Fall/Winter 2014
Number 27

New Delhi’s New Groove

By
Jeff M. Smith

Is India an ally, an adversary, or something in between? It’s a prescient question as America confronts an array of increasingly contentious security challenges across the Indo-Pacific, and Indian foreign policy undergoes its own major evolution under the country’s most powerful and transformative prime minister in decades. The standard-bearer of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Narendra Modi, is already leaving an indelible imprint on Indian foreign policy and its relations with the United States. But before examining the state of Indo-U.S. relations under Modi, it’s worth revisiting how we got here.

For the vast majority of the 20th century, when presented with the question above, many Americans likely would have chosen “something in between.” Others still would have found India’s close relationship with the Soviet Union during the Cold War grounds for an “adversary” label.

That may be unfair, since the U.S. has long misinterpreted the Indo-Soviet Cold War relationship. While those ties were both real and intimate, it was less a strategic embrace than a tactical partnership to suit an era of balance-of-power politics. It’s all too easily forgotten that India’s first break from its infamous non-alignment policy was during the 1962 China-India border war, when Delhi successfully appealed to Washington for aid against the advancing People’s Liberation Army. Many also forget that for several years after Indian independence, America was the largest foreign aid donor to India. It was only following America’s close embrace of Pakistan and Washington’s rapprochement with Beijing that India sought the patronage of Moscow at the dawn of the Third Indo-Pakistan War of 1971. Even then, the Indo-Soviet relationship was largely transactional in nature: lucrative Russian arms contracts at a sharp discount in exchange for periodic diplomatic support.

It is safe to say, then, that for several tumultuous decades of the Cold War, to America India was indeed “something in between.” And there it remained in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, as Delhi struggled throughout the 1990s to confront the loss of its superpower patron and a paradigm-shifting financial crisis that opened its economy to liberal market reforms. Both dynamics ultimately contributed to a new willingness to engage with the West in general and America in particular. And yet, with decades of Cold War acrimony to overcome, it still required several major political and geopolitical developments for Delhi and Washington to arrive at where they are today.

One of those developments was a transformation of India’s domestic political landscape; namely, the end of the Congress Party’s nearly uncontested dominance of post-independence politics in India and the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP’s rise alone would have been insufficient had it not been accompanied by other developments like India’s 1998 nuclear test, the election of U.S. President George W. Bush in 2000, and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. To be sure, the Congress Party government that ruled India from 2004-2014 ultimately embraced the U.S. with nearly as much vigor as the BJP. Nevertheless, it was the BJP that pioneered the initial opening to the U.S. at the turn of the century, and it is the BJP that is now positioned to take the Indo-U.S. relationship to the next level.

Rise of the BJP

The BJP is the direct descendant of the Jana Sangh, a political party formed in 1951 on a conservative domestic agenda promoting a uniform civil code and statehood for Jammu and Kashmir. The party won three seats in parliament that year, but struggled against the Congress juggernaut to gain national credibility over the following two decades.

The Jana Sangh’s first major opportunity came in the wake of the 1975-1977 National Emergency which saw the suspension of democracy under Congress Party Prime Minister Indira Gandhi—a time that is considered even by many Congress supporters today to be the darkest period in India’s democratic history. In 1977, the Jana Sangh joined a coalition of mostly conservative parties to form the Janata Alliance that went on to unseat the deeply unpopular Gandhi.

After two-and-a-half years in power, this government under Morarji Desai fell and the grand coalition, as well as the Jana Sangh itself, dissolved due to infighting. The bulk of the party’s rank and file went on to form the new Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1980. However, a wave of sympathy for the Gandhi family in the aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi propelled Congress to victory in the 1984 elections and relegated the new party to just two seats in parliament.

The BJP responded by shifting rightward, promoting conservative Lal Krishnan Advani to party president and leveraging a rise in social conservatism across India. This was evident in surging support for a panoply of Hindu nationalist groups, including the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), Shiv Sena, Bajrang Dal, and, most important, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the powerful cultural and ideological patron and kingmaker behind the BJP.

What accounted for this socio-political phenomenon? In part it was the product of the Congress Party’s failures. Internal party divisions, corruption scandals, and concerns over authoritarian tendencies, particularly after the National Emergency, began to erode public confidence in the party by the 1980s. And as its luster began to dull, so too did the untouchable ideology of secularism that the party so assiduously promoted.

Researcher Shaila Seshia has argued that the loss of confidence in Congress and its secular/socialist ideology left a vacuum in which the “redefinition of values [became] eminently possible,” creating “new forms of political identification that challeng[ed] the nationalism forged in the independence movement.”(1) In this context, the BJP’s appeals to Hindu nationalism, “value-based politics,” and a perception of incorruptibility found growing traction among an Indian electorate thirsty for change.

