It is traditional wisdom to argue that foreign policy is a negligible factor in Indian elections. While it is undeniable that voters are primarily concerned with quotidian economic issues and questions of identity, it would be unfair to conclude that foreign policy is a mere sideshow that concerns a small group of well-off elites. It is worth remembering that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the 2019 election on the back of an election campaign that placed questions of national security at the forefront. After the Pulwama attack and the air strikes conducted by the Indian air force, national security and India’s relationship with Pakistan became important electoral issues. A sizable chunk of the electorate was convinced that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had delivered a befitting reply to Pakistan and this perception helped the BJP seal the election with a huge mandate in its favor.
The BJP has consistently relied on its foreign policy credentials to bolster its domestic popularity; foreign policy machismo is central to Modi’s image as a strongman. The government now touts India as a “Vishwaguru” (world teacher), an exemplary state that is a role model for others. With elections round the corner in 2024, it was by design that India’s G-20 presidency last year was advertised by the government as indicating India’s arrival on the world stage as a country in the comity of great powers. The BJP will continue to drive home these messages as it gears up for campaigning.
Moreover, the condition of the Hindu minorities in Pakistan and Bangladesh has always animated BJP’s election campaigns. Regional parties have also made ethnic issues outside national borders into key poll planks. The Sri Lankan Tamil issue played an important role in the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam winning 18 of the 39 states in Tamil Nadu in the 2009 elections. And for people who live in border areas, India’s relationship with its neighbors is always a key electoral issue.
What could be the other foreign policy discourses around this election? India’s biggest strategic challenge at present comes from China. The opposition has vehemently criticized the government’s handling of the border situation with China. It was after all on Modi’s watch in 2020 that 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a clash with China in the Galwan Valley, the first such incident in at least 45 years. The opposition, especially the Indian National Congress and Rahul Gandhi, will likely bring up India’s loss of patrolling rights and the government’s inability to restore the status quo ante in order to dent Modi’s image as a national security hawk.
Since assuming office, Modi’s talk on China has been understandably more measured compared to before he came to office in 2014, when he labeled China an expansionist country. As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi frequently criticized the then Congress-led government for its failure to secure India’s borders and for its soft approach to Beijing. The roles have now reversed, and it is the opposition that calls out the pusillanimity of the Modi government in failing to stand up to China even as the latter occupies Indian territory. The BJP in response will likely lambast the Congress for the historical mistakes that have led to present difficulties.
The exchange of barbs between the two sides will be unfortunate at a time when a serious political consensus is required to make tough decisions regarding what a realistic compromise with China would look like. No political groundwork is being done to prepare for a future border settlement; the government has allowed no parliamentary debate on the standoff with China and has not been too keen on taking the opposition into confidence. The upcoming election will further highlight that while military asymmetry will hold back India from going to war with China, rancorous domestic politics will not allow it the luxury of peace either.
This is not to suggest that the opposition is against the government’s China policy in toto. India is now clearly more forthright in forging strategic partnerships with other nations sharing an adversarial relationship with China. It is far less concerned with coming across as being part of the China-containment coalition than previous governments were, and the opposition hasn’t criticized the Modi government for this shift. In strengthening military ties with countries like the United States and Japan, the government has deepened the initiatives by previous dispensations.
While India’s relationship with one great power, China, will be a point of disagreement between parties, her equation with the United States is unlikely to be a major bone of contention. With the decline of left parties, ideological antipathy toward Washington has all but vanished from Indian politics. There might be some quarrels over specific issues but there is now broad consensus in favor of India’s growing ties with the United States. Due to the rise of China, there is now a strong structural logic undergirding Delhi’s strategic partnership with Washington, an equation that will continue irrespective of which formation comes to power in the two countries.
Despite robust ties, the U.S. may, however, still receive an impolite mention. The BJP can rake up Rahul Gandhi’s interactions with U.S. media and academia to question the nationalist credentials of its leaders. The Congress leader’s speeches abroad criticizing the BJP have been interpreted by the ruling dispensation as undermining the national interest and – in an exaggerated stretch – as soliciting the support of foreign powers to meddle in India’s domestic affairs. The BJP and its vocal online supporters are extremely sensitive to any criticism leveled against the government in the Western press for its authoritarian and communal conduct and may wear the mantle of nationalism to present themselves as fighting off malign outside forces. Fervent anti-liberalism has replaced anti-Americanism as a vote-catching ploy.
While name-dropping Pakistan is never too far away from any election in India, there will be less political bickering among parties on the handling of the government’s relationship with Pakistan this time. In Modi’s first term, the opposition was critical of the prime minister’s frequent flip-flops, and there was a lack of cohesiveness in the government’s Pakistan policy.
However, since 2019, the India-Pakistan relationship has been in a state of suspended animation after the government scrapped Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which formally protected the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan has been adamant that there can be no engagement until India reverses the constitutional reforms in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, an implausible demand that scuttles any opportunity for further diplomacy. India’s strategic thinking on Pakistan has reached a strategic cul-de-sac and the opposition has precious little to say to break the impasse.
The two recent wars in Ukraine and Gaza have also generated traction in India. In the Russia-Ukraine war, there is a palpable public sympathy for Moscow present across divergent ideological camps. India’s opposition leaders have also agreed with the government’s view on the war. There is no political tendency advocating the view that India should join together with Western powers to isolate Russia. Only Shashi Tharoor, a consummate voice on global affairs from the opposition, has argued for India to abandon its neutral position on the war.
Hindu nationalism has historically been critical of India’s post-independence support for Palestine and labeled it as an appeasement of Muslims, although in reality there were strong pragmatic grounds to not alienate the Arab world. The conflict in Gaza is hence ideologically polarizing. The Congress and other opposition parties were critical of the government when India abstained from voting on the United Nations resolution in October, calling for an immediate humanitarian truce. India subsequently in December voted in favor of a draft resolution in the U.N. General Assembly that demanded an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas conflict as well as the unconditional release of all hostages. While officially India has continued with the two-state solution, the BJP and its supporters are clearly pro-Israel; Hindu nationalism welcomes Zionism as a kindred movement. The vitriolic communal discourse generated online after the beginning of the conflict may well seep into election campaigning.
While the 10 years of BJP rule have had a transformative effect on Indian politics and society, on foreign policy there is still a large degree of continuity between Modi’s administration and the earlier governments of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. What truly distinguishes Modi’s foreign policy is not so much the substance but the style. Indian elites as well as the public at large are now impatient for their country to join the ranks of great powers and exercise influence globally.
While the government extolling India’s current position in the world is more hype than substance, it is undeniable that Modi and his team have packaged their foreign policy and synchronized it with the zeitgeist of a country bubbling with ambition. Unless the opposition can find the idiom that convinces voters that it can lead the country to triumphant heights, it will leave the foreign policy terrain open for the sole advantage of the ruling party.