Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Modi

Does India’s new prime minister actually have a foreign policy?

Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Narendra Modi is set to be India’s next prime minister after an election won conclusively by his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The combative chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, he has often been written off as a novice on foreign affairs. Commentators in India and abroad have dismissed him as having "little foreign policy experience," and consider him unlikely to change the "broad contours of Indian foreign policy" — which have traditionally involved steady, balanced relations with several partners. Others paint him as a "hardliner," given his right-wing base, or have generously over-interpreted portions of his party’s election manifesto that have implied changes to India’s nuclear posture.

Yet few actually listen to what Modi himself has said about his foreign policy. He has delivered at least three speeches dedicated to international affairs and security since having been anointed his party’s prime ministerial candidate in September, and discussed the subject in several interviews. But this has been largely ignored by New Delhi’s cognoscenti. (For his part, Modi dismissed much of the speculation about his foreign policy as anuman, or conjecture.) 

So what has Modi actually said? He has repeatedly stated that foreign policy begins at home. National security, he said in his first speech in September as the BJP’s official prime ministerial candidate, requires a "strong, patriotic government in Delhi," while instability arises from "a lack of our capacity to understand and accept the viewpoint of the other." He has described "stagnancy" as the biggest problem facing the country. "I believe a strong economy is the driver of an effective foreign policy…we have to put our own house in order so that the world is attracted to us," he said in a speech on India and the world in October. "The current dysfunction in Delhi has prevented even much-needed military modernization and [the] upgradation [sic] of India’s defense infrastructure."

But far from resorting to isolationism, Modi acknowledges the realities of a globalized world. "We are not living in 18th or 19th century. We are living in the 21st century," he said in an interview, adding that commercial interests now are important shapers of India’s foreign policy. On several occasions, both in prepared remarks and in off-the-cuff responses, Modi has used the Sanskrit phrase vasudaiva kutumbakam ("the world is a family"), and has stated that "India can offer a lot to the world." In particular, he has referred to India’s historical ability to create "institutions and intellectual property," recalling ancient centers of learning such as Nalanda and Takshashila.

The considerations of a globalizing world — rather than any personal animosity he may feel about the U.S. government’s controversial revocation of his visa under an obscure law on religious freedom — have informed his recent public statements, including those concerning relations with Washington. "What happened with Modi does not affect the policies of the country," he said in an April interview. He has also, rather remarkably, refrained from speaking negatively about U.S. surveillance activities, even when given the opportunity to do so recently by an interviewer. More significantly, he has criticized some of the previous Indian government’s economic policies that have adversely influenced relations with Washington, and described as a "breach of trust" New Delhi’s retroactive tax on Vodafone. "It’s not as if people from other countries don’t like India, that they don’t want to invest here," he said in April. But if "the constant policy changes by the government" could be stabilized, he said, that would increase confidence.

The twin objectives of national security and deeper commercial links are reflected in Modi’s recent statements on Pakistan and China, two countries with which India has longstanding territorial disputes. On Pakistan, Modi has said that it is "better to keep good relations," while adding that to hold talks with Islamabad, "the blasts and gunfire first have to stop." In 2013, he called on India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh to wage war on "poverty, illiteracy, and superstition," and urged Pakistan to "abandon its anti-India politics and become a friendly country." 

Similarly, while much has been made of Modi’s willingness to do business with China, he has stressed that there should "not be any compromise on India’s interest." Referencing a recent book by his colleague Arun Shourie, Modi said that "India is making a mockery of itself with its limited and timid approach" to China. And speaking in February in Arunachal Pradesh — a state that Beijing claims — Modi said that "China should give up its expansionist attitude and adopt a developmental mindset." Regarding both Pakistan and China, Modi has spoken highly of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s ability to balance shakti and shanti (strength and peace).

Two other countries have featured prominently in Modi’s actions in Gujarat, although less in his public statements since he began campaigning for prime minister. One is Japan, a rare bright spot in India’s foreign relations over the past couple of years. Modi met with Japan’s current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, on visits to Tokyo in 2007 — during Abe’s previous prime ministerial tenure — and again in 2012, when Abe was in the opposition. He has spoken of trying to emulate Japan’s high-speed rail network so as to bring India’s enormous railway system into the 21st century, and Japanese companies are among the largest investors in Gujarat.

In addition, Modi has expressed his admiration for Israel, a state no sitting Indian prime minister has ever been to, but which he visited in 2006 for a bilateral summit on agricultural cooperation. Modi often speaks of India learning from Israeli best practices in moder
nizing its massive agricultural sector. He has also discussed cooperation with Israeli diplomats on areas including renewable energy, pharmaceuticals, and water use, among others. 

But Modi’s views have not been restricted to trade and investment, technological cooperation, and border security. Since nuclear weapons have traditionally proved a litmus test of every Indian prime minister’s national security credentials, Modi’s views on this matter carry weight. In his October speech, he praised Vajpayee’s decision to green light India’s nuclear tests despite international pressure, but also lauded the former prime minister’s commitment to a "no first use" nuclear doctrine. After rumors swirled that a BJP government might revisit that tenet, Modi reiterated in April that "‘no first use’ is a very good initiative of [Vajpayee] and there is no compromise on this. We are very clear on this." Nuclear proliferation is not the only multilateral issue on which he has opined. He has proposed, for example, the creation of a G8/G20-type grouping to cooperate on solar energy technologies in order to address the "big challenge" of global warming.

As in any democratic process, statements made during what Modi has described as the "fever" of an election campaign may not translate directly into policy. Despite an impressive mandate, he will have to work with an established bureaucracy and political partners in India and abroad. But India’s next leader certainly has spelled out how he wants to project himself as a global leader. With his overwhelming electoral victory, the world would do well to take notice. 

Dhruva Jaishankar is Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at Brookings India in New Delhi and the Brookings Institution in Washington DC. He is also a Non-Resident Fellow with the Lowy Institute in Australia.

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