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A Decade Of Modi's Foreign Policy: From Aspiration To Assertion – IMPRI Impact And Policy Research Institute

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A Decade of Modi's Foreign Policy: From Aspiration to Assertion

Harsh V Pant

A day might be a long time in politics, but in foreign policy, even a decade is usually not long enough to merit a serious appraisal. The last decade, however, has witnessed a phenomenal change in both the scale and the scope of global politics. At the same time, politics in India has undergone a tectonic shift too. Inevitably then, India’s foreign policy was bound to be affected as well. But it’s not just that. Beyond global shifts, it is also Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal involvement in the realm of external relations that has accorded India a unique place in contemporary international affairs today.

Proving The Critics Wrong

It is easy to forget that when Modi came to power in 2014, his critics had painted him as a provincial politician who didn’t have adequate engagement with foreign policy. His ‘Hindu nationalist’ credentials were deemed to be a liability that would constrain India’s outreach to the Islamic world, in particular.

But Modi has managed to keep both his detractors as well as his supporters on tenterhooks by following a pragmatic foreign policy, keeping the ‘India first’ mantra at its core. Right from the time he surprised everyone by inviting all South Asian nations to his swearing-in ceremony in 2014, to the current day, when a visit to Bhutan is in the works in the midst of a gruelling election campaign, Indian foreign policy has been ‘Modi-fied’ in ways that were not expected when Modi took the reins a decade ago. 

Of course, India’s emergence as the centrepiece of contemporary global political discourse has a lot to do with the structural changes shaping the international order. The shifting balance of power and growing disillusionment with China in the West has focused the world’s attention on India, which has emerged as the fastest-growing major economy in the world. India’s favourable demographics, its position as an attractive alternative to China, and its centrality in the key strategic geography of the Indo-Pacific have together contributed to making this India’s moment.

Modi Towards Being A ‘Rule-Shaper’

What has also changed is New Delhi’s growing willingness to be more proactive on the global stage, which is in line with its aim of taking on the role of a ‘rule-shaper’. Modi’s diplomacy on the global stage has managed to give wings to India’s aspirations of playing a larger international role. Consequently, Indian foreign policy has made the most of this inflexion point in world affairs.

In the last decade, India’s image of being a perpetual naysayer in global politics has changed to a nation that is more than willing to contribute to global governance. Just last week, the Indian Navy’s rescue of a commercial ship that had been hijacked by pirates off Somalia’s coast is a sign that Indian policymakers today are ready and willing to assume operational burdens in order to ensure the safety of commercial shipping as well as freedom of navigation in strategically vital waterways.

The artificial divide between the domestic and the foreign also seems to have faded under Modi. India’s key priority remains its domestic developmental transformation, and for that, what’s needed is an all-hands-on-deck approach. Indian diplomacy, too, is geared towards harnessing the country’s developmental aspirations. This has brought about an inherent pragmatism in New Delhi’s external outreach, wherein though partnerships have become key, India’s needs, and not ideologies, determine the contours of its engagements. From building robust ties with the West to sustaining an important partnership with Russia through the tricky landscape of the Ukraine crisis, India has managed to insulate its global engagement from the growing turbulence around it.

‘Neighbourhood First’

The Modi government’s regional outlook under the “Neighbourhood First” approach has sought to promote regional stability and prosperity, recognising the importance of a secure and cooperative neighbourhood for India’s overall development and security. The focus of New Delhi’s South Asia policy has shifted from its fixation with Pakistan to the more productive Bay of Bengal maritime geography, which lends itself to a more organic connect between South and Southeast Asia. This permanent de-hyphenation of India and Pakistan is perhaps the single most important achievement of the last decade, allowing New Delhi to focus on the real strategic challenge: China.

Modi had initially started off by reaching out to China so as to manage its rise through diplomatic engagement. Beijing, however, had other plans. India’s stance after the Galwan Valley crisis of 2020, that Sino-Indian relations cannot be normal unless the border situation is resolved, is audacious, and there has been no going back on that. India’s growing footprint in East and Southeast Asia and its inclination to shape the strategic contours of the wider Indo-Pacific underscore a new reality: New Delhi will not be diffident as it seeks a greater regional and global role for itself.

Dropping The Ideological Baggage

Over the last few years, New Delhi has not been averse to challenging adversaries and courting friends, and it has done these things without the ideological baggage of the past.

From being the only global power to challenge Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative as far back as 2014, responding to Chinese military aggression with a strong military pushback, trying to work with the US without entering into the full embrace of an alliance, to engaging the West for building domestic capacities, India has been pragmatic to the core and willing to use the extant balance of power to its advantage. India’s focus today is on enhancing its capabilities in every possible sector, and that allows for a more clear-eyed engagement with its partners.

A Responsible Stakeholder

The world, which has been more used to a pontificating India of the past, today hears an Indian voice on the global stage that is capable of articulating a narrative of a responsible stakeholder, which, despite being firmly steeped in its own ethos, is not willing to shirk global commitments.

New Delhi led the way in shaping the regional response to the Covid-19 pandemic in South Asia, which then became global in scope. The Indian initiative to support its neighbours with critical supplies of medicines and later vaccines as part of the Vaccine Maitri initiative was a reflection of a new confidence in India that it can offer solutions to global problems. India’s G-20 presidency is only a recent example of how Modi’s leadership on the international front has made a mark.

This is a challenging time in global politics, but Modi has given India a unique and special voice over the last decade. More than any other major power today, Indians view their future in aspirational terms, and that is shaping their domestic as well as foreign engagements. Modi has been successful not only in tapping into that sentiment effectively, but also, in a sense, shaping that aspiration into his own image. And that’s a formidable legacy.

Harsh V Pant is a Professor of International Relations at King’s College London and vice-president for studies at Observer Research Foundation (ORF).

The article was first published as 10 Years Of Modi’s Foreign Policy: Aspiration Meets Self-Assurance in NDTV on March 21, 2024.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organization.

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Acknowledgement: This article was posted by Tanu Paliwal , a research intern at IMPRI.

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