After a resounding win in the just-concluded parliamentary elections, Narendra Modi has been sworn-in as India’s fifteenth prime minister. With an overwhelming majority on its own, Mr. Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will not be constrained by coalition partners. An impressive mandate gives Mr. Modi and his government ample legroom to execute an ambitious policy agenda at the national level.
While Mr. Modi’s election campaign rarely touched upon foreign policy issues, his invitation to leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations for his swearing-in ceremony was unprecedented. A move fraught with domestic political risks, Mr. Modi chose to extend invitations to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan, and President Rajapakse of Sri Lanka despite opposition from Tamil parties.
Mr. Modi’s firmness in face of domestic political opposition to his decision to invite Sri Lankan and Pakistani leaders is in sharp contrast to India’s ineffective regional outreach during former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s tenure. During Singh’s reign, domestic politics at the state level often trumped India’s geopolitical interests in South Asia. For example, a crucial water-sharing agreement between India and Bangladesh was effectively vetoed by Ms. Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of the Indian state of Bengal, and a major ally of the ruling coalition led by Singh. Unencumbered by coalition compulsions, a Modi-led government is likely to strengthen regional diplomacy, and deepen India’s engagements with neighboring countries.
Reclaiming primacy in the subcontinent is also integral to India’s larger ambition of influencing geopolitics beyond its immediate neighborhood. At a time when China is aggressively asserting its maritime interests in Asia, India’s leadership of the SAARC also sends out a confident message to its partners in the ASEAN region as well as its rival across the Himalayas.
Economic diplomacy will constitute a critical aspect of Mr. Modi’s foreign policy strategy. Speaking at a public event earlier this year, Modi identified trade facilitation and promotion of Indian business abroad as key issues driving 21st-century diplomacy. External engagement on trade, investments and technology transfer with other Asian powers like Japan and China will be actively pursued. Japanese investment in India’s infrastructure is already pegged at $15.3 billion, with Japan funding key infrastructure projects such as the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor and the Delhi Metro. China, on the other hand, presents itself as a leading source of capital, cheap technology imports and project management skills that can aid India’s long-term development strategy.
Even as the new Modi administration pursues a “Look-East” policy, the United States will remain central in India’s foreign policy matrix. The U.S.-India bilateral relationship, however, has frayed in recent times. Diplomatic tensions, trade disputes, and foreign policy divergence on Bangladesh and Afghanistan have added to the general sense of a drift in relations between the two countries. Washington’s eight-year-long estrangement with Mr. Modi further adds to the challenge.
Mr. Modi is likely to follow a divide-and-rule approach while engaging with Washington. As he looks to revive economic growth and pursue next-generation reforms domestically, his government will engage American investors and businesses to expand their footprint in India. The new administration will also give prominence to deepening defense and military co-operation with the U.S.. The appointment of a retired general as a junior minister for foreign affairs indicates a major push towards military diplomacy as part of the new government’s foreign policy strategy.
In this context, a Modi-led government is likely to pursue a transactional relationship with the United States, placing ‘Wall Street’ and the ‘Pentagon’ at the center of its near-term strategy. A “gradual reset” through increased trade and defense co-operation will pave the way for renewed engagement at the level of the executive leadership, helping to heal the wounds from the U.S.’s long boycott of Mr. Modi.
Riding on the back of a historic mandate, Mr. Modi’s priorities will be to jumpstart India’s economy. However, to achieve success domestically, the simultaneous engagement of external powers will be crucial. His invitation to SAARC leaders at his swearing-in ceremony signals that his government’s foreign policy will be grounded in realism. Economic revival, stabilization of India’s neighborhood, economic diplomacy with East and South East Asia and defense partnerships with the West will constitute Mr. Modi’s foreign policy quadrilateral.
Shrey Verma is an MA candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Follow him on twitter @shrey7.
(Photo Credit: saarc-sec.org)