Polling booths for the world's biggest election open in India this week, with signs pointing towards likely victory for a BJP-led coalition with Narendra Modi at the helm. But despite his image as a divisive nationalist, it's unlikely there will be any disruptive change in Indian foreign policy under a Modi-led government.
Foreign policy hasn't traditionally played a prominent role Indian election campaigns, and this election is no different. Modi's campaign has focused heavily on improved governance and economic growth, meaning that he is yet to clearly articulate his foreign policy vision or priorities. While much has been made of Modi's 'strongman' image, this simplistic formulation overlooks Modi's inherent pragmatism and fails to distinguish pre-election bluster from the necessary compromises made once in power.
From what Modi has said, it is clear that economic development will be his priority, and that this will underpin his foreign policy decision-making. Modi has argued that India's Ministry of External Affairs should place greater emphasis on trade negotiations and promoting Indian businesses overseas, and supports enhancing the role of individual states in building economic and political relations abroad.
This emphasis on economic growth speaks to the pragmatism that will likely drive Modi's foreign policy, and nowhere is this more evident than in his attitude towards China.
Modi has been vocal in his criticism of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government's handling of Chinese incursions across the Line of Actual Control into Indian-controlled territory in Kashmir, and recently criticised China's 'expansionist attitude' at a rally in the disputed territory of Arunachal Pradesh, arguing that 'no power on earth can take away even an inch from India'.
But at the same time as pushing for a tougher line on China, in his tenure as Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi has been warmly received on four visits to China, most recently as an 'honourable guest'. Economic links between China and Gujarat are strong, and Modi will be unlikely to jeopardise the economic opportunities that come from closer engagement with China, regardless of his tough rhetoric on territorial disputes.
However, Modi will still seek to balance against China, necessitating a continued emphasis on building relations with India's East and Southeast Asian partners. Modi has already developed strong ties with Singapore and Japan as chief minister of Gujarat, and the ideological similarities between Modi and Shinzo Abe have not gone unnoticed. Already a significant economic and strategic partner for India, we can expect to see relations with Japan deepen under a Modi-led government.
Of course, it is arguable that this emphasis on Asia has been driven by the unwillingness of European and North American states to engage with Mr Modi over his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. However, a number of European states have reversed their stance on the controversial leader in recent years, and Modi's February 2014 meeting with former US Ambassador to India Nancy Powell signifies a softening in the US stance. But should Modi become prime minister, realistically the US and others will have no choice other than to engage with him.
The way relations with Pakistan would play out under a Modi-led government are less clear. In recent years, the BJP has been more strident than Congress in times of crisis with Pakistan, and the perception of Modi as anti-Muslim certainly will not help. Moreover, reinforcing the findings of the Lowy Institute's India Poll, Indians still perceive Pakistan to be the largest threat to India's security, with the Pakistani-based terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba coming in second. Modi is likely to continue to play to this public sentiment in his rhetoric on Pakistan.
While Modi's foreign policy rhetoric is likely to continue to be tougher and more nationalistic than under Manmohan Singh, this will signify more of a change in emphasis and style, rather than substance. Though we can expect some more assertive diplomatic signaling, especially in relation to provocations from China and Pakistan, it's unlikely we'll see a significant departure from the UPA's foreign policy of the last ten years. For Australia, Modi's emphasis on economics and trade policy aligns well with the Coalition's own mantra of 'economic diplomacy', and this could give bilateral ties a boost.
As with former BJP Prime Minister Vajpayee, the perception of the BJP as stronger on national security may actually have the effect of making space for creative diplomatic endeavours, such as the Delhi-Lahore bus link initiated in 1999. Of course, much of this also will depend on Modi's team, and who fills the external affairs, defence minister and national security advisor portfolios will weigh heavily on the foreign policy calculus. But should he become prime minister, Mr Modi will need to develop a good sense of when to rein in the assertive rhetoric in times of crisis, bearing in mind he will no longer just be playing to a domestic audience.
Photo by Flickr user Narendra Modi.