13 May 2014
It now seems evident that a new government, probably a coalition led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), will take charge of India after May 16.
The new government comes to power at a time when India faces multiple foreign policy challenges both at the global and regional level. The world looks increasingly polarized with the Ukrainian crisis and the shift of economic and global power toward the East. India's relations with the US have been rocky in the last couple of years, with the Devyani Khobragade incident being the latest example of inability on both sides to prioritize the bilateral relationship.
In South Asia, India's influence is probably at its lowest ever. The neighborhood is also likely to see some uncertainty after the US drawdown from Afghanistan later this year.
While trade with China has increased, the huge trade deficit, the issue of stapled visas and the continued inability to come to an agreement on boundary issues remain to cloud the relationship. These are substantial challenges for the new government.
Will a BJP foreign policy be substantially different from that of the current United Progressive Alliance government? A glance at the BJP's manifesto reveals little.
The BJP's manifesto devotes just one out of 42 pages to foreign policy. The emphasis is on building better relations with neighbors and developing "a web of allies." There is also considerable focus on building India's soft power.
The BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi has so far made only three statements on foreign policy. He has said that China's "expansionist" attitude would not be tolerated. He expressed admiration for the way in which the US hunted down Osama bin Laden. Finally, he has accused the Manmohan Singh government of favoring refugees from Bangladesh while discriminating against refugees from Pakistan.
The BJP manifesto also mentions that "India shall remain a natural home for persecuted Hindus and they shall be welcome to seek refuge here."
But how will Modi deal with each one of these issues? It is unclear what steps he will take to deal with China. Does India have the ability to undertake missions like the US raid in Pakistan? The issue of Bangladeshi refugees has long been a problem, with no easy solutions. So, the only issue he can easily deliver on is giving refugee status to Hindus from Pakistan.
There are misgivings that the BJP's foreign policy will be aggressive and expansionist. But these appear to be alarmist views. Though the BJP has traditionally been high on rhetoric about being tough on terrorists and on their sponsors in Pakistan, India-Pakistan ties saw perhaps one of their best phases during the last BJP government.
Modi has already expressed his admiration for former BJP prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's foreign policy. In a recent interview, he declared that "We will continue Vajpayee's foreign policy legacy and work in the direction he showed us a decade back when he was prime minister."
It is also clear that economic diplomacy will get priority in the new government. Modi might be a novice in foreign policy, but in Gujarat, he has succeeded in bringing in investment from all over the world. This is a trend which is likely to continue under his leadership at the center.
Modi has even suggested that Indian states should open desks in Indian missions abroad so as to facilitate more investment. He has also hinted at the possibility of certain states pairing up with countries, with which they have cultural links, to improve their political and economic ties.