India has re-elected the incumbent Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and the BJP government, with a bigger majority and an increased vote share.
What will this mean for the foreign policy of India in a turbulent world in which the old verities are disappearing and domestic political compulsions exert overwhelming influence on external postures?
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.
The first task will be to appoint a new external affairs minister since the incumbent Sushma Swaraj had recused herself from the election process. It is a highly desired but essentially powerless position since Prime Ministers from Jawaharlal Nehru on, have run foreign policy from the PM’s office. Very likely the National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, will be reappointed and former foreign secretary S. Jaishankar brought in as a minister of state since they had worked together without friction in the previous term.
If the current NSA and the former foreign secretary are reappointed, the continuity theme will be reinforced. At his 2014 swearing-in ceremony, Mr Modi had surprised everyone who had written him off as a foreign policy novice by inviting the heads of governments of all South Asian neighbours, including Pakistan. An even bigger surprise was the presence of Dr Lobsang Sangay, then Prime Minister of the Central Tibetan administration (in Dharamsala). However, that show of strength against China disappeared with the informal Wuhan summit between Xi Jinping and Mr Modi in April 2018.
The speculation this time is that the PM may shoot higher by inviting the leaders of the Permanent-5 countries and middle powers such as France and Germany. No bets on a convening of world leaders at Mr Modi’s swearing-in — while he may be daring, he is not so foolhardy as to allow himself to be humiliated by no-shows from the likes of Mr Trump and Mr Xi. The two are currently engaged in a high-stakes trade war, overturning the conventional wisdom that extensive commercial dependencies deter hostility. The British PM, Teresa May, does not know how long she will hold her job. French President Emmanuel Macron may have hoped that he has diffused the weekly Yellow Vest protests but his dissatisfaction rating remains at a high of 66 per cent. That leaves Russian president Putin who, if he comes, can only be doing so for old times’ sake and to promote arms sales.
The preoccupations of the P5 portray the disruption underway in the old equilibrium, bilateral and multilateral, which was put in place in the post Second World War period and which held, more or less, till the end of the last century. Today, India must negotiate a totally different world in which the old institutions such as NATO or the EU are imploding, a risen China plays by its own rules and diminished UK and France refuse to leave the world stage. Although India is now the fastest growing large economy predicted to become the third-largest in the world by 2030, it needs western markets and technology, Gulf oil, and foreign investment to build its infrastructure to sustain a high growth economy that can generate enough jobs to satisfy its youthful population.
Mr Modi’s personalised diplomacy will only be enhanced by the confidence of a huge election victory, especially in multilateral forums like G20, SCO, BRICs etc. Strategic relations with the West, principally the US, will strengthen despite the irritants on bilateral trade. India will likely become more open in its participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) along with Japan, USA and Australia as a hedge against Chinese pressure. While India must invest in its own infrastructure buildout, it will look to partner with the US and Japan in infrastructure in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka as well as East Africa. The government will move rapidly to put more content into energy diplomacy in the Gulf. Finally, Mr Modi may surprise all by reaching out to China and Pakistan, despite the current delicate state of relations with both.
Neelam Deo is Director, Gateway House.
This article was originally published by The Asian Age.