets of ideas are deeply embedded in tangible organizations as well as in ‘social norms, patterns of discourse, and collective identities’.55 Any attempt by a leader such as Modi to succeed at policy innovation must navigate these ideational frameworks.
Modi's pragmatism, we argue, is of the procedural kind that Carstensen and others describe. We see both Hindutva and existing ideational frameworks as exerting distinctive pressures on Modi in his foreign policy decision-making. That is, he must refer to both, and he must find a balance between them when charting his foreign policy course.
Hindutva and ideational frameworks in Indian foreign policy
Despite its many expressions and interpretations, at root, Hindutva can be said to encompass the notion of a national identity that is predominantly based on being Hindu; that minimizes differences such as language or ethnicity; and that demands the integration and assimilation of non-Hindus, in particular Muslims, but also those belonging to other religions.56 Examining how Hindutva can become manifest in foreign policy outcomes is more complex. Drawing on the writings of Savarkar and Golwalkar, key thinkers in the Hindu nationalist canon, Sagar has made a notable effort to draw out some implications of Hindutva for foreign policy. In Hindutva, Sagar sees a Hindu nationalist drive for social cohesion on the basis of an essentialist brand of Hinduism. This drive stems from a conviction that disunity in Indian society has been a source of Indian weakness vis-à-vis the outside world. The aim is to generate a monolithic Hindu nation in order to develop a ‘martial spirit and social cohesion’ to defend India ‘against external aggression’.57 Equally, drawing on the thought of ‘religious writers, political party propagandists, and the publicly propagated views ofvarious Hindu organizations’, Bajpai argues that theHindutvaview sees a Hindu India as a superior civilization that has made great cultural contributions to the world and, as a result, sees Hindus as destined for global leadership.58 From this we can extrapolate the following: if Modi's pragmatism is to take Hindutva seriously, it may include resistance to external interference or the making of concessions to outsiders, especially where they leave India appearing weak. It may also include attempts to emphasize and generate international recognition for India's ‘Hindu’ identity, or to celebrate a ‘Hindu’ way of life or ‘Hindu’ achievements on the world stage.
While Modi's, or any leader's, efforts at innovation in foreign policy must take a range of institutionalized foreign policy ideas seriously, here we limit our focus to two ideational frameworks that have been shown to affect Indian foreign policy across time, and that conform with our understanding of ideational frameworks as sets of interrelated and collectively held ideas that are ‘social and holistic’ and embedded in symbols, discourses and institutions.59
The first ideational framework we refer to is post-imperial ideology or PII. PII arises from the historical legacy of colonialism and India's response to it as colonial trauma. Miller suggests that countries such as India and China that have undergone the ‘transformative historical event’ of extractive colonialism have, even today, a sense of victimhood and a corresponding sense of entitlement. Consequently, within these countries a PII is prevalent, manifest as a desire to be recognized and sympathized with as a victim in the international system. PII matters when there is a threat to sovereignty, when ‘traditional’ borders are contested, or when a country's national prestige is impugned. These states then adopt the position of victim and cast others as victimizers, justify action by invoking a discourse of oppression and discrimination, adhere to a strict concept of the inviolability of borders, and are acutely sensitive to loss of face. Miller shows that both immediately after independence and in the contemporary era, PII affects foreign policy decisions: even today, India often adopts the position of victim, casting the opposing state(s) as victimizer(s).60
The second ideational framework we use comprises a connected set of ideas about India's exceptionalism. Such ideas have their roots in politicized attempts to differentiate India from other nations and civilizations, and to position India as a unique civilization-state. Sullivan identifies two substantive dimensions of Indian exceptionalism: a belief that the Indian approach to international affairs is morally and spiritually distinctive (and superior) because it prioritizes peaceful coexistence between nations over coercive, aggressive or violent interactions; and a related belief that India itself is an emulable model of a plural society living in peaceful coexistence.61 Sullivan argues that, even as India's international power and influence have increased, Indian foreign policy elites have continued to emphasize these key internal and external modalities of Indian exceptionalism. These convictions of exceptionalism have provided a basis on which Indian leaders have projected claims to greatness in India's foreign policy discourse and behaviour and emphasized that what they seek for India is a distinctive global leadership role comparable to that of the Great Powers of the twentieth century—but a role that is morally and spiritually superior.
