Is Australia prepared for India’s shifting character?
13 Feb 2018|

The recent discovery of India has been a positive development in Australian foreign policy. While Australia has been able to develop a highly lucrative economic partnership with Asia’s other behemoth, the burgeoning relationship with India is less transactional, focusing on security, strategic and ‘values-based’ ties.

Yet in the enthusiasm for potential major new markets, and the desire for a new great-power strategic partner to counterbalance China’s rise, there seems to be a lack of intimate understanding of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP—Indian People’s Party). Australia’s increased engagement with India is essential, but we should be very wary of the party’s ideology and its agenda. If the BJP’s power continues and increases, India’s internal structures, and international behaviour, may shift.

The party’s ‘Hindutva’ ideology envisages India as an exclusively Hindu domain, with a narrow interpretation of what Hinduism represents and requires. A recent article by Sumit Ganguly and Raja Menon in The National Interest provides an excellent overview of the sentiment within the BJP and the broader ideological movement, and how it is manifesting itself within Indian society. The piece should be essential reading for Australian policymakers dealing with India.

The current government is the second the BJP has formed (it only gained significant electoral traction in the 1990s—in a worrying manner). It is the first to be able to hold power in the Lok Sabha (lower house) without regional allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and confidence supplied by other parties (as was the case in the first BJP government between 1998 and 2004).

However, the party lacks a majority in the Rajya Sabha (upper house) and hasn’t been able to govern unencumbered. Members of the upper house are elected proportionally by members of the state legislatures for six-year terms on a rolling two-year basis. The number of seats a state has is weighted by population, which makes keeping a keen eye on Indian state politics vital to understanding when significant shifts in India’s behaviour may start to develop.

The BJP currently governs 14 of India’s 29 states outright, and is a coalition partner in five more, which gives it great capacity to place party members in the Rajya Sabha as seats become available. Fifty-eight members are set to retire from the Rajya Sabha in April. The NDA won’t quite get the numbers it requires, but it will make a significant dent in its deficit of 37 seats, and reduce the number of parties it needs to negotiate with to pass legislation.

If it eventually secures control of both houses, the party will gain the power to amend aspects of India’s constitution (although the ‘basic structure doctrine’ will limit its more radical vision). As a revisionist party, the BJP remains hostile to India’s pluralist constitution, seeing it as embodying Western traditions unsuited to historical Hindu civilisation. Australia’s ‘values-based’ relationship with India relies heavily on the behavioural norms and domestic institutions that are bound to India’s constitution, as well as the cooperative international posture that resonates from it.

Restrained by parliamentary and constitutional realities, the party has instead given its tacit approval to ideologically inspired vigilante violence. Hindu extremist groups have targeted people accused of eating beef, and the concept of ‘love jihad’—where interfaith marriages are considered covert forms of conversion to Islam—has become more prevalent. Attempts to censor films and cultural performances have also become more pronounced, as has the harassment or murder of journalists considered ‘anti-national’. Through these sentiments, Hindutva organisations form the other side of the coin to the Muslim League, which advocated India’s partition in the 1930s and 1940s. An India of plural and peaceful coexistence doesn’t fit with their worldviews.

While religious segregation is seen as the compromise, Hindutva ideology has grander schemes within its vision. Its ‘blood and soil’ ideology sees all South Asians as Hindu in blood and views their adherence to other religions as a form of coercive brainwashing by invading forces. Hindutva groups such as the paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Organisation) have been conducting forced conversion ceremonies of Muslims and Christians to ‘bring them back’ into their ‘original religion’. India has the second-largest Muslim population (172 million as of the 2011 census), and any increased hostility towards this group has the potential to create violent and/or migratory pressures that could have destabilising regional consequences.

India’s first-past-the-post system distorts the actual popularity of the BJP, but with a large number of niche political parties fracturing the vote, the electoral system will continue to be advantageous to the BJP’s broad Hindu cleavages. The only other party of national scope, Congress, remains moribund. It currently controls only four state governments (two with small populations), making its role as a bulwark against the BJP in the Rajya Sabha time limited.

Australia needs to watch for the effect India’s increasing illiberalism will have on the country’s international behaviour. It has the potential to disrupt India’s adherence to current rules-based norms, and erode any alignment of values between the two countries. With a number of democracies having been captured by illiberal forces, the idea that democratic countries will remain broadly liberal is a contestable one. This also raises the question of whether illiberalism at home can accommodate liberalism abroad. China’s president Xi Jinping seemed to extol that notion at Davos 2017, but it is a concept that remains unproven.

At present, India is only seeking a greater role in the international structure consistent with both its economic weight and population size. It doesn’t want to challenge the liberal order; its economic rise, and especially its demographic dividend, relies on market expansion and increased foreign investment. However, there remains a significant tension within the BJP’s nationalism between the desire to create a more muscular India through economic development and the reluctance to accept the foreign influence, interaction and scrutiny that’s required to do so.

As a party with roots in a resentful religious sentiment, the BJP could be overwhelmed by the forces of irrational reaction. That has the potential to advance revisionist and parochial ideas within Indian foreign policy. And it could become disruptive to regional stability, especially if Hindutva’s grand civilisational creed seeks more elbow room as India’s power increases.

Australian policymakers undoubtedly need to forge closer ties with India—the mutually beneficial gains are substantial. But they will also need to keep a watchful eye on its domestic political trajectory and the behaviour it may generate.