What Drives India’s Ambitious Foreign Policy?

What Drives Indias Ambitious Foreign Policy

“I am a small man who wants to do big things for small people,” said Narendra Modi while addressing a cheering crowd in the United States. Soon after becoming Prime Minister of India, Modi embarked upon an ambitious foreign policy aimed at making India a leading world power. For that matter, India seems highly proactive in international arena and is deepening commercial linkages and developing geo-strategic relations with major powers. Keeping in view these developments, this piece attempts to figure out the driving forces behind Indian foreign policy.

International Relations scholars have presented various theories that help us to make sense of the foreign policies of states. On the basis of these theories, it can be inferred that both domestic and international factors are significant in determining a state’s foreign policy course. Same is the case with India. But, historically, Indian foreign policy has witnessed several variations and has gone through various paradigm shifts. This shows that Indian foreign policy is affected more by domestic forces than external ones. Important domestic factors may involve leadership’s personality, Hindu nationalism, geopolitics, regions-based political culture and pressure groups, including corporate lobbies. Each of these factors is individually important in shaping Indian foreign policy and at some time, one might be preferable over the other. For instance, Hindu nationalism and geopolitics have greater preeminence when it comes to India’s foreign policy toward Pakistan. In the same fashion, region-based political culture as a domestic driving force is more important when it comes to the policy toward Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Therefore, if one wants to understand Indian foreign policy comprehensively, one needs to go through almost every domestic factor separately.

Owing to these domestic tenets, the trends in Indian foreign policy are easily discernible. In Cold War days, those trends were Nehruvianism, Non-alignment and Panchsheel. In contemporary era, especially after Modi’s assuming power, the foreign policy trends are diametrically opposed to those of the Cold War era. Panchsheel is replaced by Panchamrit. Engagement and connectivity have replaced non-alignment. So this aspect of Indian foreign policy is very interesting and deserves sufficient time and energy for its analysis. Here, we would examine the domestic factors briefly.

1. Personality

Pragmatic, ambitious and idealist leaders have the potential to change the very course of a country’s foreign policy. Hence, personality is among the most important domestic factors which shape Indian foreign policy. There are, mainly, two Indian leaders who have substantially affected its course. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister and the architect of India’s foreign policy, advanced the concept of Panchsheel — mutual respect for each other’s territory and sovereignty; mutual non-aggression; mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs; equality and cooperation for mutual benefit; and peaceful coexistence. These Five Principles of Coexistence determined India’s relations with China. Besides, he propagated the principle of Non-alignment on the backdrop of tough, confrontational and competitive bipolarity. And that principle determined his country’s relations with major powers.  

Second such leader is the incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi whose overwhelming influence has been instrumental in changing the foreign policy course that the successive leaders have followed over the years. Modi aims to make India such a power at global level that it would influence all international issues. For that end, he renounced the principle of non-alignment and started to actively engage with the United States.

Owing to changing geopolitical dynamics and rise of Asian economies, the US announced its pivot to Asia by which it will establish new security and economic order in the region. Modi considers this an opportunity for India given the fact that his country is very critical for America’s Asia pivot.

Modi has also brought major changes to India’s Middle East policy. In aberration from traditional anti-Israel and pro-Palestine Indian position, he is coming closer with Israel especially in defence and economic spheres. India chose not to vote on anti-Israel UNHRC resolution for which Israel officially thanked Indian government. In addition, PM Modi, through a BJP resolution has nullified Nehru’s Panchsheel. Announcing the new principles of Panchamrit, the BJP resolution, which was adopted at the National Executive Meeting of the BJP on March 20, 2016 at New Delhi,  declared:

“Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi has brought in dynamism, courage, clear vision and direction to the government in sync with the Panchamrit framework of-‘Samman’ — dignity and honour; ‘Samvad’ — greater engagement and dialogue; ‘Samriddhi’ — shared prosperity; ‘Suraksha’ — regional and global security; and ‘Sanskriti evam Sabhyata’ — cultural and civilizational linkages, as adopted in the foreign policy resolution at the National Executive meeting held in April 2015.”

2. Hindu Nationalism

The second most important factor in Indian foreign policy is Hindu Nationalism. Hindus constitute nearly 80% of the total population of the country and a major chunk of the Hindu population is conservative. They believe that partition of the Subcontinent was the vivisection of Bharat Mata (Mother India). And, for this vivisection, they hold Muslims — who according to them were outsiders and invaders — responsible. This sentiment takes centre stage when it comes to India’s foreign policy toward Pakistan. Although, fundamental human rights and the principle of sovereign equality have been the rationale for Pakistan to resolve its disputes with India, yet the country is unable to attain even little concessions from India. Whenever India negotiates with Pakistan, Hindu nationalists prevail over and impede the negotiations by employing different pressure tactics — Shiv Sena, RSS and BJP are known for anti-Pakistan rhetoric. This is the factor which explains current status of Pakistan-India relationship. Pakistan is addressing India’s justifiable demands and appropriate grievances. But, instead of reciprocating Pakistan’s positive steps, Indian government keeps on trying to pacify the Hindu nationalists.

These elements dominate India’s foreign policy toward Nepal also. Recent blockade of Nepal by India was motivated by Hindu nationalists’ calls against attempts to amend the Nepalese constitution as the amendment(s) would change official status of Nepal from a Hindu country to a secular one.

3. Geopolitics

In “Geopolitics of Europe,” William Hay defines the term ‘geopolitics’ as “the study of influence of geography on the political character of states, their history, institutions and especially relations with other states.” However, it is debatable whether geopolitics is a domestic tenant or not. However, a number of IR theories, including the ‘Luxury Theory of Geopolitics’ regard it as an internal factor.

