Ultimately, foreign policy is the outcome of economic policy….[W]e have not produced any constructive economic scheme or economic policy so far…When we do so, that will govern our foreign policy more than all the speeches in this House.”

–  Jawaharlal Nehru

To begin an article on Narendra Modi’s foreign policy with the words of the Gandhi family patriarch may seem ironic but it serves to reinforce a crucial point. A point about how continuity and not change characterizes Indian foreign policy. A quick survey of independent India’s history makes evident that the ‘mere’ induction of a new regime to power doesn’t result in dramatic changes in the broad outlines of Indian foreign policy. So what has traditionally counted as amongst India’s prime foreign policy objectives? As part of a nation that at one point in time accounted for a quarter of the world’s economic wealth, Indian elites have always yearned to regain that preeminence and assume what they see as India’s rightful position in the comity of nations.

So much for lofty aims. What this means on the ground is that India desires a secure and stable regional environment. Continued economic growth to enable the social upliftment of the Indian masses cannot be guaranteed without it. This has been the simple goal of the Indian establishment ever since independence and has provided the rationale for much of India’s foreign policy thinking ever since. Post-1947, ensuring economic development as per India’s unique needs required independent decision making, something which couldn’t have been achieved by becoming a subordinate state of one of the superpowers. For a nation that had labored under colonial rule for the better part of two centuries, preserving its strategic autonomy was its foremost priority. The policy of non-alignment adopted post-independence was motivated by national interest and not due to a moralistic hangover of the non-violent Indian freedom struggle as is commonly assumed. The end of the Cold War resulted in a steady transition to an increasingly multipolar world, however it also resulted in non-aligned nations losing the bargaining power they had previously possessed. The reactive foreign policy of the 1990’s gave way to increased Indian engagement with the global economy (and clearly marked the end of a bygone era where the Indian economy had been characterized by a sub 4% Hindu rate of growth).

Under the then-finance minister Manmohan Singh, India abandoned its state-centric mixed economic model and chose to open up and engage with the world. The 1990’s marked the beginning of an era of coalitional politics in India and also the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP is a right-wing party characterized by a commitment to a Hindu nationalist ideology – Hindutva which espouses a belief that India can rise to greatness only as a Hindu nation. The BJP government that came to power in 1999 conducted the Pokhran II tests making India a declared nuclear power.  Apart from this, however, Vajpayee undertook no other foreign policy initiative that could be considered as game-changing.   This is important to note as Modi has expressed his praise for and desire to largely follow Vajpayee’s foreign policy. Whilst the rightward swing of India’s polity is significant, equally significant is how this election was widely considered as India’s first ‘Presidential’ election in which the Modi the man overshadowed BJP the party. It would not then be entirely fair to conflate Modi’s personal vision with the ideological outlook of the BJP.  As a consequence Modi should not be expected to expend much political capital on the BJP’s social agenda as bringing India’s derailed economy back on track is Modi’s prime concern.

While the 1990’s marked the beginning of explosive economic growth, India never managed to articulate a coherent foreign policy outlook. Arijit Mazumdar identifies the transition to a multi party system characterized by coalition governments as a prime cause for this phenomenon. The Narendra Modi-led BJP has come to power as the very first non-Congress non-coalition government in independent India’s history. Modi, riding on a massive anti-incumbency wave has capitalized on the Congress led UPA government’s inability to deliver rapid economic growth. Early in the millennium India’s annual GDP growth was well on its way to hitting the double digits before the global financial crisis plunged it to levels dangerously close to the pre-1990’s era. Modi’s sterling track record in making Gujarat the most business friendly state in India has resulted in sky high expectations of him – the satisfaction of which may well determine his chances of reelection. With India soon to have one fifth of the worlds’ working population providing jobs to the youth is becoming an issue of importance both economically and in terms of internal security.

Even as Modi has stormed to power on an agenda promising to revitalize development and governance, naysayers have pointed out that Manmohan Singh’s election as Prime Minister generated similar expectations as the man who had ushered the post-1990 economic reforms. However, three vital differences between the two men ensure that such a comparison is flawed. Firstly, Modi rises to power after having been the chief minister of a major state for over a decade, an oddity for Indian prime ministers. He is therefore well versed with the business of running a state and maneuvering about in India’s political landscape. Secondly, Modi having won with a majority is not constrained by coalition politics and the slow decision-making and risk adverse behaviour that a coalition breeds. Thirdly, Manmohan Singh was at best one of the weaker centres of power and at worst a puppet Prime Minister with no influence in a Congress party dominated by the Gandhi family. Modi on the other hand, has demolished the BJP’s old guard having built a cult of Modi which ensures that he has a much stronger position within the BJP than Manmohan Singh had in the Congress.

The cabinet defence portfolio has temporarily been assigned to an already overloaded Arun Jaitley, this though is likely a temporary move. The appointees to the three positions who will have the maximum influence on the wielding of India’s foreign policy are of real interest though. The critical position of the principal private secretary to the Prime Minister, a position whose occupant acts as the PM in all but name, was granted to Nripendra Misra. Misra has work experience at the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and the World Trade Organization. Misra also worked at the Ministry of Commerce and Department of Economic Affairs with the government of India in addition to having held the post of principal secretary (Finance) in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. The second important position is that of the National Security Advisor to which Ajit Doval, the former chief of India’s domestic intelligence agency (the Intelligence Bureau), has been appointed. Only the second time that a non diplomat has been appointed to this powerful post, Doval is an internal security specialist who sees the gravest threats to Indian security as those targeting India’s domestic weaknesses. The appointment reflects the immense value Modi places on internal security, having identified Maoism and terrorism as the biggest threats to India’s internal security. The appointment of Sushma Swaraj, a person who was never part of the Modi camp in his run for office as the Minister of External Affairs makes one thing very clear. And that is the continued sinking into obsolescence of the Ministry of External Affairs as Modi feels he can personally steer his own foreign policy via the Prime Minister’s Office.

Next week, part two will expand on how Modi’s foreign policy is expected to reflect continuity with this history and will also provide an analysis of his likely foreign policy priorities moving forward.

Himanil Raina is a student at the NALSAR University of Law and a freelance writer on geopolitical and international affairs. 


Image: Indian Ministry of External Affairs, Flickr

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