In his caustic book attempting to demolish Indian traditions of liberal nationalism, British historian Perry Anderson started by blaming India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, of promoting a false (according to Anderson) idea of a unified and coherent Indian civilisation going back thousands of years. Whereas, according to the Marxist Anderson, it was only the British who, by holding a unified India under colonial control, created the illusion of oneness.
"Nehru's claim of an 'impress of oneness', going back six thousand years, persisted from pre-war writings like The Unity of India to his final dispute with China, in which the Mahabharata could be invoked by his foreign office as proof that the North East Frontier Agency had been part of Mother India from time immemorial," wrote Anderson in The Indian Ideology (2012). His snarky addition was that this was, "rather as if the Nibelungenlied (a Germanic epic dated to around 1200) were to clinch German diplomatic claims to Morocco".
The use of canonical text as a policy tool is clearly something that connects India's first and 14th full-time (as opposed to acting) prime ministers. Perhaps it is not well understood, even within many members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government, that there has been, through the course of the last four years, an attempt to craft for India what in historical terms is often called a nation's 'grand narrative'.
The Americans have American Exceptionalism, Europe has the Enlightenment, China, having lost its own grand narrative in Mao’s Great Leap Forward, has rediscovered Confucianism -- a grand narrative is the idea that nations use to explain to themselves why they are important and indeed special. It could plausibly be argued that no nation or region on earth has ever risen to prominence without a grand narrative. Even the Marxists, always wary of nationalistic themes, have argued, as the Leftist writer Jason Schulman wrote, that Marxism is the "grandest of narratives" encompassing not just one country or region but the entire world.
There are, in fact, only two prime ministers in India who have made a serious attempt at building India's grand narrative -- Nehru, especially in his early years, and Modi. If Nehru was using the Mahabharat in his negotiations with the Chinese, it was Modi who started handing out of copies of the Bhagvad Gita on taking office in 2014. In The Discovery of India, Nehru wrote about the old epics of India and their wide popularity as the binding glue of Indian civilisation, while Modi argued in 2014 on a visit to Japan that the Gita was the best present he could possibly give to any international dignitary.
This narrative building has also taken shape in the Modi government’s emphasis on the Indian Ocean region as its area of influence. Two of the prime minister’s favoured people, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) national general secretary Ram Madhav and principal economic advisor in the ministry of finance Sanjeev Sanyal, along with Shaurya Doval, son of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, were instrumental in creating an Indian Ocean conference a few years ago. Sanyal has also written a critically acclaimed book on India’s historic claim on the Indian Ocean region called The Ocean of Churn.
From pushing the case of the Ram temple in Ayodhya to BJP Member of Parliament Subramanian Swamy’s defense from dredging of the underwater bridge between India and Sri Lanka called the Ram Setu, the Modi government has assiduously tried to piece together a civilisational narrative around its foreign policy.
India pushed this narrative with increasing focus on its maritime neighbours from Sri Lanka to Seychelles, even encouraging, overtly or covertly, government change in countries like Sri Lanka and Maldives – both of which seemed hopelessly lost to Chinese influence at one point.
The push for ‘civilisational connect’ has been used in the Indian response to the Chinese ‘string of pearls’ strategic surrounding of India in maritime hubs and the One Belt, One Road initiative – from getting coveted military access to the Sabang port in Indonesia, a country where the national airline is named Garuda, after a famous bird character in the Ramayana, to the acquisition of the Assumption Island for a naval base in Seychelles, to the joint statement of India and Iran called “Civilisational Connect, Contemporary Context” leading to India’s development of the Chabahar port in Iran.
This strategy is of importance not only because of what has worked but especially for what hasn’t. It is no secret that Modi’s South Asia plans lie in a shambles. His outreach to Pakistan has gone from the heydays of giving presents with Nawaz Sharif to Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeting about “small men occupying big offices” about the Indian leader for refusing to respond favourably to requests to restart dialogue between the nuclear-armed rivals. In Nepal, what was once the world’s only Hindu country in the modern era, once again initial hype about Modi’s popularity has transformed into intransigence and constant complaints about perceived Indian arrogance.
In India, a spate of murders of Muslims by cattle protection evangelists created nasty headlines around the world, and the fast to death of a prominent environmentalist-turned-monk after repeated appeals to the government to do more to clean up and protect the river Ganga, considered sacred by Hindus and a fountainhead of the civilisational story, has drawn sharp criticism even from long-time supporters of the prime minister.
With elections less than a year away, Modi’s persistent efforts at crafting a civilisational grand narrative for India has one silver lining – that even the idea of South Asia seems to be crumbling in favour of a more ocean-oriented imagination – at least for some thinkers. Prominent foreign policy expert C. Raja Mohan, director of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, suggests the Indian government give up on South Asian cooperation and reimagine its political and economic geography.
In Indian mythology, there is a famous tale of the churning of the ocean which first disgorges poison but then out comes the nectar which is the elixir of life. If ties with its northern neighbours continue to flounder, and if Modi wins again, he would be hoping that some oceanic nectar waits for his grand narrative too.
(Views are personal)