Elections and Foreign Policy in India

Traditionally, foreign policy plays no role in Indian elections. Despite economic liberalization since 1991, the promotion of exports and increasing foreign direct investment, India is still not a heavy weight in the global economy. However, foreign policy issues have increasingly triggered domestic controversies and government crises in recent years. For example, protests against the nuclear deal with the United States in the summer of 2008 nearly led the government to collapse. The state government of West Bengal’s objection to a water treaty with Bangladesh in the fall of 2011 underlined the regional parties’ growing importance in foreign policy towards neighboring states. Due to India’s stance in the United Nations’ (UN) Human Rights Council regarding a resolution on war crimes in Sri Lanka, the largest Tamil party left the coalition government in spring of 2013.

The Manmohan Doctrine

Since 2004, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s foreign policy has followed the doctrine named after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, which places a central focus on economic cooperation and energy security. Economic relations to neighboring countries in South Asia have been developed based on the concept of “connectivity”. Remaining consistent with its predecessor, the UPA has also granted unilateral trade facilitation, thereby continuing the trend that can be seen in India’s South Asia policy since liberalization began in 1991. The region is being viewed less and less in terms of national security, and rather increasingly in the context of its own economic development and of the Indian market.

In the course of the dialogue that was started with Pakistan in 2004, Singh and Pakistani President Musharraf reached an agreement in 2007 on common principles to settle the Kashmir conflict. The attack in Mumbai in 2008 may have temporarily stopped the dialogue, but India remains committed to developing an economic relationship with Pakistan in order to promote closer ties.

Economic issues are also a focal point in the relationship with the People’s Republic of China, which is now India’s largest trading partner. A new agreement was reached in October 2013 to prevent border violations, which has repeatedly stressed bilateral relations. The agreement with the USA in 2008 over civil nuclear cooperation was probably Prime Minister Singh’s biggest foreign policy success. First, it ended India’s decades-long international isolation on this issue. Secondly, it aimed at increasing energy security and at opening the Indian market to foreign energy companies.

Foreign policy between interdependence and independence

Despite increasing economic interdependence, India is trying to hold on to its practice of foreign policy independence and strategic autonomy. The relationships to East and South East Asia are being further developed, where not only economic interests, but also its relationship to China has played a role. India has so far refrained from clearly taking sides in the territorial conflicts between China and its neighbours in East and South East Asia. Even in the rivalry between China and the USA, Manmohan Singh stayed true to the previous government’s line and did not pick sides, despite heavy lobbying from the Americans. Nevertheless, India was able to advance its ambitions of becoming a great power. This was achieved by the nuclear agreement; the strategic partnership agreement with, among others, the U.S., China, and the EU; as well as India’s participation in the G20, whose importance in the international arena has grown in recent years.

In the field of climate policy, India’s national development interests have a clear priority over global environmental and climate change considerations. In global governance negotiations, India seeks close cooperation with other emerging countries, such as within the BRICS framework; whereas the Non-Aligned Movement has clearly lost much of its importance. In regional crises such as in Libya and Syria, India emphasizes national sovereignty and views humanitarian intervention and the debate over the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) critically.

Continuity before change

So far, elections and changes in government have only rarely affected foreign policy. Therefore, a change in government to the BJP or a Third Front is more likely to result in continuity than change. There is a high cross-party consensus on national interests. Among those are the continuation of economic liberalization, a secure energy supply, equal standing with China, and the claim to a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. The BJP’s Hindu nationalistic agenda is more of a domestic challenge than a foreign policy one. Previous BJP governments have also made efforts to move closer to Pakistan and China.

To date, India’s international relevance has been derived from its demographic size and less from its weight in the world economy. International agreements in the fields of climate, environment and energy will only be successful if the Indian Union, which represents a sixth of the world population, participates. Singh has also paved the way for internal reforms to increase the long-term capacity to act in foreign policy. Consequently, the number of diplomats, currently at 800 and which is on par with Singapore shall be significantly increased in order to cope with the increased international demands. Furthermore, the Development Partnership Administration was newly established in 2012 to better coordinate Indian development cooperation. In addition, extensive military expenditure is aimed at supporting India’s long-term leadership ambitions in South Asia and the Indian Ocean.  

More articles, interviews, analyses, studies and publications in our web dossier:
"India's election year – Moving forward or standing still?"