Voters in India head to the polls in April and May for a five-week election expected to catapult a Hindu nationalist, Narendra Modi, to power. A former tea seller who leads the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Mr. Modi has long tied India’s identity and its interests to the dominant religion, Hinduism – an approach to governance that worries the country’s large Muslim minority as well as many others.
In 2005, for example, the US denied a visa to Mr. Modi based on reports that he looked the other way as chief minister of the state of Gujarat during deadly riots against Muslims in 2002. In recent months, the US has restored relations with him as it appeared he might become India’s next prime minister.
To his credit, Modi is also well known for building up his state’s economy and keeping a relatively clean record. Gujarat now produces nearly a quarter of India’s exports but has only 5 percent of its population. Many Indian voters, fed up with inflation, low job growth, and corruption, appear ready to back the BJP while handing a defeat to the ruling Congress party and its fading Nehru-Gandhi family dynasty.
Modi suggests he has set aside his long association with Hindu chauvinism in favor of practical management of the Indian economy. “I am known to be a Hindu-nationalist leader,” he says. But “my real thought is ‘toilets first, temples later’.”
In his few foreign-policy statements, however, he hints that he may turn India into a more muscular regional power. He has chided China for its “mind-set of expansionism,” for example, and often criticizes Pakistan. His right-wing nationalism showed up when he claimed a well-known political opponent is a “Pakistani agent” simply for a type of map used in a campaign ad.
India has fought three wars with Pakistan and has had a border skirmish with China. All three countries are now nuclear powers. So it is important to consider whether Modi will assert a national interest, based on beliefs about Hindu dominance that might worsen ties with those countries.
In this respect, he could be similar to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who has lately linked the national interest to the state’s role in “preserving the dominance of Russian culture.” And Modi may also be like China’s Xi Jinping, who recently gave the ruling Communist Party the task of building a “cohesive” national spirit based on defense of traditional social mores, epitomized in teachings attributed to Confucius and China’s past glory. Mr. Xi also highlights China’s ancient history as a seafaring power.
What’s worrisome about such definitions of national interests is that both Russia and China have relied on them in part to justify aggression against neighboring states.
Russia forcibly annexed Crimea last month to “protect” the Russian-speaking people in the peninsula against alleged Western encroachment in Ukraine.
China, meanwhile, has relied on ancient maps and historic trade routes to lay claim to islands long controlled by other Asian nations and that are far from Chinese shores.
How a nation defines its national interests these days has become more complex.
During the era of empires, it was defined largely by a sovereign ruler. During the cold war, each side asserted a better economic model (communism vs. capitalism). Since then, globalization, the growth of democracy, and the expansion of alliances such as the European Union have helped ito mute nationalism based on ideology, bloodlines, religion, or even territory. Nations that define interests along more universal values, such as individual freedom and rule of law, are rising in number.
Perhaps knowing this, Modi often repeats this line on the campaign trail: “India’s government has only one religion: nation first, India first. And only one holy book: the Constitution.”
As the world’s largest democracy – a feat in itself given the country’s level of poverty – India may have helped shaved the edges off Modi’s Hindu-based nationalism. If he becomes its next leader, he will need to show a more expansive view of national interest than in the past. More countries are counting on India to be a peaceful global power.