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Under Modi 3.0, India Will Retain Its Foreign Policy Course

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Under Modi 3.0, India Will Retain Its Foreign Policy Course

The incumbent BJP’s electoral victory was weaker than expected, but that won’t affect New Delhi’s foreign policy.

Under Modi 3.0, India Will Retain Its Foreign Policy Course
Credit: Depositphotos

While the results of the Indian parliamentary elections were rather unexpected, no major shift is likely to occur in the country’s foreign policy. Most commentators, and most exit polls, predicted a resounding victory for the incumbent BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and thus an easy beginning of his third consecutive term. Instead, the BJP and Modi reached the majority mark only with the tips of their fingers. While 272 seats are needed to secure a majority, BJP garnered 240 and will form a government thanks to the support of coalition partners. 

This divorce between expectations and the political reality is something for India’s ruling party to consider (and for us, the commentators, as well). One of the first conclusions that comes to my mind is that while every party needs its own narrative, too much of the narrative becoming sheer propaganda may hurt it – especially when the party itself begins to believe it. This is what happened to the BJP, which created a PR machine unparalleled in Indian politics. But that machine is in part an echo-chamber, with the ever-triumphant mood trampling valid external criticism (perhaps internal criticism too).

But while it would be good for the BJP to quietly rearrange itself, no large change is expected in the country’s foreign policy. To justify this conclusion, let me compare the two leading parties’ past and present manifestos with what these parties have actually done in the realm of external relations. The two parties in question will be the ruling BJP and the main opposition party, the Indian Nation Congress. Limiting myself to the two is justified by the fact that most of the other, smaller and regional Indian parties, usually do not affect New Delhi’s foreign policy.

One interesting factor is India’s rival number one – China. Decades ago, the Hindu nationalists that had formed the BJP were one of the most vehement critics of the People’s Republic (some in that group had even called for Tibet’s independence). But as the BJP became mainstream, especially in the 1990s, the party’s militant tone in speaking about Beijing was significantly toned down. The party’s 2014 poll manifesto did not even mention China, though it did talk of strengthening the Line of Actual Control (the line that serves as a makeshift divider along the Sino-Indian disputed boundary).

The post-2014 years saw Modi reach out to Chinese leader Xi Jinping through “informal summits,” which brought about no results. In fact, Indian and Chinese soldiers nearly clashed in 2017 on the Doklam plateau in Bhutan. And yet, in the 2019 poll manifesto, the BJP became even softer on China. Its name only appeared in rather positive light, as part of the briefly noted China-Russia-India dialogue. Even the Line of Actual Control dispute was dropped by the BJP in 2019, though there was talk of ensuring an open Indo-Pacific – which means containing China’s aggressive actions.

Then came June 2020. Clashes between Indian and Chinese soldiers in Ladakh that summer were the bloodiest and most tense moments between New Delhi’s and Beijing’s forces since 1970s. Crucially, they resulted in Chinese soldiers taking over control of a small chunk of territory along the disputed frontier zone. Still, the BJP’s 2024 manifesto mentioned China only in the context of developing “robust infrastructure” along the border. There was also, once again, talk of striving to retaining the freedom of navigation and this time, also of protecting India’s security interests in the Indian Ocean.

The Congress, in turn, chose more hawkish rhetoric. In its 2024 manifesto, the party promised restoring “the status quo ante on our borders with China” – seemingly a call to retake what Beijing’s forces took in 2020. The Congress also trained its guns at the BJP, declaring that the 2020 clash “represented the biggest setback to Indian national security in decades.” Thus, in an interesting role reversal, it was the Congress that cornered the BJP, with the benefit of being in opposition  – even though it is usually the BJP that has a stronger image, and which generally includes more specific solutions in its manifestos.

But that aside, it is doubtful whether the Congress would have been more bold toward China had it been in power at the time. It was during the tenure of the Congress-led coalition of early 1990s that a number of confidence-building measures between India and China were introduced – these regulated the interactions between their forces deployed on the frontier, and remain in force till now. Thus, all rhetoric aside, I doubt if the Congress would have risked a larger conflict with China just to retake an uninhabited bend of the Galwan river in Ladakh. The BJP seems equally hesitant to take that risk.

