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What Will Modi 3.0 Mean for India’s Foreign Policy?

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What Will Modi 3.0 Mean for India’s Foreign Policy?

Among its top priorities, the BJP aims to make India the third-largest economy by 2027 and cement its status as a global leader.

What Will Modi 3.0 Mean for India’s Foreign Policy?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives in New Delhi, India, after a state visit to Washington, D.C., the U.S., June 26, 2023.

Credit: Indian Ministry of External Affairs

According to the results of the general elections in India announced on June 4, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has secured a third term in office. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will have to rely on its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition for a majority; the BJP itself notched just 240 seats, down from its stunning high of 303 in the 2019 election. But the NDA’s total of 286 seats is enough to give Modi a majority – and a third consecutive victory.

Speaking after the election, Modi pledged to continue with his agenda, citing Indian voters’ “immense faith” in his governance. In return, he promised a “new chapter of big decisions” for India.

Among Modi’s top priorities, the BJP aims to make India the world’s third-largest economy by 2027, carry out economic reforms, and generate employment. Among the economic goals, Modi also seeks to cement India’s status as a global leader.

Modi’s foreign policy goals in his third term will be to actualize India’s long-sought permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), form strategic alliances, deal with the China challenge, revitalize ties with neighbors, and play a pivotal role in world politics. 

With its current 8.5 percent GDP growth rate, making it the fastest-growing large economy in the world, India’s quest to claim the third spot among the world’s economic powers may not be that difficult. Under Modi, India has already moved up to the fifth spot from its position in 10th place when he took office in 2014. Both global and local indicators affirm India’s target of becoming the third-largest economy by 2027. 

Modi has noted that the world is “looking towards Bharat [India] with many hopes.” To live up to those expectations, India needs to “make several changes to move forward in the global scenario” and “change our traditional thinking regarding reform.”

Modi’s third term will see an all-around reform to “align with the aspirations of [creating a] Viksit Bharat (Developed India) by 2047.” Market reforms, a push for free trade agreements, an emphasis on digital infrastructure and energy transition, and the strengthening of the country’s economic resilience to absorb global financial shocks will all be on the agenda.

On the foreign policy front, the BJP will emphasize its UNSC membership, but this pursuit also involves reforming the United Nations. Reforming the UNSC will be a tectonic challenge because China – a P5 member – is clearly not ready for India to join the ranks.

However, India will not “wait for an eternity for the U.N. Security Council to be reformed,” according to India’s leading foreign policy commentator, Professor C Raja Mohan. Therefore, India has been making the best of alternate institutions, especially “minilateral” ones, focusing on specific issues with like-minded countries with common goals and interests. 

For instance, India, the United States, Japan, and Australia share common security concerns about China in the Indo-Pacific and, hence, formed the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). One may question the effectiveness of the Quad, but the proactive stance of member countries has presented a more coordinated regional approach. 

There are also trilateral consultations on regional security among the Quad partners. Elsewhere, France is collaborating with India and the United Arab Emirates to enhance its role in the Indian Ocean. The Colombo Security Conclave, which brings together India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Mauritius, is another effective security-oriented grouping in the Indian Ocean.

Regarding China, India has a lot of rethinking to do in revamping its security infrastructure across its Himalayan border, where tensions with China continue. China’s pursuit of its claims over Indian-held territories in the eastern sector have even resulted in clashes between the two militaries. 

In 2020, India lost 20 soldiers to a melee with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, pushing Delhi to strengthen its border infrastructure and security apparatus. Just a few days ago, China reportedly deployed its advanced J-20 stealth fighter jets at Shigatse, just 150 kilometers from the Indian state of Sikkim. 

China’s maneuvering will not surprise India. In fact, the only mention of China in the BJP’s entire election manifesto is a pledge to “accelerate the development of robust infrastructure” along the two countries’ border.

Therefore, Modi 3.0 will focus on enhancing border infrastructure, bolstering defense capabilities, and strengthening “minilateral” strategic alliances with like-minded countries to ensure peace in the Indo-Pacific, including the Taiwan Strait. 

Whether China will return to its April 2020 position and restore the status quo ante with India, as the Modi government has demanded, remains to be seen. Still, all eyes will be on the possible meeting between the newly re-elected Indian prime minister and China’s leader Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Kazakhstan next month. 

Away from China, India’s ties with the United States have flourished during Modi’s two terms. In 2016, two years after Modi took office, the U.S. recognized India as a Major Defense Partner

In June 2023, Modi traveled to the U.S., highlighting people-to-people ties, business, science, technology, and, most importantly, strategic cooperation. In January 2023, India and the U.S. signed the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology, “charting technology partnership for the future.” 

The sky is the limit for India-U.S. ties – in a literal sense, as the two forge deeper exchanges and cooperation in the space sector. Overall, Modi’s comeback will see continuity in relations, regardless of who wins the November presidential election in the United States. 

That said, India will continue to maintain its defense and trade ties with Russia as well. While Delhi may have set the priorities right with Moscow, Russia’s “no-limits friendship” with China is a matter of concern, as it complicates India’s security calculus and regional balance.

In dealing with the immediate neighbors – Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Afghanistan – “Neighborhood  First” has been a key foreign policy initiative of the Modi administration. 

Despite the trust deficit and rising Chinese influence, India seems to have succeeded in removing Sri Lanka from Beijing’s sphere of influence with its $4 billion assistance during the island nation’s 2022 economic crisis. 

Yet Chinese “research vessels” continue to make port calls in Sri Lanka that risk India’s maritime security in the Indian Ocean. Therefore, in addition to its bilateral cooperation with Colombo, New Delhi is prioritizing trilateral cooperation with Japan as a key development collaborator in Sri Lanka. 

On Pakistan, India has held firm that it will not tolerate Islamabad’s state-sponsored cross-border terrorism in Kashmir. Pakistan will not normalize ties with India, considering that its military runs the show. Although some quarters in Pakistan are willing to engage with India, the question looms whether its military wants it. The answer thus far is no. Instead, to defeat India, the Pakistan army seems willing to disrupt peace and tranquility within Pakistan itself. With Islamabad’s lack of economic thinking and continued army domination, there is little hope for change.

India set the tone in its quest for global leadership by hosting the G-20 Summit in Delhi in September 2023. Now, it aims for a credible leadership role in the Global South, evidenced by substantial progress in its increased engagement with Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia.

In his latest op-ed, Modi conveyed that India is being “acknowledged as a strong and important voice of the Global South.” In particular, he celebrated that, due to India’s initiatives, “the African Union has become a part of the G-20 group. This will be a crucial turning point for the future of African countries.” 

By becoming the “voice of the Global South,” India is attempting to find its niche, where it enjoys a more welcoming space. This strategic positioning not only enhances India’s diplomatic influence but also fosters stronger economic and political ties with emerging economies.

To conclude, Modi’s third term is poised to maintain momentum and drive comprehensive foreign policy reforms, strengthen strategic alliances, and solidify India’s leadership in the Global South. By enhancing regional security, pursuing UNSC membership, and fostering global partnerships, India aims to emerge as a pivotal player on the world stage.