The South Asia Channel

New Delhi’s New Foreign Policy?

It seemed predestined, long before election results were trumpeted on May 16, 2014, that Narendra Modi would become India’s fifteenth prime minister. But his foreign policy program continued to elude many. Some dismiss any new direction in India’s foreign relations while others wonder how best to tap the ‘Modi surge’ for better U.S.-India ties.  On ...

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

It seemed predestined, long before election results were trumpeted on May 16, 2014, that Narendra Modi would become India’s fifteenth prime minister. But his foreign policy program continued to elude many. Some dismiss any new direction in India’s foreign relations while others wonder how best to tap the ‘Modi surge’ for better U.S.-India ties. 

On one hand, business-friendly, nationalist leaders like Modi offer opportunity galore for positive engagement for Washington, and hence the possibility for the United States to turn economic dividends into political ones, if the game is played right. On the other hand, history has seen such leaders capable of foreign policy surprises-not always to Washington’s advantage-as French President Charles de Gaulle reminds us with his 1964 recognition of communist China. So what might Narendra Modi do? 

Despite his dearth of foreign policy experience, Modi’s massive electoral victory empowers him to run India’s foreign policy show. Yet as the choice of Ajit Doval as his national security advisor demonstrates, Modi’s current security focus seems mostly internal. The Maoist threat, Islamist terrorism from Indian terror groups, and communal violence are but a few examples that deeply concern New Delhi. Add to this list the controversial move by Modi’s own party to possibly repeal Article 370-the section in the Indian constitution that grants a special autonomous status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). As expected, the question of repealing Article 370 met with strong reactions last month from Omar Abdullah, J&K’s chief minister. How the Modi government deals with this issue exactly remains to be seen, but at the very least, any move forward will have to temper the desire for better Indo-Pakistan relations with the reality of a very troubled Kashmir. 

It is therefore clear that Modi has serious internal issues to resolve. With strong political authority and a charismatic leadership style, New Delhi’s foreign policy will likely and mostly be a one-man show over the next five years. It seems only imperative then that Modi’s foreign policy map – one of foreign roads he has rarely traveled – receives conjecture. Let’s explore with four pit stops:

Backdoor diplomacy with Pakistan  

While Modi’s swearing-in invitation to all country leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), including archrival Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was a commendable act, substantial challenges lie ahead for New Delhi in areas of regional peace and stability. The recent attacks on the Indian embassy in Afghanistan and the Karachi international airport are clear cases in point. Militancy and fragmented state power in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region have engendered the proliferation of these groups, who have the means to derail any possible peace deals. The looming presence of the right-wing Hindu group, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and India’s homegrown Islamist terrorism, are other potential roadblocks for Modi as he tries to sustain a constructive dialogue with Islamabad. If Nawaz Sharif seems willing, Modi could therefore take the peace process through backchannels of diplomacy. This is possible for two important reasons. First, both Sharif and Modi enjoy political clout rarely witnessed in an era of coalition democracies, and thus have greater sway over their foreign policies than their predecessors. Second, as Pakistan’s offer of ‘most favored nation’ status to India shows, trade links could potentially help alleviate differences between Islamabad and New Delhi over time. In the ironic face of such simultaneous synergy and friction, the backdoor might bear more fruit with an out-of-the-public-eye diplomacy, one that has at its table Modi, Sharif, and their close confidantes. 

Democracies have succeeded in surmounting decades of political mistrust through diplomatic masterstrokes played through the backdoor. Nixon’s 1972 visit to China is an example. Modi has both the personality and the electoral support to orchestrate such diplomacy. With the blessings of corporate India too, and assuming better trade links with Pakistan, Modi’s momentum is even stronger. 

U.S.-India Economic Proximity to Check Regional Brinkmanship 

Apprehensions surrounding a possible Indian muscle-flexing foreign policy in the neighborhood, after all, may not hold much ground since Modi and his ‘India Inc.’ would prefer strong economic relations with Washington. This economic proximity would allow the United States to play an important role in restraining New Delhi’s bent towards regional brinkmanship, if any. While concerns exist that the Obama administration has been slow to embrace Modi, the United States has not been too far behind, as the former U.S. Ambassador Nancy Powell’s recent meeting with Modi highlights. Modi is also expected to meet President Obama for bilateral talks this September in Washington, D.C. during his visit to the United States by way of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Economic Carrot to China

Modi’s penchant for economic diplomacy might boost his aspirations for better ties with the United States, but it also swings him eastward toward better Sino-Indian relations. His talks this week with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi received a positive media response in both India and China. Hopes are now soaring for New Delhi and Beijing to become stronger economic partners while putting aside more than fifty years of border disputes. As China and Vietnam are quarreling in the South China Sea, and Sino-Japanese tensions continue, India seems to be the choice destination for Beijing to make economic as well as political gains. To that end, three questions remain to be answered long-term:

1.     Will closer Sino-Indian trade relations allay their bilateral territorial disputes?

2.     Will New Delhi be able to transcend its mistrust of Beijing given the Sino-Pakistan nexus, one that has characterized South Asian regional security since the 1960s?

3.     Will better trade relations between New Delhi and Beijing threaten Washington, which had so far reaped strategic dividends from dissension of the two large Asian powers?

Russia and Cold War déjà vu 

With complete U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan expected by 2016, and Russia’s increasing muscle-flexing propensities, as evident in the ongoing Ukraine crisis, the looming vacuum in South Asia may be cause for greater instability. Noteworthy is India’s upfront support for Russia in Ukraine, unlike New Delhi’s tacit support during the 2008 Georgian crisis. In other words, closer Russia-India cooperation in Afghanistan could become a Cold War rerun, derail confidence-building measures with Pakistan, and upset U.S.-India relations. It is worth noting that Moscow is one of the largest defense suppliers of New Delhi, and has high stakes in India’s nuclear energy expansion. It remains to be seen therefore how Modi will manage India’s relationship with Russia, the repercussions of which is bound to resonate at least within India-Pakistan and U.S.-India relations.

Traveling through these pit stops – Pakistan, United States, Russia, China – tells us one bipolar thing about Modi’s foreign policy roadmap: the possibility of radical changes is high given his unprecedented electoral mandate and political power (never enjoyed by a non-Congress leader), but also questionable given his mild foreign policy exposure. High expectations aside, it is worth remembering that President Nixon had Henry Kissinger by his side to materialize the former’s secret trip to China. Narendra Modi has no Kissinger, or at least none that we yet know.

So it might be too soon to tell if team Modi is capable of the foreign policy innovations increasingly expected of New Delhi. But gauging by recent moves – inviting SAARC leaders to his swearing-in, supporting a budding rapprochement with Pakistan, holding talks with China’s foreign minister on trade, and booking travel for the United States – Modi’s foreign policy, much like his election results, might be destined to be anything but elusive.

Jayita Sarkar is a Stanton Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School for 2014-2015, and can be reached through