Modi's Foreign Policy Revolution?

In India, Radical Change Is Hard to Come By

Narendra Modi (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New Delhi, January 2018. Adnan Abidi / Reuters

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

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