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Modi’s Nationalism Is Spoiling His Global Brand

India’s leader has to mix a muscular foreign policy with a softer touch.

By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures during a rally in Ahmedabad on May 26, 2019.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures during a rally in Ahmedabad on May 26, 2019. Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images

After a resounding election victory for India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Narendra Modi has been sworn in as India’s prime minister amid considerable global concern about his hard-line nationalist politics.

If this sounds familiar, it’s for good reason.

Mod’is ascension to the prime ministership the first time, back in 2014, also provoked anxiety around the world—but now, he faces less international opprobrium than he did then, when many globally considered him a pariah.

After a resounding election victory for India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Narendra Modi has been sworn in as India’s prime minister amid considerable global concern about his hard-line nationalist politics.

If this sounds familiar, it’s for good reason.

Mod’is ascension to the prime ministership the first time, back in 2014, also provoked anxiety around the world—but now, he faces less international opprobrium than he did then, when many globally considered him a pariah.

Modi’s association with the 2002 communal riots in the Indian state of Gujarat, where he was chief minister at the time, sullied his image overseas. After the riots, which killed more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, Washington denied him a visa. The United Kingdom imposed a diplomatic ban that lasted 10 years. Just a year before the 2014 election, the University of Pennsylvania canceled a keynote address he was to make via video conference. Revered by supporters at home for his savvy leadership and economic success stories in Gujarat, he was reviled by many abroad as a bigot.

And yet, once he became prime minister, Modi’s image changed dramatically. He was transformed from persona non grata to favorite son by a world keen to get India on its side. He was welcomed in key capitals with open arms, and he quickly befriended major world leaders—including former U.S. President Barack Obama. He hobnobbed with top corporate executives on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, promoted India’s brand in Europe, and jetted off to Davos—the first World Economic Forum appearance by an Indian premier in two decades. He addressed a joint session of Congress and earned a standing ovation. Modi even shared the stage with Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, among others, at a star-studded anti-poverty concert in Central Park. A 2017 Gallup poll ranked him as the world’s fourth-most popular leader.

And yet today, Modi’s politics, which in recent months have emphasized an increasingly chauvinistic and toxic brand of Hindu nationalism, threaten to undo his global image transformation.

To be sure, Modi remains a popular figure among the powerful. After he won reelection on May 23, he received a flood of congratulatory messages from world leaders. The plaudits poured in far and wide, from partners in Washington and Tokyo to rivals in Beijing and Islamabad, and many places in between.

Still, the sheen is starting to wear off. Western media coverage has focused extensively on the increasingly tense and violent communal environment in Modi’s India—from lynchings and other attacks on religious minorities to the rabidly anti-Muslim rhetoric expressed by Modi’s senior BJP allies. On May 20, Time magazine produced a cover with an image of Modi and an accompanying headline of “India’s Divider in Chief.” All this negativity produced a nasty response from one senior BJP official on Twitter on the day that the election results were announced.

Consequently, Modi 2.0 faces a fundamental foreign-policy challenge: how to strike a balance between muscular and hard-line postures that reflect his increasingly nationalistic politics, and softer and more conciliatory actions that improve the Modi brand overseas, all while pursuing the overarching goal of burnishing India’s credentials as a rising and responsible global power. Given the importance of that latter goal, Modi’s second-term foreign policy is likely to be more measured than muscular, but just as—if not more—assertive and confident as it was during his first term.

During his past term, Modi leveraged his personal diplomacy to secure deals that served essential national needs—such as a $75 billion infrastructure deal with the United Arab Emirates and an oil exploration accord with Vietnam. More of that will come. With harsh U.S. sanctions having been placed on Iran and Venezuela—thereby necessitating fewer Indian energy imports from two key foreign producers—the pursuit of energy deals with new and existing partners will be an initial priority for energy-hungry India.

Modi will also keep pushing for a greater Indian presence in regional and global forums. During Modi’s past term, India gained entry into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a group of South and Central Asian states, plus Russia and China; the Missile Technology Control Regime; and the Wassenaar Arrangement, an export control group. A major but ambitious—given the looming threat of Beijing’s veto—goal for the new administration will be gaining entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. This is an exclusive 48-nation club that governs the global trade in nuclear materials and seeks to ensure that nuclear trade is conducted only for peaceful purposes.

