Pragmatic Diplomacy A New Indian Foreign Policy


A prioritisation of business relations and a move away from the idea of non-alignment are arguably the cornerstones of a new, more pragmatic Modi doctrine in Indian foreign policy that will strengthen India and aid its rise as a great power, maintains Benjamin Lamont

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York last fall signals the two most important changes he has made to Indian foreign policy thus far. First, Modi devoted the majority of his time to promoting India and urging foreigners to visit and (especially) invest in India. Second, Modi never uttered the word non-alignment, which since independence has been India’s guiding mantra in the international arena. A prioritisation of business relations and a move away from the idea of non-alignment are arguably the cornerstones of a new, more pragmatic Modi doctrine in Indian foreign policy.

Open for Business

Under the Modi government, Indian diplomats have a new priority: promote Indian business interests abroad and solicit foreign direct investment in India. The mantra of ‘trade not aid’ is visibly shifting how India engages. Modi and Obama met a group of CEOs during the US president’s January Republic Day trip. This spring, Modi will travel to Germany to attend the Hannover Messe, the world’s biggest industrial fair.

Foreign business people have been underwhelmed by Modi’s reforms so far, but they remain optimistic. It is still too early to quantify Modi’s effect on foreign direct investment in India, but it has gone up since his election and there is a widespread belief that FDI will increase significantly in the coming years, possibly in response to the increase in limits on FDI in sectors such as retail and defence.

The cornerstone of Modi’s plan to engage the global business community is his ‘Make in India’ campaign. At first glance, this might remind some of import substitution industrialisation, but in practice, it is the opposite. Whereas India’s disastrous import substitution industrialisation policy sought to keep foreign goods and capital out of India in the hope of promoting indigenous industry, Modi’s Gujarat model seeks out and explicitly welcomes foreign investment, which he views as critical to spurring economic development.

Leaving Behind Non-Alignment

Modi is fond of noting that he is the first prime minister to be born in independent India. Compared with past leaders, he takes Indian independence for granted and is confident that India can cooperate with Western powers without becoming their pawn. In response to a question about non-alignment at CFR, Modi responded, “The world has changed...we have to accept that it’s an interdependent world.” To Modi, non-alignment is outdated and unhelpful. The concept is also closely associated with the Nehru-Gandhi family, offering a political incentive for Modi to discard it.

The abandonment of non-alignment has meant the warming of ties with the United States and its allies. President Obama’s Republic Day visit underlined Modi’s willingness to overlook past snubs over his visa in order to pursue a closer relationship. This represents a significant change from even a few years ago, when many assumed that the legacy of non-alignment would maintain a restraining effect on relations with the United States. Modi has removed some anti-US bureaucrats and seems to believe that being seen with the American president is politically advantageous rather than a liability. Americans hope that this means the end of a perceived bias against the United States closely associated with the non-alignment policy.

The attraction of shared values plays a role in the US-India relationship, but it is an open secret that the relationship is driven by a shared concern about China. In the early 2000s, American diplomats began noticing on trips to South Block that China rather than Pakistan was being identified as India’s foremost national security threat. A distrust of China is perhaps even more acute in the current government. BJP General Secretary and Modi confidant Ram Madhav is a well-known hawk on China and titled his most recent book, ‘Uneasy Neighbours: India and China after Fifty Years of the War’. There are no illusions of Hindi-Chini-Bhai-Bhai.

The same strategic thinking animating India’s closer relations with the United States also explains Modi’s decision to align India more closely with Japan and Australia. These four nations are now linked together as the Asian security diamond, cemented into memory by Modi’s choice hugging of the leaders of these three select countries.

The United States should recognise – lest it raise its expectations unrealistically again – that Modi has aligned more closely with the United States entirely on pragmatic grounds. The tired line about the world’s oldest and biggest democracies is empty rhetoric for the moment as the relationship is essentially transactional. But both sides should be satisfied with their take: the United States gets a partner that can help balance against China, and India is empowered through the transfer of high-tech weaponry and military joint training exercises. This explains why the relationship’s most enthusiastic supporters have come from defence establishments in each country.

Other Pillars

Some commentators might opine that a third aspect of the Modi doctrine is promoting a cooperative South Asian neighbourhood. When Modi invited other SAARC leaders to attend his inauguration, he sent a clear and memorable message that the region India cares most about is its neighbourhood. But this is not novel. The Gujral doctrine is the best example of how Indian strategic thinking has long been focussed on India’s South Asian neighbourhood.

With that said, India’s engagement with its neighbours under Modi could differ from the past in two significant ways. First, India may pay more attention to China’s influence among its neighbours, particularly in Sri Lanka. Second, states that have traditionally wielded considerable power over external relations (such as West Bengal over Bangladesh) may find that Modi’s government is more willing and able to control policy from Delhi.

An important unknown is Pakistan. Modi has made it clear that Pakistan’s actions will determine the relationship’s trajectory. If another major terrorist attack is launched from Pakistan, Modi might well authorise military action against Pakistan. But if Sharif offers an olive branch that Modi deems credible, the narrative could be completely different.

A New Modi Doctrine

The Times of India reported in late February that the Modi government has circulated the first ever grand strategy document to India’s diplomats abroad. This should address criticisms that diplomatic outposts sometimes operated with little or no direction from the government back in New Delhi. The United States, for instance, was frustrated in the past that even while US and Indian officials worked closely together on sensitive issues such as the civil nuclear agreement, Indian diplomats at the UN were uncooperative with their US counterparts in New York.

Finally, it is worth recognising that in spite of all the talk about a new ‘Modi doctrine’, the changes that have occurred since Modi’s election are largely consistent with pre-existing trends in Indian foreign policy. When asked whether Indian foreign policy has undergone a paradigm shift at an Aspen Strategy Group event this winter, a group of former ambassadors and high-level officials from the United States and India laughed. A nation’s foreign policies do not change overnight; they change in response to shifts in the tectonic plates of geopolitics. Since the IT revolution, India has understood the benefits of tying itself more into world markets. Since the end of the Cold War and the recognition of China’s global power ambitions, both BJP and Congress-led governments have recognised that India should cooperate more with the United States. However, the pragmatic adjustments to Indian foreign policy that Prime Minister Modi has overseen will strengthen India and aid its rise as a great power.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.