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A Transformed Foreign Policy? Foreign policy commitments (or their absence) in the Indian election


India is currently in the throes of its sixteenth general election with 814 million eligible voters. The significance of this election for the future of the world’s largest democracy cannot be overstated. If a spate of pre-election polls are to be believed the Indian National Congress  (INC) led United Progressive Alliance may face a decisive drubbing at the hands of the right wing, jingoistic Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Among other matters, the outcome of this election is vital, because the two parties, at least at ideological levels, represent competing visions of India. The INC, in principle, adheres to a secular state while the BJP embraces a primordial, Hindu idea of India.

Do the foundational principles of the two parties provide any useful clues to their likely foreign policy stances? In any case, given that few, if any, Indian elections have ever hinged on the foreign policy platforms of a party, will the electoral outcome really make a difference to the foreign relations of this aspiring great power? A careful perusal of their respective election manifestos as well the pronouncements of their leaders on the campaign trail do provide some indication of the likely differences in their approach to key foreign policy issues. 

Neither party, it should be stated at the outset, has devoted much space to foreign policy in their election manifestoes. However, if one scrutinizes these documents some curious features and several key differences do emerge. The INC’s statement is composed of a mere ten themes and the vast majority of them are entirely unexceptional.  It reiterates the party’s long-standing position on subjects ranging from concerns pertaining to relations with key neighbors such as Pakistan and its involvement with and support for terror and Sri Lanka’s abject treatment of its Tamil minority in the wake of the end of its civil war. Not surprisingly, it also affirms India’s quest for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. What is odd, however, is a peculiar throwback to an erstwhile era: a call “to support goodwill nurtured for decades amongst socialist countries”. Given that the numbers of such states are next to non-existent, one is forced to wonder what the drafters of this document had in mind when inserting this anachronistic exhortation.

The BJP’s discussion of its foreign policy is even more compressed and bereft of substance. Not surprisingly, it is limited to sweeping, hortatory statements that provide little or no basis for policy guidance. For example, what pray is one to make of a declaration that pronounces, ”The magnetic power of India has always been in its ancient wisdom (emphases in the original) and heritage, elucidating principles like harmony and equity”? 

If the campaign manifestoes are either so retrograde or vacuous, what else might illumine the likely foreign policy outlook of the next regime? Since it is all but a foregone conclusion that the INC is headed for the opposition benches in parliament and in substantially attenuated numbers it may be most useful to focus on the BJP’s possible foreign policy orientation. In the searing literal and figurative heat of the campaign trail, the likely BJP candidate for the nation’s premiership, Narendra Modi, has not been founding wanting when it comes to embracing bellicose rhetoric.  On subjects as fraught as the border dispute with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to the highly emotive issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh, Modi has not shied away from expressing his contempt for the current government’s policies and choices. When on a campaign stop at a town near the disputed Himalayan border he warned the PRC “to leave behind its mindset of expansion”. He has also claimed that Chinese mobile phone companies have sought to penetrate Indian telecommunication networks through the distribution of SIM cards to the inhabitants of Indian border areas. In the same breath he suggested that the present government has been oblivious to such putative Chinese infiltration of Indian phone networks.

His propensity for orotundity has also been noticeable when dealing with the legitimate but potentially inflammatory issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh. While expressing sympathy for refugees from Pakistan he has accused the UPA government of favoring illegal immigration from Bangladesh to boost their own electoral fortunes. His claim about the INC seeking electoral advantage in turning a Nelson’s eye toward illegal immigration is not entirely fanciful. However, the coupling of this issue with the question of refugees from Pakistan amounted to a deft use of coded language: the bulk of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh are Muslims while those seeking refuge in India from Pakistan are Hindus. Modi was simultaneously signaling two audiences, one domestic, the other, foreign. His internal audience was his deeply anti-Muslim constituency and the external ones were Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Once in office, Modi may well discover that feckless statements of intent made on the campaign trail may be far more difficult to realize as policies. At least two constraints are likely to hobble him even if he seeks to pursue a more muscular foreign policy towards the country’s more nettlesome neighbors. At the outset he will have to deal with an important structural source of foreign policy inertia. As a former British colony, India has a permanent foreign policy bureaucracy. It is, for the most part, composed of apolitical civil servants. However, they also constitute a form of institutional ballast and are not likely to easily allow dramatic shifts in the country’s foreign policy alignment.

He will also discover that as the prime minister of what is most likely to be a coalition government that his parliamentary allies may not be complete pushovers. They will have their own regional imperatives and concerns and may well be loath to needlessly pique neighbors especially if they happen to be in border states.

Modi’s assumption of high office may well lead to important shifts in the country’s domestic agenda including its already weakening commitment to secularism. However, the fervid sentiments expressed on the campaign trail may not prove to be the best guide to the next government’s foreign policy choices.


Profesor Sumit Ganguly is the Director of the Center on American and Global Security in the School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington.


Published inIndia Votes 2014

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