As the new National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government forms its cabinet, it is worth considering the implications of the electoral verdict on India’s security calculations. Importantly it can be expected that India’s strategic and security calculations will be driven by nationalist and more decisive political leadership revolving around enlightened self interest. What this means is that India centric concerns and imperatives on larger global or regional issues will be the hallmark of a new BJP-led NDA government.
In practical terms, relations with the U.S. as well as major Asian players like China, Japan, South Korea and ASEAN will be driven by perceptions of their impact on long-term Indian economic and security interests. This implies that the U.S. pivot to Asia and Chinese assertiveness will be evaluated in terms of how they affect Indian interests, with the policy responses shaped accordingly, rather than being driven by the demands of larger collective security or economic groupings.
This does not mean that India is suddenly going to chart an independent course; rather, what it implies is that all options within the broader strategic framework of the Asia-Pacific will be closely analyzed from Indian perspectives and the policy response crafted accordingly. This is hardly unprecedented, but the emphases will shift, backed by greater political conviction and in concert with a defined national agenda and Indian vision. There is every likelihood that the new government may go ahead and issue a white paper on India’s national security strategy.
In the initial phases of an NDA Government, relations with the U.S. will remain largely transactional, implying greater quid pro quo: attempts at trade restrictions, visa issues, transfer of technology etc. will all be evaluated at the altar of strict reciprocity. Strategic partnership will also be evaluated on its long term regional impact and understandings of long term US regional commitments. While there is no doubt commonality of interest in maintaining peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific and preventing the emergence of a Sino-centric Asia, India is unlikely to blindly follow U.S. strategic calculations. Rather, it will shape its responses on its own understanding of the state of play and the long-term consequences. Issues like natural allies and concerts of democracies will be downplayed in favor of a more pragmatic approach to relations.
Economic and political relations with Japan could see an upswing, although the new government will not enter into strategic partnerships or arrangements that are manifestly aimed at containing China. With Japan, the accent will be on greater economic partnership and developing a joint strategic vision – such as sea lines of communication – that helps secure the global commons. Improving the domestic investment climate by revoking or revamping archaic laws, the new Modi government will go all out to woo Japanese investors, making economic rather than security and strategic relations the underpinning of bilateral relations.
With China, India will seek a different kind of relations. The new government will be less paranoid when it comes to Chinese investment, although restrictions and caution in sensitive sectors will remain a hallmark. Closer economic partnership implies investment and trade on more equal terms (a reduced trade surplus and equal investment opportunities). Strong political leadership shorn of political compulsions is likely to be more decisive in moving China toward greater reciprocity. In strategic terms, India will seek to avoid unnecessarily needling China with any explicit or implicit containment strategies, implying that New Delhi will not be party to any quadrilateral or multilateral initiatives that have containment in mind. In fact, the new leadership is more likely to push an agenda for greater strategic cooperation to encourage more balanced Chinese behavior, acting as a regional moderator rather than balancer. Yet even while pursuing a policy of more engagement, the new government will act to enhance and modernize military capabilities and improve infrastructure in border areas. To be sure, dealing with China will be an incremental process underpinned by comprehensive economic engagement backed by credible capability development dictated solely by core Indian interests.
In terms of regional security, the NDA/BJP manifesto makes an interesting commitment of working towards strengthening regional forums like SAARC and ASEAN. The new government is likely to focus and push toward greater economic integration and the resolution of outstanding bilateral issues. Two broad perspectives can be envisioned. First, the new Indian government will attempt to improve both political and economic relations. It will clearly define its core interests and respect those of its regional partners. Effort will be made to resolve outstanding issues in the spirit of mutual accommodation with greater Indian investment and trade, aspects relating to trade concessions, and investment in infrastructure projects as inducements. The concerns of Indian federal states neighboring these countries will be taken up in a spirit of mutual accommodation.
Second, on contentious issues such as illegal immigration, river sharing, the rights of fishermen, and the growing Chinese footprints, New Delhi will seek resolution without the internal politics. In other words, the new government will tell Bangladesh about its concerns regarding illegal immigration without being overly worried about West Bengal or Assam politics. Similarly, Sri Lanka will be told in clear terms about Tamils and fishing rights and their impact on India. The center will not allow states to hijack the policy agenda, although they will be consulted. What this implies is a freer hand in shaping regional policies, greater engagement, and enhanced economic relations. In short, more sensitivity.
With Pakistan, as in the era of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, every effort will be made to have a constructive relationship, with two clearly defined redlines. First, cross-border terror will have to stop. Second, attempts by Pakistan to play the jihadi card, ratchet up border tensions, or use its deep state to undermine Indian interests in India and Afghanistan will elicit a strong Indian response. In short, another Mumbai 26/11 will not produce a tepid response. Nor will India tolerate major military or nuclear inroads that pose a critical challenge to India.
Nonetheless, as with China, effort will be made to build a new partnership based on trade, commerce, and transit rights. There will in the initial stages be strict reciprocity with Pakistan unless the new government sees Islamabad as willing to move forward in easing its fixation on Kashmir and helping to improve bilateral tensions. A policy of cautious optimism without the emotional baggage is likely to be the hallmark of the Modi government’s Pakistan policy.
Afghanistan and Iranian policies are likely to see less change, although engagement could deepen if the strategic environment is conducive. Economic projects like Chabahar Port and greater investment in mining, and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline will all be on the table. Indian concerns will be dictated by maintaining peace and stability, undermining radical movements, and its increasingly critical energy requirements. Pakistani efforts to intimidate Indian interests will draw a much sharper response. The government will hope that a robust Pakistan policy backed by strong political leadership will produce a tangible impact and restrain Pakistan from following an anti-Indian agenda. Whereas boots on ground are not anticipated, India could at a future date take over some training duties from the British as part of a larger international effort to bolster the capabilities of the Afghan security forces.
Relations with Russia will remain high on India’s foreign policy and security agenda, principally because of the changing geo-strategic environment and the continued dependence of Indian armed forces on Russian weapons. India-China-Russian engagement could see a major shift if Modi’s engagement with China begins to bear fruit. This will deepen trilateral relations which would then need to be balanced with strategic partnerships with both the U.S. and Japan. Post-Ukraine crisis Russia is looking to deepen its energy commitments; how these play out will also be important and will help shape policy options.
Overall, expect to see a more robust policy shaped by a strong and self-confident leadership. Policy formulation will largely be centered on greater economic engagement, safeguarding core Indian interests backed by credible military power. A gradual shift from a sole dependence on soft power to a mix of soft and hard power is likely.
Of course, all of the above is based on the likely approach taken by the new government. Execution is another question, and only time will give an answer.
Brigadier Arun Sahgal, PhD (Retd) is Director of the Forum for Strategic Initiative, a think tank focusing on policy initiatives in national security, diplomacy and Track II dialogues.