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India's Foreign Policy after the Elections

29 Apr 2014
Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia
Source: Creative Commons

While foreign policy has not figured among the key issues in the Indian elections, a new government will have to manage India’s sometimes difficult relations with the United States, China, Pakistan and India’s South Asian neighbours. Depending on whether the next government is BJP-driven, Congress-driven or regional party-driven there are different scenarios for Indian foreign policy.

India’s election is the largest event of its kind in human history with 815 million people eligible to vote within the boundaries of a single country. Foreign policy does not figure among the key issues on which the election is being fought. These largely centre on the economy, governance, political ideologies and local issues. Nevertheless, India has its own expanding worldview. Indians have become increasingly conscious of the impact of globalisation, technology and interdependence on inter-state relations. They also realise the inter-linkage between their goal of security and prosperity at home and global developments.

Possible Scenarios

India has been ruled by coalition governments since 1989 and this may not change in the coming election. An objective analysis would indicate that the elections will result in one of three outcomes:

1) A coalition led by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as its principal constituent;

2) A coalition led by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) with Indian National Congress as its principal constituent; or

3) A coalition composed of several regional parties which is supported externally by one of the two national parties.

Indian foreign policy has come under criticism in recent years, particularly for its management of relations with the United States, China, Pakistan and other South Asian nations. This is the backdrop to address the question: what broadly will be India’s external policy in the next five years?

BJP as Driver

In the case that an NDA government is formed under BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, his record as the chief minister of Gujarat and experience dealing with foreign governments and the BJP’s party manifesto will be major determinants of its foreign policy.

Considering that Modi has placed a focus on his economic development agenda, projecting Gujarat as the model, there is widespread expectation that a policy framework to accelerate reform and economic growth will be adopted. Special attention may be paid to relations with western countries (including Japan) as well as to economic diplomacy. The relationship with the United States will assume considerably more significance in an attempt to adopt a more forward-looking approach in mutual interest. Sustained endeavours would be needed, both in New Delhi and Washington, to restore energy and dynamism to a relationship that has larger geopolitical salience for the world.

Progress could be expected with China, especially because President Xi Jinping has already announced his keenness to visit India later in the year. Modi can be expected to calibrate the need to expand political and economic cooperation as well the imperative to assert India’s will to defend its fundamental interests. Addressing an election meeting in Arunachal Pradesh, he advised China to shed its expansionist mindset and forge bilateral ties with India for peace, progress and prosperity of both the nations.

Turning to the BJP’s manifesto , the party places significant emphasis on national security. It plans to study India’s nuclear doctrine (including ‘No First Use’ commitment) to revise and update it. On foreign policy, BJP’s vision is to fundamentally reboot and reorient the goals, content and process of foreign policy, locating India’s global strategic engagement in a new paradigm and on a wider canvas.

Congress as Driver

In the case that Congress gets another opportunity to form a coalition government, this will enable the party to elevate its vice president Rahul Gandhi to prime minster of India. A Gandhi government can be expected to be guided by the legacy of previous Congress governments. While addressing a conference in November 2013, the outgoing prime minister delineated the five core elements of foreign policy as: increasingly defined by India’s development priorities; a need to further integrate with the world economy; seeking stable and mutually beneficial relations will all major powers; closer cooperation and connectivity with regional neighbours; and defined by both interests and values.

The party’s 2014 manifesto speaks of the Congress’ commitment to a robust and dynamic foreign policy such as the aim to combat global terrorism, India’s quest for membership of the United Nations Security Council and the country’s role as a bridge between the developed and developing world.

Regional Parties as Drivers

Opinion polls and experts are predicting that the two major national parties between themselves may garner only half or a little over half of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha. The other half may be won by an array of smaller national and regional parties. At this stage it is very difficult to visualise how this ‘third option’ may play out and, more precisely, how it may impact on the nation’s foreign policy. All that is known is that the incumbent chief ministers of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu played a crucial role in influencing India’s Bangladesh and Sri Lanka policies, respectively.. Inclusion of their parties in a future government is likely to reshape India’s neighbourhood policy to some extent. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has been described as “small, young, idealistic, hot-headed and underfunded” but to claim that AAP has “the two big parties running scared” is an exaggeration. Significantly though, AAP’s manifesto has a section on national security and foreign policy.


The foregoing analysis suggests that there may be little dramatic change in India’s foreign policy but foreign policy priorities may change. On any scenario, the “Look East Policy” is likely to continue to enjoy strong bipartisan support with relations with ASEAN as well as other key players such as China, Japan, Vietnam and Australia likely to receive heightened attention. Australia, in particular, has invested heavily in political, economic and Track II diplomacy with India in the past three years. Australia’s economic achievements, its geopolitical sensibilities, and its responsibilities as chair of G-20 and Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) create conducive conditions for closer understanding and cooperation with India. An early opportunity of interaction at the highest political levels should be seized.

Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia is the Director General of the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA). The post reflects his personal views. The ICWA, established in New Delhi, India in 1943, is a think-tank of historical significance and a non-official, non-political and non-profit organisation.

A longer version of this article will appear in an AIIA Policy Commentary to be published in May.