Indian Prime Minister Modi’s Foreign Policy: The First 100 Days

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government was sworn in, there was little expectation that foreign policy would feature prominently on his agenda; domestic priorities were expected to dominate. And if you’d only listened to the prime minister’s Independence Day speech on August 15, which did not mention foreign policy, you’d think that those expectations had been met. But looking past the rhetoric at the reality of the first 100 days of the Modi government, it is clear that foreign policy has not been missing in action. This should not surprise anyone, given that India’s geography, economic connections, energy demand, large diaspora and role in various multilateral groupings make it difficult for any Indian government to ignore the external environment or set aside foreign policy. So, when it comes to Modi’s foreign policy, what have we seen and not seen, what do we now know and still not know?

There’s been a fair bit of continuity rather than change in the overall direction of foreign policy, but we have seen changes, especially in terms of style or approach, which has the potential to affect substance.

  1. The intensity of international engagement has increased, with a number of high-level visits to and from India that have taken place or are on the docket.
  2. There seems to be an emphasis on getting deliverables from these visits and not just photo ops.
  3. We have seen learning from the previous government’s experience. One example: over the last few years, Indian officials have been criticized for not doing enough, with enough speed, for the safety of Indians abroad. Faced with the need to evacuate or rescue Indians stuck or being held hostage in Iraq recently, the new government established a crisis management cell to monitor the situation and coordinate India’s response, set up a round-the-clock helpline to provide information and aid and sent a special envoy to Iraq. There was high-level involvement, including by the prime minister, the foreign minister who met with family members of those affected multiple times, as well as the national security advisor and intelligence bureau chief who traveled to Iraq and Saudi Arabia respectively.
  4. We’ve seen this government acknowledge to some extent the role of states in shaping Indian foreign policy—though this official recognition wasn’t entirely missing previously. 
  5. Finally, we’ve seen the government use e-diplomacy to a greater degree as an instrument of engagement, targeting both domestic and foreign audiences.

What have we not seen thus far? We have not seen a major reorganization of ministries or responsibilities or a new coordinating mechanism put in place—though Modi has identified policy coordination as a problem across the government. We have not seen an influx of outsiders. We don’t have a sense yet of whether Modi’s foreign policy team is all in place and we still haven’t seen how the dynamics between the prime minister’s office and the Ministry of External Affairs will play out. Moreover, we don’t have clarity on where the Modi government stands on key global issues like climate change or cyber-governance, though we have got a glimpse of its view on global trade negotiations.

In addition, certain themes have been evident:

The Neighborhood

There has been no lack of signals that Modi wants to make relations with India’s neighbors a priority; his time in office indeed started with an invitation to the leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations and Mauritius to attend his government’s swearing-in ceremony. Subsequently, the importance of the neighborhood was highlighted in the president’s speech to parliament, which lays out the government’s agenda. In addition, the prime minister and the foreign minister Sushma Swaraj have walked the talk, choosing neighboring countries as their first overseas stops. Over the last few weeks, the foreign minister has visited Bangladesh and Nepal, while the prime minister has traveled to Bhutan and Nepal. We’ve seen India accept a United Nations ruling and surrender its claim to a section of the Bay of Bengal, partly to improve relations with Bangladesh. We have also seen the Modi government deal with Indian state governments in order to facilitate relations with the neighbors, with the foreign minister reaching out to the West Bengal chief minister before her trip to Bangladesh. On the other hand, the government has shown that it will not a let a state’s preference dictate foreign policy entirely, with an invitation to the Sri Lankan president for the swearing-in ceremony despite Tamil Nadu’s objections.

This outreach is not difficult to explain if you think about the Modi government’s stated priority: economic growth and development. Instability in the neighborhood can hinder the achievement of this goal, not least because it will require a diversion of time, energy and resources. Moreover, even if India finds a way to grow despite its neighborhood, it might find it harder to play a greater role outside the region if the disparity increases—a Gulliver tied down, struggling to break free of the binds of the region. On the flip side, positive relations with its neighbors and a peaceful neighborhood can indeed facilitate Indian connectivity with West and East Asia and serve as a springboard for a greater role abroad.

