After the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine commenced in late February 2022, hardly any Indian politicians called for their country to denounce Moscow’s actions, let alone completely change the course of Indian foreign policy. One of the few exceptions was Shashi Tharoor, one of the most important politicians in the nation’s largest opposition party, the Indian National Congress. On the pages of The Hindu daily, Tharoor called for his government to condemn the Russian invasion.
However, a year later, in March 2023, when taking part in the annual Raisina Dialogue, Tharoor declared that had his party been in power, it would have by and large retained the same attitude toward Moscow as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Much more importantly, in September 2023, Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the Congress, said much the same. When questioned at the Brussels Press Club on the issue of Indian imports of Russian crude oil, Gandhi stated that “the Opposition, by and large, would agree with India’s [the Indian government’s] current position on the conflict [in Ukraine]… We have a relationship with Russia.”
This brings us to a critical question: While changes of Indian governments bring about many shifts in internal, domestic politics, why don’t they spark revolutionary changes in New Delhi’s foreign policy?
The first answer to this would be intellectually rather lazy: Stronger and more stable states by default retain a more stable foreign policy (with notable exceptions, of course). Simply speaking, when a country is stronger and its governments are rather stable, it is more difficult for external actors to influence the course of their foreign policy. In weaker and unstable states, we often witness party divisions when it comes to the question of which country should be that nation’s biggest partner. While this is often a gross simplification, in a small nation, there is sometimes a pro-A party and a pro-B party, where A stands for one strong country and B for some other power.
There are no such clear party divisions in India as of now. It is not, for instance, true that the ruling party, BJP, is more pro-Russia while the main opposition party, the Congress, is pro-U.S. The BJP has actually been the most actively pro-U.S. party in India in recent decades; its governments have invested a lot into deepening New Delhi’s relations with Washington. And yet, when Russia invaded Ukraine, the same BJP government did all it could to retain its ties with Moscow (and was successful in doing so).
But the Congress should be given its due, too: India’s current relations with Russia are based on a deep history of partnership dating back to the Soviet era, a foundation built through decades of consecutive, socialist Congress governments. However, much later, in the 2004-2014 period, it was the same Congress – in power again but no longer that strongly socialist – that also strived to enlarge New Delhi’s partnership with Washington. Then in 2014 the BJP took the helm and added its own efforts to this part of India’s evolving modern foreign policy.
One current constant trajectory in Indian foreign policy is a striving to retain partnerships with both the United States and Russia, without becoming an ally of either. This is something that the BJP and the Congress alike seem to agree on. Thus, the last few decades have by and large witnessed the continuation of this policy, rather than revolutions in it, despite government changes.
But, again, why is this foreign policy trajectory so stable in India? One possible reply to this question is that despite the country being a multi-party democracy and a federation, most of its parties are too small to affect the country’s foreign policy at the national level.
One might assume that the existence of dozens of parties that ultimately form a ruling coalition would cause Indian foreign policy to be fragile. Yet, numbers show that usually there is one large leading party of the coalition, the BJP or the Congress, with others providing much smaller numbers. Thus, these smaller allies cannot rationally expect the coalition leader to share influence over the country’s foreign policy, a highly strategic asset, with them. They would of course be given other portfolios, but not areas like defense or foreign policy.
I struggled to find clear examples of when a small party was in position to affect Indian foreign policy. The only such case I found may be the fall of the BJP-led 1997 National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The coalition hung by a thin minority. One of the parties on which the survival of the government depended was the AIADMK, a regional party from Tamil Nadu. AIADMK withdrew its support, and caused the collapse of the government, because its politicians were being accused of corruption and of supporting the Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka (as the AIADMK also represents Indian Tamils). Thus, the AIADMK, due to its Tamil bonds that transcended the borders of India and Sri Lanka, has a particular interest in that chunk of Indian foreign policy.
