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The Foreign Policy Inbox of the Next Indian (a Modi?) Government

by Alyssa Ayres
May 9, 2014

File photo: Narendra Modi, prime ministerial candidate for India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Gujarat's chief minister, speaks during the "Vibrant Gujarat Summit" at Gandhinagar in the western Indian state of Gujarat on January 12, 2013 (Amit Dave/Courtesy: Reuters). File photo: Narendra Modi, prime ministerial candidate for India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Gujarat's chief minister, speaks during the "Vibrant Gujarat Summit" at Gandhinagar in the western Indian state of Gujarat on January 12, 2013 (Amit Dave/Courtesy: Reuters).

This post is part of a series on the Indian elections.

I had the opportunity yesterday to speak with three of India’s leading foreign policy experts on what the next Indian government’s foreign policy inbox would contain. Given that the latest opinion polls overwhelmingly favor the Bharatiya Janata Party, our panel focused on the likely policy priorities of a Narendra Modi-led government. Our half hour Google Hangout, now viewable on CFR’s YouTube channel, featured the Times of India’s senior diplomatic editor, Indrani Bagchi; Gateway House’s founder and executive director, Manjeet Kripalani; and the Delhi Policy Group’s director general, Dr. Radha Kumar. Each highlighted a series of priorities a Modi government would likely pursue.

Manjeet had just returned from five days observing the campaign trail in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and she kicked off our discussion with some reflections on the energy animating young India’s enthusiasm for Mr. Modi. (India has around 100 million first-time voters in this election; demographically, more than 50 percent of the population is under age 25). She remarked in particular that the Modi campaign had managed to break the one-time truism of politics in North India: that caste rules. Instead, she found that his appeal cut across caste groups and had given India’s youth a “view of their future.” Young people told her they would vote for him because he would give them jobs.

So what would a Modi government take as its diplomatic priorities? Indrani noted that the next government’s foreign policy would likely be “intimately tied” to economic priorities. India’s recent economic downturn will require serious work to rebuild, and the next Indian government would likely utilize the tools of diplomacy to help reinvigorate the Indian economy, including through pitching for investment. Indian diplomats may very well find themselves spending more time on trade promotion and attracting investment–a subject Modi has spoken about frequently. (Read Indrani’s column on this here).

The question of Afghanistan and regional stability following the United States and international troop drawdown is matter of enormous concern to India due to the threat of terrorism in the region. Radha first explained that the next Indian government would hope to see the long-awaited Bilateral Security Agreement signed between the United States and Afghanistan, as well as a Status of Forces Agreement with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, in order to “give a level of confidence” for international engagement in Afghanistan—which India would view as helpful to regional stability. But she noted that it appears clear that post-2014, the onus will fall to the Heart of Asia countries to “take initiatives for stabilization and of course economic investment in Afghanistan.” So the next Indian government will need to be looking at ways to work with China and Russia and others on these questions.

On the important related question of Pakistan, Radha sees the next Indian government as looking to continue the Vajpayee-initiated outreach, perhaps putting “more muscle into it” and looking to see what opportunities might be possible through the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, or bilaterally. That said, Radha expressed concern that Pakistan’s own volatility might prove limiting to India’s options for normalization—but India should continue to try. (The Delhi Policy Group’s regional conference report on Afghanistan can be accessed here, and recent work on Pakistan here).

Looking at international economic priorities from the perspective of India’s financial capital, Mumbai, Manjeet observed the intrinsic importance of cross-border trade between India and Pakistan as necessary to realize a South Asian century. Indian and Pakistani businesspeople suffer what she called a “30 percent tax” in cross-border trade since it is routed via the United Arab Emirates rather than directly. A Modi government would likely be “practical” on Pakistan, looking for economic growth enhanced by trade-led efforts toward normalization of Indo-Pak ties. She felt that inclusion of India in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement would go a long way to realizing regional trade potential. (Her take on the corridors of India’s economic diplomacy can be found here).

These are just a few of the highlights of our discussion; for the rest of the Hangout, including what the next Indian government would be looking for from the United States, take a look at the video!

Follow me on Twitter: @AyresAlyssa 

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