In the following section, we use (and justify our selection of) two case-studies to demonstrate how Modi's ‘procedural pragmatism’ includes, rather than excludes, ideology, and how it interacts with the two ideational frameworks we have briefly introduced. While the first case, the boundary agreement with Bangladesh, allows us to examine Modi's engagement with Hindutva and PII, the second case, the establishment of an International Day of Yoga, allows us to examine his engagement with Hindutva and Indian exceptionalism.
Procedural pragmatism at work in Modi's foreign policy: two case-studies
The India–Bangladesh territorial dispute
On 1 August 2015, a little over a year after Modi took office, India and Bangladesh ended one of the world's most complex post-colonial border disputes by agreeing to an exchange of territorial enclaves. The settlement of the dispute will change the lives of thousands of people on both sides of the border who have effectively been stateless for nearly seven decades. We focus on this case for three reasons. First, after decades of Indian governments' failure to resolve the issue, the conclusion of the dispute has been hailed as a successful and historic foreign policy outcome for Modi's government,62 and therefore would seem to point to a major shift in Indian foreign policy. Second, the BJP had hitherto been strongly opposed to the border settlement with Bangladesh, concerned as it was about illegal Muslim migrants and a land swap with a predominantly Muslim country; this might be taken to suggest that Modi's pragmatism had to set aside Hindutva ideology in order to resolve the dispute. Third, Miller argues that India's sense of victimization has led to a past refusal to compromise territorial sovereignty on ‘traditional’ borders, that is, territorial borders affected by colonialism. Yet in the India–Bangladesh case, the Indian government yielded territory to settle the dispute, losing more physical territory than it gained: a fact which would seem to contradict both PII and realist assumptions of territory as security.
Examining the case, however, we find procedural pragmatism at work. Modi's pragmatism entailed acknowledging and incorporating beliefs and ideas from both Hindutva and PII in order to resolve the settlement. The land deal was not a radical shift that only Modi's pragmatism-as-realism would have been able to implement. It had, in fact, been attempted by other governments, including, most recently, that of Manmohan Singh. Rather, Modi was able to engage more successfully in procedural pragmatism than Singh, that is, to put ideas together that would ‘answer political and cultural logics’, resulting in an incremental shift.
The crux of the dispute was the fate of 162 pieces of territory or unadministered enclaves.63 An enclave is a piece of the territory of one state that is completely surrounded by the territory of the other state.64 Prior to partition in 1947, these enclaves or chhitmahals were landholdings that dated back to the Mughal incursions into the kingdom of Cooch Behar in the seventeenth century. While there have been folk tales that tell of Cooch Behari kings who gambled and bartered small pieces of territory,65 Whyte traces the origins of these landholdings to more mundane Mughal clashes with powerful chieftains who were able to hold onto their land within the Mughal empire. These landholdings thus officially remained a part of the kingdom of Cooch Behar while existing as enclaves within Mughal land. At the same time, Mughal soldiers occupied territory within Cooch Behar that became a discontinuous part of Mughal territory.66 Sovereignty was understood not through the actual borders so much as in terms of jurisdiction and tax flows. As the Mughal state disintegrated, the provincial governor of Bengal became the de facto ruler; eventually, he was replaced by British rule. The border with Cooch Behar ‘marked the northernmost limit of British territory’. In 1772, after a British expedition conquered Cooch Behar, the kingdom became a part of the province of Bengal. But it was ruled indirectly through a British political agent who advised the Maharaja and his government. As a result, Cooch Behar was now a Princely State surrounded by districts ruled directly by the British, and the existence of the border enclaves was formalized.67 Two years after the border between India and Pakistan was drawn up in 1947, with no heed to pre-existing political or physical boundaries,68 the Maharaja of Cooch Behar, like the rulers of other Princely States in the aftermath of colonialism, acceded to India. Now, suddenly, 111 enclaves lay within India, while 51 enclaves lay within East Pakistan and then, after 1971, Bangladesh.