Additionally, Modi will continue to embrace what Indians call “strategic autonomy”—the execution of a foreign policy that is unconstrained by the actions or interests of any other state. The pursuit of strong relations with multiple powers, including those that clash with each other, has been a major expression of this strategic autonomy. During his past term, Modi engaged in a diplomatic ballet with multiple partners: He maintained cordial relations with Moscow while deepening defense ties with Washington; scaled up energy relations with the Saudis while remaining friendly with the Iranians; and bolstered ties with Israel while not alienating any of its Arab neighbors. That balancing act will continue, even as growing tensions (particularly between Washington and Tehran) make it ever tougher to pull off. Fortunately for New Delhi, the appointment of S. Jaishankar, one of India’s most distinguished diplomats, as foreign minister in Modi’s second term means that New Delhi will have a steady and experienced hand navigating its geopolitical complexities.

Still, a harder edge is emerging when it comes to regional diplomacy, especially toward Pakistan. Already, Modi has made a major break with his past practice by inviting leaders from the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), and not the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, to his inauguration, which was on May 30. Significantly, Pakistan is not a member of BIMSTEC, and no Pakistani leader was invited.

When Modi took office in 2014, he immediately reached out to Islamabad, inviting then Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his inauguration and making a surprise visit to the Pakistani city of Lahore the next year. In 2016, however, bilateral relations took a major turn for the worse after several attacks in India that New Delhi traced back to Pakistan. Modi will be cautious in his immediate-term engagement with Pakistan, not wanting to go too far too soon and risk getting burned—as he was when an Indian air force base was attacked in early 2016 just days after his visit to Lahore.

During the final months of the previous Modi administration, senior Indian officials often repeated the mantra, “Terror and talks can’t go together.” Modi is unlikely to agree to any type of formal meeting or dialogue until Islamabad has given credible assurances that it is dismantling India-focused terror networks on its soil and preventing militants from crossing into the India-administered part of Kashmir. And in New Delhi’s view, little that is said by Islamabad on terror is deemed to be credible.

Still, in due course, there might be an opening for dialogue. Pakistan faces a serious balance of payments crisis, and a new International Monetary Fund loan will subject the country to painful austerity measures. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global watchdog, has put Pakistan on a “gray list” for failing to take sufficient action against terrorist financing, a status that poses reputational risks to Pakistan and could make banks and investors hesitant to engage. Islamabad is keen to be removed from this list. So it now has a strong incentive to curtail its ties to terrorists, or at least to take a few real, irreversible counterterrorism steps that would satisfy FATF—and convince Modi to resume dialogue with Islamabad. FATF will be holding a meeting that begins June 16 that will decide whether or not Pakistan remains on the gray list.

Significantly, Modi has the political chops to pursue peace with Pakistan. He enjoys a new and large electoral mandate, and he boasts the track record of a hard-liner who just a few months ago became the first Indian leader since 1971 to launch airstrikes on Pakistani soil beyond the Pakistan-administered part of Kashmir.

Furthermore, Khan’s close ties to the Pakistani army, which calls the shots on India policy, make him a desirable negotiating partner for Modi. While Modi had welcomed Sharif’s outreach to India early in that Pakistani premier’s third term, Sharif found himself at odds with the military. He was soon cut down to size and had his hands tied when it came to engaging with India. So for New Delhi, negotiating with Sharif was a waste of time. A dialogue with Khan, so long as he remains close to the military, makes more sense.

To be sure, any formal dialogue would take ample time to launch. And it could easily all go up in smoke, especially if the Modi government calculates it’s not worth pursuing talks that would invariably revolve around the disputed Kashmir region—an issue that Modi has insisted is not open for negotiation. Prospects for improving India-Pakistan relations will hinge not only on Pakistan’s willingness to take on terrorists, but on Modi’s willingness to ease up on his uncompromising position on Kashmir—and on the absence of any more serious attacks on Indians by Pakistan-based groups..

All this said, early indications suggest that the new Modi government doesn’t want considerations about Pakistan to dominate its foreign policy. Indeed, Modi’s first overseas trip in his second term was to Maldives and Sri Lanka. A meeting with President Trump at the G20 meeting in Japan, and a summit in India with Chinese President Xi Jingping, are forthcoming.

These three engagements underscore another key balancing act for India’s new government: navigating its relations with the world’s two biggest powers. New Delhi must manage its complex relationship with its Chinese rival, which features a robust trade partnership, even while pushing back against Beijing’s deepening footprint in India’s broader backyard. (The Maldives and Sri Lanka are among several smaller South Asian states where China has expanded its influence and investments.) And it must keep building out its fast-growing defense partnership with Washington while also addressing growing tensions over sanctions, tariffs, and other commercial matters that, if left unresolved, threaten to undercut a budding strategic partnership.

Modi has his work cut out for him. But then again, his ability to successfully reinvent himself overseas suggests a level of comfort on the world stage that should serve him well as he carries out his foreign-policy agenda—and as his image takes fresh hits abroad.


Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman

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