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Foreign policy shift may shape Lok Sabha polls

Apr 15, 2024 07:51 AM IST

As Indian voters prepare to go to the polls, foreign policy will be a hallmark of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) campaign

One of the most obvious yet understudied trends in India over the past decade has been the emergence of foreign policy as a domestic political concern. Viewed principally as an elite preoccupation, foreign policy has often been deemed too complex, too abstract, and too distant from the aam aadmi (common man). But today, foreign policy has descended from its rarefied perch. While elites might still dominate the production of foreign policy, its consumption has been democratised.

According to a 2023 Pew survey, nearly seven in 10 Indians believed that their country’s global influence was getting stronger.
According to a 2023 Pew survey, nearly seven in 10 Indians believed that their country’s global influence was getting stronger.

The downward penetration of foreign policy is evident in big ways and small. Campaign posters across the country hail India’s presidency of the G20. The external affairs minister is eagerly sought out by party satraps to discuss India’s standing in the world. Even the Opposition has taken notice: Congress’s 2024 manifesto contains multiple pages on national security.

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As Indian voters prepare to go to the polls, foreign policy will be a hallmark of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) campaign. The rising domestic currency of foreign policy must be understood as part and parcel of India’s broader quest to become a key protagonist in an increasingly multipolar world order. The salience of foreign policy to ordinary Indians is driven by a mix of structural geopolitical shifts, the ideological moorings of the BJP, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unique political credibility. While the evidence suggests that the elevation of foreign policy is paying rich political dividends, the full range of consequences remains unclear.

Rising powers and the quest for status

Status-seeking behaviour has now become entrenched in our understanding of domestic politics in diverse polities, but a compelling logic extends these dynamics to states in international relations. Political scientist Rohan Mukherjee explains that rising powers such as India care deeply about their position in the global hierarchy of states. In the world of international politics, states pursue a higher status to facilitate entry into valued economic networks, key multilateral forums, and beneficial strategic partnerships. Status can also imbue rising powers with what Mukherjee calls “symbolic equality,” which is manifested through norms, customs, and institutions that treat rising powers as co-equals at the global high table.

India’s quest for status recognition is not novel, but there is a palpable feeling that something qualitatively different is afoot. The present government has expressed not only its desire for India to transition from a “balancing” power into a “leading” one but also the idea that this status transition has partly been achieved. Previous Indian prime ministers have supported the concept of “polyvocality”— the notion that the international order should be shaped by a range of voices representing the interests of the developed and developing world. The Modi government has gone even further — arguing for a global order based on multipolarity in which India serves as one of the principal poles. This shift appears to resonate with a wide swath of Indians, who wield aspirations for India domestically that are matched by their desires for the country to project power internationally.

Global status
Global status

From elites to masses

Scholars have historically conceived of two categories of policy issues in India. As Ashutosh Varshney argued, there has been a traditional separation in India between “elite” and “mass” issues. “Elite issues such as foreign policy, national defence, and international trade allegedly hold little resonance for the common person. By contrast, “mass” issues such as inflation, jobs, and welfare are perceived to directly impact the average Indian’s daily existence.

The bifurcation between “elite” and “mass” issues is no more. Starting in 2019, Indian voters began to regularly speak about how Modi had put India on the map, implying that his leadership helped the country leap from backwater to marquee status. As one expert put it, “The message which has gone out is that India has really emerged very strong in the world. And it’s only because of Modi.”

More systematic evidence also supports this contention. A May 2023 survey conducted by Lokniti-CSDS and NDTV found that 63% of respondents reported that India’s global status had risen since Modi assumed office. The same poll found that most Indians believed the country had progressed in furthering its cultural capital, its status as a world leader, and its attraction as a destination for foreign investment since 2014. The February 2024 India Today Mood of the Nation poll found that 19% of survey respondents believed that Modi would be most remembered for “raising India’s global stature”, a response second only to the construction of the Ram Mandir (selected by 42% of respondents).

From standard public opinion surveys such as the ones regularly fielded during elections, it can be hard to discern the impact of foreign policy on domestic political choices. Traditionally, “mass” issues such as development, inflation, or jobs and livelihoods are cited most often by voters, as reflected in Lokniti-CSDS national election surveys since 2009.

However, this does not mean foreign policy is unimportant. For instance, the February 2019 attack on an Indian paramilitary convoy in Pulwama — and India’s subsequent airstrikes on terror camps in Balakot, Pakistan — helped create a nationalist fervour that the BJP enthusiastically exploited leading up to general elections.

According to IANS-CVoter polling data, satisfaction with the BJP central government exhibited a 15-percentage-point bump in the weeks following Pulwama-Balakot before partially reverting. A Lokniti-CSDS survey found that roughly 80% of voters in 2019 had heard of the Balakot airstrike — 46% of whom favoured Modi’s re-election, compared to 32% among those unaware of India’s retaliatory strikes.

However, foreign policy crises such as Pulwama-Balakot are infrequent and unpredictable. Foreign policy is more likely to factor into the intangible “hawa”— the mythical “wind” that captures public sentiment around Indian elections. The perceived gains that an incumbent makes in the foreign policy domain may not be strongly reflected in polling data compared to known, make-or-break Election Day issues. Nonetheless, such gains can further an impression of achievement, aiding in the creation of a feel-good sentiment as voters cast their ballots.

Popularity quotient
Popularity quotient

Why is foreign policy emerging now?

Arguably, there are two sets of factors that explain why foreign policy is emerging as a domestic political issue at this juncture.

The first set includes structural factors related to the changing nature of international order. The unipolar moment of the US following the end of the Cold War has come to an end, with China emerging as a clear strategic competitor, and Russian revanchism under President Vladimir Putin rearing its head. The fragmentation of the international order has created space for India to flex its foreign policy muscles by skillfully playing adversaries off one another.

But the emergence of foreign policy as a domestic concern goes beyond structure alone. The current government’s unique worldview represents a second critical factor. The BJP government seized foreign policy as a crucial pillar of its ambition, striving that India under Modi’s leadership reclaim its historical role as a civilisational power. The PM has said that he is leading India out of “12 centuries of slavery” while ushering in a new era of “Amrit Kaal”. Such grand thinking demonstrates his conviction that India inhabits a geopolitical sweet spot.

According to the ruling party, its ambitious agenda for India stands in sharp contrast to the Opposition’s unwillingness to exercise power globally and maximise India’s interests. Modi has explicitly painted this contrast, denouncing his predecessor’s exercise of “strategic restraint” in the face of repeated terrorist attacks. Modi’s unique mix of popularity, ambition, and marketing savvy has convinced many Indians that his leadership is an intrinsic part of India’s revival, at home and abroad.

The frenetic pace of activity around India’s G20 presidency demonstrated the government’s desire to communicate its foreign policy achievements to the masses. India’s G20 logo, which incorporated the BJP’s signature lotus, was slapped on everything from archaeological sites to standardised tests. Posters hailing India’s presidency was plastered on flyovers, train stations, and major thoroughfares, and many Indians viewed this milestone as a coronation rather than the country’s turn assuming a rotating leadership position. This physical marketing onslaught was paired with meticulous digital mobilisation.

Growing influence
Growing influence

Reaping political rewards

The effort to harness India’s foreign policy status for domestic political purposes is especially noteworthy given the clear evidence that it has consolidated domestic support for the current government.

According to a 2023 Pew survey, nearly seven in 10 Indians believed that their country’s global influence was getting stronger. Furthermore, eight in 10 Indians had a favourable opinion of Modi’s performance. Surprisingly, even among those who did not support the BJP alliance, six in 10 agreed that India’s status had grown. Indians hold especially positive views about their country’s role in their neighbourhood. A 2022 CVoter-Centre for Policy Research (CPR) survey found that 33% of Indian respondents reported that India wielded the most influence in Asia, with the US and China a distant second and third respectively.

A more recent YouGov-CPR-Mint survey of young, urban Indians found very high levels of public satisfaction with the Modi government, including on foreign policy matters. For instance, 70% of respondents were satisfied with India’s G20 presidency, and a roughly equivalent share maintained a favourable view of the government’s efforts to protect the country from terrorist attacks. Even on the issue of Chinese incursions, six in 10 respondents were happy with the way the government has handled the ongoing dispute.

Influential
Influential

Lingering questions

The newfound resonance of foreign policy is a striking development in a country where such matters were long out of sight and, hence, out of mind, for most Indians. But the transition of foreign policy from an elite to mass issue also raises questions about the deeper implications of this development.

Scholars Vipin Narang and Paul Staniland have argued that foreign policy is expected to have the greatest domestic import when both clarity of responsibility — voters’ ability to identify a clear chain of responsibility — and issue salience — how widely an issue resonates — are at their apex. China’s 2020 border incursions seem to satisfy both conditions. China’s moves were brazen and validated by third-party satellite imagery. And they took place less than a year after the Modi government won a resounding re-election.

And yet, the combination of clarity of responsibility and issue salience did not lead to serious democratic accountability. If the ruling party enjoys the gains accrued from perceived foreign policy successes, why does it not suffer costs from foreign policy losses? There are three potential explanations.

First, popular support for Modi is so considerable that, despite experiencing short-term reverses, voters may believe that the PM will eventually reverse these setbacks. Second, what happens along a contested border is hard enough for experts to decipher, much less ordinary voters, especially in the absence of a free and open debate. Third, voters might possess limited faith that the Opposition would do a better job.

As the domestic salience of foreign policy increases, a second issue pertains to the unintended consequences of nationalist rallying. Nationally, the Pulwama attacks contributed to a rally-around-the-flag effect that bolstered the BJP’s prospects, shifting voters’ attention away from the economy and toward national security, where the party’s hawkish credentials gave it an advantage.

However, while the attacks fuelled a nationalist rallying at a macro level, the BJP faced blowback where exposure to the Pulwama losses was greatest. These setbacks had little impact on the overall outcome because the losses were dispersed and highly localised. However, if the Pulwama casualties had been more widespread, then there could have been a greater backlash against the BJP.

A third and final question involves the distinct feeling in the corridors of power in New Delhi that “the world needs India more than India needs the world”. While government officials might not broadcast this, their public and private utterances demonstrate a self-assurance that aligns with this point of view. Such a view may have encouraged some in government to pursue alleged assassination plots of Sikh separatist leaders in Canada and the US. To be clear, the extent of official Indian involvement is unknown. But a commonly heard refrain in India is that while there is disputed evidence of the government’s role, if the government was involved, it would be a sign of the country’s emerging great power status. Such a reaction implies that India has earned the impunity to undertake the kinds of covert operations that have previously been the hallmarks of more established powers.

Domestically, India’s foreign policy adventurism is likely to boost the BJP’s popularity. But it is a strategy laden with risks for India’s external relations. While Canada might be too trivial a player to matter, India’s relationship with the US is of vital importance. While the US administration betrays no desire to allow these incidents to derail a growing strategic partnership, India’s pursuit of risky foreign escapades that play well at home holds the possibility of souring relations abroad. Good politics, in other words, might not always make for good policy.

Milan Vaishnav is senior fellow and director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. Caroline Mallory is a James C. Gaither Junior Fellow at Carnegie.

In the weeks ahead, the Carnegie-HT “India Elects 2024” series will analyse various dimensions of India’s upcoming election battle.

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