The losers in this territorial mishmash were the thousands of inhabitants of these enclaves. While officially they were accepted citizens of a country, either India or Bangladesh, in practice they were stateless. There was both ‘a complete lack of contact with the home country and the absence of administration from the host country’.69 As a result, the enclaves had no government presence. There were no public schools, hospitals, health clinics, public works, courts or even police. In addition, the inhabitants lived risky lives, crossing into the host country for daily goods and services, knowing the crossing was illegal and that they could be arrested or shot by border security forces. Crossing legally was a mind-boggling proposition—they would have to cross illegally into the host country, traverse it, cross into the home country, apply for a passport, and then cross back illegally through the host country, back into their enclave, before venturing forth illegally again for a visa.70
Cognizant of the precarious situation of the inhabitants and the porosity of the border, in 1974 India and the newly created state of Bangladesh signed a Land Boundary Agreement that provided guidelines for the exchange of the enclaves. Bangladesh ratified the agreement but, despite failing to provide basic human rights for its enclave-dwelling citizens,71 India refused to exchange the enclaves until the entire border was demarcated.72
PII suggests that this refusal was in keeping with India's rigid stance on territorial sovereignty fuelled by a sense of victimization about ‘traditional’ borders, that is, borders that had been drawn or formalized as a result of colonialism. This intransigent stance persisted for a long time, espoused not only by the Indian National Congress, a party with a strong history of anti-colonialism, but also by the BJP.73 As Reece Jones points out,
the Hindu Right argues that the true Hindu homeland of India is the homeland that was described by the early India (anti-colonial) nationalists, which includes all the territory currently controlled by the sovereign states of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Consequently, any agreement that includes the transfer of territory, even the small area of the enclaves, is perceived as illegitimate because it would divest more of the Hindu homeland to a Muslim controlled government.74
Thus the BJP strongly opposed an exchange of the enclaves on the grounds that not only were these borders unfairly affected by colonialism but such a move would also show India's weakness since it would entail ceding territory, even if only an ‘85 metre × 175 metre strip of land’,75 to a Muslim country.76
This state of affairs changed in June 2015, a little over a year after Narendra Modi took office. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Modi released a joint statement entitled ‘Notun Projonmo—Nayi Disha’ (New Generation, New Direction). It ‘gave directives to the concerned officials on both sides for the expeditious implementation of the 1974 Land Boundary Agreement and its 2011 Protocol on the ground’.77 According to the joint statement: ‘There would now be a fixed demarcated boundary in all the un-demarcated segments, exchange of 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh with 51 Bangladesh enclaves in India and a resolution of all adversely possessed areas.’78
A simplistic assessment of this successful outcome might claim that Modi had effected a complete change in Indian foreign policy on the question of borders with Bangladesh. In the words of one analyst, Modi acted pragmatically.79 He did not allow Hindutva to obstruct a land deal with Bangladesh, not only a predominantly Muslim country but one from which there are flows of illegal Muslim migrants into India. Nor was he constrained, as past governments had been, by either institutionalized sensitivity to the territorial loss of colonial-era borders or a sense of victimization relating to these borders.
A closer look, however, suggests greater complexity and nuance. To begin with, the policy that Modi enacted was not new and did not represent a sea-change from that of the previous government. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) administration of Manmohan Singh had already been inching towards the exchange with Bangladesh. The 2011 protocol to the 1974 Land Boundary Agreement had been enacted when Manmohan Singh visited Bangladesh. Singh had made better relations with Bangladesh a cornerstone of his regional policy. However, the political and cultural logics for Singh were different from Modi's and ultimately proved too difficult to negotiate. Among other obstacles, he was stymied in his efforts by the BJP, who in 2013 blocked the parliamentary bill that would have operationalized the Land Boundary Agreement. Arun Jaitley, then BJP leader of the opposition, declared his opposition to any exchange of the enclaves, professing that the territory of India ‘cannot be reduced or altered by an amendment to the Constitution’.80 At the same time, the secular ideas of the Congress Party, which are part of Singh's ‘ideational toolkit’, were cast by the opposition as ‘softness towards illegal immigrants’ from Bangladesh, most of whom were Muslim.81
Given this previous opposition by the BJP and even the RSS, whose mouthpiece penned an aggressive editorial on illegal immigration immediately before the landmark deal was enacted,82 Modi's procedural pragmatism meant ignoring neither Hindutva nor notions of victimhood and territorial loss. Indeed, Modi explicitly emphasized a policy position that took on board elements of both Hindutva and PII.
