Last week the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) chose to appoint Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to head its 2014 poll campaign committee. While by no means assured, the move is the clearest indication yet of Modi’s “first amongst equals” status in the race to emerge as the party’s prime ministerial candidate ahead of next year’s national elections.
If that were to happen and the BJP cobbles together a winning coalition under Modi’s helm, the effect on India’s foreign policy will be cataclysmic. After all, the Prime Minister’s Office has consistently overshadowed the External Affairs Ministry in recent years in framing the contours of New Delhi’s foreign policy as seen in the case of the nuclear deal with the United States or the peace process with Pakistan.
What would be the terms of engagement with a Prime Minister long given the cold shoulder by the West for his alleged role (albeit never proven in a court of law) in the bloody sectarian violence that engulfed Gujarat in 2002? In the aftermath of the riots, which left more than 1,000 people dead – mostly Muslims – the United States and the European Union declared Modi persona non grata, cutting off diplomatic engagement with the state. In 2005, Washington rejected Modi’s visa application amid continuing concerns over the alleged subversion of justice in Gujarat.
In October 2012, in a development indicative of Modi’s rising profile in Indian politics, Britain’s high commissioner in New Delhi, James Bevan called on Modi in Gujarat’s capital of Gandhinagar, in what seemed to be a decisive step towards the Gujarat chief minister’s international rehabilitation.
The decision by the UK to end its isolationist policies towards Modi stemmed from fears of losing ground to countries like Japan, China and Israel, which had made large investments in the state in recent years. The conviction of Maya Kodnani, a former state minister in Modi’s government, to 28 years in prison for her role in the 2002 riots provided the perfect alibi for London to begin engaging with Gujarat.
Leading up to the general elections in May 2014, one can expect Washington to replicate the UK’s move – including granting Modi a visa – to avoid the deeply embarrassing prospect of having to engage with a prime minister it until recently viewed as a pariah.
However, expect India-U.S. ties to cool significantly should Modi become the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy, which the U.S. has been eager to court. In addition to greater strategic understanding, ties between New Delhi and Washington have benefitted greatly from the personal chemistry between Indian and U.S. leaders – notably Prime Minister Singh and President Obama.
In an interview with Fareed Zakaria in January 2012, Obama named Singh among five world leaders he considered to be among his closest friends. Others in the list included Turkish Prime Ministers Tayyip Erdoğan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron and former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
With a liberal Democrat president occupying the White House until 2016, how would his dealings with a conservative Hindu-nationalist Indian leader affect Indo-U.S. ties? For starters, do not expect a second visit from Obama to India or anything similar to Obama’s feting of Singh as his first state guest at the beginning of his presidency in 2009.
Interactions between a Prime Minister Modi and President Obama would likely be strictly business and would probably take place on the sidelines of multilateral events like the annual United Nations General Assembly conclave or the G-20 meets. In any case, Modi is unlikely to forget Washington’s slight over the past decade, ensuring that potential parleys between U.S. and Indian leaders would remain cool if he becomes prime minister.
On the other hand, if Modi were to become PM, expect ties with Israel – already a key defense partner – to expand dramatically. While it was a Congress government that established diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992, it was under a BJP-led government from 1999 to 2004 that Indian ties with the Jewish State blossomed. This period lead critics to believe that this was not just a security partnership but also a relationship with strong religious and ideological moorings.
In 2003, while addressing a gathering of the American Jewish Community in Washington, India’s then National Security Advisor in the BJP coalition, Brajesh Mishra, called for a trilateral alliance between the U.S., India and Israel to “jointly face the same ugly face of modern-day terrorism” while contending that “such an alliance would have the political will and moral authority to take bold decisions in extreme cases of terrorist provocation.”
Coming in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the proposed alliance acquired ideological trappings fuelling fears of a Samuel Huntington-style clash of civilizations. The pinnacle of the Indo-Israeli engagement was the visit of then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to India in September 2003. Sharon was the first Israeli premier to make the trip.
Traditionally, Indian politicians – wary of alienating Muslim voters – have resisted being seen as close to Tel Aviv and have avoided visiting Israel or even hosting Israeli leaders. However, Modi is one of the handful of Indian political figures to have visited Israel, suggesting that he would not be averse to undertaking what would potentially be the first Indian prime ministerial visit to the Jewish State.
Lastly, on India’s all-important ties with Pakistan, Modi as prime minister could either set back the fledgling peace process or it could result in a diplomatic consensus on several issues. During the previous period of BJP rule, India fought a brief war with Islamabad in 1999 after Pakistani troops entered Indian-held Kashmir.
The Kargil conflict was followed two years later by a massive troop build-up on the border after New Delhi blamed Pakistani militants for an attack on its parliament in December 2001. The build-up also happened against the backdrop of nuclear tests by both countries in 1998. If Vajpayee’s tenure is anything to go by, Modi’s hawkish credentials are likely to lead to an aggressive and muscular foreign policy stance vis-à-vis Pakistan.
However, the same government, under then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, mounted a diplomatic effort to improve ties with Pakistan. This policy has continued under the current Congress-led government.
The emphatic return of Nawaz Sharif as Pakistan’s new prime minister and the potential election of Modi as prime minister in India could present a window of opportunity for the two countries to negotiate a lasting agreement on less controversial territorial disputes such as Sir Creek and the Siachen Glacier. Such a step could be a prelude to a broader peace deal that would also involve Kashmir.