A New Indian Foreign Policy Under Modi?

A New Indian Foreign Policy Under Modi?

Modi for John blog postAstute readers will recall Betteridge’s law of headlines—an answer to any question in a headline is always no.  ­India’s foreign policy—seen through its history, grand strategy, elites, and institutions—operates in an enduring and narrowly defined band of elite consensus, and therefore will likely not change under the new leadership.

Narendra Modi’s successful campaign focused on economic growth through reform, good governance, and courting of investment—he sold himself as a man who would make Indians forget about the disappointing growth and corruption of the second United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government of Manmohan Singh.  Modi has a track record as a proud Hindu nationalist, albeit a pragmatic one who recognized the foundation of India as inclusive and secular. During his campaign, he downplayed the earlier divisive communal rhetoric of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) and its spiritual well-spring, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) (a right-wing Hindu nationalist group Modi is a member of).

With the new Modi administration, will there be a dramatic reorientation of foreign policy and relations with China and the United States? As part of a sequel, this first blog post tackles this question by examining India’s history, grand strategy, and foreign policymaking institutions and inputs. Relations with China will continue to be marked by bilateral engagement (economically and diplomatically) and hedging (multilateral engagement and self-strengthening), both driven by India’s relative weakness. Modi’s energy and focus have brought new optimism in America, but the relationship will still be shaped within the contours of strategic autonomy, special sensitivity, and capacity constraints. This is a challenging relationship for both the United States and India—as proud and occasionally dissenting equals—to manage.  The second blog post will further analyze these bilateral relationships under the Modi administration.


India’s foreign policy was traditionally shaped by colonialism and resistance, a shared experience that bonded Indian elites. With the untimely assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and the death of Deputy PM and Home Minister Vallabhbhai Patel, then Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, and leader of the independence movement Jawaharlal Nehru strode atop the policymaking apparatus like a colossus.

The Nehruvian worldview encompassed internationalism, nuclear disarmament, and pacifism; a rejection of colonialism, racialism, and imperialism; and an embrace of pan-Asianism and non-alignment between the capitalist and communist blocs (in practice tilting towards the USSR).  It is marked by an enduring fear that alliances would entrap a weak India in international turmoil to the detriment of development and stability.  Relations with the United States deteriorated rapidly as India recognized the PRC and argued for its seat on the UN Security Council and refused US demands to condemn Chinese aggression in the Korean War while criticizing colonialism by US cold war allies such as France.  To this day, the U.S.-Indian ties, despite the increasing convergence of strategic interests, are subject to special scrutiny and sensitivity unlike any other bilateral relationship.

The India-China relationship appeared to flourish as Nehruvian ideals were enshrined at their apex with the Panchsila (Five Principles), promulgated with China and Myanmar and written into a 1954 treaty.  This document ironically has been elevated by China as indigenous cardinal foreign policy principles, while in India it recalls national feelings of shock and betrayal with the Chinese invasion of 1962 along the disputed McMahon Line between Arunachal Pradesh (claimed in its entirety by China as South Tibet). Nehru personally and politically never recovered and was forced to compromise his hallowed nonalignment in accepting emergency arms shipments from the United States. Although this engagement was temporary, the memories of 1962 still color India’s suspicions of China today.

Nehruvianism under Indira continued but with a militant tone and opportunistic swings, highlighted by the intervention in Pakistan that gave birth to Bangladesh in 1971.  Nixon’s dispatch of an aircraft carrier to the region in support of Pakistan marked the nadir of US-Indian relations. Nuclear tests brought delight in India but gave impetus to the international nonproliferation regime spearheaded by the United States, an issue that bedeviled relations until the 2005 nuclear deal.  After Indira’s assassination, Rajiv Gandhi’s market reforms laid the foundation for the rapid growth of the 1990s. His groundbreaking 1988 visit to China brought an agreement to peacefully resolve the border dispute. Troubled relations with the US continued, as India had supported the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and was isolated by the nonproliferation regime.