To begin with, Modi made efforts to counter the objection that the exchange would infringe India's territorial sovereignty. His government emphasized that borders were not only not being compromised but that the agreement was a mere formalization of de facto borders. A document on the agreement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs, for example, reiterated several times that although India would be ceding approximately 17,000 acres for approximately 7,000 acres of land in return, the exchange only ‘seems’ like ‘a loss of Indian land to Bangladesh and the actual scenario is quite different … in reality, the exchange of enclaves denotes only a notional exchange of land as the Protocol converts a de facto reality into a de jure situation’.83
To further assuage concerns that the physical land exchange was unfair, the Modi government offered numerous emotive assurances that it would formalize the boundary, allowing the Indian government to crack down on illegal Muslim immigration.84 Moreover, Modi emphasized that the swapping of enclaves would cement ties with Bangladesh at a time of strain in India's relationship with Pakistan.85 These assurances were strengthened by the strongly politically contingent nature of Bangladesh's relations with India. Historically, Sheikh Hasina and the secular Awami League have had more positive relations with India than the Islamic nationalist Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Thus the Indian government was able to minimize the spectre of a territorial loss to a Muslim government and emphasize Sheikh Hasina's commitment to the deal. At the same time, shortly after the Indian elections, BJP leaders were instructed to reach out privately to high-level officials in Sheikh Hasina's government to reassure them that Hindutva was nothing more than election rhetoric.86
In sum, to characterize the territorial exchange as either continuity or change would be problematic because, in reality, it contained elements of both. Modi's procedurally pragmatic approach entailed navigating both Hindutva and PII. India did not suddenly become receptive to the loss of historical territory or cease to have emotive ideas about the exchange, thereby demonstrating the powerful transformational capacity of an individual leader. Nor was it that Modi put aside Hindutva. His pragmatism involved redirecting and assuaging an emotional response on the issue. He focused attention on the strengthening of the border that his government said would result, ironically, because of the physical loss of land. He appealed to the Hindu religious nationalism of his base by associating the deal with a crackdown on illegal Muslim immigration and by invoking the ‘other’, Pakistan. And he gave private assurances to Bangladesh that the religious nationalist rhetoric of his election campaign would not publicly surface in the bilateral relationship. In short, Narendra Modi's procedural pragmatism in this case meant not that he set aside ideological and institutionalized stances, but that he embraced them. In line with Carstensen's characterization of politicians' resourceful combination of ideas, Modi's innovative policy success was dependent on taking institutionalized policy frameworks seriously, as well as appealing to his Hindu nationalist base of political support.
Modi and the International Day of Yoga
On 11 December 2014, the UN General Assembly approved by consensus a resolution establishing an International Day of Yoga (IDY) to be held each year on 21 June.87 Six months later, on the first IDY in 2015, the Modi government organized and publicized yoga-related events across India and, through its overseas missions, around the world, generating national and international publicity that underscored yoga's cultural origins in India. This case is illuminating for three reasons. First, the India-led effort to celebrate the value and international appeal of yoga through the UN resolution and subsequent IDY celebrations was one of Modi's early diplomatic achievements as prime minister.88 His campaign ‘to seize on yoga as India's signature cultural export’ broke with a previously low-key official promotion of yoga.89 Second, Modi's championing of the IDY centred on a quite specific, Hinduized understanding of yoga's origins that initially contradicted the internal face of India's exceptionalism, founded on the claim that India is a pluralist society based on peaceful coexistence. Third, Modi's establishment and stewardship of the IDY nonetheless partially drew on the framework of Indian exceptionalism by referring to what Sullivan describes as the external face: the idea of India as a model for other states to follow, and the promotion of Indian values and thinking as a solution to international conflict.90 Thus, Modi's procedural pragmatism included both Hindutva ideas about the Hindu origins of yoga and broke with elements of the ideational framework of Indian exceptionalism, namely through an initial disregard of the internal face—although political logics eventually demanded the latter be addressed to please supporters and assuage critics.
