Mid-term review of Modi’s foreign policy

Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi with President of the United States Barack Obama in April 2016.
Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi with President of the United States of America Barack Obama in April 2016.

At the first look, PM Modi’s foreign policy looks awe-inspiring. The kind of capital and energy which has been invested by him in realizing his foreign policy objectives are incredible. But what are the outcomes of his foreign policy initiatives? How he has been able to mould international opinion and environment in India’s favor? What is the state of his ‘neighborhood-first’ policy?

A General Picture –

What were the major foreign policy objectives of the Modi Government when it assumed power in 2014 and to what extent has it achieved those objectives? The most important objective for PM Modi was to mend his personal relationship with the United States. PM Modi has imparted a new impetus to this relationship because of his dynamic personality and energetic participation.

PM Modi had a good experience with China since his ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ summit days as the Chief Minister of the Indian State of Gujarat. He even tried to mend the ties initially but Indian overtures were not adequately reciprocated. Rather we have entered into a field of tensions with China but this responsibility lies with the Chinese leadership alone with its ‘hypernationalistic’ ambitions.

In context of the neighbors, PM Modi did very well with regards to Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, with Nepal in particular but the situation is quite different now.

One of the unique initiatives of PM Modi was his thorough engagement with the Indian diaspora, which probably no other previous Prime Minister gave so much attention to, as part of building up the image of India abroad.

What are the legacy gains of PM Modi?

PM Modi has not brought a new foreign policy but his initiatives are marked by continuity but with much vigour and activeness. So, there is nothing new that he has done which he predecessors have not done. For example – Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh and Civil Nuclear Deal with Japan were already in pipeline, but he surely injected decisiveness, strong diplomacy and energy to such initiatives to make them a successful venture for India. He has brought greater clarity to the objectives of Indian foreign policy, something which was missing earlier. He had declared it during his campaign days itself that he aims to bring समृद्धि (Economic Prosperity), सुरक्षा (Security) and स्वाभिमान (Status – India must sit at the high tables to shape international decision making). If we look overall, his foreign policy has made significant gains over all these areas.

Personalised approach of PM Modi to his foreign policy –

Foreign policy is a personalized approach in most of the countries today. The times of designing foreign policy by the Foreign Ministers and the supporting diplomats has gone away with the Chief Executive or the real head of the State taking a leap in the architecture of a country’s foreign policy. It is also not new to India as Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were the central authority of their foreign policy administration. In the world of sovereign actors having their own interest individually, a personalised foreign policy approach has certain limitations, however decisive it is in domestic politics. Therefore, PM Modi understood this fact and penetrated his prudence from all the constraints of a fluid international environment by bringing -:

  1. Decisiveness
  • Firstly, he has shown strong political for the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh despite opposition from own party members in West Bengal.
  • Secondly, he has successfully completed the Indo-US Nuclear deal which was languishing over a range of ‘liability’ issues under his personal capacity.
  • The same can be applied for Chabahar Port in Iran and India-Japan Nuclear Deal.

Hence, he deserves good marks for completion of long-pending projects which lacked political decisiveness earlier.

  1. Acceptance of India as a major power –
  • Previous Government showed reluctance to accept India as a major power, but PM Modi has shed away this reluctance and comprehensively accepted India as a major power not just regionally but in global terms too. This has changed the entire global narrative concerning Indian interests internationally.


  1. Greater emphasis on cultural footprints –
  • He has paid effective attention to spreading the cultural footprints of India across the world. This has created a new impetus for strengthening India’s soft power.

PM Modi’s effect on India-US relations –

Certainly, the relations have improved despite the trade disputes prevailing between the two. But, it should be noted that even the closest allies of the United States have their own trade or other disputes with it, because no international relation is in perfect synergy to each other. PM Modi’s overtures to the United States might bring fruitful results for India under the Trump administration. It has been made clear by the new administration that if your interests align with the US, they will open their doors of opportunity for you. India is having more than 50 dialogues with the United States in almost every major field relating from defence to trade to education. This relationship has also opened doors for other avenues in international politics such as the strengthening of relationship between Australia, Canada and Japan. The nuclear deals with all these three major partners are premised on the India-US nuclear deal in some way or the other. The strengthening of India-US bonds has also given India a strategic room to manoeuvre its relationship vis-à-vis China. India has signed a ‘Joint Vision document on Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean’ with the United States which has infuriated China to the core.

