The Narendra Modi-led BJP government that takes office in Delhi next week will in all likelihood ensure a certain continuity with the broad foreign and security policy orientation associated with India over the last two decades. This is inevitable and any change under Prime Minister Modi will be more in personal emphasis and political nuance.
While foreign policy is inevitably global in nature, India's external policies have five visible priority strands: (1) China and Pakistan, since both have complex security-related implications; (2) the major powers, namely the US, EU, Japan and Russia; (3) immediate neighbours in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) region; (4) the extended neighborhood that includes the countries of the 'Look East Policy', Australia and the Indian Ocean; and (5) West Asia and Africa.
The big change in the template of India's foreign policy was effected in the aftermath of the Cold War by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in the early 1990s. This was made more robust by the Vajpayee administration, which in turn was enabled by the Indian nuclear tests of 1998 and the strong economic indicators of the period. In many ways, outgoing PM Manmohan Singh fine-tuned this broad approach and his major success was the 2008 rapprochement with the US over the nuclear nettle.
The Modi government will operate within this framework. What will be different is the political direction accorded to all five strands.
The choice of Modi's first foreign visit will provide some indication about the priority accorded to regional imperatives. It is pertinent to note that both ASEAN and SAARC found brief mention in the BJP manifesto and it would be highly desirable if these regions moved up the Indian PM's radar. Furthermore, whereas outgoing PM Singh was hobbled by the constraints of domestic Indian politics and the compulsions of an uneasy coalition, the emphatic BJP victory in the Lok Sabha ( 282 seats out of 543 ) will give Modi more freedom of action.
The relationship with the US must be seen in the context of the 2002 Godhra incident, which led the US to deny a visa to Mr Modi, then the Chief Minister of Gujarat. The congratulatory telephone call from US President Obama to the Indian PM-designate on 17 May appears to have made the situation more malleable.
Modi is seen to be pragmatic by nature and with a keen business and trade antenna. Hence the relationship with China will be pursued on multiple tracks and here again no radical departure is envisaged. The tense border stand-off in April 2013 has been internalised by both Beijing and Delhi.
Although Pakistan found reference on the Modi campaign trail, and terrorism remains an emotive issue in India, the PM elect did indicate that he would not be trapped by the past, and in effect he left the door open for the Nawaz Sharif Government. But as the Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh experience has shown, more than Islamabad, it is Rawalpindi (HQ of the Pakistan army) and Muridke (HQ of the Lashkar-e-Taiba) that will shape Pakistan's policy towards India.
The big-ticket strategic and security issues include India's nuclear profile and terrorism. Notwithstanding certain campaign and manifesto references, it may be averred that India will continue it s current policy of nuclear restraint and no-first-use. There will be a review of the regional WMD balance, but a radical change of policy or doctrine is a low probability.
India's internal security challenges are complex and the Mumbai terror attack of November 2008 is embedded in the collective memory of the Indian state and society. The outgoing government was perceived to be effete in tackling this matter, and Modi has aroused expectations about a more firm and assertive response to the scourge of terror. This is a tangled issue and is linked to the religious diversity of India. The landslide Modi victory in the elections gave the BJP a huge tally of 282 seats, but not a single Muslim figures on this scorecard. Consequently, against the backdrop of the 2002 Godhra incident and the charges leveled against Modi, many misgivings about the alienation of the Muslim population have been voiced.
The immediate post-poll Indian political discourse led by some anti-BJP voices has been bitter, extreme and vitriolic. The Modi victory is being interpreted as the triumph of the Hindu right wing and compared to the rise of fascism in Germany in the 20th century. This is an unhappy augury and team Modi will have to address this strand of societal harmony in an empathetic and effective manner.
Photo by Flickr user Al Jazeera English.