Nowhere are the challenges and opportunities clearer than with Pakistan. When Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif traveled to India, there was hope that this would lead to greater political and economic engagement between the two countries. Modi’s subsequent tough talk on a visit to Jammu and Kashmir and the cancellation of foreign secretary-level talks have left observers alleging a U-turn. However, this assessment ignores the fact that the reaching out was not without red lines or, as Sanjaya Baru has put it, without “lakshman rekhas.” Even as Sharif and Modi had met in Delhi, the Indian foreign minister and foreign secretary had both made clear that India’s approach was not unconditional. When asked about Pakistan just before the election results were announced, Modi had himself noted that “building trust between the two nations is prerequisite to any further meaningful movement on the relations.” It is unclear what Sharif and Modi discussed as trust-breaking steps—and if Pakistani officials meeting separatists in India constituted one—and we shall have to wait and see whether Modi and Sharif will take a trust-building one by meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly opening in September in New York, i.e. if Sharif is still in office and willing to travel then.

India’s Asia-Pacific Policy: Getting from Look East to Act East

If the first couple of months of the Modi government’s foreign policy emphasized the neighborhood, the next two can be seen as India’s period of pivoting to the Asia-Pacific. Even before he came to office, Modi had made clear his interest in East Asia. As chief minister, this interest was primarily economic, but as prime minister, there’s a strategic dimension as well. Echoing then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and many Southeast Asian countries, foreign minister Swaraj has highlighted the importance of India not just “looking east,” but “acting east” as well. She has visited Myanmar, Singapore and Vietnam and is expected to visit China shortly. While in Nay Pyi Taw, she participated in the East Asia Summit, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum and India-ASEAN foreign ministers’ meetings, and met on the sidelines with the foreign ministers of Australia, Brunei, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, Philippines, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam. When she visited Vietnam, she also held a meeting with the heads of the Indian missions in East and Southeast Asia to discuss the way forward.

Swaraj is expected to go to both China and Australia in the next couple of months. The Indian president, on his part, will visit Vietnam in September. India’s states are also continuing to engage the region—the West Bengal and Rajasthan chief ministers will be visiting Singapore; the Tamil Nadu chief minister recently met with that country’s foreign minister. Prime Minister Modi himself will travel to Japan this weekend and likely Australia for the G-20 summit in November. He has already met with the visiting Chinese and Singaporean foreign ministers, as well as Japanese CEOs and members of parliament. In addition, he will receive visits from the Australian prime minister, the Chinese president and the former Singaporean premier over the next month.

Relations with two countries, in particular, will be watched closely: Japan and China.

It was expected that Modi would double down on the previous government’s outreach to Japan. As chief minister he visited that country twice, and Shinzo Abe and he are thought to have established a personal rapport. In the last year of the previous government, there was a prime ministerial trip to Japan, visits to India by the Emperor and Empress, and Prime Minister Abe, as well as an upgrading of the bilateral defense relationship. Modi’s government, in turn, has stated that India has a “special relationship” with Japan. The prime minister sees it as a source of investment and technology (especially in the government’s priority area of infrastructure), potentially defense equipment (a US-2 aircraft sales and co-production deal might be in the offing) and defense cooperation, as well as a strategic partner. Modi has also emphasized the (democratic) values-based motivation for the relationship—a factor missing in relations with the neighbor that India and Japan share: China.

