An expert's point of view on a current event.

Faster, Stronger, Worse

Why Narendra Modi's new foreign policy won't make Washington happy.

By , a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy.

India is about to install a new prime minister who is not a Gandhi, not a member of the Congress party, not a policy intellectual, and not a product of India’s westward-looking professional class. After a decade of increasingly stagnant Congress rule, India is heading into the great unknown. Narendra Modi had said a great deal about how he wants to change India’s economic policy — even if most of it is vague and hortatory. But he has said next to nothing about foreign policy. A figure as forceful as Modi and as disdainful of the country’s political class would seem likely to reshape India’s posture toward the world. But how?

First, it’s worth noting that, like the United States, India is a continental nation with water on either side; very few people live near a foreign country. Questions of poverty, economic development, political corruption, and caste identity are vastly more pressing for voters than India’s relations with its most powerful neighbors, China and Pakistan. Even India’s professional and policy elites are far more preoccupied with domestic concerns than with foreign issues. For this reason, India’s conduct of foreign policy has changed very slowly since independence and almost always owing to an evolving consensus rather than a change of government. Modi could, in fact, choose to let the machine run on its own.

I called Hardeep Singh Puri, Modi’s spokesman on foreign affairs and India’s former ambassador to the United Nations, to ask whether his new prime minister had a worldview and, if so, what it was. "Modi’s worldview," Puri responded, "is captured in the Indian concept of ‘the whole world is one family.’" That’s good to know, but it doesn’t dictate much in the way of policy choices. I posed the same question to a seasoned Indian diplomat whom Modi had consulted on foreign affairs. "His worldview is more economic than geopolitical," he said. "He speaks very warmly of East Asia and how they have outdistanced us economically. I have no doubt that Japan will be the first country he will visit." That was more helpful.

As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi visited China, Japan, and Singapore, seeking investments in his state. He is likely to focus his attentions as prime minister on countries that can increase investment in India. Modi would like to see the country urbanize, as China has, by developing the industrial sector, which now constitutes only 14 percent of India’s GDP. He would also like to increase spending on infrastructure. Japan has been a major player in Indian infrastructure, including as a partner on the construction of highways to connect New Delhi to Mumbai and Chennai to Bangalore — a crying need for a country with calamitously poor roads. (Even a quick trip on an Indian highway is both frustrating and terrifying.) India under Modi may thus practice a more frankly mercantilist policy toward the world, as China does.

On matters of national security, India’s most fraught relationship is of course with Pakistan. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with its roots in Hindu nationalism, has traditionally adopted a bellicose posture toward Pakistan. During the campaign, Modi took the kind of cheap shots at Pakistan that played to the gallery. He jeered at the Congress party defense minister, A.K. Antony — who declined to authorize a sharp military response to a murky cross-border incident that led to the death of several Indian soldiers — as one of several "agents of Pakistan and enemy of India." Puri dismissed the crack as an "election flourish," and said that Modi "will make a genuine effort to reach out to Pakistan."

That could be. India’s previous BJP prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, made a historic visit to Pakistan in 1999 in the hopes of advancing talks on the disputed territory of Kashmir. Ashutosh Varshney, an India scholar at Brown University, has suggested that Modi could be India’s "Nixon in China." That might be stretching it, but Modi’s shrewd campaign left the impression that, whatever his personal views, he is more politician than ideologue. He is, however, a chesty figure who will not abide incursions, especially from weaker neighbors. Puri says that Modi "will have much less tolerance for acts of terror" than did his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, who did not strike back at Pakistan after the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai’s Taj Mahal hotel despite abundant evidence of Pakistani involvement. Modi almost certainly would have shown no such restraint. Give that both countries have nuclear weapons, that has to be a frightening thought for Western policymakers.

Modi is unlikely to give a high priority to relations with the United States, a country to which he has not been permitted to travel owing to his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. Indians did not miss the brusque undertone of President Barack Obama’s invitation to Modi to visit the United States at "a mutually agreeable time." The Delhi policy elite believes, with some reason, that Obama has relegated India to the second-class status that it had endured until 2005, when President George W. Bush struck a "strategic partnership" with India, followed three years later by a major nuclear deal. Indians are mystified that Obama, unlike Bush, has not embraced an enthusiastically democratic nation with tremendous potential for economic growth. The "pivot to Asia" seems to bypass India altogether.

Obama will be, if anything, warier about an India under Modi than he was when the country was governed, more or less, by the anodyne Singh. The problem, however, is not personal. India illustrates the fallacy of the assumption that democracies share a common outlook on the world. As a young nation under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, India, like the United States in its infancy, saw itself more as a collective idea than as a set of interests, standing up for the principle of nonalignment and for international peace.

But the 1950s were a long time ago. India is now a regional power with strong economic and national security interests, as well as a skepticism bordering on hostility toward many Western norms. It may well be the most vibrant democracy in the emerging world, but India does not believe in promoting democratic values abroad. India guards the sanctity of national sovereignty almost as zealously as China and Russia do, and it abstained on U.N. Security Council votes on intervention in Libya and Syria. In an essay in the volume Shaping the Emerging World: India and the Multilateral Order, David Malone, Canada’s former high commissioner to India and a scholar of the United Nations, along with Rohan Mukherjee, a doctoral student, note a strange paradox: As India has grown stronger, it has become more defensive about sovereignty and less prepared to defend the international order. This inevitably places it at odds with the United States, the chief guarantor of that order.

India is an important partner for the United States where the countries’ interests converge, as in Afghanistan, but not in the many places where they don’t, most notably Iran, a major oil supplier to India. And with an aggressive nationalist whose party’s slogan is "India First" in power, New Delhi will, if anything, make fewer concessions to Washington and the West than his predecessor did. Modi feels a much deeper intuitive bond with the disciplined and socially conservative countries of East Asia than he does with the United States and social democratic Europe. Worse, India’s bad habit
of aligning with authoritarian states on international questions is likely to increase under Modi, a man considered even by many of his most ardent supporters an autocratic, if benevolent, leader.

In short, Modi is likely to be a net negative for the West. But unless he picks a fight with Pakistan, that won’t matter nearly as much as whether he can address India’s sense of stagnation. Modi believes that he can spread the business-first, no-red-tape model he established in Gujarat across India. His stunning electoral victory (though with slightly under 32 percent of the popular vote) gives him a mandate to do so. Hundreds of millions of all-too-hopeful Indians are about to find out whether Modi can do what he said he would. Despite merited suspicions about Modi’s commitment to democracy and secularism, Western leaders need to begin thinking about what they can do to help him succeed.

James Traub is a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.