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What the RSS thinks about Indian foreign policy

Updated: Oct 11, 2022

The ideological parent of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has offered hints about what it thinks about the country's China, Russia and America policy. Here's why this is worth noting.

Mohan Bhagat is the head of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and believes India must not emulate China's (or anyone else's) path.

The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) is the socio-political and cultural organisation which has given India's two prime ministers - including incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi - and many top ranking ministers, including many members of Team Modi.

India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a political arm, in a sense, of the RSS. While it does not usually participate in everyday functioning of the government, that its members including the prime minister are in-charge gives ideological continuity on fundamental issues. Mohan Bhagwat is the sixth, and current, head of the RSS, a lifelong position in the organisation which was started in 1925.

Both the RSS and the BJP are rooted in the ideology of nationalism based on a Hindu civilisational understanding of India meaning that India's nationhood is derived from foundational texts and theories that are core to the Hindu religion (the religion followed by a majority of Indians).

The statements of Bhagwat (and former heads of the RSS), when the BJP government is in power, are usually read as providing broad ideological guidance to the government, or, at the very least, giving an insight into what the ideological positions of the 'Hindu nationalist' family (for the RSS has many affiliate organisations apart from the BJP) are on various subjects.

At a recent public event, Bhagwat said, “There is a need to read and feel proud of our history and create a narrative. We cannot be China, Russia or USA, that will be mockery, and not development”.

This is interesting not because this is new - such things have always been argued in RSS circles - but because of the current context in which India's challenge to its great power rival China, and its relationship with the US and others, even as it goes through a process of 'rising', including lifting its economy from around $3 trillion to $5 trillion in the near future, and where it has become the fifth-largest economy in the world beating its erstwhile colonial ruler, the United Kingdom, is under constant analysis.

The pertinent question is what kind of a 'risen' power will India be? Will it be another China, overwhelming dominating, even bullying, and with a perpetual victim complex, ever a revisionist power? A power that the West is perpetually either confronting or accommodating?

Or will India go through a peaceful rise, a sort of united, one polity Asian version of the European Union? A massive market-and-military but not a massive geopolitical ego. Willing to work with the West to sustain a peaceful world order where it increasingly, and with relatively low friction, gets more and more share of attention and responsibility. Which one will India be?

Many commentators in the West, when they hear of India talk about 'self-reliance' or 'building indigenous capacity' or 'decolonisation' and 'nationalism', tend to imagine that India is going the China way. This has been heightened by the talk on India as a 'civilisational state', especially since academics like Christopher Coker at the London School of Economics have put countries like China and Turkey under this definition.

But Bhagwat is stressing that India's trajectory is different (and unique). This is standard RSS fare where its heavyweights, like the economic thinker Dattopant Thengadi and others spoke of the 'third way' - neither Communism, nor capitalism, but something else. For the lack of a better explanation, a balanced approach, a middle path. This, by their admission, they borrowed conceptually from Indian philosophy where time is cyclical and all ailment, an imbalance in the body-mind system.

That's why the RSS has no desire for India to be like China or the US (or anyone else for that matter). It sees India has having a unique ethos, something special to offer to the world - which is why the Modi government constantly repeats that it aims to make the country 'vishwa guru' or world teacher.

This also means that when Indian foreign minister S. Jaishankar insists that India is only in one camp, and can choose only one side, its own, he is both repeating the independence (non-alignment, if you will) that the country's foreign policy has shown since independence, but also asserting this idea that India's positionality is unique, and cannot be easily boxed.

India's belief that it can stand on its own - not necessarily by itself but presenting a unique standpoint - is borne also by the experience of India's behaviour during the Ukraine war. India has consistently maintained that conflict is dangerous and damaging, yet asserted its right to do what is necessary to ensure its economy does not go through a fatal crisis via energy shock. Prime Minister Narendra Modi offered what was seen as a stark criticism of war to Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation recently, while at the same time India has abstained from resolutions at the United Nations condemning Russia directly. "Today's era is not of war," Modi told Putin.

Jaishankar too recently pointed out that India's deep ties with Russia have, as one of their foundational pillars, security and weaponry support provided by Russia to the Indian armed forces at a time when the West, namely America, was happy to choose a 'military dictatorship' (referring to Pakistan) as their ally to whom significant arms and weaponry support was provided. This comes soon after Jaishankar pointed out India's dismay at recent financial support provided by America to the F-16 aircraft fleet in Pakistan when "everybody knows, you know where they are deployed and their use".

This does not mean India-US collaboration is necessarily going down. Goods trade between the US and India crossed $10 billion "for the 11th time in 13 months," notes Richard Rossow who tracks economic ties between the two countries and holds the Wadhwani Chair in US-India Policy Studies at the Washington-based CSIS (Centre for Strategic and International Studies). In the last 12 months, the two countries did $131 billion in total trade, a year-on-year jump of 29 per cent. India remains among the top 10 trading partners of the US, and the US is India's largest trading partner.

And while India-US is not as large as America's trade with China, the trend, as shown below, is clear.

The RSS which once leaned towards greater state control has been increasingly become free markets friendly as it enables India to become richer and therefore more self-reliant in issues of security (including building an indigenous defence industry) which is seen favourably by the ideological parent. This does not mean that the RSS is blindly capitalist-friendly now. Its second-in-command Dattatreya Hosabale recently voiced concern about persistent poverty and inequality in India.

In this light, it is China, and not the US, which the RSS believes is the main threat for India. Bhagwat detailed this out last year when he said that if India's economic dependence on China increased, it would threaten its sovereignty. India has increasingly looked to curb exports from China, including banning many Chinese mobile apps. This is not new. As early as 1950, one of the founding fathers of India who the RSS appreciates for his strong nationalist positions, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, had warned about 'Chinese imperialism'. It is a warning that still echoes in the broader RSS-BJP family.

But fundamentally it is less understood that the RSS genuinely would not like India to be part of any 'camp'. If this sounds a bit like the non-alignment espoused by India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, it is worth noting that there are significant differences. Unlike Nehru, the RSS does not espouse a pacifist point of view. It is firmly grounded in the realism of India's security challenges and the need for strong defence measures and mechanisms to secure its periphery. Unlike Nehru, who was a champion of India-China friendship, the RSS firmly sees China as a geostrategic rival to India, which must be effectively countered because it is consistently seeking to curb India's influence and rise.

The RSS would not like India to emulate any other country or be in any camp for the simple reason that it defeats the idea, which they hold dear, that India should seek to lead, and not follow, in the world.

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