Modi and his ministers have already had some direct interaction with their Chinese counterparts and this is likely to increase over the next couple of months. The prime minister sees China, which he had visited when he had been Gujarat chief minister to attract investment and seek markets for his state, as having the potential to be a major economic partner for India. He would also not mind competition between various sources of investment. China, on its part, has been vocal about its hopeful view of Modi as a business-minded and focused leader, and Xi Jinping will likely take with him economic sweeteners to try to expand this side of the relationship. Yet, even as economic ties are an opportunity, they have also been the source of strain with bilateral trade having fallen in the last couple of years even as the trade deficit has grown to India’s detriment. Moreover, security concerns remain—over China’s rise and its intentions in general, and the border issue, China-Pakistan relations and Chinese activities in India’s neighborhood in particular. Beijing would do well to heed the lesson from India-Pakistan interactions—despite the hope and expectations, if there is a sense that a red line is crossed, relations could stumble. China, on its part, might not like the way some of India’s relationships develop (Japan, Vietnam, the U.S.), the Modi government’s planned military modernization and border infrastructure upgradation, as well as, potentially, its interactions with Tibetan leaders (Tibetan leader Lobsang Sangay was a guest at the Indian government’s swearing in). One thing to watch for is if and when Modi travels to the state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims, or meets with the Dalai Lama.

The United States

There were two approaches that Modi could have taken toward the United States.

  • Option A: hold the U.S. at arms’ length to pay it back for its lack of official engagement with him over the last few years.
  • Option B: continue to build on the bilateral relationship, recognizing the reality of the breadth and depth of India-U.S. relations and its potential to help his priorities (including economic growth, meeting energy needs, managing China’s rise).

Over the last few months, it has become clear that Modi has chosen the second option. What’s been surprising is the speed and extent to which he has done so, despite his supporters’ unhappiness. The U.S. government has been a willing and eager partner. Three U.S. cabinet members recently visited India in the space of two weeks, even as crises raged in other parts of the world. Numerous other officials have traveled to India as well. Modi himself will visit the U.S. in September, followed by the Indian Finance and Defense Minister Arun Jaitley in October. Both style and substance will be important to watch during Modi’s visit, not least because the prime minister will want to have something to show for choosing Option B.

The major challenge that lies ahead in the India-U.S. relationship will be translating the various opportunities into outcomes. This will likely involve tackling political and bureaucratic obstacles in India. It will also likely involve companies rather than the governments, limiting what officials can achieve on their part.

What Happens in the Middle East Doesn’t Stay in the Middle East

While relations with the neighborhood, the Asia- (or Indo-) Pacific, and the U.S. have seen the Indian government be proactive, when it comes to the Middle East, the Modi government has found itself in reactive mode. Since it has come to power, it has been buffeted by the crises in the Middle East, needing to evacuate a number of its nationals from Iraq and Libya, negotiate the release of scores of Indians held hostage by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, (some are still being held) and deal with reports of ISIS trying to recruit Indian Muslims. In addition to these ongoing worries, the government will also be deeply concerned about any potential major increases in oil and gas prices, which will have ramifications for the Indian economy. Finally, any breakdown of nuclear negotiations with Iran will also have implications for India, in terms of its energy needs and its Afghanistan policy.

Diversification, Strategic Autonomy and Non-alignment

There is some expectation that a Modi government, with the size of the mandate that it received, will break from the foreign policy of the past. Some have argued that, at the very least, it would not be “guided by India’s traditional policy of non-alignment.” Yet, Modi’s government—like the previous Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition government headed by Atal Behari Vajpayee—has not departed from the strategy that underpinned non-alignment: diversification, which involves establishing and maintaining relationships with multiple countries in order to maximize benefits and minimize risks to Indian objectives. Thus, for example, we’ve seen the government participate actively in a forum like BRICS, with Modi traveling to Brazil for the summit. We’ve also seen Modi continue to engage all the P-5 countries, including traditional partner Russia—bilaterally (with Modi meeting Vladimir Putin in Brazil and the Russian deputy prime minister in Delhi, and Putin expected to visit India in the fall), trilaterally (the Indian foreign minister is expected to travel to Beijing for the China-India-Russia meeting), as well as in multilateral settings.

