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How Modi Has Changed Indian Foreign Policy

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How Modi Has Changed Indian Foreign Policy

In a geopolitically fractious world, the Indian PM has managed to elicit extraordinary support from the U.S. while publicly courting its biggest foes.

How Modi Has Changed Indian Foreign Policy

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives at the G-20 Summit inaugural meeting in New Delhi, India, September 9, 2023.

Credit: G20 India

As India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeks a third term in the parliamentary elections beginning next month, his electoral campaign will be predicated on the many ways in which he has transformed India during his decade in power.

Foreign policy is almost never a part of India’s electoral discourse, but Modi has been an exception. In the run-up to the campaign trail, his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has highlighted Modi’s slogan of positioning India as a “vishwaguru” or world leader. That term was debuted prominently on the world stage when India hosted the G-20 last year; imposing banners of Modi and the G-20’s sundry meetings were then erected across the country.

Modi’s energetic popularization of foreign policy in India’s public discourse is a stark departure from the past, when foreign policy events were largely unknown beyond the corridors and chancelleries of New Delhi. This wider involvement of the public would be welcome if it sparked informed debate, transparency, and accountability for foreign policy outcomes. But amid communal polarization and declining press freedom, public discourse has only complicated India’s relations with sundry countries, particularly in the neighborhood.

Take India’s ongoing spat with the Maldives. Early this year, the Maldives asked New Delhi to withdraw Indian troops from its strategically significant islands. That culmination was reached after political leaders, celebrities, and journalists in India reacted angrily to derogatory comments about Modi by three Maldivian ministers. The Maldivian government suspended the ministers in question, but that did little to prevent widespread calls in India for an economic boycott of that country. As a result, Indian tourist arrivals in the Maldives have fallen considerably in recent months.

In line with this popularization of foreign policy, Modi has redefined India’s identity on the world stage from a secular democracy to a Hindu civilizational state.

For decades, India had portrayed itself as the poster boy of liberal democracy in the developing world. Under previous regimes, New Delhi had showcased India’s syncretic, multi-religious culture, and its unique ability to foster and embrace diversity while its neighbors descended into civil wars and communal chaos.

But Modi has used foreign policy to espouse Hindu nationalist causes almost exclusively: the export of ancient Hindu culture, the erasure of Islamic art and history, and the inauguration of Hindu temples abroad.

That has also changed the nature of India’s diaspora, with far-reaching implications. Indians and people of Indian descent overseas make up the largest diaspora of any country in the world, and they have long helped champion policies favorable to New Delhi. Most notably, in the 2000s, after India faced sanctions for its nuclear tests, diaspora groups lobbied to build global legitimacy for India as a nuclear power. That resulted in the landmark nuclear deal between India and the United States and pushed countries like Australia to reconsider nuclear export bans.

But the diaspora’s cohesiveness as a lobby for New Delhi’s interests is now in doubt. According to a 2020 survey of Indian Americans by the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a sizable 69 percent of Hindus in the U.S. approved of Modi’s performance as prime minister, but only 20 percent of Muslims and 34 percent of Christians did.

This communal polarization has also resulted in spurts of communal violence among South Asians in the West, including street riots, political rallies, and attacks on temples. On occasion, New Delhi has even embraced this polarization rather than trying to abate it. In the aftermath of violence between Hindus and Muslims in the English town of Leicester in 2022, for instance, the Indian High Commission in London put out a decidedly partisan statement, addressing only the “vandalization of premises and symbols of Hindu religion” and making no mention of Muslim victims.

Yet, despite these transformative changes in grand strategy and geopolitics, Modi has not represented much shift. Like his predecessors, Modi has envisaged India as an independent pole in a multipolar world. And in the pursuit of that goal, Modi has also retained India’s long-standing policy of neutrality, non-alignment, and fence-sitting.

On a wide range of issues — from the war in Ukraine to the war in Gaza, from Iran to Taiwan — India has continued to avoid articulating a coherent policy stand. Whenever New Delhi has been vocal, it has done so to defend its right to be silent and neutral.

As a corollary, Modi has also continued and expanded the efforts of past governments in seeking a series of alliances with countries that are avowed enemies of each other. India has therefore been extremely comfortable in being part of both the Quad (with the United States and its allies) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (with China, Russia, and their allies). It has also been able to extract advanced weapons from the U.S. while simultaneously seeking opportunities for joint defense development with Russia.

On this front in particular, Modi has registered arguably his biggest and most notable success. In a geopolitically fractious world, few major powers have managed to induce cooperation with the U.S. while publicly courting its biggest foes. India has been a striking exception. By exploiting Washington’s fears of China adeptly, Modi has managed to elicit extraordinary support from the White House while actively refusing to give anything in return.

India refuses to pledge support to the U.S., for instance, on any of its major geopolitical goals — whether in Europe or the Middle East. It also continues to rebuff requests for access to bases in the Indo-Pacific, unlike the Philippines. And it won’t commit to fighting alongside U.S. forces in the event of a conflict with China, unlike other U.S. allies in Asia.

But the question for Modi — if he is to return to power this year — would be for how long that lopsided bargain can continue with Washington.

Even though Modi has made few changes to India’s long-standing strategy of neutrality and independence, his government faces a different set of incentives and interests from those faced by previous governments. As I argued in my 2021 book, “Flying Blind: India’s Quest for Global Leadership,” the domestic policies and growth model of a liberal, secular, democratic India had given New Delhi much in common with the norms and values of the West. But in recent years, India’s domestic politics has given Modi increasing common ground instead with countries like China and Russia — on issues such as the regulation of human and business rights, the expansion of state control over sundry policy domains, and the containment of Western values in global governance.

Modi’s extraordinarily successful management of these inherent tensions in his dealings with the United States so far is perhaps his biggest foreign policy achievement.