“Hindu nationalism risks pushing India into war with China,” blared the headline from China’s nationalist tabloid, Global Times. Meanwhile, in Washington, a wide-ranging network of analysts optimistic on U.S.-India ties similarly argue that India’s nationalist political forces will push the country further away from Beijing and likely closer to Washington. These are bold claims about the ways in which national identity will intersect with great power politics. But are they correct?
That question is now more urgent than ever. The Bhartiya Janata Party’s (BJP) sweeping victory in the May 2019 elections shows that Hindu nationalism is the potent political force reshaping the country. But what role does China play in Hindu nationalist narratives, and how might those narratives affect China policy? This paper explores the various threads of Hindu nationalism and chronicles the relatively limited role that China plays within them. First, it explores the history of Hindu nationalism as a political force in India, demonstrating its tendency to view Islam – rather than the West or China – as the salient other. The key nationalist policy priorities for Hindu nationalists–including the introduction of a Uniform Civil Code that reduces sharia’s role in civil law, the repeal of Article 370 of India’s Constitution that protects Kashmir’s special status, and the construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya on the grounds of what was once a mosque – are all issues that implicate Hindu relations with Islam. Second, after making the argument that Hindu nationalism is primarily focused on Islam, the paper then turns to analyzing China’s role in nationalist ideology. It argues that China plays a relatively limited and often contradictory role in nationalist discourse despite the increasingly contentious Sino-Indian relationship. Hindu nationalists view China through a variety of lenses – sovereignty, trade, and values – each of which produces a different perspective and precludes a singular, unified Hindu nationalist view of China. And in some areas, Hindu nationalists even admire Chinese approaches.
Despite China’s limited presence in nationalist narratives, among members of the Indian elite and bureaucracy concerns over China dating back to the annexation of Tibet and the 1962 Sino-Indian War are sharpening as China’s power grows. Even so, China’s continued support for Pakistan, its hardening position on the border, its standoffs with India like the one over Doklam, and its growing influence in South Asia appear to be elite rather than popular preoccupations. The Modi government has pursued a modestly more competitive policy with China than its predecessors, but for the most part it has balanced that approach with engagement and sought largely to build on the policies of previous governments – and this effort does not primarily flow from Hindu nationalist impulses. In contrast to countries like Vietnam, where nationalism often focuses externally on China, Hindu nationalism remains focused on an internal other.
Should Hindu nationalism gain greater political power – perhaps at the expense of the historically secular state bureaucracies that are increasingly concerned about China – it may create a modest opening for Beijing, which is less likely than the West to have concerns over India’s majoritarian turn, and may even provide it cover in international bodies on human rights questions. In this way, should the rise of Hindu nationalism and right-wing populism wash over the Indian state, it could inhibit rather than propel the kind of great power balancing that many in the West have long hoped for.