by Mahika Khosla

The Democratization of Foreign Policy in India’s Election

Mahika Khosla is a researcher based in Washington D.C. focusing on South Asian geopolitics and human security.

In April, just before the beginning of the world’s largest and longest national election, a campaign video released by India’s incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally halted Russia’s war in Ukraine to allow for the evacuation of Indian students. Later, in a campaign rally, PM Modi said, “Today the world is witnessing how much India’s reputation and status have grown in just ten years…Modi has not done it, you have done it. Your vote has done it.” Most recently, PM Modi said in a TV interview that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stopped bombing Gaza during the month of Ramadan on India’s advice.

Anecdotally, India’s rise on the world stage has become part of daily public and private discourse like never before. This highlights two significant patterns within the context of India’s ongoing general election, slated to end on June 4, 2024. First, debates on foreign policy under the BJP government have moved out of the drawing rooms of New Delhi elites to the streets. By domesticizing and even democratizing the consumption of foreign policy, the Modi government has metaphorically placed it on the ballot for the 2024 election. And second, this foreign policy rhetoric has created misguided and hubristic notions of India’s global standing within the Indian public that may not entirely align with global perceptions of the same. In a likely Modi third term, this dissonance could result in a more assertive and adventuristic foreign policy approach that is domestically backed, with both regional and international implications.

Foreign (Policy) and Domestic (Politics): Blurring the Lines

It is commonly understood in Indian political science scholarship that foreign policy has historically been contained to the realm of elite issues, discussed and decided upon within academic, policy, and military circles. With exceptions where Indian interests are directly affected, such as vis-à-vis Pakistan or China, public discourse around foreign policy has been sparse. As Devesh Kapur finds, it has been reserved for the upper classes in urban centers with access to international travel, culture, and technology. Foreign policy has also actively steered clear of partisan politics, as the ‘national interest’ has most often surpassed party lines. Therefore, on the demand side of the equation, the masses or the aam aadmi, have historically been unconcerned with foreign policy and more focused on tangible domestic issues of unemployment, development, and the economy. This trend is not distinct from other democracies – in the United States too, the importance of foreign policy issues in public opinion polls tends to be low during peacetime. For instance, prior to the ongoing genocide in Gaza, just five percent of American adults expressed interest in U.S. involvement overseas.

This trend is further reiterated when examining the production of electoral rhetoric in India over the years. Past Indian Prime Ministers have rarely used their foreign policy successes as electoral currency, with exceptions being during crises and threats to national security. India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, a staunch internationalist, anti-colonial leader, and founder of the eminent Non-Aligned Movement rarely mentioned foreign policy in his electoral strategy across three elections, despite its strategic importance under his administration. His successor Indira Gandhi’s use of foreign policy in elections did not extend beyond expected tributes to her achievements in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. Later Prime Ministers like Rajiv Gandhi, P.V. Narasimha Rao, and Manmohan Singh, despite initiating significant initiatives like the Look East Policy and the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Deal, privileged domestic economic issues and did not integrate foreign policy into their election strategies. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India’s only other Prime Minister from the incumbent ruling party, presents an exception. India’s 1998 nuclear tests which occurred under his leadership were emphasized in his election campaigns. However, this too was presented more through the lens of technological nationalism and national security rather than as a unique foreign policy achievement with global implications.

​​Prime Minister Modi’s election in 2014 marked a distinct shift in the role of foreign policy in electoral discourse. Beginning early in his incumbency, he made a spectacle of high-level visits and bilateral and multilateral meetings, while regularly engaging with his voter base on issues of foreign policy significance. He is known for his significant focus on enhancing India’s regional and global role and has utilized the digital age to engage in novel forms of ‘public’ or ‘twitter diplomacy’. Notably, of the 110 episodes of his radio show ‘Mann ki Baat’, through which he creates a personal line of communication between him and his voter base, 29 percent of the episodes include mentions of foreign policy. These mentions range from benign proclamations of International Day of Yoga being celebrated across France, Australia, and the United States and interviews with foreign presidents, to more hostile assertions about adversaries like Pakistan during times of national crises. Furthermore, foreign policy mentions across the eight seasons of the radio show have gradually increased over time, peaking in 2023 during the year of India’s G20 presidency, and reflecting the increasing importance of foreign policy in the Indian public domain.

