Editor : HARSH V. PANT

Special ReportsPublished on May 31, 2024 PDF Download
ballistic missiles,Defense,Doctrine,North Korea,Nuclear,PLA,SLBM,Submarines

A Decade of Modi's Foreign Policy: India Shows the Way


Harsh V Pant, Ed., “A Decade of Modi's Foreign Policy: India Shows the Way,” ORF Special Report No. 228, May 2024, Observer Research Foundation.


Harsh V Pant

A day might be a long time in politics, but in foreign policy, even a decade is usually not long enough to merit a serious appraisal. The past decade, however, has witnessed a phenomenal change in both the scale and scope of global politics. In India, too, politics experienced tectonic shifts, inevitably affecting the country’s foreign policy. Yet it is not simply that. It is also that India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has been personally involved in the realm of external relations, according India a unique place in contemporary international affairs. His selection of S Jaishankar as his second External Affairs Minister in 2019 has allowed India to weather a troubled global environment over the last few years.

When Modi assumed office in 2014, critics quickly labelled him a “provincial politician” lacking in foreign policy experience. His “Hindu nationalist” background was seen as a potential hindrance to India’s relations, especially with the Islamic world. However, Modi surprised both detractors and supporters by adopting a pragmatic foreign policy centred around the ‘India first’ principle.

To be sure, India’s rise as a formidable player in global politics is also largely driven by structural changes in the international order. The shifting balance of power and increasing disillusionment with China in the West have turned global attention to India, now the world’s fastest growing large economy. Favourable demographics, its appeal as an alternative to China, and its strategic position in the Indo-Pacific have made this moment, India’s.

What has also changed is New Delhi’s growing willingness to be more proactive on the global stage, in line with its aim of taking on the role of a rule-shaper rather than a mere rule-taker. Modi’s diplomacy on the global stage has given wings to India’s aspirations of playing a larger role globally. Consequently, Indian foreign policy has made the most of this inflection point in world affairs. In the last decade, India has shed its image of being a “perpetual naysayer” in global politics, and the world now sees it as a nation that is more than willing to contribute to global governance.

In the past decade, the perennial, artificial divide between domestic and foreign policy has blurred. India’s primary focus remains its domestic development, which requires a comprehensive, collaborative approach. Indian diplomacy is aligned with these developmental goals, fostering a pragmatic stance in New Delhi’s external outreach. While partnerships are crucial, India’s needs, rather than ideologies, shape its engagements. This pragmatic approach is evident in India’s robust ties with the West and its sustained partnership with Russia amid the complex Ukraine crisis. Indeed, India has effectively insulated its global engagement from the surrounding turbulence.

The Modi government’s regional outlook under the ‘Neighbourhood First’ approach has sought to promote regional stability and prosperity, recognising the importance of a secure and cooperative neighbourhood for India’s overall development and security. The prime minister’s outreach to neighbours is aimed at resolving longstanding issues and fostering closer economic and cultural ties. India also seeks to counter China’s influence in the region, particularly through the Act East policy which seeks to deepen engagement with Southeast Asian nations. The focus of New Delhi’s South Asia policy has shifted from Pakistan—with which it has long been preoccupied—to the more productive Bay of Bengal maritime geography which lends itself to a more organic linkage between South and Southeast Asia. This permanent de-hyphenation of India and Pakistan is perhaps the single most important achievement of the last decade, as it allows New Delhi to focus on the real strategic challenge that is China.

Modi had started off by reaching out to China in order to manage its rise through diplomatic engagement. Beijing, however, had other plans. And after the Galwan Valley crisis of 2020, India took an audacious stand, on which it has not turned its back: Sino-Indian relations cannot normalise unless the border situation is resolved. India’s growing footprint in East and Southeast Asia and its inclination to shape the strategic contours of the wider Indo-Pacific underscore a new reality—i.e., New Delhi will not be diffident as it seeks for itself a greater regional and global role.

In the past decade, New Delhi confronted adversaries and cultivated allies without the ideological constraints of the past. As early as in 2014, India stood, alone, in challenging Xi Jinping's Belt and Road Initiative; it responded firmly to Chinese military aggression, and collaborated with the US without entering into a full-fledged alliance. At the same time, India engaged the West to bolster its domestic capacities. This pragmatic approach has leveraged the existing balance of power to India’s advantage. Today, India's primary focus is on enhancing its capabilities across all sectors, enabling a clear-eyed and strategic engagement with global partners.

The world may have in the past gotten used to a pontificating India. Today, it hears the voice of a responsible stakeholder which, despite being steadfast in its own ethos, value, and principles, will not shirk its global commitments.

In 2020 and 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic peaked in South Asia, New Delhi led the way in shaping the regional response, which then became global in scope. The Indian initiative to support its neighbours with critical supplies of medicines and, later, of doses of life-saving vaccines as part of the Vaccine Maitri initiative, was a reflection of a new confidence that India can offer solutions to global challenges. In 2023, India’s G20 presidency positioned the country as a voice for developing countries and was exemplary of the mark that Modi’s leadership has made on the international front.

It is that same mark that will follow India through these challenging times in global politics. More than any other major power today, Indians view their future in aspirational terms, and such perception is shaping their domestic and foreign engagements. The Modi government succeeded not only in tapping into that sentiment effectively, but also, in a sense, shaping that aspiration into his own image. And that is an undeniable legacy.

Yet, the world order continues to evolve rapidly and in unpredictable ways. New Delhi does not have the luxury of looking back. It will have to continue with a proactive foreign policy posture so that it can make the most of the opportunities presented by the new realities. The challenges that Indian policymakers will have to navigate are significant.

It is against this backdrop that this report examines the Modi government’s foreign policy over the past decade, and underlines the challenges that continue to constrain New Delhi’s future choices in the realm of external relations. Divided into three sections, this report is a survey of the Indian foreign policy landscape from when Modi took the helm. It identifies the key trends in various geographies and domains, and underscores the persistent obstacles facing the nation’s policymakers.

As a new government takes office, it is our hope that the insights contained in this report will engender a forward-looking debate on the future trajectory of Indian foreign policy as India settles itself at the centrestage of global politics.

Read the report here.

Harsh V Pant is Vice President, Foreign Policy and Studies, ORF.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...

Read More +