India and the World in Modi’s Third Term
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India and the World in Modi’s Third Term

by Rohan Mukherjee
June 13, 2024

Rohan Mukherjee argues that a longer view on India’s rise suggests two major lessons that India watchers should keep in mind as they evaluate the prospects of India’s new government.

India’s eighteenth national election as a modern republic concluded on June 4, with the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Prime Minister Narendra Modi securing only 240 seats in India’s Lok Sabha (Lower House) of 543 members—well short of the halfway mark required for a majority and significantly lower than the party’s tally of 303 seats in the previous election in 2019. After two terms of majority government, Modi must now lead a coalition government, where smaller parties will have outsized influence on politics and policy. Those accustomed to the last decade of strong central leadership in New Delhi may worry that, given the often disorderly nature of coalition governance, India will become less committed to and less capable of implementing an ambitious foreign policy.

History would suggest otherwise. In July 1991, as India reeled from the end of the Cold War and a balance of payments crisis, Finance Minister Manmohan Singh, whose political party had 244 members in the Lok Sabha, introduced a historic set of economic reforms that transformed India’s economic future and put the country on the path of impressive growth that it has experienced since then. The government during this time, led by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, is notable not just because the largest party held a similar number of seats to the BJP today but also because it was the second in a string of coalition governments that ruled India for a quarter of a century starting in 1989. These governments were unstable, lasting on average three-and-a-half years instead of the usual term of five. They were chaotic, with various parties pulling ruling coalitions in different directions and holding up progress on key issues over parochial interests.

And yet, these governments also oversaw the remarkable transformation of India’s state, society, and economy in ways that few could have predicted at the outset. In external relations, India maintained a tranquil border with China, defeated Pakistan in the Kargil War, cultivated economic and geopolitical ties with the United States, and developed an array of strategic partnerships with a diverse set of countries, ranging from Japan to Brazil. After Modi’s BJP made history in 2014 by securing India’s first parliamentary majority of the post–Cold War era, it was the achievements of past governments that positioned him to declare his own objective of turning India into a “leading power” in global affairs.

In the decade since 2014, two successive BJP majority governments led by Modi have done a great deal to realize this vision. India has deepened its partnerships with the United States and its allies, stood firm against Chinese expansionism on its borders, and responded to provocations from Pakistan with public displays of force. India has also continued its tradition of committed multilateralism and even sought a leading role in the global governance of certain issues such as climate change. At home, Modi has made considerable progress on building up India’s basic infrastructure while also trying—with mixed results—to augment India’s manufacturing potential.

A longer view on India’s rise thus suggests two major lessons that India watchers should keep in mind as they evaluate the prospects of the new government. First, coalition governments in New Delhi have generally proved effective when it comes to national security and foreign relations. Despite their domestic political differences, coalition members tend to agree on India’s foreign policy goals. Glaring exceptions to this rule—such as the U.S.-India Nuclear Agreement, which caused significant ruptures within the ruling coalition in the 2005–8 period—are exceptions precisely because they represent the rare occasions when a single decision has heralded a sea change in India’s foreign relations. Yet even these moments of crisis were overcome. Coalitions held together and continued to perform the vital function of democratically reconciling conflicting interests in an incredibly diverse society. To the extent that India’s external partners value its democratic credentials, any potential loss of efficiency in India’s foreign policy must also be offset against the democratic value of coalition governance in India’s domestic politics.

Second, there is a simpler and deeper reason why India’s foreign policy will see more continuity than change. When introducing his historic economic reforms in parliament in 1991, Singh famously paraphrased Victor Hugo, stating that “No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come.” India’s emergence as a world economic power was one such idea. Through these words, Singh articulated a self-perception and ambition among Indian leaders that stretches back to India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and even further to those who struggled for India’s freedom from British rule. These thinkers, politicians, and leaders have all believed in India’s significant potential to be a great power that the world will eventually recognize for its exemplary civilizational qualities and contributions. This inner logic of India’s place in the world has kept successive governments, including under Modi, on broadly the same track of augmenting India’s international prestige and influence.

This overarching goal has become steadily more attainable since the end of the Cold War due to India’s economic success and due to China’s rise as a potential threat to U.S. and other interests in Asia. For both these reasons, India is now a highly desirable strategic partner for many countries. In a virtuous circle, this diplomatic success has boosted India’s economic and military capabilities. India’s own sense of “manifest destiny” thus combines with conducive geopolitical circumstances to ensure that any government in New Delhi will continue pursuing the core objectives of rebuffing Pakistan, resisting China, partnering with the United States and its allies, and seeking a leading position in global governance.

While the pace and quality of engagement may vary between a majority government and a coalition government, the broad thrust of India’s rise will remain similar. In this regard, one can also credit Modi for relentlessly working to diplomatically elevate India’s status on the world stage. It is likely that a new government under his leadership will continue this trend and future governments in New Delhi will seek to maintain this new brand of Indian diplomacy.

Rohan Mukherjee is Assistant Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the author of Ascending Order: Rising Powers and the Politics of Status in International Institutions (2022).