It is futile to assume that the United States would fully support India on all the issues, hence, it should be a strategic calculation of positives and negatives to judge this relationship. Apparently, the positives outweigh the negatives under PM Modi’s leadership.

Is India relying far too heavily on the United States for its quest to become a major global power?

This question arises quite too often in the domestic as well as international media. It should be noted that diplomacy is transactional. So, it is not just that America is being transactional, but it is true that we are transactional too. The question is that what benefits are we reaping or going to reap out of this transactional relationship? Media is assuming that the United States is forcing us to buy defence equipment in reciprocity for their trust. It is a false notion because India requires defence equipment with modern technology and most of them were unavailable to us due to various sanctions. As the sanctions have been lifted, India is pursuing its need by buying such equipment. Also this is not a unilateral purchase alone. When India believes that few defence equipment from Russia or Israel are superior to that of the United States, we do not hesitate to buy the same from them. Therefore, the question of a unilateral military or defence alignment with the United States stand defeated.

The truth is that today we are in a happy position of deciding that we will have the choice of technology and we can shop it from anywhere. The only change is that the American doors that were earlier shut have been thrown open for India, due to stiff competition from Israel and Russia.

India-US security cooperation has been strengthened too as evident from the fact that the United States is our virtual insurance against China in the region. There is a strong cooperation between India and US on the Pakistani front too. The President-elect of the United States has spoken very forwardly against terrorism which might benefit India during his presidential term. If he is going to be hard on terrorism, then there is no way that he can ignore Pakistan’s role in exporting terrorism to many of the areas in South Asian region and beyond. This would be beneficial for India.

Similarly, the President-elect also openly speaks against Chinese techniques of currency and trade manipulation which means he also sees China as a security threat for the United States and others in the region. This would be beneficial for India too. It should be seen if India was prepared to accept the Republican victory or is it merely an uncharted territory for India. But we should not completely tie our relationship with what the new administration does with Pakistan and China.

If the United States makes a retreat in its globalist military presence in the region, we shall build new alliances with Japan, Vietnam and Eurasian countries in particular. In case of a retreat from the Western Pacific region by the United States, the ‘Joint Vision Statements’ that India has signed with the United States would hollow out because the United States is the linchpin of this vision.

There is a bipartisan political support in India to build India-US ties along all the major fields. Therefore, it is not a question of how close you go to someone, but it is important how you leverage each relationship in terms of your interests.

India – China –

Prime Minister Modi has confidently dealt with China. He spoke eloquently about the Chinese expansionist policies in Japan and reminded them that there is no room for expansionism in today’s world but there is ample room for development in this era as it is in the interests of everyone. India understands that China is the second most powerful country in the world so we cannot seek confrontation with it but we have to deal with it pragmatically. PM Modi has maintained a strategic balance with China which would be significant for India in the long run.

China is not a littoral state; it is our biggest neighbor. Therefore, we have to count this factor while deciding our strategies even for the Western Pacific region and the South China Sea.

India-Russia –

There are allegations of potential economic and geopolitical costs of alienating Russia in our quest of rebuilding our relationship with the United States. Contrary to this popular belief, PM Modi has rather made extra efforts to reinforce this partnership. But the fact is that whenever our strategic thinkers argue about the deterioration of India-Russia relations, they think of it in terms of Soviet Union, which does not exist today. Russia is a weaker link to our global aspirations and it is incapable of giving the kind of services that we were used to in the past during Soviet Union times. At the same time, Russia remains a very important partner because the military cooperation would continue for a very long time to come as much of our military equipment is procured from Russian manufacturers. We are also dealing with Russia in the production of 5th Generation Fighter Aircraft and S-400 air defence systems.

India is going to be dependent on Russia on the Energy sector too. Russia has civil nuclear plans for India, while India is procuring oil and gas fields in Russia (Sakhalin Oil field) and expanding its investments in the energy sector in Russia.

The problem with Russian relationship lies in the fact that while India’s relationship with the United States has improved, the Russian relationship with the United States has deteriorated very sharply. Although these were two independent processes, Russia has been forced into Chinese arms to explore how to counter American influence globally. Hence, wherever there is any development of friction between the relationship of United States and any other country, the Russians are coming to fill the void. This adequately explains the developing Russia-Pakistan relationship. In this part of the world, Russia is making a very big mistake where his negatives outweigh the positives. India certainly hopes that the Russian leadership would realize it very soon.