A seminal moment in the BJP’s rise to national prominence occurred in 1990. Following through on a campaign pledge, party president L.K. Advani led a controversial march on Ayodhya, where Hindu nationalists had been campaigning for the destruction of a 16th century mosque reportedly built atop an old Hindu temple to Rama. Advani was arrested en route to Ayodhya but the march galvanized Hindu nationalists and the BJP was awarded its greatest electoral victory in the 1991 general elections, winning 120 seats.

In the elections to follow in 1996, the BJP became the largest party in the Lok Sabha (lower house), raising its parliamentary delegation to 161 and accumulating victories in statewide elections. However, it was unable to form a government and was forced to concede, followed by two unwieldy coalitions under Deve Gowda and then IK Gujral.

When early elections were again held in 1998, the BJP continued to expand its electoral base with 181 seats. However, the government formed under Atal Bihar Vajpayee proved short-lived, collapsing only a few months later when a regional party withdrew its support. A narrowly lost no-confidence vote prompted yet another election in 1999.

The BJP assiduously courted a coalition of over 20 right wing and regional parties under the banner of the National Democratic Alliance. The coalition earned a resounding 299 parliamentary seats, including 182 for the BJP. In the process, it ended years of political instability, cemented a rightward shift in Indian politics that had been building for over a decade, and earned the BJP the first stable, full-term, non-Congress government in post-independence history.

Over the course of its five-plus years in power (1998, 1999-2004), the BJP infused new life into liberal economic reforms and privatization, signaled a greater willingness to engage with the West and the U.S. in particular, and sought to add strategic weight to the previous government’s “Look East” policy. Ultimately, however, the most consequential foreign policy initiative pursued by the Vajpayee government may have been one of its first. That was the order to carry out of a series of nuclear weapons tests in May 1998, India’s first since 1974. The international backlash against the tests was swift, but not particularly deep. India was already considered by most of the world to be a de facto nuclear power, even if it was derided as a nuclear pariah for failing to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Pivot points

What no one predicted at the time was the degree to which the nuclear test would serve as a catalyst for the most substantive diplomatic engagement between the United States and India in decades. A dialogue following the nuclear tests between the Vajpayee and Clinton governments found unexpected traction, resulting in 14 rounds of talks spanning two-and-a-half years and a trip to India by President Bill Clinton in 2000 (the first by a U.S. president in 22 years). A year earlier, in another sign of an impending thaw, the Clinton administration took a relatively favorable position toward India during the Kargil War, a departure from Washington’s approach to the previous three Indo-Pakistan wars.

Two developments in 2001 accelerated the pace of change in bilateral relations and raised the ceiling of opportunities. The first was the election of George W. Bush as President. Just as India elected a BJP government more favorably disposed toward engagement with the U.S., Bush entered office with a small foreign policy team ideologically committed to strengthening relations with India.

Their inclination to transform the Indo-U.S. relationship was only reinforced by the second development: the terrorist attacks of 9/11 (followed only two months later by a brazen attack on the Indian parliament building by Pakistani-backed terrorists). Much as India was struggling to shape a new paradigm for the 21st century, the attacks prompted a fundamental reorientation of U.S. foreign policy.

America’s new priorities—counterterrorism and confronting radical Islamism, particularly in Pakistan; the promotion of democracy and stability in Afghanistan; stifling nuclear proliferation; preventing Chinese aggression and expansionism; and a new commitment to maritime security—were surprisingly congruous with the BJP’s own security priorities.

While reinforcing India’s commitment to strategic autonomy, more than any other post-independence government the BJP was unashamed of publicly advocating for a stronger strategic partnership with the U.S. By insider accounts, the Vajpayee government only narrowly decided against sending a sizable Indian contingent to assist the U.S. coalition in Iraq. Through cautious public optimism and vigorous backdoor diplomacy, the BJP laid the foundation for a strategic partnership that would come to fruition after its departure from government.

Despite a solid economic record and generally favorable approval ratings, in India’s 2004 elections the BJP suffered a narrow but unexpected defeat at the hands of the Congress Party, winning 138 seats to Congress’ 145. With a more robust team of coalition allies, Congress was able to secure a majority in parliament under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The contemporary perception of the Singh government as left-leaning, corruption-ridden, and ineffective in domestic policy tends to obscure the fact that it largely adopted the foreign policy template set out by the BJP government. Most notably, in the summer of 2005 it finished what the BJP started, institutionalizing the strategic partnership with the U.S. by signing a ten-year defense partnership agreement and, more significantly, a historic civilian nuclear deal.

