Tuesday, July 5th, 2022 09:59:39

Indian Foreign Policy Under Modi

Updated: May 24, 2014 1:56 pm

There are obvious limitations while talking about Modi’s foreign policy vision. Because, while much has been written about how Modi should manage his international relations were he to become Prime Minister, much less has been said by him on the subject. As it is, foreign policy seldom occupies an important position in political agenda during electoral campaigns, and this is true of many countries as well

This is the election time in India, though it is in the last stages. On May 16, we will know who will form the next government of India. However, it is widely expected that Narendra Modi of the BJP will be the one who will form the new government. At least that is what all the opinion polls that have been conducted so far do suggest.

Modi has been the chief minister of Gujarat, one of the developed states by Indian standard, for over 12 years now. He has won three consecutive elections. And now as a prime ministerial candidate, he is supposedly the most popular leader of India. But then the fact remains that Modi is an “outsider” to Delhi politics. I rather will use the word establishment in lieu of politics in the sense that Modi has no experience in governance in Delhi. He has never been a member of Indian Parliament. Consequently, he has never been a central minister. Therefore, in the event of becoming Prime Minister, Modi will be unique in the sense that he will be unlike his predecessors, all of whom had been either central ministers or members of Parliament. In other words, Modi will directly catapult himself from a state or provincial-level politics to occupy the most important political office of India, that of the Prime Minister.

Against this backdrop, there are obvious limitations while talking about Modi’s foreign policy vision. Because, while much has been written about how Modi should manage his international relations were he to become Prime Minister, much less has been said by him on the subject. As it is, foreign policy seldom occupies an important position in political agenda during electoral campaigns, and this is true of many countries as well. 2014 in India is hardly any different. What I am going to do therefore is to construct a scenario based on what Modi has said or indicated on foreign policy in some of his election rallies and public addresses so far, including the most substantive speech he made in Chennai last October (18th) where he envisaged a grand design for achieving “India’s century” through a balance between the high road of peace and a no-nonsense toughness towards threats to national security. Of course, there is a section on foreign policy in the election manifesto of the BJP that was released last month. Though people do not attach much significance to the manifestoes, not only of the BJP but also of other political parties, I for one will like to take it seriously as I see a distinct impact of Modi in drafting it.


Before introducing Modi’s worldview, it should be noted that we in India, and I think it is a part of our strategic culture, love to keep things and policies as ambiguous as possible, leaving them to many and different interpretations. Unlike the cases in many leading countries, our leaders hesitate to enunciate clear policies or doctrines having strategic implications. For instance, as a nuclear power, we do not have a nuclear doctrine in strict sense of the term; what we have indeed is a “draft nuclear doctrine” devised in 1999, some clarifications of which were “shared with the public” in 2003 by the then Cabinet Committee on Security. Similarly, we have had the so-called “Indira Doctrine” or “Gujral Doctrine”, which were actually named and popularised by the late Professor Bhabani Sengupta. Of late, some admirers of our present Prime Minister have coined a term, “the Manmohan Doctrine” to explain his emphasis on economic development as a driver for foreign policy and in shaping India’s strength, interests and relationships. But what is important to note here is that unlike in many leading democracies, Indian government does not come out with periodic strategic visions or white papers to emphasise clearly and coherently its blueprints of the manner, style and priorities as far as dealing with the outside world is concerned.

The point that I am trying to make is that there has been a systematic effort, it seems at least to me, to keep Indian foreign policy as ambiguous as possible. And it has resulted in such a situation that more often than not, the Indian foreign policy is reactive to global developments, not proactive enough to make or create an event. And I think this has been the situation since India became independent in 1947. Here I would like to quote India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech in the Constituent Assembly in December 1947. He said: “Talking about foreign policies, the House must remember that these are not just empty struggles on a chessboard. Behind them lie all manner of things. Ultimately, foreign policy is the outcome of economic policy, and until India has properly evolved her economic policy, her foreign policy will be rather vague, rather inchoate, and will be groping… A vague statement that we stand for peace and freedom by itself has no particular meaning, because every country is prepared to say the same thing, whether it means it or not. What then we do stand for? Well, you have to develop this argument in the economic field. As it happens today, in spite of the fact that we have been for some time in authority as a government, I regret that we 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 speeches in this House.”

