Even before the last vote was cast, a popular question on the minds of those watching and interpreting India from abroad was: will the nation’s foreign policy change? And how?
A clear mandate for Prime Minister Modi implies that the foreign policy approach of the past five years will largely continue. Relations with the U.S. will remain on an upward trajectory, despite a range of irritants. The India-China equation will be a blend of positives and negatives, rivalry and cooperation. The Act East Policy will be strengthened, once the Trilateral Highway Project becomes operational and consensus develops between ASEAN and India on the idea of the Indo-Pacific. Finally, India’s firm stand on Pakistan will continue, but a resumption of dialogue could take place should there be substantive change in Pakistan’s postures on terrorism.
While foreign policy was not directly an electoral issue, terrorism, extremism and national security certainly were. Taking a hard line on relations with Pakistan influenced voter behaviour. For perhaps the first time since 1971, India’s youthful electorate paid attention to security. Young voters, even in rural India, saw Modi as a leader who could keep the country safe, and who gave India an international profile and outreach.
Clearly reflecting this sentiment, Modi, in his speech in Ahmedabad on May 26, said that the next five years would be “the time to regain the rightful position of India in the world order.”
The new government, then, can be expected to work on the following specific items on the agenda, some of which are reflected in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s 2019 election manifesto:
Strengthening multipolarity and multilateralism will continue to be a top priority. The determined quest for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council will be a constant. India’s place on the high table, comprising the U.S., China, Russia, EU and Japan, will be pursued, building on intensified bilateral relations with these countries.
Specific regions to get policy attention will be the immediate neighbourhood, Indo-Pacific, West Asia and Africa. This is clear from the invitation to the heads of state/government of the nations of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) to participate in the new government’s swearing-in ceremony on May 30.
Among the multilateral groupings, G20 will get top billing. This is the world’s most powerful platform where member-states seek to influence and shape global policy. With India set to host the G20 summit in 2022 – also the 75th year of India’s Independence – expect this to be a banner year. PM Modi will leverage this forum fully to advance India’s economic and global agenda. Structured preparations in the build-up to the year will need to start soon.
Other key regional groupings, such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS), Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), will also be nurtured. A calibrated rejuvenation of India Brazil South Africa (IBSA) is on the cards.
Trade and investment. Attracting foreign direct investment, increasing exports, reducing the trade deficit and further activating economic diplomacy, will receive higher attention. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) could become a reality by 2020, with India as its valued member, if her partners are both sensitive and pragmatic. New Delhi’s stated interest to sign a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Africa, following the emergence of the African Continental Free Trade Area, may remain a distant goal though.
National security focus. On the anti-terrorism front, a comprehensive set of measures to strengthen defence and security capabilities and improve border security infrastructure will go together with a proactive diplomatic strategy. One of its key elements may be the creation of ‘a Comity of Nations Against International Terrorism’ which the BJP party manifesto depicts as “a voluntary multi-lateral forum based on the principles of the draft Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism.”
A new institutional mechanism may be established to deepen the existing cultural links and heritage with people of Indian origin and to regularly engage with them. The objective to cultivate the diaspora stems from the mindset that the interests of India and that of people of Indian origin living abroad are deeply inter-linked.
Science and technology diplomacy will receive a boost, particularly in futuristic areas. A new institution may be established, the International Space Technology Alliance, for better cooperation and coordination “on issues related to space technology to ensure that the benefits of space technology reach all, especially the smaller countries”.
Strengthening the diplomatic machinery. In particular, the BJP manifesto proposes to establish ‘a full-fledged University of Foreign Policy’. Its mission will be to undertake academic study and research on foreign policy and geopolitical issues of interest to India and “capacity building of our and friendly foreign diplomats.”
It is not clear if the proposed university will emerge from the existing Foreign Service Institute, or whether it will be a revival, in some form, of the National Defence University that the previous Congress-led coalition government had planned.
In Modi’s second term, India is gearing up to be a more constructive and influential global player. Investing in planning, analysis and research on foreign policy and diplomacy, both within the government and in the strategic community, will pay dividends.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House. A former ambassador to five countries (Kenya, Myanmar, Mexico, South Africa, and Lesotho), and he also authored a book on India-Myanmar relations.
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 Deo Neelam, “The massive endorsement frees Mr. Modi to continue his unabashed style and pursuit of the foreign policy objectives he set himself in 2014, which were primarily to raise the global profile of India, including among Indians living abroad.” ‘PM Modi’s foreign policy 2.0’, The Asian Age, <https://www.asianage.com/360-degree/260519/pm-modis-foreign-policy-20.html>
 BJP Election Manifesto 2019, <https://doc-00-88-docs.googleusercontent.com/docs/securesc/ha0ro937gcuc7l7deffksulhg5h7mbp1/jk8edds2tt7ni3gkjcgqkmikbbv29hti/1558915200000/11200235469534471729/*/0Bx2kY-odmL3MRTQ3dWFDeWY1ODBDWFQ0dFZTN0k1R1QxeVRj?e=download>