Decoding Narendra Modi’s foreign policy

For someone who has carefully avoided articulating concrete foreign policy stands, it was an unusual statement. Speaking in a public meeting in Arunachal Pradesh, the Indian state that China calls “southern Tibet” and claims as part of its territory, Narendra Modi, prime ministerial candidate of India’s principal opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), warned China against a “policy of expansionism.” The comment made headlines, even attracting the attention of the Chinese foreign ministry, which countered that China “has never waged a war of aggression to occupy an inch of land of other countries.”

In campaigning for the upcoming elections, Modi has largely steered away from foreign policy. Unlike in the United States, commenting on international issues is not a key component of elections in India. The only other time Modi held forth on the subject, in October of last year, he criticized foreign policy by the current government as “insensitive where we needed to be sensitive and weak where we needed to be strong.”

So was Modi’s China comment sincere? The comments certainly formed a sharp contrast with Modi’s past attitude toward China: As the chief minister of the state of Gujarat, Modi made four trips to the country, famously proclaiming in 2011 that “China and its people have a special place in my heart.”

Such a pro-China comment might sound strange coming from the leader of a deeply nationalistic party. As an administrator, however, Modi has been progressive and proactive, building ties around the world to bring more opportunities to his state. In his campaign too, he has advertised the image of chief minister Modi, not right-wing leader Modi.

Despite his roots in a nationalistic, right wing BJP, the highlight of Modi’s foreign policy will likely be economics, and not security. While taking a rhetorical hard line on India’s national interests suits his political ideology, Modi appears to understand that as prime minister he will need to prioritize boosting trade and fixing India’s economy.

Looking to history

In his speech last October, Modi expressed admiration for Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the only BJP prime minister in India’s history, calling his foreign policy a perfect blend of peace (shanti) and power (shakti). Vajpayee presided over the 1998 nuclear tests that attracted international sanctions but also helped India gain de-facto nuclear legitimacy. The next year, India fought its fourth war with Pakistan in the Kargil district of Jammu and Kashmir following an infiltration by militants and non-uniformed Pakistani soldiers.

Within two years of the war, Vajpayee invited Musharraf, the martial administrator and the mastermind behind the Kargil infiltration, for a joint summit in India, demonstrating that his overarching goal was not war but more stable relations between India and Pakistan. In the penultimate year of his tenure, Vajpayee visited China and signed an agreement that still forms the cornerstone of efforts to find a political solution to the Sino-Indian border issue. It was also Vajpayee who welcomed President Clinton to India – the first visit by an American president in over two decades and the beginning of a new era of Indo-U.S. relations.

If Modi wants to model his foreign policy on Vajpayee’s, he has big shoes to fill. But emulating Vajpayee’s pragmatism would be a good beginning. Despite Vajpayee’s conservative right-wing political background, he displayed admirable flexibility when necessary – most emphatically by attempting to build ties with Pakistan rather than remaining a prisoner of history. Vajpayee’s impressive ability to accurately gauge and adjust to new post-Cold War realities still influences India’s foreign policy.

Facing his own political challenges, Modi may see the appeal of pragmatic reinvention. While battling allegations of complicity in the 2002 Gujarat riots, Modi has been trying to project an alternate image of a pragmatic leader driven solely by concerns of economic development.

Economic concerns are certainly warranted. If Modi succeeds in winning pan-India appeal in the upcoming elections, he will inherit an economy where GDP growth has plunged from more than 9 percent in the 2000s to 4.7 percent in the last quarter. Consumer inflation remains high at nearly 9 percent, while consumer spending has dropped by almost 10 percent from the previous year. It’s clear that Modi’s “business-friendly” image alone will not suffice – major structural changes to the economy are needed.

Given these realties, there is little doubt that Modi’s foreign policy will hinge on economic development. From the beginning of the current campaign, Modi has projected himself as a forward-looking leader who can revitalize the slowing economy. Armed with economic figures from Gujarat, Modi claims he can replicate the results on an all-India basis. To do so, Modi would likely use the same strategy that he did as chief minister – building relationships with countries on the basis of economic ties, as he has with Japan, Singapore, Israel, African countries, and even China.

Despite their supposed rivalry, India and China are becoming major trading partners, targeting $100 billion in bilateral trade by 2015. As far as China is concerned, Modi will likely prioritize trade ties over contentious issues like the border or water management between the two. Paradoxically, this close relationship may not mean a speedy resolution of the Sino-Indian border issue: Periodic jingoistic comments similar to the recent one notwithstanding, Modi might see sense in keeping the territorial dispute hanging even as trade ties flourish – a tactic mastered by many East and Southeast Asian nations.

Modi will also need to handle relations with smaller neighbors such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Maldives, which often justify closer ties with China by accusing India of bullying them. Matching Chinese investment and aid may be difficult, but with intra-regional trade at an abysmal 4.23% in 2012, there is much room for improvement. Modi will likely also reach out to Japan, Singapore and West Asian countries given his history of involvement with them.

To placate the hawks among his supporters, Modi may sacrifice any immediate attempt of improving relations with Pakistan. Increasing trade with Pakistan could give a boost to the Indian economy, but Modi seems likely to take a hard line on Pakistan until there are convincing signs that it is making a serious attempt to act on terror. Playing hardball on the issue of terror emanating from Pakistan will be both a populist step and one befitting his tough-on-terror image.

In accomplishing these pragmatic goals, Modi will need to keep a careful eye on political considerations. As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi courted the world for investment; as prime minister he will need to tread a more delicate balance.

The BJP owes its ideological allegiance to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – a volunteer-based social organization that claims to stand for traditional Hindu values. In reality, it eulogizes the idea of India in narrow nationalistic terms, including the rejection of capitalism in favor of self-reliance, and an inherent mistrust of Western civilization. Most of the top-rung BJP leaders, including Modi, began their career in the RSS; without doubt many of them would resist if he attempts to continue liberalizing the economy.

Being chosen as the prime ministerial candidate will not mean Modi has the entire leadership by his side. A convincing win would allow him more flexibility; a thinner margin would require pandering to various constituencies.

Dependence on smaller, regional parties, each with their own agenda in India’s multi-party polity will complicate matters. Modi will need to prevent hijacking of overall foreign policy by ambitious regional parties – especially since chief ministers of at least two major states, Tamil Nadu (which influences policy with Sri Lanka) and West Bengal (which influences policy with Bangladesh), are being touted as alliance partners for the BJP. Not taking a stand will bring Modi back where India’s policy with neighbors has been over the last half a decade – inconsistent and undecided.

Foreign policy analysts hoped Modi’s comment on China was just a beginning – and that it would lead to more disclosure of his thoughts on India’s neighborhood. Unfortunately, none have been forthcoming yet. Yet some of his likely tendencies are already evident. A rapid U-turn in foreign policy seems improbable, and whatever changes occur will be for reasons beyond mere ideology. Even among right-wingers, Modi is a realist.

The article appeared on Foreign Policy on March 6, 2014


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