Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a seasoned practitioner of cultural diplomacy. In the past two years, he has leveraged the unifying connections between Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam to serve India’s foreign relations. The latest instance of this strategy is the Simhasth Kumbh Mela in Ujjain, that was graced by Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and a host of dignitaries from Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh on May 14. Mr Modi’s intent of gathering South Asian notables to strike common ground on universal values, righteous conduct and simple living is to situate India as the fulcrum of the eternal quest for a better life. He has mainstreamed spirituality and cultural linkages that had hitherto found only lip service in Indian foreign policy.
Mr Modi often sings paeans to saints and savants and invokes inclusive ancient Indian maxims like Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family) and Tena Tyaktena Bhunjitha (enjoyment through sacrifice and renunciation). In Ujjain, he defined the Indian ethos as seeking “everyone’s good and everyone’s welfare”. This kind of messaging counters narrow interpretations of India as a self-interested nation-state that wishes to dominate its smaller neighbours.
By adding metaphysical substance to the materialistic nitty-gritty of economic and strategic calculations, Mr Modi is projecting India to the world as a civilisational entity with accumulated wisdom of millennia that is the solution to today’s global crises. Mr Modi showcases an India that is a microcosm of the world, a broad multicultural platform and a moral force — the way Swami Vivekananda envisaged it in the 19th century. Mr Sirisena’s comment at the Simhasth Kumbh that, as leader of a country with a majority Buddhist population, “I have special reasons to be happy” as Mr Modi was leaving no stone unturned “towards respecting Buddhism”, reflects how this well-branded cultural diplomacy is yielding dividends.
Sri Lanka still gets economic help from China and could also host further Chinese naval submarine visits. But on the Buddhism front in China, there is nothing but total devastation to be seen. The suppression of the Dalai Lama and the cultural genocide China has conducted in Tibet is in sharp contrast to India, where a Sri Lankan President can come and unveil a statue of Buddhist revivalist gurus like Anagarika Dharmapala.
Mr Sirisena’s visit to India this time was memorable not just because he was chief guest at the Kumbh, but also because he commemorated Dharmapala, who opposed chauvinistic Hindu priests and gave Buddhism a second innings in India in the late 19th century. For an island nation where Buddhist fundamentalism and Sinhalese chauvinism have grated against the aspirations of the largely Hindu Tamil minorities since independence, the need of the hour after decades of bloody warfare is reconciliation.
Mr Modi’s idea of inviting both Mr Sirisena and Sri Lanka’s Opposition leader R. Sampanthan, of the Tamil National Alliance, to Ujjain and mixing Hindu and Buddhist motifs during their visits manifested the humanistic-cum-political purpose behind his cultural diplomacy. As Mr Modi said during the International Conference on Universal Message of Simhasth, with both Mr Sirisena and Mr Sampanthan in attendance, “India has an inherent conflict management system” because “we are not bound by stubbornness and bigotry, but guided by insight derived from millennia of coexistence”.
It was a powerful reminder that India, warts and all, is the template for multi-ethnic peace, federalism, constitutionalism and democracy. If Sri Lanka is to emerge from the embers of a devastating war, it needs to look no further than India to end the destructive clash of civilisations between the Sinhalese and Tamils.
Mr Modi’s championing of the “Ramayana trail” and the “Buddhist circuit” is at one level a clever contraption to boost tourism and people-to-people ties in South Asia and Southeast Asia. But at another level, it is an effort to form a combined cultural construct that would restore India’s centrality in Asia. At the Global Hindu Buddhist Conclave in September 2015, Mr Modi had declared: “My government is doing everything to facilitate and promote Buddhism in India”. His view — “Buddha is present in everything and everywhere and we need to follow his principles in order to rid ourselves of war” — speaks volumes about India’s accommodative magnanimity.
Besides Buddhism, the other religious community that Mr Modi has consciously striven to draw into the zone of his cultural diplomacy is Islam. At the World Sufi Forum in New Delhi in March, he proudly remarked: “Sufism from India spread across the world and this tradition that evolved in India belongs to the whole of South Asia.” His projection of Sufism as an antidote to terrorism and extremism has been well received in the Muslim world, particularly West Asia, where the demand for moderate Indian maulvis is on the rise.
No one missed the enormous symbolism of Mr Modi visiting the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in the United Arab Emirates in August 2015 and clicking selfies there with the rulers of Abu Dhabi. References to Indian Muslims as role models who are integrated and eclectic, and engagements with Muslim non-resident Indians are part and parcel of Mr Modi’s overseas visits. These have helped change Islamic nations’ impressions of Mr Modi’s India, especially in the Persian Gulf region. Is it not ironic that a man berated by his critics as a Hindu fundamentalist has managed to present a convincing picture of an India with diverse ancient truths to the wider world? Before Mr Modi, India’s leaders — most of whom wore a “secular” tag — had practically no achievements to boast of in cultural diplomacy, barring mouthing clichéd lines about India’s “age-old relations” with various nations.
The paradox of a so-called “Hindu nationalist” winning the hearts and minds of non-Hindu countries and communities globally is explained by Mr Modi’s uninhibited and uncomplicated attitude towards religious expression. Instead of hiding behind a facade of repression and avoiding of public references or associations with religion and spirituality, he has engaged openly with all faiths and upheld their positive traits and contributions. India’s soft spiritual power is on the rise as Mr Modi exudes confidence in being a Hindu who deeply respects and nurtures all other denominations with a sense of equality. Here’s wishing many more Kumbh-like events with multi-faith agendas to cover India’s heritage with glory.