- India in South Asia: Domestic Identity Politics and Foreign Policy from Nehru to the BJP by Sinderpal Singh
Singh’s India in South Asia is a useful addition to the small but growing literature on Indian foreign policy for its theoretically sophisticated analysis, especially since the vast majority of writings on India’s post-independence foreign policy are descriptive and historical. Furthermore, in sharp contrast to most of the theoretical literature that analyzes India’s foreign policy from the Realist and/or Neo-liberal perspectives, Singh draws upon the critical theory approach of the Frankfurt School.
This book, which is based on Singh’s doctoral dissertation, employs “critical discourse analysis” to analyse the three discourses of secularism, democracy and anti-imperialism in order to explain India’s foreign policy with an emphasis on the politics of identity. Singh’s central premise is that India’s foreign policy can be better understood as a manifestation of India’s identity that is articulated by its political elite in the context of the country’s domestic politics. This is because the “manner in which these political elites conceive India’s region and regional role depends upon their engagement with domestic identity politics” (p. 1).
More specifically, Singh looks at three periods since India’s independence — the Nehru years (1947–62), the Indira Gandhi years (1966–77, 1980–84) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) years (1998–2004) — to study the impact of the three discourses of secularism, democracy, and anti-imperialism on Indian identity and therefore on foreign policy. Within each of these periods, Singh looks at two foreign policy cases. The first case involves India’s approach towards Pakistan which is analysed for all of the three periods identified above. The second case involves India’s approach towards Nepal during the Nehru years, towards Sri Lanka during the Indira Gandhi years, and towards Bangladesh during the BJP years.
The discourse analyses of secularism, democracy, and anti-imperialism during these three periods is a useful contribution to the literature as it shows how India’s sense of self had an impact on India’s foreign relations in the context of the different episodes mentioned above. For this reader, there are two important findings that emerge from Singh’s study. Firstly, the author shows that by changing the discourse on Indian secularism (away from its [End Page 480] Nehruvian roots towards an arena of manipulation by the state) and by resorting to the politics of “democratic populism”, Indira Gandhi re-articulated India’s self-identity with serious consequences for India’s policies towards Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Secondly, Singh argues that the BJP was successful in recasting India’s discourse on anti-imperialism “to include notions of Muslim imperialism towards Hindu India” (p. 98) that were then used to interpret Pakistan’s actions in Kargil in 1999 and illegal Bangladeshi (Muslim) migrations into India.
Singh does not directly take on the issue of whether or not his identity-based approach provides a better explanation of these cases compared to the extant Realist and Neo-liberal arguments. Nevertheless, Singh’s book has enriched the debate on these issues.
However, there are at least two issues that are only partially addressed by Singh. Firstly, Singh starts his work by trying to understand how the three discourses of secularism, democracy, and anti-imperialism have influenced the Indian elites’ “conceptions of India’s regional space and regional role(s)” (p. 9). At the same time, he simply assumes that the “region” where India’s elites sought to express the foreign policies informed by such discourses on identity was South Asia as all of his episodes deal with South Asian cases. To be fair, Singh does acknowledge that India’s leaders have always sought to play a “global” role, especially during the Nehru years. But it is not clear why (or how) “South Asia” emerges as the “region” where the foreign policy dimensions of India’s domestic identity are most visible. After all, Nehru’s organization of the Asian...