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Modi's foreign policy

Grahame Lucas
May 26, 2014

After being sworn in as India's prime minister, speculation is mounting about what impact Narendra Modi's brand of Hindu nationalism will have on his country's foreign policy.

Indien Vereidigung Premierminister Narendra Modi 26.5.2014
Image: Reuters

After a historic election victory, Narendra Modi was sworn in as India's 15th prime minister on Monday, May 26, ending two terms of rule by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

Modi's political vehicle, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), advocates a strong India that can resist pressure from world powers or regional rivals. Indeed, when in power previously, it was a BJP-led government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee that made India into a nuclear power and underlined its independence by refusing to sign the Nuclear Non-Profileration Treaty.

The secretive cadre organization of Hindu supremists, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), to which Modi has belonged since his youth, believes that all Indians must place the nation above all other considerations including religion. This explains why the country's 177 million Muslims fear Modi and why many other Indians regard him as an authoritarian ideologue or worse. After all, it was his failure as Chief Minister to step in to quell religious rioting in his home state of Gujarat in 2002 that cost some 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, their lives.

Inexperienced in foreign affairs

But Modi - equipped with the strongest mandate to rule in a generation - is not expected to pursue a Hindu nationalist policy. Modi "may have started his career on the extreme right, but he's coming more toward the center now. And he will have to," says Sreeram Chaulia, a political analyst of the Jindal School of International Affairs in Delhi.

Indien Parlamentswahl 2014 Modi im Parlament 20.05.2014
Modi will first have to deliver on his election pledge to get the country's faltering economy back on its feetImage: Reuters

This also applies to foreign policy where Modi has little experience, says Professor C.S.R. Murthy of Jawaharlal Nehru University in the Indian capital: "In my assessment he is not sophisticated enough to understand the nuances of foreign policy and conduct the course of negotiations. It will take time. He will require some proper advice."

According to this school of thought, Modi will first have to deliver on his election pledge to get the country's faltering economy back on its feet. With an average growth rate of around five percent over the last two years, the economy has not been expanding fast enough to provide jobs for the 13 million young Indians flooding onto the job market every year. Moreover, the manufacturing sector only accounts for 15 percent of the economy compared to 31 percent in China. This is where Modi's expertise – on display for 12 years in Gujarat - in attracting domestic and foreign investment, creating jobs and a building a modern infrastructure could come into play.

Closer cooperation with Europe

Seen from this perspective Modi will need stable and mutually beneficial relations with key trading partners like the United States and Europe. Washington, which refused Modi a visa in the wake of the Gujarat riots in 2002, is now trying to repair the damage.

Christian Wagner of the German Institute for International Politics and Security points out that "President Obama already invited Modi to the United States after his administration made it clear that it would have a regular relationship with India's elected Prime Minister. And I think there will be a strong interest on both sides to continue the good relationship.” After all, the US sees India as a vital ally in its efforts to contain China in Asia.

European countries including Germany, which also blackballed Modi after the Gujarat massacre, normalized their relations with him in 2012. The BJP is known to admire the US and European models of development, particularly the German economic model. This suggests that closer cooperation could be high on the list of Modi's priorities. Professor C.R.S. Murthy sees Modi paying an official visit to the US and Europe soon: "He would certainly like to go. Maybe he will work for a visit to signal to the domestic constituency that the past is forgotten."

Ties with Russia and China

But there are other signals too. After the election result was announced, one of the first foreign leaders to receive a reply to his message of congratulations was Russian President Vladimir Putin. Modi tweeted: "Indian-Russian friendship has stood the test of time. We will further strengthen our relations in a wide range of fields." Hindu nationalists have not forgotten India's traditionally close ties with Moscow and admire Putin's tough style of leadership openly.

As far as China is concerned, bilateral ties are encumbered by unresolved border disputes, the presence of the Dalai Lama in northern India and differing interests arising from India's "Look East policy." Moreover, China's military assistance to India's neighbor, Pakistan, is viewed with great suspicion in New Delhi. This is compounded by what Indian diplomats regard as an attempt by China to create a so-called "string of pearls" in South Asia to encircle India.

Christian Wagner sees a major challenge: "The problems with China (…) will come when we see incidents between the two countries, when we see more border incursions on the line of control with China." But Professor Swaran Singh from the Jawaharlal Nehru University is more optimistic: "The new government in New Delhi is very likely to focus on issues of social development where China is likely to emerge as its major partner. Narendra Modi has visited China several times and is familiar with Chinese leaders which should help in streamlining this partnership and in resolving some of their continuing irritants."

A window of opportunity

Relations with Pakistan are characterized by unresolved historical conflict arising from three wars in 67 years and in particular from disputed Kashmir. A slight thaw in relations ended abruptly after the 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai by Pakistani Islamists. On the campaign trail, Modi vowed to take a hard line on Kashmir and to rethink India's no-first strike nuclear policy against Pakistan.

That gives him little room for maneuver vis-à-vis Islamabad, according to Prof. C.S.R. Murthy. "There will be more continuity than discernible or drastic change in the relationship. I would suppose Modi will not like to resume dialogue unless some concrete progress is shown in terms of the trial of terrorists or in terms of the control over infiltrations. I don't see any chance of the resumption of talks which Pakistan wants."

Professor Swaran Singh *Qualität*
Professor Swaran Singh believes ties with China could improve under ModiImage: Swaran Singh

But nuclear-armed Pakistan and India may in fact have a window of opportunity opening in front of them. When Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif first served as prime minister in the late 1990s, it was he who agreed a peace accord with Prime Minister Vajpayee of the BJP. Now both countries have a strong common interest, according to Christian Wagner: "In that sense I would assume we will see similar steps by Modi promoting better economic relations with Pakistan. There the ball is more in Pakistan's court because India has already granted ‘Most Favored Nation' status and Pakistan finds it difficult to respond properly."

For his part, Sharif is now thought to be ready to offer "Most Favored Nation status" to India and to open land borders. Modi recognized this opportunity too and took the historic step of inviting Sharif - along with other South Asian leaders - to his inauguration ceremony.

But many pitfalls remain. An unholy alliance of Pakistan's powerful military and Hindu nationalists – both always fearful of closer bilateral ties – could block rapprochement between the two countries. Another terrorist attack on India or renewed violence in Kashmir would stop any attempt at reconciliation in its tracks. Foreign policy realities of this kind would compel Modi to abandon his priorities to increase foreign trade and investment and instead force him to inject India's external relations with a potent dose of Hindu nationalism.