Indian voters and foreign observers have been understandably fixated on Narendra Modi's potential to repair India's economy and governance. Less attention has been paid to the possibility that he might also prove a transformative leader in India's relations with the world — until now.
Modi's invitation to South Asian leaders to attend his swearing-in ceremony as India's prime minister was a powerful and refreshing gesture. It will compel his critics to reconsider their assumptions that his government will be bound by a narrow nationalism or an inward-looking concept of India's development. Nor is his external focus limited to India's neighbourhood.
As the chief minister of Gujarat, Modi pushed the boundaries of Indian federalism, reaching out to great powers, including Japan and China. So as prime minister, he will not be deepening those vital relationships from a standing start. Already, he has made it clear that he wants closer integration of Indian business and diplomacy.
The days of Indian foreign policy being left solely to New Delhi's skilled but absurdly undersized diplomatic corps are gone. Modi's demonstrated strengths so far lie in political mobilisation, domestic administration and economic management. Nobody knows precisely how his vision for managing India's difficult path through a changing and competitive world will unfold. His foreign policy leadership will be tested by events.
It is frighteningly conceivable, for instance that the welcome presence of Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif at Modi's inauguration will redouble the determination of jihadist terrorists to shake India-Pakistan relations. A major act of terrorism early in his term would test Modi's ability to manage India's social fabric as well as its security. Yet it would be a mistake to assume that in this or any other security crisis India's new leader would let nationalist impulses prevail over statecraft.
Indeed, the fact that he is from the right of Indian politics gives Modi an advantage in steering a stable foreign and defence policy. Whether in a future crisis with Pakistan or some fresh dispute with China on the border issue, a Modi government would be well-positioned to resist domestic pressure for reckless reactions. Since Modi cannot easily be outflanked on the right, he will have more scope than Manmohan Singh or even Atal Bihari Vajpayee had for pursuing durable solutions with Pakistan or China on controversial issues.
By the same token, if and when the Modi government speaks in terms of deterrence or assertiveness, other nations' starting point may well be to assume that he means it. The key here will be to ensure that the new foreign and defence policy team has wisdom, experience and a sense of India's national interest.
The Modi electoral landslide — an unprecedented voter turnout leading to decisive change — was a sign of the confidence Indians have in their democratic system. It coincides with another, quieter, democratic revolution: Indians are becoming more interested in foreign policy. So the new leadership in Delhi is likely to take into account the public mood when it is formulating how to deal with the world. Indian public opinion about external affairs is sometimes surprising and more sophisticated than foreign policy elites might assume. This was borne out in a representative opinion poll of adult Indians released last year by Australian think tanks the Lowy Institute and the Australian think tanks the Lowy Institute and the Australia India Institute. The poll shows most Indian voters concerned about terrorism and Pakistan as leading sources of threat to India, yet a large proportion — 89% — is also of the view that ordinary people in both countries want peace.
On defence policy, too, most voters have clear views. According to the poll, an overwhelming 95% see the possession of a strong military as very important for India to achieve its foreign policy goals. The poll shows complex views on China. Most Indians are understandably mistrustful of what Chinese power means for their interests. About two-thirds want India to work with other countries to limit China's interests, but a similar proportion want cooperation with China — so some people want both. Rather than a contradiction, this may be a formula for Modi's China policy.
There is much to be done to restore the narrative of India as a rising, confident and stabilising force in the world. A good start would be for the Modi government to deepen relations with a web of partners that can offer a mix of economic, security and political benefits. Japan is one place to start: Modi has a rapport with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and the Lowy poll showed considerable warmth for Japan and respect for its institutions among the Indian people.
Another, less obvious, starting point could be another Asian democracy, Indonesia. Like Australia, this country is a logical partner for India's expanding maritime security interests. An Indo-Pacific partnership with Muslim-majority Indonesia would reinforce the message that Modi's India will be democratic and inclusive — abroad as well as at home.
(The writer chairs the Australia-India Roundtable on behalf of the Lowy Institute and the Australia India Institute)