Indeed, the months leading up to India’s hosting of the G20 summit in September 2023 demonstrated the most palpable democratization of foreign policy. Bus stands, airports, taxis, public parks, and just about every public surface in cities and even small towns were plastered with advertisements, murals, and graffiti about India’s G20 presidency and its key goals. Surprisingly, the government also invited the public to give inputs on India’s G20 agenda, and information sessions were held to engage students in public universities as well. Marketed as Prime Minister Modi’s personal moment of glory, India’s G20 presidency enabled the BJP and right-wing media to cast him not only as India’s leader, but a world leader who has substantially improved India’s stature on the world stage. The BJP’s 2024 general election manifesto contains more than nine pages dedicated to foreign policy achievements and aims; a substantial increase from six and three pages in the 2019 and 2014 manifestos respectively.

While the BJP alluded briefly to PM Modi’s international outreach in the 2014 elections and relied more heavily on anti-Pakistan rhetoric in the 2019 elections following the Pulwama/Balakot strikes, foreign policy rhetoric in the 2024 elections has a distinct populist flavor. Marked by an emphasis on the quest – and even the achievement – of glorious global stature, the ongoing foreign policy election rhetoric is also imbued with a tinge of Hindu nationalism. Both during the G20 summit and in the ongoing six-week election, India’s global vision is articulated through Sanskrit phrases and Hindu civilizational motifs. The ruling party now refers to ‘India’ by its Hindi term ‘Bharat’, and the media frequently employs terms like ‘vishwaguru’ (world leader) to refer to PM Modi’s personal entanglement with reviving India’s civilizational power. This confirms Johannes Plagemann and Sandra Destradi’s assertion that “populists in power will pursue policies that reflect their mandate across a range of issue areas, including foreign policy.”

Factors at Play: Why Now?

There are several possible factors that contribute to increasing public interest in foreign policy. First, the exponential rise of China and its ongoing aggression on India’s northeastern border since 2020 have led to increasing Indian threat perceptions of China. Given the large power differential, India recognizes that partnerships with major powers like the United States are among the best tools to counter Beijing’s influence and strengthen its own capabilities. Foreign policy and diplomacy have therefore become more central to Indian debates on national security, which have naturally always been of public interest. It is no surprise then that India’s incumbent party would seek buy-in from its voter base on enhancing Indian global stature, particularly when it implicates India’s own national security. Simultaneously, the United States is increasingly looking to India as a key strategic partner to counter Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific, given India’s large population and fast-growing economy. Expectedly, this urgent geopolitical paradigm shift and India’s subsequent global importance is being felt on the ground.

Second, as India becomes a larger stakeholder in global affairs, it may face pressure to take certain actions in the foreign policy domain that leaders may not be comfortable with. Historical precedent reveals that in such cases, manufacturing domestic opposition from the masses can aid in resisting such pressure, particularly from Western partners. For instance, Indian public opinion seemed to have played a conclusive role in India’s lack of participation in the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Pressure was mounting from Washington on then-Prime Minister Vajpayee to provide refueling facilities and 20,000 troops on the ground, but his domestic campaigns created public aversion to the same. Vajpayee was able to deny U.S. pressure on these grounds, citing public aversion and the democratic imperative to tend to his electorate. The Indian parliament passed a unanimous resolution on April 7, 2003 which stated, “Reflecting national sentiment, this House (Lok Sabha) deplores the military action by the coalition forces led by the USA against a sovereign Iraq.”

The public display of India’s foreign policy maneuvering today evokes Vajpayee’s strategies. India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar often incites public distaste towards Western media, and PM Modi even recently accused foreign powers of interfering in India’s election.​​ While the U.S.-India relationship is at its peak, India’s principle of multi-alignment and its strategic autonomy in foreign affairs remains of paramount importance. Some of New Delhi’s recent actions have been condemned by Western allies, such as the continuation of its relationship with Russia amidst the ongoing war in Ukraine and the alleged attempted assassination of Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a U.S. citizen and advocate of the Khalistani separatist movement. By using electoral messaging and the pliant right-wing media as a mouthpiece, the government instills strong domestic sentiment that aligns with its foreign policy priorities, allowing it to fall back on ‘national sentiment’ when pressured by democratic partners.