Both the BJP and the Congress manifestoes spent little time on Pakistan, and the tones were similar. All that Modi’s party manifesto promised was to, again, strengthen the infrastructure on the border with the hostile Muslim nation. Equally general in tone, Congress’ document just stated that “[e]ngagement with Pakistan depends fundamentally on its willingness and ability to end cross-border terrorism.”

But, contrary to words, the parties’ actions show that it was the BJP, not the Congress, that has been much more bold toward Pakistan. In 2019, after a major terrorist attack in Indian Kashmir, the BJP government took a rare risk by striking Pakistan’s territory in retaliation. In comparison, the Congress didn’t opt to do so in 2008 after the far more devastating Mumbai attacks. 

When it comes to China, the BJP has been moderate in its rhetoric, while the Congress became more hawkish, but both parties were moderate in action. When it comes to Pakistan, the BJP was historically more hawkish – and while both parties were moderate in their 2024 poll manifestos, it was also the BJP that was more hawkish in action.

Even when it comes to the Middle East, the differences between the two parties are not that deep. The BJP’s 2024 manifesto doesn’t mention either Israel or Palestine. The Congress manifesto, in turn, attacked the BJP government for “marked departures from this consensus [on Indian foreign policy], notably on the ongoing Gaza conflict.” The departure, one assumes, is from New Delhi’s historical support for Palestine. And yet, while the BJP has been enhancing ties with Israel over the past 10 years, the Congress had been doing the same earlier. It was in 1992, during the Congress-led coalition government, that India and Israel established formal diplomatic ties. One assumes that had the Congress been in power after October 2023, it would have employed stronger rhetoric to condemn Israel’s actions in Gaza, but other than that, business would have proceeded as usual.

Interestingly, the 2024 election manifestos of both the BJP and the Congress didn’t even mention Russia – even though India-Russia cooperation has been the most noticed aspect of India’s foreign policy in the West since Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Yet, the statements of some of the leading politicians of the Congress suggested that they would have behaved the same way toward Russia had they been in power in 2022-2024 (i.e. they wouldn’t have condemned Russia, just like the BJP government did not, and would have chosen to buy discounted Russian crude oil as the BJP did). This lack of mention of Russia in both party manifestos shows some of the disconnects between what the West sees as a crucial aspect of Indian politics, and what the Indian parties perceive as the most important issues.

This conclusion may be extended to other areas as well. Generally, the West and India share the same geopolitical goals when it comes to containing China, and this process is likely to deepen regardless what the manifestos say (or rather – what they don’t say) about Beijing. But other than that, New Delhi remains geopolitically focused on its own neighborhood. Here, once again, the BJP and the Congress manifestos agreed.

But there is at least one neighborhood foreign policy issue where the Congress and the BJP strongly differ – both in words, and in actions – and that may be of significance. This is the question of registering illegal immigrants, as well as refugees, from nearby countries. The BJP manifestos from the past three elections continuously declared that the party is against the influx of foreigners but is open to host persecuted Hindus from other countries. True to these declarations, the last Modi government introduced the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that would speed up the granting of citizenship to non-Muslim refugees that arrived in India since 2014 from three nearby Muslim countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. 

Similarly, the BJP promised a National Register of Citizens (NRC), which, presumably, would establish how many foreigners reside illegally in the country. One assumes that such a review, if done thoroughly, would establish that there are great numbers of citizens of Bangladesh that reside in India without proper documents. This is an issue belonging to the realms of both domestic as well as foreign policy, since the next step would be to deport them, likely causing tensions with Bangladesh.

At least one Congress leader, P. Chidambaram, spoke against the CAA, and yet the 2024 Congress manifesto failed to mention the issue – as well as that of the NRC. One can thus only assume that had it been the Congress that would have been forming the government now, it would have been more moderate on both the issue of (Muslim) refugees as well as that of illegal immigrants. But it is the BJP that is now forming its third consecutive government in New Delhi and the issue of a National Register of Citizens is likely to be a hot topic.