Of course, there is no disputing the fact that the broad objective of our foreign policy is to further our economic objectives by working for a benign external environment that will ensure the protection and promotion of our territorial integrity, political and social systems of democracy and pluralism. Obviously, we do need a stable global order and a peaceful neighbourhood. We need an open and equitable international trading system, a secure financial system, reliable, affordable and secure energy supplies, and, food security. We need bilateral as well as international partnerships of technology and innovation to meet the extraordinary scale of our development challenges. And finally, we value our strategic autonomy, that is to take foreign policy decisions without being dictated by foreign powers.

All these foreign policy goals are permanent ones and there has been a broad continuity in pursuing them by all the governments in Delhi, irrespective of their party-composition. And one can say with certainty that they will not undergo any fundamental changes under Modi either. What will happen instead are some changes in the emphasis or prioritisation. But before elaborating them, I will draw your kind attention towards another vital aspect of Indian foreign policy which is likely to see major changes under Modi if his recent speeches are any indication. That is the making of India’s foreign policy as such, involving the institutions, processes and practices.

Constitutionally speaking, foreign-policy is a subject that is the exclusive domain of the Central government in India’s federal arrangement. The primary institutions for framing and implementing foreign policy are the external affairs minister, the bureaucracy attached to his ministry (Ministry of External Affairs), the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) and also the Prime Minister and his office. It is the Central government that can declare war, conduct relations with foreign nations and international organisations, appoint and receive diplomatic and consular officials, conclude, ratify, and implement treaties, and acquire or cede territory.


Besides, it so happened that because of the complexities of the subject, only few individuals were associated with the Central government mostly dominated in interacting with the outside world. During the Nehru era (Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister), India’s foreign policy-making process was entirely controlled by the Nehru’s charisma and personality, although at times, he was helped by some of his chosen officials. This trend of the Prime Minister and some of his or her trusted bureaucrats monopolising the making of the foreign policy without any proper institutional frameworks was further legitimised by Nehru’s successors such as Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and PV Narasimha Rao.

More or less, the same has been the trend under the non-Congress governments. Atal Behari Vajpayee, India’s first BJP Prime Minister, carried out the Congress legacy. Though the Vajpayee government established the so-called National Security Council and created a new post of National Security Adviser (NSA), there is hardly any evidence that it was working the way it was intended. In a way, under Vajpayee the foreign policy-making base became narrower than what it was even during the Congress regimes. It was totally dominated by the then NSA, a former Foreign Service official, who also happened to be the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister. Over the years, the NSA has become the czar of Indian foreign policy bureaucracy. My personal interactions with the senior officials of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and retired Foreign Secretaries suggest that under the Manmohan Singh government, the base of Indian foreign policy-making has become the narrowest ever, with everything being controlled by the NSA and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

Secondly, with the rarest exception of the much talked about India-United States nuclear agreement, the Indian Parliament has hardly witnessed lively debates on foreign policy and security issues. Parliament is usually informed of the government’s decisions on these issues. As has been pointed out by union minister Shashi Tharoor, otherwise a reputed scholar of international affairs, only about 5 per cent of questions posed in “Question Time” in Parliament concern foreign policy issues. If the Consultative Committee of Parliament for the MEA met rarely under Nehru and his immediate successors, today’s Standing Committee on External Affairs, according to Tharoor, generally spends its time meeting and greeting foreign delegations!

It is not only the Parliament of the world’s largest democracy that does not play an active role in the foreign policy or strategic matters. Another vital institution—the military—also has not been able to play any role. In fact, the military has been scrupulously kept at a self distance as far as providing inputs are concerned. As Stephen Cohen, one of the most perceptive scholars on Indian Military, says, “Probably no military of equivalent importance or size (of India) has less influence over the shaping of policy at the highest level.” The chiefs of the armed forces are not present at the highest councils of government and nor are they routinely consulted about major foreign or even security policy issues.