This approach should not be surprising. While BJP leaders might not use the term non-alignment, they do talk of “self-reliance” and “strategic autonomy”—indeed it was a BJP minister, Jaswant Singh, who cited achieving the latter as a major motivation for India’s nuclear tests in 1998. Diversification, on its part, doesn’t remove external dependence, but Indian policymakers do think that it spreads the risks of dependence and facilitates freedom of action. Regardless, it’s worth keeping in mind that diversification doesn’t mean that each of India’s partnerships will be of equal substance or value, and doesn’t preclude India tilting toward some countries. The Modi government, on its part, will learn that diversification is a high-maintenance—and not always effective—strategy.

Teething Troubles?

There have been a few instances that have left people scratching their heads. A couple involved the need to balance different (and competing) priorities. One was India’s stance at the World Trade Organization on negotiations for a Trade Facilitation Agreement. There were domestic constituencies arrayed on both sides of the debate on this agreement, but the government blocked the deal because of food security concerns. Regardless of whether or not the government was cognizant of or factored in the broader consequences of this step, including for India’s economic relations with East and Southeast Asia, and business sentiment, the public messaging and damage control left something to be desired.

The second instance was India’s response to the Gaza crisis. When it first broke, the Indian government sought to avoid a debate in parliament on the grounds that it did not want “discourteous references” to a friend (Israel). Eventually there was a debate after opposition complaints, but the government nixed a resolution. In its official statements, the government was consistent in expressing concern about the violence in general—and, in particular, both the loss of civilian life in Gaza and the provocations against Israel—and calling for both sides to exercise restraint and deescalate the situation. Yet, it then voted in support of the U.N. Human Rights Council resolution that condemned Israel, a move which left observers—including many in the Bharatiya Janata Party base—wondering why it didn’t instead abstain.

There have also been some scheduling snafus, for example, the prime minister’s stop-over in Berlin en route to the BRICS Summit potentially to meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel. Given that there was a strong chance she would not be there—she ended up being in Brazil for the World Cup final—and that Tokyo believed Japan would be Modi’s first bilateral visit beyond South Asia, the stop raised some questions.

Moving forward, it’ll be interesting to see what the government might or might not have learned from these instances.

Opportunities and Challenges Ahead

Both limitations and possibilities lie ahead. A key advantage for India right now is that a number of countries see it as an opportunity and this moment as the right time to establish or expand relations with it. The high intensity of the government’s external engagement might be attributable to its recognition of this fact and its desire to capitalize on the interest in India.

While Modi’s honeymoon period at home might have ended, this is not the case abroad. However, a question that lies ahead is: can the Modi government effectively seize the opportunity that this moment offers?

For one, how long the honeymoon period will last will depend on India’s performance, especially its economic performance. Thus, in one way a key foreign policy challenge for the Modi government will be an economic one, with foreign officials and investors asking the same question that Indian voters are: can it deliver on the promise of prosperity? The wooing will continue as long as the answer seems to be yes; if the government is not seen as meeting expectations, the whining about India will start again, with countries exploring other options.

A second challenge is that of implementation. The capacity issues that posed a problem for the previous government remain. Getting things done will involve not just grappling with limitations in terms of numbers and expertise available and coordination problems, but also balancing policy and political imperatives, and making policy in the glare of the media spotlight.

A third challenge will be that of how to calibrate policy toward countries like China and Pakistan where there is an effort to reach out, but also to lay down red lines. This will be especially challenging, given that domestic dynamics in both those countries might adversely affect their approach toward India.

Finally, there are the known unknowns: the crises that this government will no doubt have to face. These could involve the safety of Indian citizens or facilities abroad, border tension with China or Pakistan (with the upcoming Jammu and Kashmir assembly elections, security officials are particularly concerned about the latter) or a terrorist attack in India. They could involve a significant deterioration of the situation in the Middle East, a region where India’s leverage is limited. Additionally, it could also involve tension or conflict between India’s partners, leaving the Modi government with some difficult or awkward decisions to make.