There is no doubt that the Indian state's official promotion of yoga predates Modi's leadership. The Indian Council for Cultural Relations has disseminated yoga through its overseas centres for decades, and yoga formed a major visual theme of the cross-ministerial ‘Incredible India’ tourist campaign, launched in 2002.91 Attempts, most conspicuously in the United States, by private entities to register intellectual property claims to yoga have been a matter of concern to Indian leaderships for over a decade.92 And previous Indian prime ministers, too, have personally endorsed yoga: Jawaharlal Nehru practised a daily routine of yoga postures, and Indira Gandhi both travelled often with her yoga instructor in tow, and introduced yoga into some school curriculums.93 Modi's championing of yoga, however, is of a different magnitude.
It was Modi and his government who leveraged both the establishment of the observance of the IDY itself and the celebration of the first ever yoga day. Modi's campaign began with his maiden speech at the UN General Assembly in September 2014, when he called for an IDY and described yoga as ‘an invaluable gift from our ancient tradition’.94 Upon the passage of the resolution, influential yoga figures within India voiced their approval: Baba Ramdev, for example, a spiritual leader and Modi supporter, well known in India for his daily televised yoga routines (as well as his vast business empire), reportedly declared that Modi had brought ‘glory [to yoga] on the global stage’ and ‘honour to India and Indianness’.95
Even though the passing of the resolution and the establishment of the IDY affirmed yoga's global popularity, the resolution notably did not mention India and made no reference to the origins of yoga, instead laying stress on the practice's health benefits.96 The act of adopting the IDY therefore in itself did not formally link yoga with India's cultural or spiritual heritage, although arguably the connection is implied, and Pakistan stood out among the few states that did not co-sponsor the resolution.
Yet it was evident that the Modi government was claiming to link yoga with a system of values of Indian origin and to project these beyond India's borders. India's permanent representative to the UN, Asoke Mukerji, celebrated the ‘record number of 175 sponsors’, hailing the decision as ‘testimony to the enthusiastic cross-cultural and universal appeal that yoga enjoys among Members of the United Nations’.97 On 21 June 2015, at dawn on the first ever IDY, The Economist reported that Modi headed a crowd of 37,000 people on Delhi's iconic avenue, Rajpath, as they performed a routine of yoga postures in unison. For Modi's supporters, ‘it was a day when India announced itself as a newly confident cultural force’.98
Modi sought to underscore the unique elements of India's spiritual tradition manifested in the practice of yoga and to argue for their emulation elsewhere. For Modi, 21 June 2015 was ‘not just the first-ever IDY, but the beginning of a new era that would inspire humanity in its quest for peace and harmony’.99 He declared that yoga could reduce violence between nations and bring about ‘a dramatic reduction in conflicts and misunderstandings within families, communities, and between nations’.100 This was an explicit attempt to promote Indian values sourced from a distant past, rather than from India's post-independence experience, but nonetheless to position India as spiritually superior, and as the world's yoga guru.