The Singh government approved measures to liberalize the economy, albeit at a modest pace; levied unilateral energy sanctions on Iran; dramatically increased U.S.-India defense trade; approved aggressive increases in defense spending; further developed defense and intelligence cooperation with Israel; approved massive civilian and military infrastructure upgrades at the Chinese border; engaged in controversial energy exploration off Vietnam’s coast in waters claimed by China; joined the U.S. and Japan in regular, multilateral naval military exercises; and proved more assertive on issues related to Tibet, including dropping support for Beijing’s “One China” policy until China recognized Indian sovereignty over Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh.

In totality, the Singh government’s foreign policy looked a lot more like the BJP’s than that of any previous Congress government. However, Indian politics hinge on domestic and economic performance, and on that front the Congress government, particularly in its second iteration from 2009 to 2014, amassed a miserable track record and was voted out of office in 2014, setting the stage for the rise of Narendra Modi and the return of the BJP.

The U.S. and India under Modi

Modi, a former tea-seller of humble beginnings who rose through the party ranks to become a three-term chief minister of the state of Gujarat, gave little insight into his thinking on foreign policy or the United States during his time in Gujarat or while on the national campaign trail. The BJP election manifesto was similarly devoid of details on foreign policy. In the months since the election, neither Modi nor his External Affairs Minister has articulated anything resembling a coherent foreign policy doctrine. Yet it is still possible to glean some insights into Modi’s view on, and approach to, the U.S. and the Indo-U.S. partnership.

Suffice it to say, Modi and the U.S. got off to a rocky start. Responding to pressure from human rights groups and members of Congress, the State Department in 2005 denied Modi, then Chief Minister of Gujarat, a visa to visit the United States—a ban that continued pro forma until the Obama administration signaled that Modi would be welcomed in the United States shortly after he became prime minister.

Modi sent numerous signals during his campaign that the he would not let the visa snub interfere with the affairs of state, and went so far as to call the U.S. and India “natural allies” during a pre-election interview. Since then, he has given every indication that he intends to pursue the course set by his recent predecessors and prioritize the Indo-U.S. relationship.

In July and August 2014, his government hosted back-to-back visits by the U.S. Secretaries of Defense and State. Then, in September, Modi made a path-breaking trip to Washington, DC and New York, during which he reached a substantive deal with the U.S. on, among other things, visa liberalization, and was showered with affection by the growing and increasingly influential Indian-American community. More recently, Modi made a symbolically important invitation to President Obama to be his guest of honor at India’s premier Republic Day ceremony in January 2015. It was the first time a U.S. president had ever received this invitation.

To be sure, the two sides still have hurdles to overcome. Despite the meteoric expansion of the bilateral economic relationship (with trade in goods up 400 percent over the past decade, and trade in services and U.S. investment in India both up 600 percent during the same period), in recent years the temperature on trade, investment, and intellectual property disputes has risen, with disaffected American industries pressing an increasingly effective lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill. This dimension of the relationship holds the potential to upset progress on the political and strategic agenda if not addressed more robustly by both sides. Meanwhile, policy differences on global trade and climate change talks, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the operationalization of the U.S.-India nuclear deal will have to be finessed.

But all in all, the tailwinds remain much stronger than the headwinds, and the geopolitical forces that brought the U.S. and India into closer alignment at the turn of the century are only gaining momentum. The strength of the bilateral bond on counterterrorism issues has only grown stronger, and Washington has welcomed forceful statements by Modi on the need to confront the Islamic State terror group wherever it operates. “All countries that believe in humanity,” he told an audience in New York, “have to come together to fight this 21st century challenge.”(2)

Shared concerns about the rise of China likewise have only grown deeper, as China has pursued an increasingly aggressive approach to its territorial disputes. This was driven home to India rather saliently when, at the outset of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s inaugural visit to India this Fall, the People’s Liberation Army crossed the disputed Line of Actual Control that serves as the de facto China-India border, prompting a weeks-long faceoff with the Indian military. One of Modi’s premier initiatives at home has been to accelerate plans to improve civilian and military infrastructure along that border, addressing an ever-growing disadvantage there vis-à-vis China.

In addition, the Modi administration has no doubt watched with concern reports that Chinese nuclear submarines have begun operating regularly in the Indian Ocean over the past year. And under his rule, India has become an even more vocal advocate of the need for “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea, a not-so-subtle signal of opposition to Chinese hegemony there. Finally, Modi’s government has welcomed overtures by Vietnam to have Indian energy companies expand energy exploration projects in contested waters off its coast, a measure opposed by Beijing.

