Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Friday, May 16, 2014

Modi's Foreign Policy

The Indian legislative elections have wrapped up and the results were released Friday. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi, are the big winners. The BJP won a majority of the seats in the lower house of the legislature (the Lok Sabha)—the largest single-party win in 30 years.

At this point, Asia analysts and scholars are now scrambling to figure out what a Modi administration means for international and regional politics and security. This is an important matter. After all, Modi will preside over a rising power—a country that’s the 2nd largest in the world, a top 5 economy and a nuclear power—that sits squarely in a strategically important area. To the east is an increasingly aggressive and dominant China, to the west is the chaotic Af-Pak region, and a considerable portion of the country is surrounded by the commercially important Indian Ocean.

Over the past decade, under the rule of the Indian National Congress Party, India’s foreign and security policy has been fairly lethargic. At the turn of the 21st century, India was talked about in the breath as China, as a likely future great power in international relations. Since that time, China has left India in the dust. Its growth, while still solid, has slowed, especially relative to the Red Panda. Its military power is largely reliant on its nuclear capabilities; otherwise, India is a second rate military power.  And in its foreign policy, overall, India has punched far below its weight in the world.

India has taken a back seat to others. It’s effectively let china, along with the U.S., run East Asia. It’s failed to play a meaningful role in Afghanistan. Relations with Pakistan are still tense and unstable, and the Kashmir question is still far from resolved. India hasn’t taken up leadership in regional or world bodies. Moreover, its foreign policy has been significantly inward-focused. For instance, India has shown concern for important transnational issues like terrorism in very narrow terms, only to the extent that it is impacted by those issues.

A Modi administration will likely seek to change some of this foreign policy stagnation. The running theme coming out of India is that Modi will attempt to open up India further, orienting the country more outward to the rest of the world. As for what specifically we should expect from Modi, below is my quick take on several topics.

1. The economy will be a major focus for Modi. Word is that Modi will aim to promote economic growth via greater foreign trade and investment. This should be no surprise, as he was elected on a platform to help India’s economy rebound from sub-five percent growth. In fact, markets responded very positively to the announcement of Modi’s win, with India’s stock market and the rupee posting big gains.

2. A country that’s as large and diverse as India will necessarily lean on decentralized politics and policymaking. But it also seems Indian leaders think that this is a key way to stimulate national development. Modi wants to take this a step further. He is a big believer in the idea that states are the laboratories of economic experimentation. It’s one of the reasons, supporters will say, Modi was so successful in Gujarat: he took the bull by the horns and implemented an array of fairly popular and effective policies. Many anticipate his importing this so-called “Gujarat model” to national politics by giving them greater economic freedom and flexibility.

He also plans empower state governments in the formulation and execution of national foreign policy. In particular, according to Sudha Ramachandran, Modi has argued:
states that have special links with other countries, whether due to shared borders, historical links, or cultural commonalities should be consulted in framing policies and crafting strategies with that country. He has spoken of India’s 30 states as partners in his government’s execution of foreign policy and of wanting to entrust them with “the task of forging beneficial foreign relations with at least 30 corresponding partner countries.” 
 3. Japan will become even more central to India’s Look East policy. Already, it’s an important part of of indian foreign policy, as India searches for regional partners who might be willing to balance against China. But in the case of Modi, Japan might hold special meaning. After all, he cultivated years of good ties to Japan while in office in Guajart. Additionally, as Ramachandran claims, “Not only is it a rich non-Western country in Asia, and thus more acceptable to the BJP’s thinking, but Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s own nationalistic and militaristic policies will strike a chord with Modi."

4. It’s possible we’ll observe a more muscular Indian foreign policy, especially with respect to Pakistan and China. On Pakistan, Modi has criticized the Congress Party’s “soft” approach to Pakistani terrorism. In fact, he’s said he’d consider conducting cross border anti-terror activities, without Islamabad’s permission. And on China, there is speculation that Modi might take a tougher line on Chinese incursions into Indian territory.

That said, it’s entirely conceivable that this strident rhetoric likely won’t manifest itself in policy. First, the tough talk is part of election politics. Second, once in office, like most leaders, he’ll find it unwise to escalate disputes with fellow nuclear powers. Third, in a recent Foreign Affairs article, Manjari Chatterjee Miller makes an interesting point that, for the past several decades, sharp changes Indian foreign policy rarely occur. Instead, there has been a rather remarkable consistency across time in foreign policy, particularly with respect to broad themes and strategies.

5. It will be interesting to see how India’s relationship with the U.S. develops going forward. For almost a decade, the U.S. has had in place a travel ban on Modi because, as chief minister, he was seen as complicit in the infamous 2002 riots in Gujarat, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of Muslims. (He’s been cleared of wrongdoing by India’s judicial system, though he has never apologized for the violence on his watch.) The riots, in combination with a particular ideological strain in the BJP, has fostered the belief--among some in the West and Pakistan, but also within India's minority populations--that Modi is a hardline Hindu nationalist.

It was only late last year, once it became clear that Modi was a formidable national political force, that Team Obama began the process of establishing outreach to Modi. More recently, American officials have declared that they’re ready to do business with a Modi administration, saying that “the United States has welcomed every leader of this vibrant democracy, and that a democratically elected leader of India will be a welcome partner.” And today Obama congratulated Modi on his win and invited him to the White House "to strengthen our bilateral relationship." A good start, to be sure, but it remains to be seen whether Modi will hold a grudge against Washington.

There are additional factors we must take into consideration. For instance, the historical relationship between the two countries has been uneven, at times characterized by suspicion and distrust. After all, during the cold war, despite its so-called non-aligned status, India cultivated solid ties to the USSR, America’s arch foe, to use as a bulwark against China.  Of course, it also didn’t help that the U.S. sided with strongly anti-communist Pakistan, India's longtime rival. Once India opened up economically in the 1990s, the U.S. cautiously embraced it, though American ties to Pakistan remained a sore spot, preventing the two largest democracies from establishing dovish relations. George W. Bush tried to advance the relationship further. This was especially evident in the 2005 U.S.-India brokered civilian nuclear deal.
But it’s not only historical factors that are important here, but also contemporary events as well. Arguably, on trade and military and defense and political issues, the relationship is deeper and broader than ever before. There have been state visits and a number of other personal contacts between Obama and outgoing Prime Minister Singh, so we can’t say that India hasn’t received sufficient attention from Washington.

Despite all of this, though, there is the perception among Indian officials that Delhi-Washington relations have regressed under Obama's tenure. India has been willing to buck Washington’s line on pressing issues like the chaos and violence in Ukraine and climate change. Furthermore, the infamous Devyani Khobragade visa row—which included her arrest and a strip search—has been a significant obstacle for both countries to overcome.

There is a silver lining, however. Modi was elected on the promise of economic progress, such as improving India’s job picture and economic growth, which might moderate him and his policy positions toward the world, particularly the U.S. Put simply, economic imperatives—namely, the search for foreign trade and investment—could very well prompt Modi to leave aside personal and historical grudges.

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