Written by Harm van de Plassche
India: A Realist Power?
2023 marks a world historic year. For the first time in recorded history, China will not be the most populous country on earth (Sundaram, 2023). The shift comes at a time when the overtaking country, India, is assuming a key position in international politics. The war in Ukraine has accelerated the process of polarisation, which had already been observed prior to the invasion (Brands & Gaddis, 2021).
India occupies an uncertain position within this crystallising constellation. It does not vote for the motions put forward by Western countries in the UN General Assembly condemning Russian actions, nor does it seem to support Russia (Tharoor, 2022). Such ambiguity is not new for India. It pioneered the notion of non-alignment during the Cold War and has developed cordial relations with Russia, China, the United States, and the countries of the European Union (Guha, 2017). India’s behaviour has earned it the title of “realist power”, coolly weighing costs and benefits in international politics (Financial Times, 2022).
This calm and collected stance on the international stage seems to conflict with internal developments in Indian society. Most obvious amongst these is the political revolution that began in 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, the lower chamber of parliament. It repeated the feat in 2019 with an even more significant victory, thereby definitively breaking the political dominance of the Indian Congress Party. The BJP is no novice to Indian politics but rather the latest and most successful representative of a current of thought in Indian society and politics that has sought to strongly affirm India’s Hindu identity and has put the secular elements of the Indian constitution into question (Jaffrelot, 2021). Pratap Bhanu Mehta, one of India’s foremost intellectuals, recently declared that “the Indian Constitution is standing on the precipice” (Bhanu Mehta, 2023).
How to square these domestic developments with Indian foreign policy? This text will attempt to answer this question by sketching recent developments within Indian society and politics and examining how they have affected the country’s external posture. However, before launching into this enterprise, two disclaimers are in order. First, any text that has as its subject a sixth of the world’s population is bound to be schematic and to miss out on certain developments. This one is no different. Second, India is home to 22 major languages as recognised by its constitution and many other minor ones (Guha, 2017). Regrettably, this text only draws from Indian sources written in English and is therefore bound to emphasise the subjects and ideas that are overrepresented in this literature.
Analysing the Impact of Recent Internal Developments in India on its Foreign Policy
In 2014, the BJP achieved a historic result. For the first time in Indian history, a political party that was not the Indian Congress achieved an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha. The victory was the result of two processes that started in the early 1990s and were united in the figure of the new Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The first was the strong economic growth that India experienced after introducing liberal reforms in 1991 (Natarajan & Singha, 2021). Growth rates have stayed consistently above 5 per cent, which led to India overtaking the United Kingdom as the fifth-biggest economy in the world in 2022 (World Bank, 2023). Part of Modi’s popularity relied on even exceeding this performance. Modi had been Chief Minister of the West Indian state of Gujarat for the BJP since 2001, which enjoyed growth rates of 7 to 8 per cent under his leadership. The model of development that lay at the heart of this came to be known as the “Gujarat model” and focused on high degrees of investment in industry and infrastructure and close contact with large businesses. (Chandra & Walton, 2020).
However, the Chief Minister was also closely anchored to the Hindu Nationalist ideology that his party represents. As a young man, he had risen through the ranks of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the largest and oldest Hindu nationalist organisation. It and the BJP obtained real nationwide popularity thanks to a campaign in the early 90s calling for the land on which the Babri Mosque in the northern Indian city of Ayodhya was built, on the basis that a Hindu god had been born there. In 1992, the mosque was razed to the ground by Hindu fundamentalists, although the RSS and BJP claimed that they had not been directly responsible. Prominent members of both organisations have supported and abetted the intimidation of the Muslim and Christian minorities in India since then (Jaffrelot, 2021).
Modi’s foreign policy
Modi used both elements— his reputation for good economic management and Hindu nationalism – to lead the BJP to its absolute majority in 2014 (Jha, 2017). However, initially, only the first part of Modi’s identity, that of the skilled technocrat, seemed to shine through in his foreign policy. Modi announced that he would make trade and investment a priority. For the first time, foreign investors were allowed to own 100 percent of some companies located in India. He pursued a broadly pro-American orientation initiated by his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, who had signed the India–United States Civil Nuclear Agreement with George W. Bush. He also refocused Indian relations on the near neighbourhood, inviting all South Asian leaders, including the Prime Minister of Pakistan, to attend his inauguration. Finally, he made his presence felt throughout the world. In his first term between 2014 and 2019, Modi paid more state visits than his predecessor had in a decade as premier (Hall, 2019).
