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India’s Foreign Policy Under Modi

“Ultimately, foreign policy is the outcome of economic policy….[W]e have not produced any constructive economic scheme or economic policy so far…When we do so, that will govern our foreign policy more than all the speeches in this house.” – Jawaharlal Nehru

To begin an article about Narendra Modi’s foreign policy with the words of the Gandhi family patriarch may seem ironic but it serves to reinforce a crucial point about how continuity and not change characterizes Indian foreign policy. A quick survey of modern India’s history makes evident that the ‘mere’ induction of a new regime does not result in dramatic changes in the broad outlines of India’s foreign policy. So what have traditionally been India’s prime foreign policy objectives?

As a nation that at one time accounted for a quarter of the world’s economic wealth Indian elites have always yearned to regain that preeminence and assume what they see as India’s rightful position in the comity of nations. So much for lofty aims. What this means on the ground is that India desires a secure and stable regional environment. Continued economic growth to uplift the Indian masses cannot be guaranteed without it. This has been the simple goal of the Indian establishment ever since independence and has been the rationale for much of India’s foreign policy thinking ever since.

Post 1947, ensuring economic development as per India’s needs required independent decision making, something which couldn’t be achieved by becoming a subordinate state to one of the two superpowers during the Cold War. For a nation that had labored under colonial rule for the better part of two centuries, preserving its strategic autonomy was its foremost priority. The policy of non-alignment adopted post independence was motivated by national interest and not due to a moralistic hangover of the non-violent Indian freedom struggle as is commonly assumed. The end of the Cold War resulting in a steady transition to an increasingly multipolar world however resulted in non-aligned nations losing the bargaining power they had previously possessed. A reactive foreign policy in the 1990’s gave way to increased Indian engagement with the global economy marking the end of an era wherein the Indian economy was characterized by its sub 4% Hindu rate of growth.

Under the then finance minister Manmohan Singh India abandoned its state centric mixed economic model and chose to open up and engage with the world. The 1990’s marked the beginning of an era of coalition politics in India and also the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The BJP is a right wing party characterized by a commitment to a Hindu nationalist ideology. The BJP government that came to power in 1999 conducted the Pokhran II tests making India a nuclear power.

Vajpayee, the then PM, undertook no other foreign policy initiative that could be considered a game changer. This is important to note as Modi has expressed his praise for and desire to largely follow Vajpayee’s foreign policy. Whilst the rightward swing of India’s polity is significant, equally significant is how this election was widely considered as India’s first ‘presidential’ election in which Modi overshadowed the BJP.

While the 1990’s marked the beginning of explosive economic growth India never managed to articulate a coherent foreign policy outlook. Arijit Mazumdar identifies the transition to a multi party system characterized by coalition governments as a prime cause for this phenomenon. The Narendra Modi led BJP has come to power as the very first non-Congress non-coalition government in modern Indian history. Modi, riding on a massive anti-incumbency wave, has capitalized on the Congress led UPA government’s inability to deliver rapid economic growth. Early in the millennium India’s annual GDP growth was well on its way to hitting double digits before the global financial crisis plunged it to levels dangerously close to the pre-1990’s era. Modi’s track record in making Gujarat the most business friendly state in India has resulted in high expectations.

Even as Modi has stormed to power on an agenda promising to revitalize development and governance naysayers have pointed out that Manmohan Singh’s election as prime minister generated similar expectations. However, three vital differences between the two men ensure that such a comparison is flawed. Firstly, Modi rose to power after having been the chief minister of a major state for over a decade, an oddity for Indian prime ministers. He is therefore well versed with the business of running a state and maneuvering India’s political landscape. Secondly, Modi having won with a majority is not constrained by coalition politics and the slow decision making and risk adverse behaviour that a coalition breeds. Thirdly, Manmohan Singh was a weak prime minister with no influence in a Congress party dominated by the Gandhi family.

The cabinet defence portfolio has been assigned to an already overloaded Arun Jaitley, although this is likely a temporary move. The appointees to the three positions who will have the maximum influence in the wielding of India’s foreign policy are the real story. The critical position of the principal private secretary to the prime minister was granted to Nripendra Misra. Misra has work experience at the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization.

The second important position is that of the National Security Advisor to which Ajit Doval has been appointed. Noteworthy is that this is the only second time that a non-diplomat has been appointed to this powerful post. Ajit is an internal security specialist who sees the gravest threats to Indian security as those targeting India’s domestic weaknesses. The appointment reflects the immense value Modi places on internal security having identified Maoism and terrorism as the biggest threats to India’s internal security.

The appointment of Sushma Swaraj as the Minister of External Affairs makes one thing very clear. That is the continued sinking into obsolescence of the Ministry of External Affairs as Modi feels he can personally steer his own foreign policy via the prime minister’s office.

This article was originally posted in South Asian Voices.