At home in India, however, Modi's yogic message of peaceful coexistence among diverse groups became mired in controversy. Certain Muslim and other minority groups objected to what they saw as overtly Hindutva elements of the yoga-related initiatives proposed by Modi in the lead-up to the IDY. Some opponents explicitly claimed that the yoga day celebrations had a ‘Hindutva agenda’ that was promoted ‘at the cost of India's secular democratic fabric’.101 Critics suspected the government of privileging Hindu practices and ideas in an effort to marginalize religious minorities. One commentator labelled the IDY as ‘majoritarianism disguised as a national project’ and questioned the ‘naiveté’ of the United Nations in establishing the day ‘without considering the controversial profile of the man who had proposed it’.102 The allusion was to Modi's past connection with violence against Muslims in Gujarat, and the suggestion was that such a leader could not be trusted to advance the cause of yoga in India in a secular and inclusive manner. The most vocal opposition reported by the Indian media came from the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), a private body which some consider a central vehicle of Muslim opinion. High-ranking members of the AIMPLB declared Modi's attempts to promote yoga ‘a campaign to enforce Hindu rituals on all non-Hindus’, and accused the government of violating the Indian constitution, which does not permit the official promotion of religious activities.103 Much of the controversy centred on plans to include the surya namaskar or salutation to the sun in a series of postures to be performed during the IDY celebrations, and the apparent requirement to chant ‘om’, a sacred sound in many Hindu traditions. Muslim MP Asaduddin Owaisi noted that ‘many Muslim scholars say that yoga is against the fundamental tenets of Islam—to pray to the sun, for example’, and objected that the patriotism of Muslims who did not wish to practise yoga was being called into question.104
Objections were also raised over the specific date selected for the observance of the IDY. While Modi had reportedly proposed 21 June as the longest day of the year and a day of special significance in the northern hemisphere, other accounts linked the date to a particular yogic tradition based on Hindu mythology.105 Indian Christian organizations opposed the celebration of the first IDY on a Sunday, following other national events held by the Modi government on Christian holy days.106 Muslim groups complained because in 2015, 21 June fell during the Muslim holy month of Ramzan.107 And, perhaps most controversially, one observer recognized 21 June as the anniversary of the death of K. B. Hegdewar, who founded the RSS in 1925, and suggested that through the IDY Modi was therefore seeking to please his RSS supporters by marking an occasion close to their hearts.108
Meanwhile, international reports saw Hindu nationalist groups, including the BJP and RSS, as attempting to reclaim yoga as part of India's past glory, hailing from an era prior to the presence of Christian and Muslim communities.109 Emphasizing the Hindu nationalist flavour of the Modi government's celebration of yoga, a New York Times article drew parallels between new forms of yoga in India and ‘the daily, military-style drills’ of the RSS.110
As the controversy spread, officials in the Modi government had to assuage fears that the IDY was a vehicle of Hindutva by making concessionary moves towards India's Muslims. Official statements aimed at an international audience stressed that yoga should not be seen as the property of ‘any particular religion’.111 A flurry of media reporting in early June documented official attempts to diminish the opposition, or the appearance of opposition, by minority groups. Shripad Naik, the First Minister of AYUSH,112 India's ministry for yoga and traditional medicines, encouraged Muslims to participate in the IDY celebrations by chanting Allah's name in lieu of ‘om’.113 Naik went on record again, to dissociate the yoga day from religion, while the usually less peaceable Union Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, who has served twice as president of the BJP, also claimed that participation in the yoga day was voluntary and should not be linked to religion.114 The Ministry of AYUSH released a press statement reporting that a delegation of Muslim minority leaders had met the Minister and expressed their support for the yoga day.115
At the same time, while the government sought to fend off accusations that the yoga day was being used as a vehicle for Hindutva, its response did not go further than to ‘permit’ Muslims to opt out of parts of the celebrations, and no statement was released declaring yoga to be secular or inclusive. Equally, there was no clear attempt by the Modi government to present yoga as a set of diverse traditions that could be practised in different ways. Modi did not therefore actively champion the internal face of Indian exceptionalism that celebrates India's pluralism and diversity; but, as political logics demanded, he sought to ensure that it was not entirely negated. In the lead-up to the 21 June celebrations, the Ministry of AYUSH released a booklet (as well as a video) laying out a ‘Common Yoga Protocol’.116 One analysis of the protocol described it as presenting ‘a narrowly conceived definition of yoga’ that captured ‘one Hindu understanding of yoga's aims’ and ignored a variety of other aims that Hindu and non-Hindu traditions have historically attributed to yoga.117 Conspicuously, however, the protocol omitted om and surya namaskar, although it contained prayers in Sanskrit.118
Internationally, the Modi government sought to calibrate India's image on the issue of the IDY such that both of the standard tropes of India's external and internal exceptionalism were reinforced. Present at the UN to celebrate the first IDY, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj declared that
the entire world is one family, and we can unite it with Yoga. At a time when ethnic conflicts and extremist violence are threatening to destabilise societies, Yoga can serve as the perfect antidote to stem such negative tendencies and move us on the path of harmony and peace.