What is essential to note too is that the foreign policy rhetoric used by the ruling party and the media ecosystem supporting it has labeled India’s rise as a matter of national, religious, and personal pride. The BJP’s foreign policy is distinct in this sense; it imbues its conception and account of statecraft and diplomacy with Hindu nationalism, an ideology with deep cultural and emotional appeal in India’s Hindi heartland. Foreign Minister Jaishankar, for instance, explains Indian foreign policy in his two books using characters and teachings from the Mahabharata and Ramayana, two of the most prominent Hindu mythological texts.

Indeed, what makes public investment in India’s global aspirations more intelligible is the fact that – as with Prime Minister Nehru’s international statesmanship – it has an affective face. PM Modi is presented not just as a Prime Minister but as the sole actor responsible for India’s global rise; as “one part king, one part high priest, and one part Mister Rogers” as Mihir Sharma sardonically writes.

There are also material factors to consider. Today, 52.4 percent of the population has access to the internet compared to 13.5 percent in 2014. Furthermore, India’s young middle class comprises 31 percent of India’s growing population and has been on a steady rise,driving a majority of India’s economic growth. With high economic aspiration, transnational business and foreign investment opportunities, and access to both travel and technology, the middle class is contributing to a more globalized and geopolitically attuned electorate. Furthermore, with 2.5 million Indians emigrating annually and the number of Indians giving up their citizenship increasing exponentially each year, more Indian residents are globally connected to family and business networks abroad. A rapidly growing Indian diaspora may well contribute to a growing concern of foreign affairs domestically.

Unclear Consequences

The electoral salience of foreign policy undoubtedly has mixed consequences and has been the subject of much IR theory and debate. Within democratic systems like the United States and India, deeper public concern for foreign policy issues would theoretically result in better mechanisms for democratic accountability on the country’s international role. In India, Vipin Narang and Paul Staniland found that accountability over foreign policy decisions has varied over time according to the type of issue, leading to varied policy consequences. Pakistan-related issues typically receive the most public interest and clearest clarity of responsibility, resulting in higher democratic accountability. China-related and defense acquisition issues receive some public interest and are opaquer, leading to less democratic accountability.

In theory, greater democratic accountability is a positive outcome of increased  foreign policy discussion in election rhetoric. For instance, the government’s emphasis on India being a net security provider in South Asia has manifested in positive examples of leadership, such as India’s support of Sri Lanka’s debt restructuring and its disaster relief assistance to the Maldives, Bangladesh, and Nepal. However, the foreign policy touchpoints in the ongoing election may have further unclear consequences, particularly if their framing is inaccurate. The often exaggerated rhetoric on India’s rising global status risks creating a misguided electorate with distorted and hubristic notions of Indian economic and military capability.

Given the virulence of the BJP and the state-aligned media in propagating this narrative, it is no surprise then that there is a chasm between the Indian voter’s perception of India’s global standing and international perceptions of the same. A poll published by the India Today Group revealed that ranked just below the consecration of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, the second greatest achievement of PM Modi as seen by 35,000 respondents is the ‘rise of India’s global stature’. Paradoxically, a brand-new study called ‘Modi Mirage’ suggests that a majority of respondents across the UK, US, and Europe view India as less favorable than 10 years ago as a result of PM Modi’s leadership. Similarly, a 2023 Pew Research Center survey conducted prior to India’s hosting of the G20 summit reveals that while seven in ten Indians believe India is becoming more globally influential, only 28 percent of respondents across 19 countries agreed with this claim.

Nationalistic foreign policy discourse has more severe consequences on military and economic perceptions of India, within India. A 2022 survey conducted by CVoter and the Center for Policy Research revealed economic and diplomatic hubris; 33 percent of Indians believe that India holds the most influence in Asia, followed by the United States at a mere 15 percent and China at 14 percent. However, in contrast, India’s relationships with its neighbors, according to expert analysis, are in steady decline, as highlighted in recent diplomatic skirmishes with smaller South Asian states. Meanwhile, China is gaining a greater foothold in its place and Indian denial may not serve its geopolitical and strategic ends.

