Friends or Foes: A Foreign Policy Dilemma

Map of India and its neighbours

Avani Tewari is a 19 year old law student and blogger from New Delhi. In this web dossier she will be blogging her reflection on the main debates in the media after the elections and her personal impression of the political discussion every week.

Two major issues dominated the media discourse in the last week. The first was Modi’s visit to Bhutan and the larger issue of foreign policy objectives of the BJP government. The second was the news regarding demand for the resignation of governors, and other constitutional appointees, who had been appointed during the earlier regime. In both cases, the important aspect was whether Modi would give continuity to the policies of the UPA government. In the first case, continuity would have a constructive aspect to it, whereas in the second it would arise from the arrogance of power and continuity of lessons not learnt from past mistakes as had been done by the UPA government. A little bit of detail on these two issues is what I have dwelt on in my current post.

India is believed to have formally established relations for the first time with Greece. Megasthenes, a diplomat from Greece was sent to the kingdom of Chandragupta Maurya (Indian emperor around 322 BC). This helped the Indian empire in establishing friendly relations with other contemporary powerful empires. The importance of formulating foreign policy and communications with other countries was also highlighted by the Indian scholar Chanakya whose book Arthashashtra, written in the 4th century BCE, is considered a classic treatise on statecraft, military strategy and economic policy.

In today’s era, it is important for a country to maintain good relations with its neighbours as also major powers like USA, UK, Germany, France, Japan and China. Having cordial relations with countries who can help in developing trade and commerce is also vital. Hence regional blocs like the ASEAN, BRICS etc become important. Before the election results came out, various predictions were being made regarding the contours of Narendra Modis foreign policy. According to an article in the Deccan Chronicle, “Narendra Modi was projected as a divisive persona from day one by his critics. They feared that under his leadership South Asia would become a nuclear flashpoint. Many even predicted an Indo-Pak war as inevitable in the event of Mr Modi becoming the Prime Minister.”[1] American political analysts, too, were unsure of Modi’s foreign policy because most of the issues he dealt with in his election campaign were domestic. Also it was speculated that Modi might not give the same priority to the ties with US because he had been denied a US visa for his alleged involvement in the Gujarat riots. Dr. Assem Shukla writing in The Rediff said, “that an attempt was made to turn Modi into a metaphor, a convenient foil to not just stifle the rise of Modi, but also the right-of-centre economic and social conservatism he propounds.”[2] The question to me, therefore, was whether the initial pointers were indicative of a divisive foreign policy agenda as had been predicted or would Modi prove his detractors wrong.

Modi in his election campaign clearly and explicitly mentioned that reviving the country’s economy would be his topmost priorities. To boost a country’s economy it is imperative that a country maintains a cordial relationship with countries that can collaborate in trade and commerce. Since India is a country surrounded by neighbour’s who have a developing economy, it is important for India to have the support of its neighbours to prosper. PM Modi’s recent visit to Bhutan and inviting the leaders of SAARC nations for the swearing-in ceremony was seen as a move to establish friendly relations with our neighbours. An article in the Hindustan Times says that, “Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made a significant gesture in refocusing foreign policy towards real politik. It is now time to revive South Asian amity.”[3]

The first visit by the PM to Bhutan, the smallest of our neighbour, has shown that the PM is willing to respect the neighbouring nations and make sure that these nations move together with India. Commenting on the visit to Bhutan, The Indian Express mentions that, “It shows that he is aware of the region’s critical importance to India’s economic dynamism and strategic strength. As Modi has rightly emphasised, a strong and economically vibrant India is necessary for peace and stability in the region.”[4]

Being the biggest country in South Asia, the visit to Bhutan was also seen as a move by the Indian government to show its clout and primacy in the Asian subcontinent. An article in the Indian Express states that, “The PM’s decision to prioritise the immediate neighbourhood also underscores his understanding that foreign policy begins at the nation’s borders — that if India cannot reclaim its primacy in the subcontinent, it will not see the rest of the world taking it seriously.”[5] To me it appears that Modi has given a hint to India’s neighbouring countries that they would get friendly cooperation from the Indian government.

One of the significant challenges Modi faces is balancing threats to India’s national security while maintaining good relations and peace with its neighbours. India has had a long history of dispute with Pakistan. The conflict between the two nations has witnessed a lot of forms ranging from riots, war and terrorism. Other then Pakistan, India is also involved with a border dispute with China. Herein would lie the challenge as BJP as an opposition party had called for a more robust response to the threats emanating from India’s neighbours especially Pakistan. According to the Economic Times, Narendra Modi is widely expected to follow a more muscular policy towards Pakistan if he takes charge as prime minister. Given his tough image and no-nonsense stand on cross-border terrorism, though, the BJP's prime ministerial candidate has given rather confusing signals on his likely approach towards India's hostile neighbour.”[6] However, after the invitation to SAARC leaders to the swearing in ceremony, it is being projected that regional cooperation would be Modi government’s topmost priority.

There has also been an ongoing debate if the Modi Government would remove all  state governors, which have been appointed by the former UPA government (In India, the governor is the constitutional and ceremonial head of the province or state just as the President is the constitutional head of the country). The debate is whether the office of the governor should be related to policies and ideologies of the ruling party in the centre. A Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court had also ruled in 2010 that “change in government at Centre is not a ground for removal of Governors holding office to make way for others favoured by the new government”[7]. An article in the Hindu states that “The real test of the new government’s democratic credentials would be whether it resists the temptation to replace the Congress politicians and favourites with its own party men put out to pasture, and appoints suitable eminent personalities in line with the Sarkaria Commission’s recommendations.”[8] However some have suggested that a governor of a state should automatically resign once the political regime of the country changes. “It is a settled convention in the Westminster model of democracies, which India practises, that all political appointees of the previous government go with the change of guard on the grounds of political propriety.” [9] This can be a test to the democratic credentials of the government.

Modi, through the steps he has taken until now, has clearly shown that economic development of the nation through regional cooperation would be the imperative factor, while deciding India’s interactions and relations with other countries notwithstanding the disputes with neighbours which are a huge threat to the country’s national security. By visiting Bhutan and inviting the SAARC leaders Modi has given a positive signal regarding the contours of his foreign policy agenda. By accepting the US president’s invitation to visit the US, he has also indicated that the Realpolitik of governance overshadows the bitterness of the past.

While the success of the new government’s foreign policy initiatives as well as its democratic credentials would be evident in the longer run, there appears to be nothing which has reflected a break in the continuity of policies from the previous regime.


[1] KG Suresh, “Narendra Modi’s first foreign policy initiative shows his far-sightedness”, Deccan Chronicle, May 29th 2014

[2] The Rediff News, “How Modi’s Demonisation fuelled his rise”, The Rediff News May 29th 2014

[3] Varun Gandhi, “ India Shouldn’t let go of a chance to rebuild ties with neighbours.”, Hindustan Times, June 19th 2014

[4] The News Indian Express, “ Modi’s Bhutan Visit a Good Start for Peace”, The Indian Express, June 17th 2014

[5] The News Indian Express, “ Thimphu Beginning”, The Indian Express, June 7th 2014

[6] Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury & Masood Hussain, “Elections 2014: Narendra Modi likely to follow a more muscular policy towards Pakistan if he becomes PM.”, The Economic Times, May 3rd 2014

[7] B.P. Singhal Vs. Union of India & ANR. [2010] INSC 365 

[8] The Hindu, “Democratic Credentials on Test”, The Hindu, June 19th 2014

[9] The News Indian Express, “Governors Must Honour New Mandate at Centre”, The Indian Express, June 20th 2014