March 21, 2024


Has a decade of Modi’s foreign policy helped India’s standing?

(Image credit: Prime Minister’s Office, GODL-India, via Wikimedia Commons)

In a world of notable and sometimes controversial heads of state, Narendra Modi has carved out a space for himself to cement ‘Brand Modi.’ At home, he faces a lot of scrutiny for the government’s assault on civil rights, especially of minorities. Abroad, it’s a bit of a different picture. He attracts thousands to his speeches with an enamoured diaspora.

When the BJP campaigned for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, one of their promises was to “reboot and reorient” India’s foreign policy. The goal was to put the country’s interests first and elevate New Delhi to a place of influence in an increasingly multipolar world. India had many notable moments over the past decade from a foreign policy and diplomacy standpoint. Has it helped India’s standing in the world?


Foreign policy is often seen as something that’s bi-partisan. Despite your political leanings, everyone wants to see the country do well on the world stage. Hubert Humphrey once said, “Foreign policy is really domestic policy with its hat on.” Modi has pursued aggressive policy stances on both of those fronts.

To see how far we’ve come, it’s worth remembering Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s two main concerns on the 25th anniversary of India’s Independence in her column for Foreign Affairs – “safeguard our independence and overcome the blight of poverty”. That came a year after the subcontinent was reshaped with the birth of Bangladesh. Her piece made no mention of internal instability.

One of the tenets of any foreign policy is safeguarding independence. By that metric, India weathered the storms of globalisation, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the rise of China relatively well. The trick was non-alignment during the Cold War and strategic autonomy thereafter.

India and the world have come a long way since then. The world is more interconnected than ever, and India has been integrated into the global economy. However, many of the issues with countries like China and Pakistan remain.

Every bit of commentary about India’s diplomatic efforts and foreign policy speaks about Modi’s exploits back home. Much of that is devoted to pressing issues like freedom of the press, religion, and speech and how they’ve deteriorated ever since the BJP came to power a decade ago.

Foreign policy is often seen as a non-factor in elections, and for good reason. People are primarily concerned about jobs, inflation, identity, etc. That notion was somewhat challenged in the 2019 elections after the Pulwama attack and air strikes by the Indian Air Force.

The BJP and Modi have relied on foreign policy to bolster their standings at home. The recent G20 was seemingly designed, orchestrated, and advertised as India’s arrival on the world stage. It could be argued that despite India having had charismatic and dominant leaders like Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, no leader has devoted more time to elevating New Delhi’s position in the world than Modi. The question is, has that worked well for India?

VIEW: India’s truly on the map

The past decade has been challenging for all countries on the foreign policy front, with a global pandemic no less. India, under Modi, has been able to navigate these waters with deft and precision. When he took office, foreign policy was seen as Modi’s weakness since he had no experience. A decade on, it’s perhaps one of his biggest strengths. He understood the importance of regional stability and launched the “Neighbourhood First” policy.

Broadening India’s diplomatic ties with the Middle East is another important milestone. Apart from a landmark trade deal with the UAE, these countries have become significant political and economic partners. Relations with the US have remained strong and grown through three Presidents. This relationship has come in handy in dealing with China, with whom India continues to engage. It’s a tricky balancing act that Modi has deftly handled.

India has been able to flex its foreign policy muscle thanks to domestic economic growth as it becomes a $5 trillion economy. India is now the world’s 5th largest economy and is projected to become the 3rd largest before 2030. Foreign powers see India not just as a regional player but as a global one. This was perhaps best exemplified by the G20 meeting in India last year. These accomplishments show that the basic foundation of India’s foreign policy, strategic autonomy, is alive and well.

COUNTERVIEW: Not much to write home about

The BJP’s 2014 election manifesto stated political stability and peace in South Asia were essential for the region’s development. The past decade has seen relations between India and several of its neighbours worsen. Let’s take Pakistan. Modi’s surprise 2015 visit wasn’t a success as military skirmishes continued. Then came Pulwama, and relations haven’t been cordial since.

The politics of Hindutva has extended to the government’s foreign policy. The scrapping of Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir raised eyebrows abroad. He also boosted ties with Israel and Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government, perhaps seeing similar animosity toward Islam. More recently, relations with the Maldives nosedived with Mohamed Muizzu coming to power. Other setbacks included the Taliban returning to the fore in Afghanistan and the coup in Myanmar.

On the China front, Modi’s personal diplomacy with Xi Jinping didn’t result in much. Military tensions escalated and culminated in the standoff at the Line of Actual Control. It was the first time Indian soldiers were killed on the Chinese frontier in 45 years. India-Canada relations have been hit hard following allegations of India’s involvement in the assassination of a Sikh separatist. Perhaps the biggest point of criticism on the world stage was India’s neutrality after Russia invaded Ukraine. India is only among a handful of countries still trading with Russia when many others have condemned Putin’s actions.

Reference Links:

  • Seventy Five Years of Indian Foreign Policy: Key Successes, and the Gaps That Still Remain – The Wire
  • 9 Ways India’s Foreign Policy Has Evolved In 9 Years – NDTV
  • The Foreign Policy Angle in India’s Upcoming National Elections – The Diplomat
  • Continuity and Change in India’s Foreign Policy: Decoding a Decade of PM Modi’s Diplomacy – News18
  • Ten years of PM Modi’s foreign policy: An era of great challenges and greater achievements – Firstpost
  • A decade under Modi: Aggressive foreign policy yields mixed returns – Scroll
  • Under Modi, India’s Democracy Is on Its Last Legs – Foreign Policy
  • Modi’s Foreign-Policy Juggling Act – Foreign Policy

What is your opinion on this?

a) The past decade of Modi’s foreign policy has helped India’s standing.

b) The past decade of Modi’s foreign policy hasn’t helped India’s standing.


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