However, this overcentralisation of foreign policy making has been coming under increasing challenges, of late. There are now growing demands for the “democratisation” of India’s foreign policy making base. For instance, the West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s stance on the proposed Teesta water-sharing agreement or a pact on the exchange of enclaves with Bangladesh has weakened the central government and strained India’s ties with Bangladesh in the process. In 2013, because of the pressure from both the ruling and opposition parties in Tamil Nadu, Manmohan Singh dropped the idea of attending the Commonwealth summit in Colombo. In fact, the Tamil Nadu factor also forced the Central government vote against Sri Lanka in the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) in 2013. This year, of course, there has been some course correction at the UNHRC meet; India abstained during a voting on a resolution that took the Sri Lankan government to task over its treatments of the Tamil minorities.

But the point to note here is the fact that the centralised foreign policy-making in India is being resisted by the federal elements. As a result, one is witnessing what is called “the federalisation of Indian foreign policy”. Of course, it will be wrong to say that in the earlier days, the state or provincial governments were totally neglected by the Central government while formulating foreign policy. At the height of the Sri Lankan civil war in 1987, when the then Rajiv Gandhi government decided to airdrop food in Jaffna in 1987, it had reportedly ‘flown in’ the Tamil Nadu chief minister, MG Ramachandran, to Delhi for consultations. Similarly, while concluding the Farakka treaty with Bangladesh (sharing the Ganga water between India and Bangladesh), the then Deve Gowda government in Delhi accorded considerable weightage to the suggestions of the then West Bengal Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu. However, all these were parts of the consultations; the Central government took suggestions from the federating units but not necessarily was bound by them. In contrast, what is being witnessed today is that the states want to dictate what India’s foreign policy should be towards the countries which vitally affect them, particularly those that border them.


All told, the nature of Indian polity and governance is changing. Gone are the days of a single-party rule, a factor that facilitated the ruling party leader (the Prime Minister) to dictate foreign policy. This is an age of coalitions. And here, the regional parties are playing an important role. It so happens that most of the important regional parties that happen to govern the border states have important concerns with the neighboring countries that are different from the concerns seen from New Delhi. Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir may not look at Pakistan the same way that New Delhi does. West Bengal looks at Bangladesh differently from New Delhi. Tamil Nadu will like to have a policy towards Sri Lanka that is at odd with the view of New Delhi. Besides, there are development-oriented chief ministers like Narendra Modi who are interacting directly with the foreign countries and players on issues such as loans and investment. They now travel abroad regularly. Even otherwise, free trade agreements on agriculture and other industries that the Central government negotiates with foreign governments can succeed only if the chief ministers of the states concerned agree. Naturally therefore the foreign policy of India is getting increasingly federalised. This development is getting further buttressed by the emergence of a series of new think-tanks, pressure groups and the educated middle class keen to shape public opinion on foreign policy issues.

This being the background, it is interesting that Modi has promised to convert the centrifugal winds of India’s political system into a core strength of the country’s external policy. Despite being widely perceived to be authoritarian in his working style, Modi has said that he would work with India’s chief ministers, the elected heads of the government of India’s 29 states/provinces, in resolving the country’s myriad problems. In its election manifesto for the 2014 general elections, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has promised that the Modi-led central government “will place Centre-State relations on an even keel through the process of consultation and strive for harmonious Centre-State relations”, that it “will be an enabler and facilitator in the rapid progress of states. We will evolve a model of national development, which is driven by the states” and that “Team India shall not be limited to the Prime Minister-led team sitting in Delhi, but will also include Chief Ministers and other functionaries as equal partners”.

