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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a crowd during a 2018 parliamentary ceremony (Indian Prime Minister's Office via Wikimedia Commons)

After Elections, Where Does Indian Foreign Policy Go from Here?

Words: Daniel Markey
Pictures: India Prime Minister's Office

Widely expected to cruise to a third-straight majority in India’s parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) instead lost ground and must now rely on its National Democratic Alliance partners, especially the Janata Dal (United) party and the Telugu Desam Party, to form a coalition government. While the stunning results will have immediate consequences for Modi’s domestic agenda, foreign and national security policies are not top priorities for India’s new parliament. Still, the political changes associated with coalition rule and the BJP’s unanticipated electoral setback could affect India’s international relationships in important ways.

Modi’s New Reality

Modi has never before needed to navigate the trials of coalition rule. He and his party face the unfamiliar, divisive sting of electoral underperformance and political vulnerability. For the moment, India’s electoral outcome has caught everyone off-guard, demonstrating a democratic vitality that some had feared lost in India’s drift toward one-party rule.

Despite its setbacks, the BJP still won 36.56% of all Indian votes, amounting to only about one percent less than in the 2019 elections. However, because India’s parliamentary seats are won in “first-past-the-post” contests, electoral alliances have the potential to transform bare pluralities of total vote share into whopping parliamentary majorities — as they did in 2014 and 2019 — or not, as they did this time around. Thus, although the BJP’s policies, performance and politicians clearly lost some ground with a portion of India’s voters, the final outcome may be best explained by the effectiveness of India’s opposition parties, rallied as “INDIA” (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance) by the once-dominant Indian National Congress.

The INDIA grouping should not, however, be mistaken for a near-term governing alterative to Modi’s BJP, which still won 240 seats to Congress’s 99. INDIA partners were united only by what they stood against — another BJP majority in parliament — not by a common ideology or policy vision. Nor should Modi’s return to power be minimized; he remains the single most popular Indian politician, a globally recognized statesman and a uniquely capable leader at the head of a massive party machine with resources, connections and influence across Indian society.

That said, the BJP’s losses in the Hindi-belt state of Uttar Pradesh stand out as a strategic setback that will force soul-searching because the state’s 200-million citizens were expected to remain a solid source of strength for the party. This is especially true since one of the political leaders most frequently mentioned as a potential successor to Modi — the hardline Hindu nationalist Yogi Adityanath — is the chief minister of that state. Recriminations and factional fights will almost certainly swirl, but where they take the party and its associated Hindu nationalist organizations like the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh is impossible to guess.

Where Does India’s Foreign Policy Go from Here?

India’s elections are never fought primarily over foreign policy, but their outcomes do have consequences. India’s elections affect its policymaking process, the ideology and worldview of its ruling government and the fate of its statesmen.

Throughout most of India’s independent history, parliament — through its debates, committees and even theatrical disruptions — has played an important role in the policymaking process. But from 2014-2024 the BJP’s single-party majority gave Modi the ability to turn parliament into a toothless, rubber stamp body. The operative question going forward is whether his coalition partners will force the BJP back into a semblance of normal parliamentary order. It is conceivable that they will not, instead exercising their power through direct negotiations with the BJP.

However, if normal parliamentary order returns it could complicate some of Modi’s foreign and national security policy projects by, at the very least, exposing them to heated public debate. Some initiatives could get tied up in lengthy political games. Such was the case in 2008 when Congress prime minister Manmohan Singh stared down a vote of no confidence to enact India’s civil-nuclear agreement with the United States. For the BJP, controversial national security initiatives like the “Agnipath” scheme for military recruitment could face new and sustained scrutiny, as would major defense acquisition deals with the United States and other foreign suppliers.

India’s elections are never fought primarily over foreign policy, but their outcomes do have consequences.

As in the past, budgetary and procurement decisions could become focal points for serious political contestation (often focused on allegations of corruption or mismanagement), largely avoided during Modi’s first two terms. A whiff of political uncertainty will induce even greater than usual aversion to risk by Indian ministers and bureaucrats responsible for signing-off on big deals. That, in turn, would create new obstacles for bold investments in defense or breakthrough trade and investment deals needed to advance Modi’s ambitious agenda on the world stage.

Yet foreign and national security policy are not likely to be the priority issues for a re-energized parliament, and the BJP’s coalition partners are far more concerned about parochial regional and bread-and-butter topics. Moreover, the prime minister’s office does not need much legislation to manage the core activities of diplomacy and national security and has in recent years centralized its hold over the functioning of relevant ministries and agencies, such as India’s intelligence services that report to the prime minister through his national security advisor. 

