Modi's Balancing Act

India's Conservative Social Agenda Threatens Its Foreign Policy

Narendra Modi and Barack Obama watch India's Republic Day parade from behind rain-streaked bullet proof glass, New Delhi, January 26, 2015. Jim Bourg / Courtesy Reuters

In the wake of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s overwhelming victory in 2014, exit polls suggested that his success was due largely to widespread disillusionment with the United Progressive Alliance, the center-left coalition that had ruled the country since 2004. Throughout the campaign, Modi had positioned his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as the vanguard of good governance and economic dynamism—a stark contrast, he hoped, to the coalition’s record of corruption and slow growth. Since assuming office, Modi has taken steps to differentiate himself from his predecessors, particularly with his second budget, which promises to improve the country’s infrastructure and remove bottlenecks in the energy sector. The most remarkable feature of his time in office so far, however, has been his engagement in a realm he scarcely mentioned during the campaign: foreign policy.

Modi has brought tremendous energy and dexterity to foreign policy in his brief tenure in office. Although it has not yet been a full year since his election, Modi has already visited a dozen countries, ranging from those in India’s neighborhood to some as far away as Australia and Brazil. Perhaps most significant, he has jump-started the bilateral relationship between India and the United States. In a remarkable departure from tradition, Modi hosted U.S. President Barack Obama as the chief guest at India’s Republic Day Parade on January 26. The invitation was highly symbolic: it was the first time a sitting American president had been accorded that honor.

For far too long, India has punched well below its weight in the global arena. Modi’s activism may thus be a sign that he is ready for a new era of Indian foreign policy, reflecting a belated willingness to engage with the world on a host of pressing bilateral and multilateral issues. In his visits to Mauritius, Seychelles, and Sri Lanka, for example, he has proffered security assistance, promised developmental aid, and promoted trade expansion—efforts that appear designed to counterbalance China’s influence in the

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