(Note – Russia has formally made it clear that it is not in favor of China Pakistan Economic Corridor)

India-Pakistan –

Flip-flops are very much the parts of our strategy towards Pakistan. The most important policy of PM Modi towards Pakistan is that he has changed the structure of this relationship. By crossing the LoC for surgical strikes against the terrorists, he has raised the quality of deterrence that India has ever showcased against Pakistan. PM Modi has also brought horizontal escalation in terms of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and even talking about internal security situation of Pakistan (Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). Hence, the use of coercion to change the rules of engagement has been quite successful in terms of India’s Pakistan policy.

India’s neighbourhood policy –

PM Modi made an extra effort to improve the relationship with the neighbors taking into account the general perception that India is not good in dealing with its neighbors and it shows the ‘big-brother attitude’ to all of its neighbors in the region. PM Modi tried to win them over, tie them into our economy and build greater influence in the region based on mutual trust and cooperation. But the external powers have managed to penetrate the region with their economic influence which is not in sync with our desired objectives. Even if few new overtures were planned post-Modi coronation, the old projects are being materialised in the region with great vigour. India cannot interfere in the sovereignty of neighbours as it might breed mistrust for decades. Knowing this fact, few neighbours are trying to rebalance India’s growing stature with external powers like United States and China.

Non Alignment Movement –

Non-alignment Movement is dead yet we are engaging with them at appropriate times. India’s relationship with most of the developing countries are much broader and much bigger today than at the peak of the Non-Alignment Movement. India has its own custom made non alignment policy now as opposed to the NAM. India is now a member of G20, BRICS, SCO, IBSA and other institutions which are essential for India’s engagement with the non-western world. NAM is just a footnote in history which would wither away sooner than later.

India-Japan –

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came up with the concept of Indo-Pacific cooperation i.e. the confluence of the seas. Our partnership with Japan is covering the entire Pacific and Indian Ocean region. PM Modi must be credited for realizing the truth that even though the United States may provide a security umbrella to the countries of this region, it is actually the countries themselves who should be cooperating bilaterally and even multilaterally to ensure a secured and sustainable future for all. Japan is not just the source of economic prosperity for India but it is gradually becoming a source of security for India in this region through all the efforts that PM Modi and PM Shinzo Abe’s personal relationship has brought for India. Hence, India must cultivate its relationship with Japan and keep it close to us in the future.

About the question of Chinese concerns, we should remember that it does not cater to the fact that what India might think when it engages with our neighbors and Pakistan in particular. Therefore, we must not limit our engagement with Japan merely on the fact that what China might think. It should be a beneficial partnership for both India and Japan. Even if there are consequences from Chinese side, India might not be too worried about it because given the fact that our engagements in this game are multi-oriented, our relationship with Japan and other powers are stronger than ever and it will continue to grow further. There is no reason to paralyze such initiatives just because of Chinese concerns. India under PM Modi has realized this, even if it is late in time.

India’s Act East Policy under PM Modi –

It is an extension of Look East Policy fabricated by former Prime Minister P V Narsimharao. The weakness of our Act East Policy is that our implementation is not good enough as evident from the past experiences of Chabahar, Afghanistan and big projects in Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. PM Modi has clarified that when he say Act East, he looks up till the Western shores of the United States. In context of this region, PM Modi has made significant progress ranging from Australia to the littoral nations of the Pacific, Japan and other ASEAN countries in particular.

Building a set of flexible Asian coalition that do not include China and USA would help deepen ties with the allies of US and China as well as the non-aligned Asian nations who are all seeking extra layer of insurance against the possibility of China’s non-peaceful rise. Delhi’s strategic cooperation with these and other Asian middle powers, including Indonesia, is likely to win greater domestic support than an Asian strategy that relies solely on American commitment to maintain the regional balance of power. For it to be achieved, India needs to raise the quality and intensity of India’s defence engagement in the region.

India needs to be multi focus in foreign policy as we’re not a ‘one issue country’ like many small countries. We’re destined to be a regional and a global player, therefore we must act in various regions, at various levels and with various countries. We know our national interest very well but we fail to have a coherent action plan to achieve our objectives because we’re hobbled by various things including our domestic problems.  UNLESS YOU ARE STRONG INTERNALLY, YOU CAN’T BE STRONG EXTERNALLY.

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A blogger, writer and reader who encapsulates diverse opinions in a dialectical manner.