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India Election: Deciphering the Foreign Policies of BJP and Congress





An Indian man pauses after voting at a polling station on April 17, 2014 in the Jodhpur District in the desert state of Rajasthan, India. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Much of the rhetoric from India’s current electoral campaigns has focused on economic growth and corruption. Foreign policy issues have been secondary. And while foreign policy may not be an important consideration for voters, election-watchers in other countries should be interested in how the major contenders to run India’s government will approach international relations. A close look at the manifestos of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress Party can tell us a great deal about how these candidates will handle cooperation and dialogue with their neighbors and with other international powers.

The BJP, led by Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, has alluded to a muscular foreign policy. The Congress Party, led unofficially by Rahul Gandhi, has spoken about building alliances with “socialist countries.” The contrast in positions is interesting. The last Prime Minister from the BJP, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, moved the party towards the center during his term in 1998-2004 and devised an extremely pragmatic foreign policy. On the other hand, Dr. Manmohan Singh's focus on building a closer relationship with the U.S., especially in his first term, sent a clear message that the Congress Party had moved away from its socialist moorings and the concept of non-alignment.

One important aspect of the BJP’s manifesto is the emphasis it puts on granting state governments a greater role in shaping foreign policy. This may partly reflect the views and tendencies of Narendra Modi. As Chief Minister of Gujarat, he has advocated that states take a more significant role in shaping and directing foreign policy, particularly on economic matters. He has also positioned Gujarat to deal directly with with countries like Japan, China, Singapore, and Canada on economic matters. Modi visited China in 2011, and Chinese firms have invested heavily in the state of Gujarat.

The BJP’s position on states’ involvement in foreign policy may also be a response to recent instances when states asserted themselves on foreign policy matters. In September 2011, for example, the Chief Minister of West Bengal forced the national government to shelve the Teesta treaty with Bangladesh at the eleventh hour in September 2011. More recently, West Bengal prevented the national government from reaching an agreement with Bangladesh on land boundaries. In Tamil Nadu state, the regional parties DMK and AIADMK put pressure on the national government to vote against Sri Lanka at the United Nations in 2012 and 2013. And Prime Minister Singh did not attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo in November 2013 due to pressure from both parties.

Both parties’ manifestos recognize the need to maintain for cordial ties with neighboring countries, but neither proposes specific solutions. Nor do the manifestos make specific recommendations on managing relationship with key countries such as China or the U.S. The rather general outlook captured in the manifestos may, in the end, reflect a recognition that in the current state of geo-political flux, it is virtually impossible for a party to commit to specific positions on complex foreign policy issues. Yet reality will force both parties to take a position on certain immediate issues.

On Pakistan, the BJP will have to take a more nuanced position than it has expressed in its campaign rhetoric. The BJP’s base of support is concentrated in business leaders and organizations, many of which would want trade and commercial ties with Pakistan and would oppose conflict with Pakistan. Similarly two border states, Punjab and Rajasthan, would want better ties with Pakistan. Punjab is ruled by an ally of the BJP, the Shiromani Akali Dal, while Rajasthan is governed by a BJP administration.

U.S.-India ties have been strained since December 2013, when Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade was strip-searched following her arrest. There have also been disputes over patents. