During his first year in office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has produced the greatest momentum for India in the least expected domain—foreign policy. Modi has shown a surprising personal enthusiasm for diplomacy and demonstrated the political will to break from the conventional wisdom.
One year ago, I suggested a number of steps Indian policymakers could take to rejuvenate the country’s foreign policy—including the revitalization of the stalled partnership with the United States, better management of ties with China, more purposeful engagement with India’s neighbous, and an effort to build on India’s inherent soft power advantage. There has been interesting movement on all of these fronts in Modi’s first year.
In successive summits with US President Barack Obama, Modi acted quickly to address differences with the United States on food subsidies and nuclear liability, inject new energy into defense cooperation, and indicate flexibility on climate change.
Meanwhile, he sought deeper economic ties with Beijing while signaling a tougher posture on the border dispute with China. In contrast to the previous United Progressive Alliance government’s emphasis on nonalignment, Modi has laid out a framework of greater security cooperation with the United States and a strong economic partnership with China.
Though Modi has gotten trapped on the familiar roller coaster with Pakistan, he has moved decisively to improve relations with smaller neighbors such as Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.
The prime minister has rebranded India’s Look East policy as Act East, with a special emphasis on strengthening economic and security ties throughout east Asia. Intensive outreach to the diaspora and the promotion of India’s religious and cultural links with its neighbors have been special features of Modi’s diplomacy.
Modi’s most significant contribution has been the decision to discard the baggage of “strategic autonomy” and initiate the idea of India as a “leading power.” While this new framework needs to be fleshed out, the proposition could help India imagine a different future for itself on the global stage.
Looking ahead, the greatest constraints on Modi’s foreign policy come from the slow pace of economic reform, limited institutional capacity to deliver on foreign agreements, and emerging threats to domestic social harmony. To realize his foreign policy vision, Modi will have to move swiftly to make things right on the home front.
(C Raja Mohan is a nonresident senior associate in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He heads the Strategic Studies Program at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi and is a foreign affairs columnist for the Indian Express.)