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During his election campaign in 2013–14, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi showed scant interest in foreign policy, focusing instead on economic growth, corruption, and governance. In office, however, Modi has made 35 foreign trips and visited as many as 53 countries. Since the time of Jawaharlal Nehru, no Indian prime minister has been so peripatetic. In fact, this extraordinary emphasis has led some commentators, such as the writer C. Raja Mohan, to suggest that Modi’s foreign policy has been so revolutionary as to mark the beginning of an Indian “third republic.”
In fact, there has been no revolution. Modi entered office hoping to transform relations with China and Pakistan, dispense with India’s anachronistic commitment to nonalignment, and extend Indian influence in South and Southeast Asia. Yet despite his best efforts, he has failed to fundamentally transform his country’s foreign policy.
This failure can be attributed to at least three factors. First, India’s conservative, permanent foreign policy bureaucracy has resisted Modi’s attempts at change. Second, despite healthy economic growth in recent years, India still faces significant financial constraints that limit its ability to project power abroad. Third, although Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party enjoys a majority in the national Parliament, it still has to contend with the country’s federal structure, which gives states run by other parties wide latitude to frustrate the BJP. Together, all three have preserved much of the status quo.
Despite his best efforts, Modi has failed to fundamentally transform his country’s foreign policy.
Modi has had his share of foreign policy accomplishments in office. There is little question, for instance, that he has strengthened the U.S.-Indian relationship. Despite Modi’s irritation at having been denied a visa to the United States in 2005 over his alleged role, as chief minister of Gujarat, in an anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002, as prime minister he invited U.S. President Barack Obama to be the chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade in January 2015. Never in India’s history had a U.S. president been accorded that particular honor. Beyond offering this symbolic gesture, Modi went on to sign a major logistics agreement with the United States that had been languishing for over a decade. More recently, his government has become more deeply involved in quadrilateral naval security dialogues with Australia, Japan, and the United States.
Closer to home, Modi’s “Neighborhood First” policy, which sought to enhance India’s existing ties with its South Asian neighbors, has yielded mixed results. For example, India quickly provided humanitarian assistance to Nepal after an earthquake in 2015 caused untold damage. Yet it soon lost much of the goodwill it had generated when it made a clumsy attempt to influence Nepal’s election by trying to shape the drafting of a new constitution. India’s dealings with other small states in the region have been more successful. Within months of assuming office, Modi deftly resolved a highly contentious and long-standing border dispute with Bangladesh—a settlement that had eluded previous governments for decades. Under Modi, India has also capably managed its relationship with Afghanistan, continuing to provide aid and train Afghan security personnel while creating an air corridor to improve bilateral trade. Most important, India has gone ahead with the construction of a port in Chabahar, Iran, in order to create a land-and-sea route to Afghanistan.
Relations with China and Pakistan, however, have been contentious. Immediately upon becoming prime minister, Modi reached out to both countries. He invited Nawaz Sharif, then Pakistan’s prime minister, to attend his inauguration alongside other heads of state from across South Asia. Unfortunately, his friendly gesture was not reciprocated. Instead, on the eve of bilateral talks in August 2014, Pakistan’s ambassador to New Delhi invited Kashmiri separatists to a reception at the Pakistani embassy despite an explicit warning from India. Although previous prime ministers had ignored such diplomatic provocations, Modi decided to call off the talks. Subsequent attacks in India by Pakistan-based terrorists, as well as Indian cross-border retaliatory strikes, have caused relations to further deteriorate.
Chinese-Indian relations have also been strained in recent years, although the tensions cannot be attributed to Modi alone. In September 2014, Modi invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to India for a state visit. During the visit, however, the Chinese military made a series of incursions in the Himalayan region of Ladakh, the site of an ongoing border dispute between the two countries.
The incursion in Ladakh was not an isolated incident. In the summer of 2017, the Chinese military once again entered a disputed area, this time Bhutan’s Doklam plateau, which borders China and India. Since a Chinese presence on the plateau would have posed a serious security threat to India, Modi, invoking a treaty arrangement with Bhutan, sent in a contingent of troops to confront the Chinese forces. The ensuing standoff lasted for several weeks before the two sides agreed to a mutual withdrawal of forces, although China refused to formally renounce its claims on the region. Such Chinese probes along the Himalayan border have a long history—the key difference is that under Modi, India is directly confronting China when faced with them. New Delhi has, moreover, firmly refused to endorse Beijing’s One Belt, One Road initiative, which seeks, among other things, to connect substantial parts of Pakistan to China via ground transportation.
Modi has also shown an increased willingness to oppose China’s growing influence by expanding India’s security footprint in Southeast Asia. As early as 1992, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao had launched the “Look East” policy, designed to promote trade with and attract investment from the economically vibrant states of the region. Under the aegis of his new “Act East” policy, Modi has added a distinct security component, entering into negotiations for arms sales to Vietnam, enhancing defense cooperation with Singapore, and increasing Indian naval visits to a range of countries in the region.
There is little question that Modi has brought renewed energy and drive to India’s foreign policy. Yet the changes that he has instituted reflect a remarkable degree of continuity with past policies and do not, as some have claimed, constitute a revolution.
Modi has shown an increased willingness to oppose China’s growing influence by expanding India’s security footprint in Southeast Asia.
What explains Modi’s failure to fundamentally reset India’s foreign policy agenda? The first reason has to do with India’s hidebound and insular foreign policy establishment. The Indian Foreign Service is formally composed of about a thousand full-time officers. When new entrants join this elite cadre, their superiors quickly socialize them into the norms of the institution, which privileges caution, circumspection, and incremental decision-making. Not surprisingly, they resist any attempts on the part of a new regime to drastically shift the country’s foreign policy priorities (they have been quite circumspect, for instance, about substantially expanding ties with the United States). Modi has no doubt sought to infuse new energy into Indian foreign policy, but this bureaucracy has acted as a built-in constraint.
A lethargic foreign service is not Modi’s only problem. Despite a record of strong economic growth over the past few decades, India still faces significant resource constraints relative to competitors such as China. India’s total foreign aid budget, for example, is only around $2 billion. Although exact figures are hard to come by, Beijing’s foreign aid budget is likely well over $30 billion. Consequently, India is in no position to seriously compete with China in terms of translating economic into political power. This structural barrier is unlikely to be breached anytime soon.
Finally, India’s federal structure, which in recent years has seen more and more authority devolved to the state level, has constrained Modi in important ways. A number of states have parochial interests that conflict with those of the nation. For example, Modi successfully negotiated a land border agreement with Bangladesh by courting the political leadership of the border state of West Bengal. But he has been unable to persuade these same local leaders to allow him to proceed with a river water-sharing agreement with Bangladesh. On this crucial issue, regional politics has all but foreclosed the prospect of a bilateral agreement between Dhaka and New Delhi.
These hurdles have thwarted Modi’s more ambitious efforts to transform India’s foreign policy. He has, no doubt, brought about important changes. Yet any hopes that his efforts would amount to a revolution have proven to be premature.