On Pakistan, Delhi remains, as it always has, concerned about generous U.S. diplomatic and military assistance to Islamabad. But the gap between the two countries on this issue is growing narrower as the U.S. has gradually adopted a much more favorable position on the Kashmir dispute and as India has recognized that many in Washington are now as outraged at Pakistan’s support for Islamist militant proxies as Delhi has been for decades.

Modi has also made it a priority to strengthen relations with U.S. allies in East Asia, a move long encouraged by Washington. His enthusiasm for stronger Indo-Japan ties is shared in equal measure by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has vigorously supported India’s rise as a counterweight to China and who long ago floated the concept of a “democratic security diamond” composed of India, Japan, Australia and Hawaii to “safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific.”(3)

That closeness is visible in other ways as well. Despite a failure to sign a civilian nuclear deal, Modi’s visit to Japan in August was received with great fanfare. With a massive business delegation in tow, the Indian leader left with deals on clean coal technology and transportation, secured a massive $35-billion-dollar pledge of Japanese investment over five years, and got six Indian space and defense entities removed from a Japanese export control list.

Nor has India’s new premier made a secret of his affinity for the East Asia “development model” or his belief that East Asia will be the focal point of economic development and geopolitical activity in the 21st century. When External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Vietnam in August, she announced that India’s “Look East” policy would become an “Act East” policy under the Modi government.(4)

This has been received in some circles as evidence of Modi prioritizing the East and Japan over the West and the United States. However, it should be a welcome development from Washington’s perspective. It was almost exactly three years earlier when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced during a speech in India: “We encourage India not just to ‘Look East’ but to ‘Engage East’ and ‘Act East’.”(5) Ironically, this “Act East” policy comes at the same time America is itself “pivoting” to East Asia. And as the two countries turn their strategic focus to the Western Pacific, their shared interests there will assume greater salience and likely provide new avenues for cooperation.

Against this geopolitical backdrop, the two sides have taken several smaller, more pragmatic steps to inch the relationship closer to the classification of “ally.” The defense relationship has grown exponentially in recent years, from zero dollars one decade ago to over $14 billion today. Washington welcomed an early move by the Modi administration to raise the cap on investment in India’s defense sector to 49 percent, and is excited by recent talk of Delhi raising that ceiling further to 74 percent. Meanwhile, one of the pioneers of the defense partnership within the U.S. bureaucracy, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, was recently chosen by President Obama to be America’s next Secretary of Defense. That doubtless bodes well for the bilateral defense relationship, as does the departure of India’s notoriously ineffective Defense Minister, A.K. Antony.

Bright horizons

In the end, India may never be an “ally” of the U.S. in the formal sense. Delhi’s ideological attachment to Non-Alignment (now dubbed “strategic autonomy”) and its profound distaste for dependence on larger powers will almost certainly preclude such an arrangement. But that is unlikely to prevent the world’s oldest democracy from engaging in more robust cooperation, including in the security and intelligence arenas, with the world’s largest democracy than it does with many of its formal allies. After all, the U.S. already conducts more military exercises with India than any other country in the world.

Modi may so far have avoided enunciating any coherent foreign policy doctrine but, as Indian analyst Brahma Chellaney notes: “One trademark of Modi’s foreign policy is that it is shorn of ideology, with pragmatism being the hallmark. The policy’s overriding objective appears to be to enhance the country’s economic and military security as rapidly as possible.”(6) And it is clear that, like his predecessors before him, India’s new leader sees a strong and vibrant partnership with the U.S. as the critical pillar in enhancing his country’s economic and military security. For Washington and Delhi, that should be enough.

Jeff M. Smith is Director of South Asia Programs and Kraemer Strategy Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.


1.    Shaila Seshia, “Divide and Rule in Indian Party Politics: The Rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party,” Asian Survey 38, 1998.

2.    Niharika Mandhana, “India’s Modi Issues Call to Defeat Islamic State,” Wall Street Journal, September 29, 2014, http://www.wsj.com/articles/indias-modi-issues-call-to-defeat-islamic-st....

3.    Shinzo Abe, “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond,” LiveMint, December 31, 2012, http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/viqg2XC8fhRfjTUIcctk0M/Asias-democratic-....

4.    “Time to Change ‘Look East Policy’ to ‘Act East Policy,’” Press Trust of India, August 25, 2014, http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/time-to-change-look-east-policy-to-act....

5.    Sangeetha Kandavel and Joe A. Scaria, “Look East, and Act East, Too: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to India,” India Times, July 20, 2011, http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2011-07-20/news/29794815_1_....

6. Brahma Chellaney, “Narendra Modi’s Imprint on Foreign Policy,” LiveMint, September 2, 2014, http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/Rx9Waq6uNG6yHJaSJMurTL/Narendra-Modis-im....