Indian Foreign Policy Under Narendra Modi

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Indian Foreign Policy Under Narendra Modi

The frontrunner in the Indian elections has revealed little on foreign policy. How would it change?

Indian Foreign Policy Under Narendra Modi
Credit: REUTERS/Amit Dave

The likely defeat of the Congress Party in India’s 16th general election has prompted considerable debate about the impact a change of guard in Delhi will have on foreign policy. What would India’s foreign policy look like in the event of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government coming to power, either on its own or with the support of allies?

Many in India and abroad believe that India’s foreign policy is poised for a “sea change” under a BJP government, especially one headed by the strident Narendra Modi.

According to Sreeram Chaulia, professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India, foreign policy under Modi-led government will see greater emphasis on commercial diplomacy, “more assertive actions in response to [Pakistan backed] cross-border terrorism,” greater attention to long-term policy planning with a view to formulating grand strategy for scenarios in 2020 and beyond, “a bigger role for the military in shaping India’s national security and formulating doctrines,” and a greater say for the states in the government’s formulation and execution of foreign policy.

Not much is known of Modi’s foreign policy thinking. Even the BJP’s election manifesto, which is said to carry his “definite imprint,” sheds little light; just a over a page of the 52-page document is devoted to foreign policy.

A controversial and polarizing figure, Modi has often poured scorn on the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s “soft” response to terrorist attacks emanating from Pakistan and to Chinese incursions into Indian territory. This has contributed to a widely held perception that he will be tough in his response to Pakistan-backed terrorism and would not baulk at the use of force. Modi is also expected to take a tougher stand in dealing with India’s territorial disputes with Pakistan and China.

What “tough” might mean in practice is unclear at this point, and how far Modi will go is hotly debated. Some have even argued that he may reserve the right to use tactical nuclear weapons against Pakistan in response to a major terrorist attack. Most, of course, don’t go that far.

According to Chaulia, in dealing with terrorism emanating from Pakistan, Modi could go for “clinical counter-strikes” and covert operations, including targeted assassinations of key figures in the Pakistan-based, anti-India terrorist network. But he “will try to avoid war with Pakistan at all costs because of the obvious danger of nuclear exchange,” he says.

While agreeing that Modi will appear tough with Pakistan, T P Sreenivasan, a former diplomat who spent 37 years with the Indian Foreign Service, argues that “this toughness will not go beyond a point” as he will realize soon that with “war not an option anymore, a tough approach will go only so far.”

In fact, foreign policy under Modi, Sreenivasn says, “will not change in any significant way.” It would be “continuity rather than change, because former diplomats would be advising Modi, foreign policy not being his forte.” Changes if any will be in nuance and not fundamental in nature.

Indeed, a striking feature of India’s foreign policy is its continuity. Certainly there have been shifts, but as Manjari Chatterjee Miller points out in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, “the broad shape of Indian foreign policy has remained the same for nearly five decades.” Even when shifts do occur, they are not “sudden,” “have rarely, if ever, been political,” and “have had little to do with the prime minister’s political ideology.”

It is in emphasis and style rather than substance that the Modi government’s foreign policy will differ from that of the UPA. Modi will be less patient with Pakistan and can be expected to base his relations with all of India’s neighbors (and not just Pakistan and China) on reciprocity.

But like another BJP prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998-2004), Modi would try to reach a final settlement with Pakistan on Kashmir, Chaulia says.

In fact, Modi is reported to have already reached out to Pakistan by sending his emissaries to confer with its leadership.

Vajpayee was assertive in his conduct of foreign policy. Within three months of coming to power, his government conducted a string of nuclear tests, declared India to be a nuclear weapon state, and abandoned the decades-old policy of nuclear ambiguity. His government’s relations with Pakistan were often tense; the two countries fought a near-war at Kargil in 1999 and tensions soared repeatedly over major terrorist attacks in India. Following a terrorist attack on India’s parliament in 2001, the Vajpayee government ordered a massive, year-long mobilization of the security forces along the India-Pakistan border to push Pakistan to dismantle the anti-India terrorist network on its soil.

This toughness notwithstanding, Vajpayee also set in motion a peace process with Pakistan, engaged in dialogue with it at the highest level, reached a ceasefire agreement that remains in force and initiated a direct bus service between the two countries.

So will Modi mix toughness with talks in dealing with Pakistan as did Vajpayee?

Modi’s critics point out that unlike Vajpayee he is not liberal in his outlook and has not demonstrated the vision that would be required to pursue a lasting peace.

What could force Modi to moderate his positions, however, is the priority he is expected to give economic development at home. That will require regional stability if it is to succeed and could force Modi to tone down his confrontationist approach and reach out to India’s neighbors.

Sreenivasan says that Modi’s emphasis on economic matters will require him to adopt a “soft policy towards the rich countries.” In this, the U.S. will be of “primary interest” to the Modi government, he says. Indeed, shared economic interests will see Modi and the U.S. put aside past differences – since 2005, the U.S. has denied Modi a visa over his complicity in the Gujarat riots of 2002 – and do business with each other.

However, it is with Asian powers such as Japan, China and Singapore that Modi’s economic diplomacy will be the most energetic. Having established strong economic ties with these countries as chief minister of Gujarat, he is likely to build on this foundation. In this Japan will hold special appeal to Modi. Not only is it a rich non-Western country in Asia, and thus more acceptable to the BJP’s thinking, but Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s own nationalistic and militaristic policies will strike a chord with Modi.

Modi’s efforts to attract foreign investment to Gujarat are revealing of his likely economic diplomacy as prime minister. As chief minister he built a strong relationship with China, visited it at least four times and successfully attracted Chinese investment into Gujarat. Neither his nationalist outlook nor national security concerns stood in the way of his wooing of Beijing. As prime minister, he can be expected to court China for investment, setting aside the “expansionist attitude” with which he has labelled Beijing.

Modi is expected to allow state governments a greater say in the formulation and execution of foreign policy. He has said that states that have special links with other countries, whether due to shared borders, historical links, or cultural commonalities should be consulted in framing policies and crafting strategies with that country. He has spoken of India’s 30 states as partners in his government’s execution of foreign policy and of wanting to entrust them with “the task of forging beneficial foreign relations with at least 30 corresponding partner countries.”

However, it is doubtful that Modi would treat non-BJP state governments, especially those of the Congress, as partners in his foreign policy execution. He may cede to demands from non-BJP regional parties in power in the states that are his allies in government. For instance, should the All-India Anna Dravida Munetra Kazhagam, the party in power in Tamil Nadu, join his government, Modi could be expected to allow its views to prevail in the crafting of India’s policy to Sri Lanka. But much will depend on how dependent he is on the AIADMK.

Overall, Modi is likely to be comfortable with federalizing foreign policy only with regard to the states courting foreign investment. On other matters it will be his government that calls the shots.

Of course, all this assumes that Modi will be able to form a government, on its own or with allies.  Should that assumption prove false, then India may well end up with a coalition of regional and national parties. Such a coalition is very likely to be unstable, with little in common among its constituents. Preoccupied with survival and pulling in different directions, expect Indian foreign policy to be somewhat chaotic, lacking the robustness or purpose that could be expected of a strong BJP government.

Dr Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues and can be contacted at [email protected].