April 07, 2015

Narendra Modi plays Buddhist card in South East Asia and East Asia diplomacy, checkmates China

Soft Power of a country in most crude terms is how good it is in telling its stories. Modi, like a true statesman knows how to play the cards in his hands. Faced with great challenges of mammoth proportions in our neighborhood, he has now asserted India’s Buddhist linkages to enhance India’s soft power in the world particularly in South and South East Asia. To a curious watcher of India’s foreign relations it will be very perplexing as to why India has not played its Buddhist linkages with the world so far. Read the passages below to find why this is a well-timed and inevitable step now.

Chinese Context
First buddha
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China, back in 2006 hosted something called “First Buddhist Forum”, an initiative of the then party secretary and now the president Xi Xingping. China’s active promotion of Buddhism in recent years has generated some alarm in New Delhi. China held the first World Buddhist Forum in 2006 at Hangzhou.

I find it very amusing as China is a country where communists call all the shots and religion is not very encouraged if not abhorred. Marx once called religions opium of mankind. As a country that doesn’t have a very good relationship with opium (read Opium Wars) it becomes even more puzzling. It was an effort of Chinese to strengthen their soft power, an area where they cannot complete with India.
As part of its Buddhist diplomacy, China has created a World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB) which meets every year and provides liberal grants to Buddhist groups across the world.

Modi asserts India’s Buddhist links
Despite being the birthplace of Buddhism (religion not Buddha himself, he was born in present day Nepal), India receives barely .005 percent of Buddhist tourists in the world. This should be enough to shift focus to address this now.
 Modi plans to play the Buddha card, our country’s first ambassador to the world and undeniably the most admired one. A Chinese scholar once said that India had colonized China year ago with Buddhism without sending even one soldier. This is in line with India’s action east policy. With this there is definite shift in India’s East Asia Diplomacy.

Narendra Modi has already hosted hosting a dialogue on Vinaya (code of conduct) between high-ranking Theravada monks from Sri Lanka and counterparts of the Nalanda tradition — the first dialogue at this level between the two Buddhist traditions. Modi had met the Maha Nayakas during his visit to Sri Lanka where he had also offered prayers at the sacred Mahabodhi tree.
Modi’s personal interest in Buddhism was reflected in his step to restore the rich Buddhist heritage of Gujarat.  
 Historical context
Our magnificent country with heritage going more than 5000 years in the past has left a deep imprint on cultures all over the world. Cities with names sounding similar to Ajodhya are found in Thailand (Ayutthaya) and Indonesia (Yogyakarta). Angkor Watt in Cambodia and Borobudur in Indonesia also speak of India’s influence in the ancient times.
The Buddha has always figured prominently in India’s international engagement. It was prominent in the opening ceremony of Commonwealth Games too. As the land from where Buddhism (the religion, not Buddha himself, he was born in present day Nepal) was born and spread in the world, India did not have to work too hard to make it part of its cultural engagements with the rest of the world.
 One out of six tourists to India visits Bodh Gaya. India’s support for Dalai Lama since 1959 has been an enduring source of tension with China.

Action East Policy and its Buddhist initiatives
The work on phase-I Buddhist Tourist Circuit has gathered pace. As a native of Uttar Pradesh which has many Buddhist sites, I see an increase in foreign tourist traffic. Now 1 in 6 tourists visits Bodhgaya (Bihar). This also includes Lumbini in Nepal where the Buddha was born, Bodhgaya where he attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree
Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh where he delivered his first sermon, Rajgir in Bihar where he lived and taught, Nalanda which became the centre of Buddhist learning and teaching. All these are already part of the proposed Buddhist circuit.
Kushinagar in UP where he departed from the world, Kapilavastu, Vaishali in Bihar where he delivered his last sermon, Sravasti in UP where he spent 24 rainy seasons at Jetavan monastery and Kausambi where he preached; are all part of India’s Buddhist Diplomacy.
India as the birth place of Buddhism has not used its soft power to its utmost potential. Sikkim in India is the home to all sects of Buddhism and connects the three sects of Buddhism namely; The Mahayana, The Hinyana, Thervada and The Vajrayana.
Believers from several Buddhist countries like Bhutan, Bangladesh, China, Japan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand have set up monasteries around the Mahabodhi temple in Bodhgaya for their pilgrims
India can use these to attract Mahayana Buddhists from China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam, Theravada Buddhists from Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Vajrayana Buddhists from Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan, western China, Russia and Nepal.

Countering Chinese Rivalry in Buddhist countries
Narendra Modi indicated this change by choosing Bhutan as his first official visit abroad and then to Nepal, where Buddha was born. His first official visit outside South Asia was to another Buddhist country, Japan. In his outreach to leaders in the subcontinent and Asia, from Nepal to Japan and China to Myanmar, Modi has projected Buddhism as one of India’s bridges to these nations. Incidentally, these are also the nations where China and India are engaged in contest for influence.
To the self-proclaimed secularists his overt expression of his Hindu and Buddhist religiosity may be controversial but I do not see a problem with that. After all Italy also tried to use Christianity links to seek release of its marines. Kerala has a significant Christian population. In fact, even China used Hinduism card by giving access to Man Sarovar via an easier route.

Buddha has always been very prominent in India’s foreign policy, however this aggressive shift has come in light of China’s assertion of projecting itself as a bridge between the Buddhist countries. It is something India would not let happen as the origin place of Buddhism. Some may object to using religion as a tool of foreign policy but as explained in the preceding passages, it is more about our heritage and our identity as the Birthplace of Buddhism that no country can snatch from us.  Buddha diplomacy can be an effective tool and soft power for India’s engagement with South Asia, South-East Asia, East Asia and even China which share an interest in Indian mysticism.
 Note: This article written by me was originally published on a portal on Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi

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