While talking of making the chief ministers as equal partners, Modi has said that the partnership would deal with all the issues, including foreign policy challenges, facing the country. Delivering the Nani Palkhivala memorial lecture at a function organised in Chennai in October 2013 by the Palkhivala Foundation, Modi attacked the incumbent Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s foreign policy as “a mockery” and “Delhi-centric”. He, instead, advocated an assertive foreign policy that would also involve states. “India is not just Delhi. The foreign policy should be decided by the people and not by some politicians sitting in Delhi,” he said. He wondered why bilateral or international conferences and summits should not be held in states. Giving a hypothetical example, he said that if and when the Prime Minister of Britain visited India next, all his official meetings need not be held in New Delhi. Instead, Chennai should be allowed to host the visit. Pointing out that his state, Gujarat, had entered into partnership with Japan and Canada, he mooted a new role for states in external affairs and suggested that each state be allowed to have partnership with one country.

In other words, Modi wants to legitimise the newly emerging trend in India of the states or provinces in interfering in the foreign policy matters that have been, otherwise, exclusive preserve of a select few in the Central government. But what about restructuring the process within the Central government, be it the coordination between the MEA and PMO or revamping the IFS, which is not only highly exclusive and terribly short-staffed? Well, I will not like to guess any answer as I have not found any reference from Modi in this regard.

We may now turn to Modi’s foreign policy goals. As I have pointed out his most comprehensive speech on foreign policy so far has been the one in October at Chennai. The imprint of that speech has been reflected in the section in BJP’s election manifesto this time. At Chennai, Modi talked of regions and regional organisations of the world and how India could be linked with them. Modi scrupulously has avoided taking the names of countries that India under him will like to deal with, though at some election rallies he has mentioned China and Pakistan. But that was in the context of the security threats emerging from these two countries, with whom India fought wars in the past. BJP’s 2014 election manifesto, thus, speaks of in terms of regions and regional forums rather than countries. This is in sharp contrast to the BJP’s election manifesto of 2009 which had clearly identified its specific views to specific countries.

Let me quote the BJP’s 2014 manifesto which says that a Modi-led India will be guided by the follo-wing principles:

1)            Equations will be mended through pragmatism and a doctrine of mutually beneficial and interlocking relationships, based on enlightened national interest.

2)            It will champion uniform international opinion on issues like Terrorism and Global Warming.

3)            Instead of being led by big power interests, it will engage proactively on its own with countries in the neighbourhood and beyond. In the neighbourhood it will pursue friendly relations. However, where required it will not hesitate from taking strong stand and steps.

4)           It will work towards strengthening regional forums like SAARC and ASEAN. And it will continue India’s dialogue, engagement and cooperation, with global forums like BRICS, G20, IBSA, SCO and ASEM.

5)            States will be encouraged to play a greater role in diplomacy; actively building relations with foreign countries to harness their mutual cultural and commercial strengths.

                I have already discussed this in details.

Both in Modi’s speech at Chennai and the BJP manifesto, another noticeable aspect is the emphasis on India playing a global role based on its national interests. The manifesto says: “We will create a web of allies to mutually further our interests. We will leverage all our resources and people to play a greater role on the international high table.” While emphasisisng a no-nonsense toughness towards threats to national security, Modi government, it is said, will strive for peace. For instance, Mod has criticised the outgoing government of Manmohan Singh for being “weak where we needed to be strong, insensitive where we needed to be sensitive”. To illustrate, Modi contends that India has adopted a timid stance vis-a-vis China and a weak posture in counterterrorism and cyber warfare. On the other hand, he castigates the present Indian government for failing to demonstrate responsibility in dealing with smaller neighbours and forgetting India’s “healing powers” to enrich international relations. And here, a Modi-led government will give a lot of importance to what he says “soft power”.

