Opposition leader Narendra Modi’s ascension to the premiership of India is already being hailed as a momentous turning point in the South Asian state’s political fortunes. The leader and his Bharatiya Janata Party’s landslide victory on Friday delivered a crushing repudiation of the current Indian National Congress government, which has been in embroiled in a series of damaging corruption scandals. Modi’s decisive victory gives him the strongest mandate to lead since Rajiv Gandhi’s election in 1984 on the heels of the assassination of his mother Indira Gandhi. While the controversial Hindu nationalist leader’s views on India’s domestic political and economic situation are well known, there remains quite a bit more ambiguity around his foreign policy.
There is already some expectation that Modi may adopt a more hardline stance on regional policy. The leader’s threats to deport Bangladeshi immigrants, for example, have raised fears that his BJP government will adopt more aggressive policies on its disputes with neighbors like Bangladesh. Modi has also previously expressed his scorn for Congress’ handling of conflicts with Pakistan and China, criticizing them as “soft” and signaling his preference for a tougher strategy on these fronts.
Indeed, relations with Pakistan specifically are the front on which many observers expect to see the most discernible shift — if not in policy, definitely in tone. Since a near brush with war in 2001, India has for the most part kept historic tensions with its neighbor in check. Modi’s Hindu nationalist platform — not to mention his role in Gujarat’s 2002 violence — has already raised concerns around his government’s approach to India’s significant Muslim minority. Outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s push for peace with Pakistan is unlikely to be pressed forward by Modi as popular anger remains over Islamabad’s failure to act against the alleged perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
China is yet another big question mark. The BJP’s rhetoric indicates more robust action around border disputes with the regional heavyweight. However, the government’s already existing pivot eastward — which includes strengthening ties with ally Japan — also offers a means of subtly pressing New Delhi’s rivalry with Beijing without the risk of igniting new cross-border hostilities.
It is important to note that one of the most defining features of Indian foreign policy over the past few decades has been its consistency and continuity even in the midst of political changeovers. While the BJP’s ascension is one of the most remarkable shifts in contemporary Indian politics to date, it also does not mean that Modi is prepared to entirely switch gears. Another important point to keep in mind is that while the leader may strike a more hardline posture on regional issues for the sake of his base, Modi’s primary political objective has always been focused more on addressing India’s economic stagnation. Modi’s efforts to attract Chinese investment during his tenure in Gujarat offers a hint of how the leader may choose to approach foreign policy — with more of a pragmatic eye on India’s economic development than on the expected nationalistic fervor.