Special ReportsPublished on Jul 24, 2019 PDF Download
ballistic missiles,Defense,Doctrine,North Korea,Nuclear,PLA,SLBM,Submarines

Looking back looking ahead: Foreign policy in transition under Modi



Introduction by Harsh V. Pant

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi begins his second term in office, there is a palpable sense of anticipation about the trajectory of Indian foreign policy under his leadership. Indeed, the country’s foreign policy has undergone a remarkable transformation in the short span of five years since Modi first came to power in May 2014. No Indian prime minister has ever before generated the kind of tenor and volume of academic literature that Modi has, particularly in the field of foreign policy. Even the government’s critics have had to acknowledge the shift in India’s foreign policy. The Modi government has no doubt left its unique imprint in a short period of time; it has made clear its objective of positioning India as a leading global player.

At the 2019 Raisina Dialogue in Delhi in January this year, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale declared, “India has moved on from its non-aligned past. India is today an aligned state—but based on issues.” Underscoring that it was time for India to become part of the global rule-making process, Gokhale argued that “in the rules-based order, India would have a stronger position in multilateral institutions.” The foreign secretary was categorical in stating that India’s future would be largely shaped by the kind of role New Delhi manages to play in the G-20 and the Indo-Pacific, signalling clearly the changing priorities of the Indian foreign policy establishment. That his assertions were widely accepted was not a surprise. After all, during Modi’s first term, the government succeeded in gradually but decisively shifting the discourse on Indian foreign policy without many in the country’s strategic community even recognising it. Critics continued to be sceptical about even the most substantive changes, while the Modi government continued to redefine India’s foreign policy priorities, both in substance and style.

Much earlier, in 2015, as then Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar delivered the Fullerton lecture on India, the United States and China at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, he had suggested that today’s India “aspire[s] to be a leading power, rather than just a balancing power.” As a consequence, he said, India was willing “to shoulder greater global responsibilities.” Jaishankar, of course, was taking his cue from Modi himself who, soon after taking office, had challenged his senior diplomats “to help India position itself in a leading role, rather than [as] just a balancing force, globally.”

In the last five years, Modi has sought to transform India from being merely an important player in the global order into one that is willing—and able—to define the priorities of the international system. He has long shed any diffidence about India’s great-power aspirations, underscoring the confidence of a society that is willing to assert its civilisational soft power. This has resulted in a hyper-energetic diplomacy that not only seeks an evergreater global footprint but also places an emphasis on the nation’s soft power attributes—from yoga and spiritualism, to the diaspora. The transition is not merely an expression of this nation’s greater self-assurance but is also driven by an ambition to be a rule-maker, not merely a rule-taker. It has imbued Indian foreign policy with a certain amount of risk-taking, departing from the risk aversion of past dispensations. India, from perpetually being a cautious power, is ready to take on a larger global role by being more nimble than ever in playing the great-power game.

The Modi government is redefining strategic autonomy as an objective that is attainable through strengthened partnerships rather than the avoidance of partnerships. By doing so, it is underlining that in today’s complex global scene, strategic autonomy should not necessarily be a twin of non-alignment. When India engages in the so-called “Quad,” for instance, it seeks to enhance its strategic autonomy vis-à-vis China. Meanwhile, when the country sits together with Russia and China for a trilateral, it is magnifying its strategic autonomy vis-à-vis a Trump administration that is intent on challenging the pillars of the global economic order.

This report examines the Modi government’s foreign policy in its first term, and underlines the challenges that continue to constrain New Delhi’s choices in the next five years of its incumbency. Divided into three sections, this is a comprehensive survey of the Indian foreign policy landscape over the past five years, acknowledging the achievements and underscoring the continuing challenges facing the nation’s policymakers.

The first section looks at India’s engagement with major powers. Kashish Parpiani and I examine the Indo-US dynamic and argue that while the Modi government has not shied away from ramping up defence trade and force interoperability with the US, under Trump’s ‘America First’ outlook, the Indo-US dynamic becomes susceptible to transactionalism. In tackling emergent challenges and consolidating the gains of the past five years, it would be imperative to seek further institutionalisation of this “natural alliance” between India and the US at the levels of the bureaucracy, legislature, military, and even public-private partnerships.

Samir Saran then underlines the China challenge for New Delhi, arguing that it would “be the government’s most complex task: navigating the disconnect between the opportunities of the Asian century and the hard realities of the Indo-Pacific.” He suggests that “even as India leverages Chinese investments to fuel its growth, it must offer to Asia and the world an alternative model for development that is based on democracy and a proposition for security based on international rules and institutions.”

In the third chapter, Nivedita Kapoor and Nandan Unnikrishnan argue that divergences between India and Russia over foreign policy priorities are likely to continue in the future. The most prominent of these, they observe, is the Russian displeasure over the idea of the “Indo-Pacific.” Despite bilateral convergences, this will continue to pose challenges to the partnership in the coming years, as both countries seek to strengthen their positions at a time of flux in the regional and global order.

Britta Petersen looks at India-EU engagement and notes that although the last five years have witnessed a revival in bilateral ties between India and the EU, “the challenge will be for both sides to keep the positive momentum alive and not to miss the forest for the trees that have been flagged in the numerous common documents produced over the past few years.”

