These are exhilarating times in India. An old political order underpinned by the supremacy of the Nehru-Gandhi family is crumbling while a new order is gradually taking shape. The victory of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) under Narendra Modi’s leadership has transformed the political landscape of India almost beyond recognition. For a democratic system to remain vibrant and dynamic, such transitions are essential. In fact, most mature democracies do see such transitions on a periodic basis. In India, for a host of reasons, while democracy has flourished, its vitality has been sapping, especially over the last decade. Today, when the Indian electorate has demolished the myth of the Nehru-Gandhi dynastic right to rule, it can safely be concluded that Indian democracy has taken a turn for the better.
No wonder as the new political dispensation assumes power in New Delhi, India’s neighbours and regional states are trying to assess the implications of the dramatic transformation in Indian polity. They have their own expectations from a government which will not be dependent on regional parties and other coalition partners to survive and will be capable of taking decisive actions if need be. Most significantly, prime minister Modi will be his own man, capable of shaping the trajectory of Indian foreign policy significantly.
The decision to invite members of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) for the swearing-in of the new government has been a great beginning, underscoring the resolve of the new government to embed India firmly within the South Asian regional matrix. The fact that all of India’s neighbours in South Asia and the wider Asian region have reached out to Modi also augurs well for the new government.
The most significant foreign policy challenge for New Delhi in the coming years is going to be dealing with the most important geopolitical event of our time—the rise of China. Despite an obsession among the Indian foreign policy elite with everything Chinese, it is not at all evident if New Delhi has learnt to think strategically about China and all that its rapid ascendancy in global hierarchy implies for India.
With Modi now at the helm after receiving one of the largest mandates in Indian electoral history, it is being suggested that Modi’s warmth will be reserved for those who went out of the way to accommodate him when he was being hounded domestically and globally. Countries like Japan, Israel and China, for example, welcomed him during those years when the West shunned him and the US revoked his visa under an obscure law. There has even been speculation about the reasons behind Modi taking much longer to mention the congratulatory call from US president Barack Obama or the tweet from secretary of state John Kerry.
Modi has indeed travelled to China five times, more than to any other nation and he has been visibly impressed by China’s economic success. Some in China have welcomed Modi as the new prime minister. The state-run Global Times has argued that “ties between China and India may come closer under Modi’s leadership”. It goes on to suggest that “the West has adapted to an India with a weak central government in the past decades” and now with Modi in saddle “it is afraid that a strongman like Russian President Vladimir Putin will make India really strong and build the country into a challenger to the West economically and politically”. Others in China have described Modi as India’s “Nixon” who will take Sino-Indian ties to new heights, even underscoring that “Modi’s governance style and philosophy are very close to Chinese practices”.
Yet Modi remains a quintessential nationalist looking to raise India’s profile on the global stage. China’s behaviour in recent years has been troubling for India and caution is likely to be the hallmark of Modi’s outreach to China. Addressing an election rally in the state of Arunachal Pradesh which borders China, Modi had underlined that Beijing would have to shed “its expansionist policies and forge bilateral ties with India for the peace, progress and prosperity of both nations”.
Despite his personal grudge against the US, Modi will recognise, if he has not already, that the challenges that India faces with a domestically fragile Pakistan, political uncertainty in Afghanistan, instability around India’s periphery, and an ever more assertive China cannot be managed without a productive US-India relationship. As a pragmatist, Modi cannot ignore the reality that strong ties with the US will play in sustaining his vision of an economically advanced and militarily robust India. His priorities will certainly be domestic but a conducive external environment is a sine qua non for achieving his highly ambitious domestic agenda. At a time when China has alienated most of its neighbours with its aggressive rhetoric and actions, India also has a unique opportunity to expand its profile in the large Asian region and work proactively with other like-minded states to ensure a stable regional order.
To live up to its full potential and meet the region’s expectations, India will have to do a more convincing job of emerging as a credible strategic partner of the region. India, for its part, would not only like greater economic integration with the fastest growing region in the world but would also like to challenge China on its periphery. But India will have to do much more to emerge as a serious player in the region. New Delhi needs to assure the regional states of its reliability not only as an economic and political partner but also as a security provider. As the regional balance of power in Asia changes and as the very coherence of the ASEAN comes under question, there will be new demands on India which can be fulfilled only with a productive partnership with the US.
How Modi navigates this tricky terrain between the US and China will define, in large part, the success or failure of his diplomacy.
The author is a professor in international relations, department of defence studies, King’s College, London.