Indian voters have embraced Narendra Modi’s growth-and-governance agenda. If his incoming administration can fire up India’s economic engine — by rolling back antiquated restrictions on business, cracking down on corruption, and creating a more open playing field for investment and job-creation — India’s return to dynamism will have far-reaching international implications.
Modi said little about foreign affairs in an election centred on the domestic renewal agenda. But the hints he gave on the stump about his worldview are intriguing. He is a man the US is ready to do business with.
It was the last BJP prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who declared India and America “natural allies” after decades of alienation.
His government opened the door to far-reaching US-India defence and diplomatic cooperation. Vajpayee’s bold vision of partnership with America after decades of distrust achieved historic gains for India. Modi’s invocation of the Vajpayee legacy in foreign affairs is promising.
India’s new PM has been alienated from Washington as a result of a visa ban, only recently lifted, stemming from the Gujarat violence of 2002. But he has also suggested that India’s resurgence under his leadership will naturally attract the support and encouragement of America and other friendly nations.
Indeed, while his vision for US-India relations remains opaque, Modi will want greater American trade and investment to catalyse an economic takeoff. This may be enough: The best way to restore momentum to bilateral ties is to get India growing again, making it a more attractive partner to the world’s superpower and returning India to the centre of Washington’s crowded foreign policy agenda.
America anticipates an Indian resurgence that could help drive global growth and tilt Asia’s power balance in a democratic direction. A dynamic India would be an example to the emerging world of economic transformation under democratic institutions.
A thriving India could uplift its region, including troubled Pakistan. America has a considerable stake in India’s success.
Although his views are unclear, Prime Minister-designate Modi is likely to discover what both Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh understood: That partnership with the world’s sole military, economic, technological, and knowledge superpower boosts India’s prosperity and security in ways that enhance, rather than undermine, the country’s strategic autonomy.
India is the world’s largest arms importer; America is its principal supplier of military hardware.
The Indian armed forces exercise more with US counterparts than with those of any other nation. India under Modi will continue to find US defence cooperation useful in navigating a dangerous neighbourhood.
The pending renewal of the 10-year bilateral defence agreement signed in 2005 offers New Delhi a chance to forge a deeper partnership with America to propel India’s military modernisation.
India faces significant bottlenecks on rapid development due to constraints on energy supply. The Indo-US civilian nuclear deal was designed to help by opening India’s civil nuclear sector to international technology and fuel supply.
A strong new government in New Delhi should push through the necessary legislation to finally implement the agreement in full as part of a pro-growth package of reforms.
Closer Indo-US relations under the new administration could also lead to a deal for America to supply more liquefied natural gas to India, enhancing its energy security. India should not need to rely on unpredictable partners like Iran on a matter of such core national interest as energy supply.
And it is surely time for a US-India investment treaty that opens the way to a broader agreement covering trade, technology, and knowledge workers with the country that remains India’s largest trading partner in goods and services combined. Modi should clear away the bureaucratic underbrush to make it happen.
As India’s economy globalises, the nation’s foreign policy will need to catch up with its expanding interests. The outgoing Indian government showed an alarming insularity over issues of vital international concern. Some directly affect India, like the spread of violent Islamic extremism out of Syria and the Russian army’s dismemberment of a sovereign country in ‘defence’ of minority rights within it.
A country with nearly 200 million Muslim citizens that has long been a target of violent secessionist impulses supported by hostile external powers should care more. Washington would welcome a broader definition of national interest in New Delhi — one that spurs greater activism to uphold the international rules that will facilitate India’s economic and geopolitical rise. Modi’s India should aspire to be a shaper, not a victim, of world events.
A muscular India that punches its full weight in the world is also more likely to have the confidence to engage America as a partner, rather than retreating into the old shibboleths of non-alignment and third-worldism. These values may have been appropriate when India was poor and weak, but hold little water now that it is an emerging giant.
Modi has said that Vajpayee’s foreign policy had the right blend of shanti and shakti — peace and power.
Vajpayee’s opening to America gave India a set of strategic options that were once unimaginable. For all the happy talk of ‘natural allies’, he made a hard-nosed judgment that their common economic and security interests were best served by closer collaboration between the world’s largest democracies. The same logic holds true today.
Daniel Twining is senior fellow for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a former member of the State Department’s policy planning staff. The views expressed by the author are personal.