However, this last feature of Modi’s foreign policy also showcases something more important about how Indian foreign policy has evolved since Modi took the reins: the centralisation of control over international affairs. In India, this has always been a small affair. Nehru personally chose many of India’s first diplomats and occupied the position of Minister of External Affairs throughout the whole duration of his 17 years of premiership (Guha, 2017). Nevertheless, Modi has centralised power even further. He has shared responsibility over foreign affairs essentially only with two other figures: his National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, and the former Foreign Secretary and current Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. Mr. Doval is a legendary figure in India, renowned for his daring stunts as a secret agent in Pakistan. Dr. Jaishankar is in some aspects his exact counterpart: an elegant Ph.D. graduate from the bastion of left-wing India, Jawaharlal Nehru University, as well as a former ambassador to the United States and China. The views of both coincide on one central point however: the centrality of realpolitik in India’s foreign policy (Hall, 2019).
The influence of this strand of thinking can be primarily seen in India’s handling of the two great global powers, the US and China. Modi has made sure to embed India in the projects for the international cooperation of both countries. India is one of the four members of the “Quad”, a security partnership that also comprises the United States, Japan, and Australia. India has fortified its security ties with the US in the material domain as well, gradually shifting away from an army based on Russian equipment to one supplied by more advanced technologies from American weapons firms. Modi has also pushed for closer relations with some of Washington’s most important partners, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel (Ganguly, 2022). Since 2014, India has also edged closer to China, despite the dispute over their respective borders. Under Modi, India became a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Council, joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and pushed for greater cooperation between the BRICS countries (Pardesi, 2022). Nevertheless, New Delhi has been very careful in retaining its distance from the two powers. On the US side, the most obvious example is India’s stance on the Ukraine war and policies towards Russia in general. With regards to China, India has heavily condemned the Belt and Road Initiative and continues to contest Chinese claims over the Line of Actual Control in Northern India.
Domestic pressure on foreign policy
These stances seem to warrant the description usually given of India as a realist power. However, the internal pressure of BJP politics has pushed Modi to disregard these realist principles on some occasions. The Kashmir issue showed this most clearly. Control over this region in north-western India and eastern Pakistan has long been contested by both countries. To mollify tensions over the region, the territory that officially falls under Indian control, the state of Jammu-Kashmir, was granted special status under the Indian constitution (Guha, 2017). BJP supporters have contested this special status for a long time under the slogan “One Nation, One Flag, One Constitution” (BJP, 2019). This “dream” was finally realised in 2019 when the special status was revoked as a result of escalating tensions in the region. At the outset of the year, a terrorist attack killed forty Indian soldiers. In reaction, the Indian government ordered an airstrike within Pakistani territory on a base of the terrorist group, which prompted Pakistan to shoot down an Indian warplane (Subramaniam, 2020). The revocation of the special status was accompanied by a significant degree of violence, as individuals considered by the Indian police and army as being pro-Pakistan were rounded up and imprisoned (Shah & Dalton, 2019). Furthermore, it raised tensions between India and Pakistan even further and did not seem to serve any palpable goals besides exciting BJP militants.
Another aspect of Hindu nationalism has also caused international problems for India. Since the BJP took power, the targeting of Muslims by adherents of the ideology has intensified. Campaigns had been organised against inter-marriage between Muslim men and Hindu women as well as against the settling of Muslims in certain parts of Indian cities (Jaffrelot, 2021). These trends have also manifested themselves in national politics. One example is the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA), which was passed in 2019. This law guaranteed speedy integration into Indian society for refugees from India’s neighbouring countries who belonged to persecuted religions, including Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindus and Christians. However, the act excluded Muslims from this type of procedure, despite the fact that Muslims are also persecuted in the region, most notably in Myanmar. Besides condemnations from human rights groups, this act also led to a deterioration in relations with Bangladesh, which saw the measure as clearly discriminatory (Jacob, 2022). Public comments by BJP politicians have also caused problems. In 2022, BJP national spokesman Nupur Sharma mocked Muslim worship and the prophet Mohammed on national television, leading to harsh condemnations above all by leaders of the Gulf States. These are hardly allies India can afford to alienate: Saudi Arabia and the UAE are respectively India’s fourth and third biggest trading partners, quenching much of India’s thirst for oil (Ganguly & Blarel, 2022; Blarel, 2022).