The BJP manifesto says: “There is a need to integrate our soft power avenues into our external interchange, particularly, harnessing and focusing on the spiritual, cultural and philosophical dimensions of it. India has always played a major role in world affairs, offering a lot to the world. India has believed in what is said in Sanskrit, vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the world is one family). This has been its tradition since time immemorial. The magnetic power of India has always been in its ancient wisdom and heritage, elucidating principles like harmony and equity. This continues to be equally relevant to the world today in today’s times of soft power. We will adopt proactive diplomacy to spread the same. India was reckoned also as a vibrant trading society. Our ancestors used to trade with foreign nations through the routes of sea, centuries ago. This was based on the strength of our business acumen and integrity, our products and crafts. The symbols of our ancient civilizations stand as a testimony to our architectural and urban planning excellence. We will revive Brand India with the help of our strengths of 5 T’s: Tradition, Talent, Tourism, Trade and Technology.” This is the typical Modi stamp on the manifesto. Similarly, Modi thinks that the NRIs, PIOs and professionals settled abroad are a vast reservoir to articulate the national interests and affairs globally. A known support base of his, he will like to harness this resource to strengthen what he says Brand India.

It is obvious that there is the centrality of economics in Modi’s thinking about foreign policy. He has addressed this theme at greater length and in greater detail than any other theme. He wants India to increase exports, build its future on its strong information technology sector, and garner foreign investments and other business opportunities for India’s entrepreneurs. Those familiar with Modi’s style of economic management say that there is every likelihood that under the Modi government, the banking and insurance sectors will be open to external investment, more aggressive foreign investment in infrastructure will be allowed, and foreign universities, particularly community colleges and vocational schools, will be facilitated to come in and help boost the number of Indians with the college degrees that would actually make them employable in a globalised 21st century environment.

Here, Modi wants to build on his record as leader of one of India’s fastest growing states. In fact, as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, he has made several trips to, China, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand. I am told that he has also come to Australia. He has attended some economic meets in Europe, but the thing I will like to stress is that if you see the list of countries that he has visited of late, it is clear that for him the Indio-Pacific region is very important. He is going to attach utmost importance to the Indo-Pacific region in terms of trade and commerce. In other words, India’s Look-East policy will be the most important priority area under Modi.

As is well known, the Look-East policy began in the 1990s and it has developed through three phases. Broadly speaking, the first phase under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao revived our historical and civilisational connections with South East Asia. In the second phase under the BJP rule, the areas of interaction expanded to cover East Asia (Japan and Korea) and Australasia (Australia and New Zealand). Both these phases were heavily marked by economic undertones. The third phase, and this is the current phase under Manmohan Singh, is now marked by both economic and defence ties with the region.

We see now regular high-level security visits between India and the East and Southeast Asian countries taking place. Along with the ‘Milan” naval exercises, India has also conducted joint naval exercises with Singapore (SIMBEX) since 1993 and with Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia as part of the Search and Rescue Operations (SAREX) since 1997. India has been conducting joint naval exercises with Vietnam since 2000, which has been complemented by reports that Indian Navy vessels have been offered permanent berthing rights at Na Thrang port. India and Japan have participated in the tsunami relief regional core group in the Indian Ocean in 2004 (along with Australia and the United States), which emerged as a catalyst for subsequent wider strategic cooperation as manifested in the India-Japan Global Partnership Summit and the US-Japan-India trilateral dialogue. In fact, India has now strategic partnership with almost all the countries in the region that matter.

Of course, in a way, the current challenge in India’s Look-East policy arises from the disturbed regional strategic balance in East Asia due to China’s rise and the perception of US constraints on playing its traditional role of ensuring stability. The revival of tensions in South China Sea over territorial disputes between China and the Southeast Asian countries, and between China and Japan in East China Sea and now the North Korean offensive against the South are all indications of the disturbed regional strategic balance. But then the fact remains that the growing Chinese assertiveness over territorial issues in the region provides India an opportunity to expand its influence by deepening relations with countries along China’s periphery.

In this background, how will Modi deal with China has evoked a lot of queries in India. Because, on the one hand, Modi has visited China many a time and invited the Chinese industry to come to Gujarat in a big way. On the other hand, at a rally in Arunachal Pradesh he expressed his concerns over “Chinese assertiveness” and comforted the audiences that under no circumstances will China be allowed to grab the border state. On the campaign trail, he in fact warned Beijing to shed its “mindset of expansionism” and said: “I swear in the name of the soil: I will protect this country.” Incidentally, Arunachal Pradesh is being claimed by China as part of its territory.