Emerging scenario in Asia Pacific is the most important geopolitical development of the 21st century. It is believed that this development will determine future international trends and geopolitical dynamics. Due to its geographical proximity with Asia Pacific, India feels it incumbent to reshape its foreign policy toward the region and adapt it to emerging trends. So, Modi has transformed the earlier policy of ‘Look East’ into ‘Act East’. Through Act East, he has enhanced India’s cooperation with ASEAN that has been institutionalized through ASEAN+India, East Asia Summit and Indo-Japanese Strategic Partnership. Besides, India signed various agreements with United States, Australia and Japan as well to ensure its maritime security in Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Such policies are unprecedented and have been criticized by various political parties in India  as they claim that these actions would erode India’s sovereignty.

4. National Identity

It is not easy to figure out universal national identity of India. Soon after independence, India was declared a secular state. Subsequently, Nehru administration added the secularism provision to the Indian constitution. This identity paved the way for India to speak vehemently against the occupation of Palestine, and Jawaharlal Nehru went on establishing relations with all countries regardless of religion, political ideology and economic system. However, this is not the case at present. The way Modi speaks and India behaves in international arena is in complete departure from the previous government’s policies. This contrast brings us to the assertion of Constructivism which claims that identity, norms and values are determining factors in foreign policy of states. And these are not natural, permanent and given phenomena. They are socially constructed through inter-subjective interaction. Therefore, it can be argued that the identity of India is socially constructed and reconstructed time and again. Consequently, Indian foreign policy is shaped by that identity.

Currently, Modi administration regards India as a ‘Dhruv Tara’ (Pole Star) of the world. India is being symbolized as a leading power based on Hindu values, norms and aspirations. This constructed identity paved the way for Modi administration to renounce Panchsheel which was a combination of Western and Asian values and replace it with Panchamrit which is based on Asian and Hindu values. In various instances, Modi promised that India will now be guided by three Cs: culture, commerce and connectivity. Besides, a BJP resolution in 2015 regarding foreign policy of the country mentioned the word ‘Bharat’ not ‘India’. Modi has also accelerated his efforts to promote his slogan ‘Make in Bharat’ and to establish deep commercial linkages with advanced world to give boost to domestic economic base of India. Because of this identity, PM Modi persuaded United Nations to declare June 21 as the International Yoga Day. Keeping in view all these examples, it won’t be an exaggeration to claim that constructed national identity of India is influencing its foreign policy in varied ways. It has been a recurring phenomenon in Indian foreign policy; its identity is constructed and then exploited to shape the foreign policy.

5. Regions-based Political Culture

India is not a unified entity rather it is a heterogeneous one; it includes people of various religions, cultures, ethnicities, languages and castes. Ideological and social divide has shaped country’s political culture. Because of this divide, it is often hard for major political parties to gain strong mandate. Resultantly, there have been coalition governments like National Democratic Alliance (NDA), Democratic Progressive Alliance (DPA) and United Progressive Alliance (UPA). When there is a coalition government, foreign policy — especially toward Sri Lanka and Bangladesh — comes under pressure. Regional political parties in coalition try to influence foreign policy toward these countries to reflect their ethnic interests. For instance, during last Congress-led UPA government, India was about to sign a treaty with Bangladesh on various issues like water-sharing. But West Bengal-based Trinamool Congress protested against the treaty under the influence of local interest groups. Because of the opposition by a coalition partner, India failed to sign the treaty. Same process has been consistently repeated in New Delhi’s foreign policy toward Sri Lanka. Coming under pressure from Tamil Nadu-based coalition partner Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), Congress-led government voted against Sri Lanka at United Nations Human Rights Council in 2012. Nevertheless, current government has a strong mandate and is in no need of any coalition partner. But still it occasionally tries to accommodate concerns of regional parties. When Modi paid visit to Sri Lanka, he went to Jaffna Island to create soft corner for him in Tamil Nadu.

6. Pressure Groups & Corporate Lobbies

Marxist point of view about foreign policy revolves around corporate lobbies. John Perkins in his book ‘Confessions of An Economic Hit Man’ validates Marxist viewpoint. India, obviously, is not an exception to this. Pressure groups and corporate lobbies have been influencing India’s foreign policy. It is claimed that corporate lobbies financed Modi’s widespread, expensive election campaign. Now, they influence his foreign policy choices because Modi is supposed to pay them back through policy concessions. Under Modi, India is getting closer to technologically advanced countries like Japan and South Korea. Modi has intensified commercial linkages with Japan that is helping domestic corporate class to develop industrial infrastructure in the country. Previously, Modi maintained harsh stance on China during his rule in Gujarat and later in election campaign. Once in rule, Modi has opted to sideline political and boundary disputes in Indo-Chinese relationship. He is focusing on intensifying commercial linkages and economic cooperation in multilateral institutions like BRICS, New Development Bank and Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank. In essence, overtures of Modi to deepen commercial ties with Japan, South Korea, China and South East Asian states reflect his desire to make business interests as national interests. And this is motivated by Modi’s willingness to serve interests of corporate lobbies which insecure poor and agriculture class.


The intensity and scale of the impact of all the above-mentioned factors on India’s foreign policy may vary from time to time, issue to issue and government to government. These factors have the potential to bring paradigm shift in the Indian foreign policy. However, importance of international factors as professed by structural realism cannot be ignored. Their contribution in foreign policy making is also significant as it is crafted after considering all these factors and conducting cost-benefit analysis. This can be summed up in a single line that “India pursues that policy option which suits the government in accordance with the prevailing situation of the contemporary times.”

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