Since his ascendance to the BJP’s helm as its candidate for prime minister in 2014, Narendra Modi has predictably focused on his economic acumen and successes in Gujarat as a major selling point for his campaign. As the Indian economy appears to leave behind its miracle-growth years and head increasingly into stagnation, this a sensible strategy.
Modi, however, hasn’t been too inclined to air his opinions on foreign policy – at least, in a cogent and organized way. Most of his publicized statements on the matter have been focused around incidents where he targeted what he perceived to be a failure in the Congress-led UPA coalition’s foreign policy platform. Indeed, one commentator at the The Diplomat has pegged him as somewhat of an “enigma” on the foreign policy front.
Modi’s foreign policy platform – from what one can grok from his public statements and speeches – is perplexing and a marked departure from what observers of Indian foreign policy might expect from a BJP candidate. A few weeks ago, Modi struck a chord in Chennai when he used a lecture there to argue for greater state participation in Indian foreign policy. The move was shrewd given Manmohan Singh’s trials over India’s participation in CHOGM just a week later – a response to Tamil Nadu’s sensitivities. Additionally, it addresses the concerns of the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal towards Bangladesh. He went as far as to wonder out loud if it would make sense for India to pair states with certain countries to develop improved economic and political ties. For Modi, this position may have been a political calculation rather than a matter of deep belief.
Modi, despite his notoriety over the 2002 Gujarat riots, has made himself well-known internationally as a promoter of Gujarat and its economic success story. There may be reason to believe that Modi is earnest in his belief that increased state participation in India’s representation abroad could help state development agendas see better diplomatic representation. Modi has said that “[India’s] missions do not have a clear perception of each state’s inherent strength that can be showcased.”
Modi, like many budding Asian leaders these days, seems to have read Joseph S. Nye on soft power. He has promoted tourism as a means of drawing economic activity into India, and has emphasized the development of ancient archaeological sites. All of this is however peripheral to Modi’s ultimate commitment to ushering India squarely into the ranks of the Great Powers.
Ultimately, it’s a worthwhile exercise to contrast Modi’s foreign policy and campaign for prime minister with that of Atal Behari Vajpayee’s in 1998. Vajpayee made no secret of his desire to test nuclear weapons while running for his second term as prime minister (the first one ended in 1996 after a 13-day quagmire where the BJP was unable to acquire support from other parties). Modi has praised Vajpayee’s legacy for its exercise of both strength and restraint when the moment called for it – in Modi’s words, a balance between shanti (peace) and shakti (power).
Modi demonstrates an acute awareness of the demands and constraints of Asian realpolitik in his statements on China. He has said that India “cannot allow China to dominate India in foreign policy matters.” He has been less clear about how he would transform India’s China policy, and has largely abstained from making any concrete statements on how India ought to handle its border disputes with China (to take one example). Regarding Pakistan, Modi has been an outspoken critic of the UPA’s reactions to slights to Indian sovereignty in Kashmir, and to provocations such as the beheading of Indian soldiers on the border. Modi’s diagnosis of India’s failure to resolve border issues with both China and Pakistan is political dysfunction in New Delhi.
Modi’s relationship with the United States is surprisingly ambiguous. He was denied a U.S. visa in 2005 over his alleged role in the 2002 riots – a decision that the United States has refused to reverse. However, U.S. scholars express optimism about continued strategic convergence between India and the United States should Modi become Prime Minster. The Carnegie Endowment’s Ashley Tellis postulates that relations would “deepen” as a result of Modi’s election. Modi is widely expected to further liberalize India’s economy, something that U.S. investors and firms would deeply appreciate.
If you’ve read this far, you might think that Modi is a difficult foreign policy thinker to pin down. Does his vacillation indicate that he thinks about India’s foreign policy options in shades of grey rather than black and white? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. Modi is, after all, a politician in pursuit of India’s grand political prize – the position of prime minister.
His expressions of support for everything from a soft-power-based pursuit of strategic interests to a truly outside-of-the-box state-based foreign policy federalism shouldn’t be taken to heart. Ultimately, if Modi were to become prime minister, India can expect to see a pragmatic approach to foreign policy predicated on improving foreign trade and greater investment inflows. There is little reason to believe that his core claim – replicating the Gujarat miracle on a national scale – isn’t going to be the foundation of his foreign policy. On matters of shanti and shakti, however, Modi is far more of a wildcard.