India’s relationship with Japan is the focus of the fifth chapter, by K V Kesavan, who argues that “deviating from the traditional policy of focusing on economic engagements, the partnership has significantly diversified to include a wide range of interests — including regional cooperation, maritime security, global climate, and UN reforms.” Both India and Japan also share several common ideals like democracy, the rule of law, and human rights, in addition to the complementarities that bind their economies.

The second section focuses on key geographies in India’s foreign policy imagination. Kriti M Shah examines the South Asia landscape and concludes that the Modi government’s policy on the neighbourhood has focused on improving connectivity, building on cultural and religious ties, and providing developmental and humanitarian assistance, which she argues “must also be seen in the context of China’s growing economic and military presence in the region.” While the Modi government has continued to build India’s bilateral relationship with its neighbours, it has demonstrated that its “neighbourhood first” policy is a strategic necessity.

This is followed by Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury and Premesha Saha’s examination of India’s increasing involvement in the Indo-Pacific. Emphasising “inclusiveness” in the Indo-Pacific framework, countries like China and Russia are also being welcomed by India. Maintaining the delicate balance between the interests of all stakeholders will be a key challenge for New Delhi as it seeks a larger footprint in this geography.

In the eighth chapter, Abhishek Mishra surveys India’s growing engagement with Africa and notes that there has been a quantum increase in the continent’s centrality in Indian foreign policy initiatives. He suggests that “given India’s current re-engagement with Africa, there needs to be a clear mapping of the pull factors that define India’s current re-engagement with African countries, along with measures for realising the true potential of the India-Africa partnership.”

Kabir Taneja shifts the discussion to West Asia, where India’s “engagements have managed to create a strong bedrock for greater cooperation specifically between India and the Gulf, long seen as a difficult relationship that largely revolves around the issues of oil and Indian migrant workers.” Kabir argues that “the fact that regional players in the region know that India is not a disruptor, but will engage with all at an equal, bilateral pedestal without overlap, helps New Delhi gain significant strategic hold with an increasingly significant economic heft.”

Central Asia is the focus of Ayjaz Wani’s chapter where he argues that “under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has adopted a coherent strategy to upscale its relationship with Central Asia and reinvigorate the ancient socioeconomic and traditional ties with the region through new initiatives.” He points out that it was the first time New Delhi started looking at the region as a composite geographical unit, making it the link that also placed the Eurasian region firmly in New Delhi’s zone of interest.

Ketan Mehta examines India’s ties with Latin America with the suggestion that “the Modi government has shown interest in diversifying India’s engagement in Latin America, and while India’s interest in Latin America is relatively new, the relationship has been on an upward trajectory.” A dedicated foreign policy vision towards Latin America is expected in Modi’s second term, apart from the marshalling of more resources towards expanding India’s diplomatic footprint in the region.

The third and final section deals with India’s engagements with various dimensions of the global multilateral order. Arka Biswas examines India’s relationship with the global nuclear order which he notes has strengthened steadily between 2014 and 2019, notwithstanding China’s virtual veto of India’s entry to the NSG. New civil nuclear cooperation agreements were negotiated, existing ones were implemented, and India garnered political support for its further integration with the order.

The Modi government’s interactions with two major international organisations, i.e. the United Nations (UN) and the World Trade Organization (WTO), are discussed by Aarshi Tirkey who underlines that the government has largely continued and expanded the agenda adopted by previous governments at the international stage. She notes that “while PM Modi’s government has succeeded in pushing India’s interests to global attention, much work remains to be done in actualising these goals before the multilateral platforms.”

In the final chapter, Aparna Roy outlines the Modi government’s climate change policy and argues that since the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement in 2017, India has emerged as an exemplar for other developing nations of the effective alignment of environment policies with development requirements. She suggests that “in the coming years, India has the opportunity to draw a fresh framework that reflects contextual efforts at local, regional and national levels on the projected risks and policy requirements.”

As this report points out, Indian foreign policy in the last five years has been extremely dynamic, led by the prime minister himself. The Modi government managed to articulate a worldview that did away with many of the shibboleths of the past and there is a renewed focus on pragmatic engagements in the realm of foreign affairs. As various authors highlight, however, the challenges remain equally significant as the Modi government looks at operationalising its ideas into policy. This is especially true at a time when New Delhi is being required to respond to multiple disruptions – structural, institutional and ideational. The global order is evolving at a pace which will only get more difficult to navigate. Structural fluidity will pose obstacles to stabilising partnerships, putting stress on New Delhi’s diplomacy. India will also have to sustain its growing global footprint to enjoy any credibility as a leading global power. Its ability to deliver on the ground will get scrutinised even more now that it wants to shoulder greater global responsibilities. This means that India’s institutional capacity deficit can no longer be ignored.

This report is not only an appraisal of the Modi government’s foreign policy in the first term, but is also aimed at engendering a debate on the future trajectory of Indian foreign policy. With this compendium of analyses, ORF seeks to generate a broader discussion on the opportunities and challenges facing Indian foreign policy as New Delhi makes its way to becoming a leading global power.

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.