India is in the midst of general election to elect members of parliament. Nine-phase polling covering 815 million voters –world’s largest election ever– began on 7 April and will continue till 12 May. Right since independence contestants have unabashedly delivered speeches woven around caste and divisive communal rhetoric. Perceived threats from Hindu majority and Muslim insecurity cards are played with immunity. In this election also, parties are seeking votes using the same language of hatred instead of explaining how would they confront issues like corruption, price rise, employment or improve foreign relations. As polls gather steam, the intensity of verbal duels is increasing with each party picking holes in rivals.
All indications point to a victory for Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and Narendra Modi, its prime minister designate and current chief minister of Gujarat set to head the national government. Rival parties accuse Modi of masterminding the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002; no credit for non-occurrence of communal riots since then. Modi boasts of spectacular economic growth his home state of Gujarat has made and shows off himself as a man given to pragmatic development. Congress frontrunner Rahul Gandhi is hamstrung due to issues of corruption, scandal, and price rise besides anti-incumbency mood of the voters against Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government; and appears resigned to be out of power. However, official results will be announced on 16 May 2014.
As in most democracies, domestic rather than foreign policies are playing substantive role during this election. Modi lays focus on minimum government and maximum governance. This pragmatism will likely guide his government’s foreign policy. In a rare interview given to the media week, he reiterated that India’s commitment to no-first use of nuclear weapons remains unchanged. Modi wants greater emphasis on boosting international trade and eliminating impediments. From recent campaigning, certain inferences emerge about his take on nations of India’s priority; and how others view his approach.
Beijing claims to have a working relationship with Narendra Modi developed during his four visits to China as Gujarat’s chief minister. Observing the direction wind is blowing, UK and European nations have woken up to embrace the man and initiated steps for friendly ties damaged as a result of riots that shook Gujarat 12 years ago.
With an invitation to visit to Australia in his pocket, Modi’s emphasis on economic and trade synchronizes well with the prime minister Tony Abbott’s philosophy of economic policy, which could strengthen bilateral ties in areas like education, agriculture, water and infrastructure etc. Australia’s readiness to supply uranium comes as a major concession to India’s nuclear energy ambition.
India-Japan relations are headed to deepen due to ideological similarities and mutual admiration existing between Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe,. Modi called on Abe during his India visit in August 2007. That courtesy call opened Gujarat to Japanese investment. Later, visiting Japan in January 2012 on Tokyo’s invitation, chief minister Modi was accorded a red-carpet welcome as credible India torch-bearer. Though Abe was not in power then, but Modi met him and reviewed the Indo-Japan relations as friends would. As chief guest at Republic Day celebrations in India in January this year, Abe agreed to Japan making heavy investment in Indian infrastructure, railways, industries, roads, water, and sanitation. India asked Japan to invest in North-east region where Chinese investment is plainly banned. Talks regarding defense sales are on target but nuclear reactor supplies suffer from Japanese ideological constraints. India will take part in naval exercise in Japanese waters in 2014. Modi already has close relations with Singapore and will likely extend this relationship to embrace Asean, South and East Asian nations.
America is yet to come clean over the statement ‘no change in visa policy for Narendra Modi’ reiterated the day US envoy to India Nancy Powell met him two months back. Modi discounted that visa issue would cloud equations with America and that bilateral relations are not individual-specific. Right now, India feels snubbed when top US dignitaries fly around Asian capitals bypassing New Delhi while Washington believes China-baggage dissuades India from opening up to the US. Except for defense sales, Indo-US ties don’t have much to talk about. Rhetoric apart, there is a strong likelihood that Indo-US relations, both in trade and strategic security would gain momentum once Modi takes over. Existing irritants like re-indictment of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade, unilateral US action on tax regime in India, downgrading Indian civil aviation safety, visa restrictions for Indian IT personnel, labor reforms and IPR (ever-greening of drugs) issues should not difficult to resolve given political vision for timely strategic reorientation.
Modi has been critical of the present government’s spineless reaction to Chinese incursions inside the Line of Actual Control, stapled-visa issues, warning to stay away from South China Sea and browbeating India’s warming up to Japan. But while pushing for a rebalance with China, Modi would not derail the economic opportunities that a closer Chinese engagement provides, regardless of his tough talk.
Under Modi, the likely contour of relationship with Pakistan is hazy. Indian people perceive powerful Pakistan military (not civilian government) to be the real threat to India’s security, closely followed by ISI-sponsored terrorist groups Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba. Modi is unlikely to initiate steps that may jeopardize Nawaz Sharif government.
Modi’s foreign policy is unlikely to see a complete departure from the current policies but will be tough. India can expect nationalistic assertiveness, particularly to provocations from China and Pakistan. Of course, much will depend on Modi cabinet. He will need to strike a balance in his tone, bearing in mind he will be playing to international audience and not just a domestic audience; sweeping changes in Indian policy are unlikely to be effected at least in matters of foreign affairs. There is need to distinguish between pre-election bluster from the necessary compromises made once in power.
If Modi becomes the prime minister, he will have to prove his mettle as an economic mastermind at the national level. Should he fail, India’s foreign policy would depend greatly on who gets to lead the government.
If under Modi economic growth happens, the world will listen to India; bringing friends across the world.