Beyond parliamentary and coalition dynamics, if the Indian public perceives that the BJP’s aura of dominance has been punctured, that alone could begin to reopen space for media, think tanks and academia to pursue investigative and analytical research work that has been increasingly stifled over the past decade. That work spurs and feeds healthy policy debates; it is a necessary piece of the accountability loop between a democratic government and its citizens. Other things equal, a more transparent and accountable foreign policymaking process will also make India a more trustworthy and predictable actor on the world stage. But these changes will almost certainly take time. Or they may not happen at all; many of the BJP’s methods for constraining and influencing public debate will not be rolled back easily.

Arguably, a chastened BJP could be less brazen about pushing its Hindu nationalist ideology and more likely to steer a pragmatic course with coalition partners. But when it comes to India’s foreign policy, a muscular nationalism appears widely popular beyond the BJP faithful, and it has been difficult to discern precisely where Modi’s worldview deviates in a specifically Hindu nationalist direction.

Modi’s diplomatic rhetoric (and that of his chief deputies) does adopt a new idiom, substituting prior left-leaning, anti-colonial references (such as to “non-alignment”) with other terms (like “strategic autonomy”) and references to “Bharat” instead of “India.” Modi has also taken steps to realize his pledge to play the role of “Vishwaguru” (global teacher), for instance by hosting the G-20 last fall, but the Hindu nationalist ambition of consolidating a broader “Akhund Bharat” or “undivided India” (to include a number of India’s neighbors like Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh) has remained largely undefined and nascent.

Most important, over the past decade India’s key international relationships — with the United States, China, Russia, Pakistan and so on — never appear to have been dictated exclusively by doctrinaire ideological attachments. This pattern is likely to persist. Then again, precisely because the BJP and Modi will exercise greater control over India’s international policy (as compared to domestic policy), they may choose to frame their foreign policy ambitions and decisions in increasingly ideological terms, for instance with more frequent references to “civilizational” tropes, in part as a sop to the party’s hardcore Hindu chauvinist base.

Modi’s political setback also raises questions about his own fate as India’s chief statesman. Until now, Modi has been the unquestioned face of India; few foreign counterparts would even consider looking over his shoulder to possible successors or playing a long game by cultivating ties with other Indian politicians. That will almost certainly remain true in the near term, but would start to change if Modi shows signs of lame-duck status, if factionalism seriously grips the BJP or if his ruling coalition starts to fray.

One near-term consequence of Modi’s relative slip in power could come in the context of India’s difficult relationship with China. The long-awaited return of a Chinese ambassador to New Delhi in May suggested that Beijing and New Delhi were poised to pursue normalized relations after India’s elections. The political and strategic logic seemed sound. China, anticipating that Modi would win another sweeping majority, likely preferred cutting a deal to reduce bilateral tensions for the duration of his five-year term. Modi, also anticipating a solid election victory, would have leveraged his unchallenged political standing at home to assume an advantageous stance in negotiations with China.

Now, however, if Beijing perceives Modi to be in a tough political bind, it could rethink its negotiating calculations and take a tougher line. Alternatively, Modi could delay any outreach to China to preempt criticism from his domestic political opponents.

Whither US-India Relations?

India’s election outcome will also affect how other states — including the United States — perceive India and Modi. For decades, Washington’s policymakers on both sides of the aisle have framed New Delhi as a natural strategic partner and counterweight to authoritarian China in large part because of India’s democratic credentials. Champions of closer ties with New Delhi, for whom Modi’s authoritarian tendencies had started to become increasingly serious political liabilities, will now tout the very unpredictability of India’s elections and the fact that the BJP has been humbled by India’s voters as evidence that India’s democracy is alive and well. They run a serious risk of overselling that argument, but clearly India’s election result will elicit a bipartisan sigh of relief in Washington, at least temporarily.

On the flip side, Washington and other capitals may soon miss the era of Modi’s political dominance at home, if only because the new reality in New Delhi, while perhaps freer and less repressive, could also be messier and more complicated for US policymakers who have over the past decade gotten used to working directly with a powerful decisionmaker and his top deputies rather than needing to cultivate a wider range of Indian politicians and interest groups. In a worst-case scenario, Modi’s new government could become so consumed with its domestic travails that it lacks sufficient bandwidth to pursue an effective cooperative agenda with the United States.

Modi’s first two terms broke with Indian political tradition in ways large and small; his third will be no different. Yet even if history will be an imperfect guide to navigating New Delhi’s new normal, Washington would be wise to dust off its diplomatic playbooks from prior periods of coalition rule for lessons as India’s unanticipated political drama plays out.

This article was originally published by the United States Institute of Peace.

Daniel Markey

Dr. Daniel Markey is a senior advisor on South Asia at the United States Institute of Peace. He is also a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Foreign Policy Institute.

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