Under Modi, security or India’s defence sector will be an important component in India’s foreign policy. The military’s inputs in foreign policy, particularly relating to China and Pakistan, will be given due weightage. Modi has said many a time that his government will give primacy to the modernisation of Indian military, and, that, in turn, will mean more arms, built indigenously and procured from abroad. In January 2013, at an international conference on ‘defence offsets’ as part of the 6th Vibrant Gujarat Global Investors’ Summit (VGGIS), Modi called for framing a holistic policy to make India self-reliant in defence production for the security forces alongside training skilled human resources. Secondly, a special economic zone promoted by Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC), devoted exclusively to manufacture of niche electronic products, had attracted global arms majors like Lockheed Martin for material and scientific knowledge investment some time back, although nothing much happened due to the inaction on the part of the Central government.

Finally, let me have few words on India’s nuclear policy. As it is, it was under a BJP Prime Minister in 1999 that India had declared itself as a nuclear weapon power. Modi and BJP say that the strategic gains acquired by India during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime on the nuclear programme have been frittered away by the Congress. Going by the BJP manifesto, the assumption of Modi to power will mark the beginning of a new thrust on framing nuclear policies that would serve India’s national interest in the 21st century. Modi will follow a two-pronged independent nuclear programme, unencumbered by foreign pressure and influence, for civilian and military purposes, especially as nuclear power is a major contributor to India’s energy sector. Modi is an unabashed champion of nuclear power and he will like to set up more nuclear plants. For this he will need nuclear fuel and for this countries such as Australia will be very important for him.

As regards the military dimension of the nuclear power, the BJP has promised to study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times. Of course, this assertion of revising and updating the nuclear doctrine, has invited criticisms from many quarters under the specious plea that Modi will change India’s promise of no first use of nuclear weapons. I personally think this posture of India’s nuclear doctrine does require a review because no nuclear weapon power in the world today, including China, believes in the principle of No First Use (Its latest biannual defence white paper (2013) omitted for the first time a promise never to use its own nuclear weapons first. Even otherwise, China had asserted before that its NFU would not apply against countries that are in possession of the Chinese territory. That means that China’s NFU does not apply to India as it claims over our lands in Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh. That leaves Pakistan, our other major adversary. But Pakistan too does not believe in NFU). However, Modi has clarified that he will stick to it. He recently told the press that “No first use was a great initiative of Atal Bihari Vajpayee—there is no compromise on that. We are very clear. No first use is a reflection of our cultural inheritance.” However, Modi has made it that his government will “maintain a credible minimum deterrent that is in tune with changing geostatic realities”.

Does it mean that under Modi, India will have a bigger number of nuclear weapons? Of course, officially, nobody knows what exactly this number is at present. But one thing is clear that fixing a number is a critical task. Given the fact that principally China and Pakistan are the countries from which India fears a nuclear attack, it is difficult to have a credible minimum, because what may be minimum for Pakistan may not be the minimum against China, a much stronger power. In other words, what is credible towards China will likely not be minimum toward Pakistan; and what is minimum toward Pakistan cannot be credible toward China. Of course, some experts in India have argued for India to have “minimal deterrent”, rather than “minimum deterrent”. ‘Minimal’ is seen as a word better suited than ‘minimum’ to qualify India’s deterrent, which is subject to numerical changes in response to its strategic environment. In conceptual terms, ‘minimal’ provides greater flexibility than ‘minimum’. On the other hand, ‘minimum’ deterrence seals the lower limit of the arsenal, indicating that any number below this limit could endanger deterrence. The term ‘minimal’ therefore better conveys therefore the relationship between the credibility of the deterrent and its numerical flexibility. ‘Minimum’ is both an adjective and a noun. ‘Minimal’, on the other hand, can only be used as an adjective, which emphasises its dependent usage”.

Anyway, these are all conceptual exercises. For real clarity, we will have to wait till Modi forms a government.

(The article is based on the speech delivered at Australia-India Institute, University of Melbourne, on May 6, 2014)

By Prakash Nanda

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