Welcome to India’s 2014 election season, Pulse readers! Indian voters started voting on Monday and will decide the next occupants of the Lok Sabha in what will be the largest democratic exercise in history. Voting is staggered over a period of several weeks, accommodating the needs of an electorate of more than 800 million. As of today, voters in the northeastern states of Assam and Tripura are heading to the polls to cast their votes.
As voting began, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) released its 2014 manifesto, a 52-page document outlining the party’s plans on economic, social, political, and foreign policy issues (the Congress Party has also issued an analogous document). The BJP has released manifestos ahead of previous elections as well. Most pre-election polling indicates that the BJP is likely to take a plurality if not a majority in the Lok Sabha, allowing it to form the next government with Narendra Modi as prime minister.
I’ve excerpted a few choice statements (focusing on foreign policy mainly) outlined in the 2014 manifesto, but encourage Pulse readers to give the entire document a read. If the BJP does come to power at the end of May, parliamentary politics will likely prevent it from being able to deliver fully on many of the promises outlined in the document but the manifesto nonetheless serves as an important reference point for understanding the ideas of what is likely the party forming India’s next government.
The manifesto addresses foreign policy and India’s place in the world directly, setting out a “Nation First, Universal Brotherhood” slogan for what the party believes should be priorities in Indian foreign policy. As its first guiding principle for foreign policy, the BJP document is remarkably oblique, noting that “equations will be mended through pragmatism and a doctrine of mutually beneficial and interlocking relationships, based on enlightened national interest.” I’m not entirely sure what that means and I’m not sure the BJP does either.
What is slightly more helpful is this general introduction to the section on foreign policy:
BJP believes a resurgent India must get its rightful place in the comity of nations and international institutions. The vision is to fundamentally reboot and reorient the foreign policy goals, content and process, in a manner that locates India’s global strategic engagement in a new paradigm and on a wider canvass, that is not just limited to political diplomacy, but also includes our economic, scientific, cultural, political and security interests, both regional and global, on the principles of equality and mutuality, so that it leads to an economically stronger India, and its voice is heard in the international fora.
The declamation remains vague in terms of concrete policies and deliverables but indicates that the party will not veer away from the Congress-era focus on economic development as the first priority of India’s foreign relations. What is interesting is that the manifesto is especially critical of the Congress for allowing India’s leadership in its immediate neighborhood to wane and indicates that the BJP is interested in establishing regional leadership for India in SAARC and ASEAN.
The manifesto is also big on Indian soft power, noting that the country has always undercapitalized its “ancient wisdom and heritage” which continue “to be equally relevant to the world today.”
The manifesto generally seems to support India’s troubled tendency to pursue non-alignment and strategic autonomy in international affairs. The BJP notes that India ought to remain independent of “big power interests” and “engage proactively on our own with countries in the neighborhood and beyond.” There is no mention of the United Nations on the list of international fora in which India should take the lead; the focus is instead on the BRICS, G20, IBSA, SCO and ASEM.
Regarding cross-border terrorism, the BJP rather vaguely notes that it would deal with incursions “with a firm hand” and take “strong stand and steps” when the situation calls for it. It offers a clearer vision on Kashmir – namely that it won’t be conciliatory to Pakistani interests and will maintain the region as “an integral part of the Union of India.” There is no mention of the Composite Dialogue Process between India and Pakistan.
The manifesto demonstrates a BJP that is committed to the development of India’s long-neglected northeastern states – an initiative that will not only benefit those living east of the Siliguri Corridor but also bolster India’s strategic interests along the disputed Arunachal Pradesh border with China. While the manifesto does not mention China even once, it notes that “there will be special emphasis on massive infrastructure development, especially along the Line of Actual Control in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim.” Modi has warned China to abandon its “expansionist attitude” in the past. Despite his tough tone on foreign policy issues, Modi and BJP would likely pursue closer commercial ties with China.
On defense, the party will aim to bolster India’s indigenous arms industry, including improving India’s defense research and development capabilities by strengthening the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO). While the manifesto sets this out as a goal, it is considerably vague on how it will solve the seemingly intractable problems in the defense industry that India has struggled with for decades.
One area where the BJP could potentially alter India’s foreign policy is with regards to India’s strategic nuclear weapons. The manifesto notes that the party would follow a “two-pronged independent nuclear program, unencumbered by foreign pressure and influence, for civilian and military purposes.” It also notes that the party is interested in revising and updating India’s nuclear doctrine, “to make it relevant to challenges of current times.” Currently, India practices a “no-first use” policy against Pakistan (which does not do the same in return). This is a new addition to this year’s manifesto and did not make an appearance in the party’s 2009 document.
It is perhaps telling that the BJP manifesto addresses national defense, India’s nuclear program, and terrorism before it addresses foreign policy more generally. It is even more telling that only three pages in the entire manifesto are devoted to defense, security, and international affairs. Should the BJP take the reins in New Delhi this May, India’s relations with both Pakistan and China will be at a tipping point. With Pakistan, in particular, a thaw is currently underway with good progress being made on cross-border trade deals and a significant dip in border skirmishes (particularly compared to 2013).
Overall, I’d say don’t hold your breath for any major changes in India’s foreign policy trajectory regardless of the outcome of India’s elections. Indian foreign policy is remarkably good at remaining immune to the whims of grand ideas laid out in political manifestos (and to the preferences of individual prime ministers). With India, it’s often easy to get lost in the myopia of looking at foreign policy exclusively, but when one takes a step back and examines at the broader political forces driving this election, including broad economic malaise and sweeping anti-incumbency sentiment, it is apparent that Indian foreign policy will likely remain a function of its economic needs.