Based on this evidence, the “realist” characteristics of Indian foreign policy may be called into question. The interior political impulses of the BJP have pushed Modi to undertake risky foreign policy actions, such as in Kashmir, and to adopt measures that have led to a deterioration in relations with diplomatic partners such as Bangladesh. However, until now, it seems that these effects have been limited to the Indian neighbourhood. Pakistan is a far larger presence in the minds of Hindu nationalists than China or the United States, leaving Modi free to conduct a different foreign policy with those countries. Nevertheless, the question remains if this will last. As India’s economy grows and, with it, its stature in international politics, its stake in international politics increases as well. With the BJP firmly in power, this may lead to the interior convulsions of this party becoming of international importance. Modi’s relatively moderate tendencies might lose out to elements within the BJP like Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, infamous for saying that if protesters against the CAA “won’t understand words, they’ll understand bullets” (Subramanian, 2020).
BJP (2019, November 30). One Nation, One Flag, One Constitution becomes a reality. Twitter. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/BJP4India/status/1200626954010951680
Bhanu Mehta, Pratap. (2023, January 26). This Republic Day, fighting the dark. The Indian Express. Retrieved 17 March 2023, from https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/pratap-bhanu-mehta-writes-this-republic-day-fighting-the-dark-8404865/
Brands, H., & Gaddis, J. L. (2021, October 19). The New Cold War. Foreign Affairs, November/December 2021. Retrieved from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2021-10-19/new-cold-war
Chandra, R., & Walton, M. (2020). Big potential, big risks? Indian capitalism, economic reform and populism in the BJP era. India Review, 19(2), pp.176–205.
Financial Times Editorial Board. India’s disappointing silence over Ukraine.Financial Times. Retrieved 17 March 2023, from https://www.ft.com/content/9e8af1a9-da07-4fb4-ae0e-6f6986ea5b75
GDP growth (annual %)—India | Data. World Bank. Retrieved 17 March 2023, from https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD.ZG?end=2021&locations=IN&start=1991
Guha, R. (2017). India after Gandhi: The history of the world’s largest democracy. Pan Macmillan.
Hall, I. (2019). Modi and the reinvention of Indian foreign policy. Bristol University Press Bristol.
Jaffrelot, C. (2021). Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the rise of ethnic democracy. Princeton University Press.
Jha, P. (2017). How the BJP Wins: Inside India’s Greatest Election Machine. Juggernaut Books.
Natarajan, R. R., & Singha, K. (2021). The Routledge Handbook of Post-reform Indian Economy. Taylor & Francis.
Pardesi, M. S. (2021). India’s China strategy under Modi continuity in the management of an asymmetric rivalry. International Politics 59(1), pp. 44–66.
Shah, H., & Dalton, M. (2019, August 12). Indian Revocation of Kashmir’s Special Status. CSIS. Retrieved from: https://www.csis.org/analysis/indian-revocation-kashmirs-special-status
Subramaniam, A. (2020). Full Spectrum: India’s Wars, 1972-2020. Harper Collins.
Sundaram, Karthikeyan. (2023, January 18). India Population Overtakes China to Become World’s Biggest, Analysts Estimate. Bloomberg. Retrieved 17 March 2023, from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-01-18/india-s-population-overtakes-china-to-become-world-s-biggest-analysts-estimate
Tharoor, Sashi. (2022, April 27). Modi’s Big Mistake. Foreign Affairs March/April 2022. Retrieved 17 March 2023, from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/india/2022-04-27/modis-big-mistake