The last five years of the Modi government saw an increased and sustained effort at building multiple but non-exclusive partnerships. These multiple partnerships and engagements embodied by Modi’s numerous trips and hugs abroad were synonymous with India’s long-standing normative and prudent approach to foreign policy that ruffles no feathers. Modi’s second term in office with a greater political mandate is likely to challenge the Nehruvian status quo in India’s foreign policy in an ever changing international scenario.
In the past, India as an idealist outsider attempted to distance itself from the power play of the Cold war. Today as one of the weakest of the major powers it is likely to rethink its strategic alliances. There are strong probabilities that India’s future foreign policy under Modi will veer in three directions. For one, it will strengthen its base in the immediate neighbourhood whilst making greater inroads in its extended Asian neighbourhood. Two, it will make its presence felt in international organisations like the Asian Development Bank, World Bank and IMF which have traditionally been under American, European and Japanese influence and represent sources of investment for its very much in need economy. India needs multiple, reliable sources of investment to boost its economy and to safeguard itself against risks of a retraction in Chinese FDI. Finally, partnerships of the past will continue but an implicit pivot to the United Sates is in the offing. Instead of taking clear sides between China and the USA, India in all likelihood will strengthen its ties with traditional US allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. India has already shown strong signs of voting in favour of Israel in the UN. In a break from the past, it recently voted with Israel at the UN ECOSOC against granting consultative status to a Palestinian NGO Shahed. Mostly, the future foreign policy is likely to pursue an interest-based strategy separating trade and geopolitics when necessary.
It is widely understood that a more active foray in world affairs with a strategic foothold in the neighbourhood is key to India’s foreign policy ambitions. Modi’s recent visits to Maldives and Sri Lanka — his first visits abroad after re-election — are a case in point. There will also be a renewed focus on the regions in East and Central Asia and an enhanced engagement with the diaspora for boosting domestic investment and trade that began during Modi’s first term in office. India’s ties to the United States and with East Asia will be important in its competitive yet non-conflicting positioning vis-à-vis China. India’s presence in the Indo-Pacific region will also make it a salient and strategically indispensable partner to the United States. India’s ties with Central Asia are strategic in the wake of the Russia-China rapprochement. India’s engagement with Central Asia will borrow from its relations with Africa. It will be focused on sovereignty, mutual development driven by cultural moorings, private sector and concessional lending.
All this while, India will continue to preserve and build on its global standing as the largest democracy that plays by the rules of international organisations. This long-standing reputation of India as the largest democracy will underpin its rapprochement with the EU, a normative power. Deepening trade and strategic relations with the EU will provide India with new opportunities in investment and geopolitical gains. France for instance has avidly supported India’s aspiration to become one of the new permanent members of a reformed UN Security Council.
Most importantly, any promise of being an influential player in the international scene has to be buttressed by economic prowess. India needs to focus on globalisation, growth and sophistication of its economy. India should hire more experts in its foreign service in tandem with its multiple foreign pursuits and the sheer size of the country. This is to point out the work cut before India and the risks that it faces in achieving its foreign policy objectives.
India should follow a multi-thronged foreign policy instead of letting the issue of security or terrorism overshadow the rest of its interests. Also, India’s foreign policy will have to avoid falling prey to geopolitical and economic repercussions of the USA-China trade wars. There are already signs that India’s relationship with Trump’s United States will be on a give and take basis with trade being a factor of contention. Both countries have imposed tariffs on each other even though these tariffs are unlikely to dent the overall trade. More importantly, it will be America’s immigration policy towards India, its stand on the H1B visas and the contentious issue of local data storage that will have wider and more long-term implications on Indian interests. How will India balance trade issues against greater strategic interests with the United States? The G20 summit in Osaka will give the signs of things to come but a lot will depend on how effectively India negotiates short-term interests with the Trump administration against more legally binding and long-term agreements with the United States. In this context, India along with other countries is likely to push for a greater rule-based order and strengthening of the WTO for a more fair and level playing field.
Indeed, a rule-based order is in perfect interest of a country like India that has limited power but greater leadership ambitions. Although it is only since 2001 that India has been reckoned as an emerging power by virtue of its growing economy, it has nurtured the ambition of being a moral and civilisation leader ever since it got independent in 1947. References to the non-violent nature of India’s independence struggle, the values embodied by Gandhi and Buddha and India’s ancient civilisation are hallmarks of official statements issued by the Ministry of External Affairs. That said, key to India’s ambitions of being a world leader lies in its capacity to embrace risks and seize opportunities of being a norm maker and a peace-broker within and outside of organisations like the WTO or the G20. It should continue its historical push for greater solidarity with Africa and engage its African partners in creating new norms that bridge the North-South divide.
On the domestic front, it will need to boost its economy and energy security while allaying doubts on the robustness of its GDP growth rates. Modi’s foreign policy until now has been dominated by his own persona and the optics around his personal chemistry with world leaders. It needs to be seen how the role of a seasoned diplomat like S. Jaishankar will evolve as Minister of External Affairs. How independently will he be able to shape India’s foreign policy under Modi? Last but not the least, following the example of other powers India needs to build an intellectual pool of strategic thinkers and world–class diplomats to shape its foreign policy interests and its ambitions of a world leader.
by Pooja Jain-Grégoire. She specialises in research on international development and international relations with a focus on South-South Co-operation. She is affiliated to the Institute of Global Dialogue in South Africa and teaches at Sciences Po.