At the end of the Cold War, India reformed economically under PM Narasimha Rao (1991-1996) and Finance Minister Manmohan Singh.  Political engagement followed economics, as it is wont to do, but US-India relations remained strained due to longstanding US support for Pakistan and lingering Nehruvian anti-Americanism. Improved India-China relations were exemplified by the 1993 signing of an agreement to maintain stability along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), their disputed 4,056km-long shared border.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the BJP (1996, 1998-2004) took India nuclear in 1998, which met with UN sanctions and strong censure from the United States and China as well as a reciprocal Pakistan test. This isolation proved temporary though, as India welcomed the first visit of a US president, Bill Clinton, in over 22 years, while Vajpayee visited China in 2003, where efforts to resolve the LAC were upgraded with the establishment of Special Representative (SR) talks. Chinese precedents of resolving land border disputes with its many other neighbors brought optimism, but disputes remain outstanding with India and Bhutan. Economic reforms and omnidirectional engagement proceeded hand-in-hand, as India’s rapid growth and nuclear status raised its profile on the global stage. The September 11 terrorist attacks, concerns about China’ assertiveness, and the burgeoning Indian economy brought renewed American interest in the US-India partnership during the Bush administration.

With the faltering of the BJP’s “India Shining” campaign, the Congress UPA government diarchy of PM Manmohan Singh and power-behind-the-throne Sonia Gandhi functioned well in the first term (2004-2009) but struggled in the second (2009-2014).  PM Singh put his government and coalition on the line to overcome leftist opposition within and outside of his party and to pass the US-India Civil Nuclear deal, which was soon followed by the Defense Framework Agreement of the same year and PM Singh’s visit to America in 2006.  Economic ties with China expanded rapidly, as China became India’s top trade partner. India and China also shared positions on numerous international issues (climate change, noninterference, developing country WTO obligations), but met challenges in stalled border negotiation, China’s support for Pakistan, and India’s hosting the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government in exile. Mirroring the economic disappointment, the US-India relationship faltered, despite US endorsement of a UNSC seat for India and Obama’s visit in 2010, as the US was distracted at home and abroad and the Singh administration was wounded by corruption and slow growth.  The denial of future PM Modi’s visa and the Khobragade scandal further troubled the relationship.  Given this shared historical experience, what is India’s grand strategy?

Does India Have a Grand Strategy? Institutions and Inputs

Writing for RAND in 1992, George Tanham famously declared that India had no grand strategy.  While any grand strategy certainly has not been elucidated (India has produced no authoritative strategic documents, unlike the United States or China), aspirations for strategic autonomy and equal status with great powers are uniquely shared across the political and temporal spectrum in Congress and the BJP, in policymaking institutions like the Prime Minister’s office, Ministry of Defence, Ministry of External Affairs, which Narang and Staniland describe as “a small, insulated group” of elites whose worldview has persisted “despite massive changes in international structure.” Despite the persistence of this worldview, it lacks clarity, because vagueness has strategic advantages of its own—it protects elites from policy failures and domestic criticism, strengthens autonomy of policymaking, increases uncertainty among rival countries, and shields a still-developing India from bearing the costs of acting as a responsible power on the international stage.

But what about Parliamentary representatives and the Indian public? The Lok Sabha, the Lower House of the Indian parliament, is not always an effective body of foreign policymaking. Although certain issues have strong resonance domestically, such as the US-India Civil Nuclear Deal, representatives are largely focused on domestic policy, horse trading, and using their offices for personal enrichment.  Elections rarely turn on foreign policy issues. As the BJP currently dominates the Lok Sabha—it received 31% of the vote but 280 of the 545 seats, in addition to 54 seats of coalition partners—the government has no fear of being brought down by recalcitrant allies, though many PMs’ in the past were thwarted by leftist opposition.  The Indian electorate itself is largely uninformed about and does not privilege foreign policy.

Given these trends, will the BJP, created only in 1980, mark a new era in India foreign policy, animated by Hindu nationalism and not by Nehruvian non-alignment?  Quite the opposite. Despite starkly divergent philosophies and positions on domestic issues, the BJP follows the same Nehruvian foreign policy based on autonomy, pride, and self-reliance (albeit more muscular in general) and also elucidated by M.S. Golwalkar, the founder of the R.S.S., whose spiritual advisory of the BJP was noted earlier.

This post has examined the history, grand strategy, and institutional inputs of Indian foreign policy.  The next post will apply this framework to the administration of PM Modi, analyzing current events and making predictions on India’s diplomatic relationships with China and the United States.

By John Ryan, MA Candidate, Asian Studies, Elliott School of International Affairs. John is a recipient of the Sigur Center Summer Grant for Asian Field Research and spent the summer 2014 at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi researching U.S.-India military engagement in the context of India-China relations.

The views expressed in this blog post belong to the author and do not reflect the opinions of the Rising Powers Initiative.