Most concerningly, a 2022 Stimson Center survey revealed that 72 percent of Indians think that India could defeat China in a war, with more BJP-supporters than not overconfident about India’s military capabilities. This sentiment mirrors political and military rhetoric that downplays the China threat and is evidently shaped by a media that frequently uses nationalism synonymously with undue military strength. However, by most expert accounts, this perception is worryingly inaccurate. China’s defense budget is more than three times greater than that of India’s, while China has significantly more advanced technology and production capacity. Given the blatant capabilities gap and recent Chinese encroachments into Indian territory, this disparity between public perception and reality could lead to public pressure on Indian leaders to escalate without the capabilities to match.

There is precedent for this caution too. Historical record suggests that in 1962, then-Prime Minister Nehru’s decision to go to war with China was significantly impacted by public opinion. Nationalist fervor and miscalculated public notions of Indian military capabilities at the time – propagated by the media and opposition parties – put undue pressure on Nehru to take urgent and assertive action in a war that India decisively lost. Indeed, Nehru himself shaped much of Indian public opinion of the Chinese bogey in the 1950s, but later Chinese aggression led to the Indian public’s hard stance against any concessions to China. As Kapur highlights, “While leadership can shape public opinion, this can backfire and hobble its room for maneuver.”

Looking Ahead to Modi 3.0

While much of the foreign policy promises in the BJP’s 2024 election manifesto are benign and related to India’s soft power diplomacy, this may likely be because much of its priorities and postures depend on the outcome of the U.S. general election in November. Beyond Indian foreign policy staples such as ensuring permanent UNSC membership and fighting terrorism, the manifesto commits to expanding Indian civilizational influence globally through cultural centers and bringing home stolen artifacts from abroad. Notably, Pakistan and China are barely mentioned in the document.

Indeed, each election in the last decade of the BJP’s incumbency has exposed a more nationalist voter base. While the domestic implications of this sentiment have been made clear with the treatment of religious minorities, the more obtrusive foreign policy implications are unclear but may be felt both regionally and internationally. Once considered the ‘big brother’ of South Asia, India is now leveraging its growing global status in minor diplomatic rows with neighboring countries. From PM Modi bringing up old tensions with Sri Lanka over Katchatheevu to win Tamil votes to Foreign Minister Jaishankar using India’s relative size and status to challenge the Maldives, there is a growing perception that India is now a ‘big bully’ in the region. Indian overconfidence in the coming term – manufactured for and bolstered by the electorate – risks damaging New Delhi’s relationships with its neighbors.  If India’s foreign policy goals are to de-hyphenate from Pakistan and rise above South Asia to gain a global standing, it needs peace in its neighborhood first. An aggressive foreign policy driven by a nationalist public may achieve just the opposite.

On the international front, heightened public perceptions and expectations of India’s global position are driving a more assertive foreign policy, which might pose challenges for democratic partners navigating these tides. The Pannun assassination allegation is a prominent example where, despite the potential violation of international law and its strain on the burgeoning U.S.-India partnership, Indians anecdotally support possible Indian action abroad and are disgruntled by western criticism of the same. While anti-West rhetoric may play well domestically, it could alienate India’s partners and complicate efforts to cooperate to build its own capabilities.

Looking ahead, while Modi’s popularity will likely only be strengthened by a more nationalist foreign policy, diplomatic partners should pay attention to this shifting public sentiment when navigating their relationships with India over the next five years. Given Washington’s track record of intervention and the weakening of a rules-based international order with the ongoing genocide in Gaza, public criticism of India by the United States will not bode well domestically and will only be weaponized to further strengthen Indian nationalist sentiment. Instead, the United States should use private backchannels to raise the government’s treatment of minorities and by extension, its Hindu nationalist foreign policy approach.

India’s rise should not be on the West’s terms but indeed should be calculated with the interests of important partners in mind. The Indian government should use its domestic support to further balance against superpowers by representing the voice of the Global South. But in the quest for a well-earned seat at the proverbial table, India should be wary that it does not exemplify the same attitudes it condemns its partners for.