Since coming to power in May, one thing is clear: Narendra Modi has only strengthened his hold even more over the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party by
coopting or sidelining his peer
competitors and detractors, and
elevating his close associates.
Sushma Swaraj, who had prime
ministerial aspirations of her own, is now
foreign minister, but it is safe to say that
even with the firebrand Swaraj handling
foreign policy, it is Modi who is at the forefront (probably to Swaraj’s chagrin). Senior
BJP leader L K Advani, who made no
secret of his annoyance at Modi’s rapid
rise in the party, has been sidelined with
only his seat in the Lok Sabha. And
Modi got his confidante Amit Shah
appointed by the BJP as president.
The prime minister cannot escape the
fact that both power and responsibility
now resides squarely with him. Thus,
unlike the last two decades, Modi will
not have a weak coalition government to
blame for any government failures.
Despite his strong political hold at
home, the prime minister’s domestic
policies have been unremarkable while
his foreign policy has exceeded expectations. However, the reality is that at both
home and abroad, the break with the
past is much less than the breathless
anticipation before the BJP’s victory.
To understand why, we need to see the
role of deeper, structural factors —
Indian foreign policy has already stood
out under the new government for its
verve and foresight. Given India’s at best
prickly relations with its closest neigh-
bors, the region can always use a dose of
magnanimity from the largest and most powerful country
in South Asia. Modi’s grand overture to leaders of the
South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation coun-
tries by inviting them to his inauguration and giving priori-
ty to regional relations couldn’t have kicked off relations
It’s another matter that Indo-Pakistan relations and
Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif are now being held
hostage to the army-Islamist-Imran Khan combine in
Islamabad. For those who follow their relations, it is another reminder of the role of Pakistan’s entrenched military
and its continuing efforts to stem civilian political power,
along with its enduring veto power over civilian efforts to
improve ties with India.
Not surprisingly, it looks like getting Indo-Pakistan relations to significantly improve will take much more than
having strong business friendly governments in both capitals who could have promoted greater economic ties across
The highest marks to the Modi government go to relations with key countries in the broader Asian region —
United States. It is important to recognize this did not happen overnight. The diffusion of economic and politico-mili-tary power from the US and Western countries to the Indo-Pacific States has been underway for over a decade,
brought into stark relief with the 2008 economic meltdown
in the United States.
The US has been pre-occupied and drained from its
interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, faces new challenges
in Iraq and Syria, and cannot seem to break the stalemate
with Iran which could hold the key to stability in the
Persian Gulf and Middle East. Internally, the dysfunctional
politics between Congress and President Obama has result-
ed in policy paralysis, more or less.
Meanwhile, a new dynamic has been unfolding in the
Indo-Pacific region reflecting the broader structural power
shifts, something which the previous United Progressive
Alliance government in New Delhi was also clearly cognizant of.
The difference is that under the Modi regime, the tone
has shifted from India’s earlier ‘Look East’ to an ‘Act East’
policy — a term that the new Indian foreign minister rolled
out at a meeting in Hanoi in August. No doubt this bolder
statement of India’s intent — sent strategically from the
capital of China’s hostile neighbor Vietnam — grabbed
some attention in Beijing.
At the same time, India under Modi seems to have
become, in rather short order, much more deft at balancing
relations with all the major countries in Asia, and in the
process gaining greater strategic flexibility.
This has hardly been a one-way street though. Japanese
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been actively courting
India since he took over in December 2013, harking back
to 2007 when he was previously in power and viewed India
as a new strategic partner.
Abe had then pushed a Quadrilateral naval exercise con-
sisting of India, Japan, the US and Australia (a so-called
Concert of Democracies), causing consternation in China
which viewed it as a thinly veiled Asian NATO. After the
inaugural event, the exercise was
suspended when Australia pulled
out under Chinese pressure.
(Australia just signed a civil
nuclear cooperation agreement to
sell uranium to India after two
years of negotiations).
Modi’s recent five day visit to
Japan has given more heft to the
incipient ‘strategic partnership’
established between the two countries in
2009. Japan’s announcement to invest $35
billion in India over five years in Indian
infrastructure and Modi’s decision to fast
track Japanese investment with a special
team in the Prime Minister’s Office to facili-
tate Japanese foreign direct investment
should ensure that implementation actually
occurs. Less appreciated is the agreement
between the two countries to trade in strate-
gic rare earth materials, something which
China now has a monopoly in and which
has been buffeted by pricing conflict.
If anything, China has been ahead of
Japan in wooing India. Chinese President
Xi Jinping was the first foreign leader to
call Modi to congratulate him on his electoral victory. He has invited India for the
first time to the APEC summit that China is
hosting in November, a recognition of
India’s rising power in Asia. Xi traveled to
New Delhi last week with a large delegation
including more than 135 CEOs. India is
seen as a huge market for Chinese cash surplus and good return on investment.
Both leaders recognize that Chinese
investment in India is critical to allay India’s
concern over its ballooning trade deficit
with its largest trading partner. Modi and
Xi are pragmatists who are highly unlikely
to let the festering border issue get in the
way of economic relations which have been
galloping ahead since the mid-2000s.
The outcome of these fast moving relationships in Asia is that for India, the US is
now becoming just first among equals.
India’s decision in July to block a World Trade
Organization trade facilitation protocol that would affect
Indian agricultural subsidies has brought India and the US
into a direct conflict of interest.
Though India has increased caps on foreign investment
in defense and insurance sectors from 26% to 49%,
Washington was expecting much greater liberalization. The
much vaunted ‘pivot’ to Asia by the US in late 2011 is
receiving mixed reviews in India. It is not clear where additional breakthroughs are going to be made in Indo-US relations when Modi comes calling in Washington.
There is little reason to think that a pragmatic and pro-active Modi government cannot maintain steady progress
on foreign policy —except for one: The vagaries of domestic politics diverting the government.
Most worrisome in this regard is the growing communal
polarization and unrest in India’s largest state of Uttar
In UP at least, a communal agenda is being revived
which is drowning out the development agenda that is
ascendant in other parts of the country. It is vital for India
that economic development remains the main agenda in
both foreign policy and domestic policy.
Deepa M Ollapally is the Research Professor of
For India, the US is now
International Affairs and Associate Director, Sigur Center
for Asian Studies, Elliott School of International Affairs,
George Washington University.
just first among equals
‘There is little reason to think that a pragmatic and pro-active Modi government cannot maintain steady progress on foreign policy — except for one: The vagaries of domestic politics diverting the government. Most worrisome in this regard is the growing communal polarization and unrest in India’s largest state of Uttar Pradesh.
Uttar Pradesh's Muzaffarnagar district has been tense after last year’s communal riots. A member of India’s security forces stands guard inside a polling station in Parla village in the district in April 2014.
Where will additional breakthroughs
be made in Indo-US relations, asks
Deepa M Ollapally