Even in this case, however, it was not that one party enforced a foreign policy shift. It was the other way round: an aspect of foreign policy was one of the many reasons for a government change. This aspect was a point of disagreement between the leading party of the coalition and a smaller partner. All of this wouldn’t have caused such turbulent results if the coalition hadn’t been in such a precarious position to begin with – in the end, the NDA government lost its majority by a single vote.
A more clear instance of such disagreement were the debates on the India-U.S. nuclear deal under the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Some of the parties of the Indian left, especially the Communists, were ideologically against New Delhi’s growing partnership with Washington. Thus, in 2008, the coalition they formed, the Left Front, withdrew its support from the government in protest of the progress made on the signing of a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States. The matter could have ended just like in 1997, but this time, the government survived the confidence vote.
Thus, it is not the case that Indian parties across the spectrum don’t express differences on international relations. Rather, the once-fractured Indian political landscape of the 1990s has been growing more and more stable. This is especially true for the BJP, which has become less dependent on its junior coalition partners.
The Indian Communists are a good example of how Indian foreign policy could, under different circumstances, be more unstable in the face of domestic contention. The Communist parties are, by and large. much more critical of the United States than the BJP or the Congress. In the past, there were also Communists within the ruling party, the Congress, and during that period, unsurprisingly, New Delhi relations with Washington were chilly (roughly, the late 1960s and early 1970s, under Indira Gandhi). Thus, the fact that Indian foreign policy is nowadays stable when it comes to relations with the U.S. has some of its roots in the waning power of Indian Communists.
Yet, while all of the above serves to explain in part why Indian foreign policy is largely reduced to the influence of the country’s two largest parties, the question still remains: Why aren’t these two divided over questions of international relations? Wouldn’t it make sense for them to take opposite positions? The answer, I think, is that both the BJP and the Congress are pragmatic and unideological on certain issues, such as foreign policy or economy.
This is not to say that there aren’t ideological differences between them. These are often very clear, and play a major role in the country’s domestic politics – especially when it comes to the politics of identity. But while the two parties often stand for different ideas in areas such as education, when it comes to foreign policy, their approach is interest-driven, not ideological.
Relations with the United States and Russia are a clear instance of this. Both these equations boil down to India’s interests, rather than possible ideological divides. The Congress was much more left-leaning in the past than it is now. But the Congress can’t ignore the reality that the U.S. is one of India’s most important economic partners, a provider of important technologies, a supporter against China, and the base for an influential, rich part of the Indian diaspora.
Similarly, the BJP, being a right-wing party and a nationalist one, wasn’t fond of Soviet Communism. However, once in power, it couldn’t ignore the fact that most Indian weapons are still Soviet- or Russian-made, and that Russia remains a crucial partner when it comes to nuclear energy. Most of these aspects are of strategic value, and some of them are also now partially beyond the Indian government’s control. Thus, a change of a single government in New Delhi can’t completely undermine these elements of India’s relations with major players – these can be changed, of course, but such processes take decades.
Such shifts towards unideological pragmatism can be noticed within the cadres of both parties. For instance, the vehemently left wing of the Congress, the Young Turks, is now all but gone. Within the BJP, the anti-free market wing, the Swadeshi faction, has been marginalized at the expense of pro-private business politicians (chief amongst the latter being Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself). Thus, the difference in approach toward private companies between the BJP and the Congress are no longer that apparent (what sets them apart is rather which companies they support more). Such shifts affect foreign policy too, as consecutive governments are more and more focused on fostering business relations (not just political ties). New Delhi’s foreign policy is also increasingly entangled with the interests of major private Indian companies; the latter interests do not necessarily change after elections bring in a new government.
In a way, it is India, rather than China, that is the true Middle Kingdom: It is a country that attempts to retain moderation in foreign policy; a country that wants to remain in the middle position between the West and Russia (and between Israel and Arab states, too). Thus, paradoxically, while events in India can sometimes be unpredictable and various regions of the country are often politically or socially unstable, New Delhi’s foreign policy remains largely predictable.