She also underscored that ‘the UN's decision to commemorate the day underlines the appreciation for India and its growing soft power’.119
Overall, this case demonstrates how Modi's procedural pragmatism saw him navigating and responding to both Hindutva and the ideational framework of Indian exceptionalism. While the championing of yoga was in itself not a new venture, Modi took it further than his predecessors. In order to do so, he needed both to appeal to his political base and to push the idea of external exceptionalism, and did so by emphasizing the Hindu elements of yoga. When constrained by the internal face of Indian exceptionalism, however, amid calls that his aggressive brand of yoga promotion was belying India's secular and pluralist identity, he had no choice but to pragmatically modify, rather than reject, ideational elements of his policy both domestically and internationally. Again, Modi's procedural pragmatism in this case spelt an embrace rather than a rejection of ideological and institutionalized stances; indeed, the recalibration of his approach was exemplified by his government's attempts, if not to include, then to avoid explicitly excluding India's religious minorities from the country's first national and international celebration of the IDY. Modi used, or was politically compelled to use, both Hindutva and Indian exceptionalism as ideational ‘toolkits’.
In this article, we have presented a distinctive conception of both Modi's pragmatism and Indian foreign policy pragmatism in general. Rather than equating pragmatism with a willingness to put aside Hindutva ideology or to discard entrenched foreign policy ideas, we have presented pragmatism as a mode of engaging responsively to existing stocks of ideas and ideology. That is to say, we interpret pragmatism procedurally rather than substantively.
Modi's procedural pragmatism reflects the characterization of policy innovation that sees politicians and officials of necessity combining ‘logically incompatible ideas’ in order to ‘answer political and cultural logics’. This reading of pragmatism allows us to draw out the nuances and complexities of our two case-studies, which, on the surface, seem to be examples of foreign policy change, where ideas are either deliberately ignored or cease to matter in achieving success.
A procedural understanding of Indian foreign policy pragmatism matters for practitioners in two key ways. First, when analysts talk of Modi's pragmatic approach to Indian foreign policy, the dominant question is whether or not he will be able to bring about change. Because we take seriously the constraints deriving from both his domestic political supporters and India's institutionalized foreign policy ideas, our answer is that he must indeed bring about some change to please the former, but that the degree or extent of change is limited by the latter. This means that Modi's foreign policy transformation operates in a narrow space, but it also implies that he does have a limited capacity, and indeed a stimulus, to bring elements of Hindutva into the domain of foreign policy. Modi's procedural pragmatism may produce some transformative policy successes, but because it must include ideas and ideologies, as a type of innovative political behaviour it is and will be less original and groundbreaking than some commentators suppose. In other words, radical changes to India's foreign policy under Narendra Modi's leadership seem unlikely.
Second, our reading of pragmatism dispels any claims that Indian foreign policy thinking has shifted to rely predominantly on a pared-back logic of power and interest. Indeed, our reading challenges some of the claims made by commentators and analysts who argue that the end of the Cold War signalled the discarding of India's prior commitment to ‘idealism’ in favour of a rapid shift towards pragmatism and an embrace of realism. Instead, we point to incremental shifts in foreign policy making that still pay homage to entrenched institutionalized ideas and ideational frameworks.
Our conceptualization of pragmatism as procedural, together with our exemplification of procedural pragmatism at work in two empirical case-studies, also has implications for the larger discourse on the subject of Indian foreign policy that has been circulating since the 1990s. It offers an avenue for scholars of Indian foreign policy to take ideas seriously in their study of foreign policy change. A crucial research agenda will involve tracing the process by which selected realist and other ideas have taken hold in Indian foreign policy, while others have not, with the twin aims of coming to a deep understanding of recent ideational and policy shifts, and gauging possible future foreign policy directions.