Does foreign policy matter in the elections?

A voter displays his inked finger for a photograph after casting his vote at a polling station during the third phase of voting for national elections in New Delhi, India, on Thursday, April 10, 2014.

Indias sixteenth general election is underways this April and May. Much of the contestation will be about the state of the country's economy, the quality of governance, the future of secularism and inevitably about the quality of leadership. Conspicuously absent from these debates, some of which are already taking on an acrimonious quality, is the question of the country's foreign policy. The mostly deafening silence about foreign policy issues in this election remains a persistent puzzle. The lack of discussion on questions of foreign policy is especially odd given that India is increasingly playing a greater role in global affairs.

What explains the scant attention to matters of foreign policy? The answer to this question is complex. In considerable part foreign policy does not capture the imagination of most voters simply because they find more quotidian issues more compelling. For the vast majority of India's electorate matters of municipal services, employment and inflation are of far greater salience than the ethereal realm of foreign policy. Few individuals have the requisite interest in and knowledge of foreign policy issues. More to the point, as a consequence of their low levels of concern about these matters they fail to understand how particular foreign policy choices might impinge on their everyday lives.

Voters find quotidian issues more important

Of course, the electorate alone is hardly to blame for this state of affairs. Given the limited salience of foreign policy concerns amongst most voters India's politicians have rarely, if ever, sought to educate the public about the content and direction of their country's foreign policy. Consequently, both the electorate and the political leadership have mutually reinforced this indifference toward foreign policy topics.

As a consequence, discussions of the country's foreign relations around the time of elections are mostly confined to elite circles. They are the preoccupation of India's attentive public composed of a very small body of journalists, academics, analysts and editorial commentators. Beyond this coterie of individuals, except in very specific circumstances, informed discussion and debate about foreign policy is largely absent and has few electoral consequences.

Only few foreign issues are of electoral concern

What then are the few instances when foreign policy issues come to the fore? Might there be any such issues as India heads to the polls? As in most elections, yet again this year, only a small handful of matters have been the subject of electoral concern. Narandra Modi, the appointed prime ministerial candidate of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has sought to highlight the significance of illegal immigration from Bangladesh into the border state of West Bengal. Of course, given his personal political predilections he has attempted to place a communal cast on the subject. Quite blatantly he has suggested that while Hindus from Bangladesh are quite welcome, no Muslim immigrants will find a safe haven in India.

There is little question that the problem of illegal immigration from Bangladesh constitutes a legitimate subject of public discussion. However, Modi appears more interested in turning it into a highly emotive ethno-religious question rather than a straightforward matter of securing the nation's borders. Though systematic public opinion data on the issue is unavailable it is quite reasonable to surmise that the fraught issue of illegal immigration will play well in a number of border districts in the state of West Bengal where noticeable demographic changes are under way thanks to widespread illegal immigration from Bangladesh.

Ethnic concerns used for populist sentiments

Other, similar regional ethnic concerns involving kinfolk in neighboring states are also surfacing in this election campaign. In the southern state of Tamil Nadu, the chief minister, Jayalalitha Jayaram, of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party, has deftly whipped up populist sentiment against the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government's foreign policy toward Sri Lanka. It has played on the resentment of much of the Tamil population of the state toward the Sinhala-dominated government in the country which has shown pitiably little regard for the plight of the indigenous Tamil minority. There is no question that the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka faces a mostly bleak future given the rise of Sinhala triumphalism in the wake of the end of the sanguinary Sri Lanka civil war in 2009. Consequently, the concern about their status amongst their co-ethnics in Tamil Nadu is entirely understandable.

However, it is also apparent that Jayalalitha (as she is popularly known) has chosen to dwell on this matter primarily as a way of bolstering her electoral fortunes. Her critique of the UPA's foreign policy is not based on broader intellectual and substantive differences but solely confined to this parochial issue that has exercised the imagination of her electorate. Efforts of this order though serving the interests of a local election campaign have the highly corrosive effect of undermining the pursuit of a coherent foreign policy on the part of the central (national) government.

Though it has not become an issue in the current election campaign similar regionally focused matters have wreaked havoc on the central government's efforts to pursue a clear set of foreign policy priorities. Barely two years ago, the mercurial chief minister of the state of West Bengal abruptly blocked a river-water sharing agreement with Bangladesh because, in her judgment, she had not been suitably consulted on how the accord might impact on certain agricultural communities in her state. Once again, while her misgivings may have been genuine, the abrupt decision to withdraw support for the proposed arrangement proved highly disruptive to Indo-Bangladesh bilateral ties. It remains to be seen if she now chooses to draw attention to her stance on this matter as the election campaign enters its last phases.

It is all but evident that regional satraps like her and her southern counterpart will play a significant role in any government that is elected later this year. Such an outcome is all but inevitable because all the current opinion polls are indicating that the electorate is likely to deliver a fractured verdict. Accordingly, despite the mostly low salience of foreign policy issues in the campaign regional issues that transcend India's national borders may well assume disproportionate significance for any regime that assumes office in June of this year.

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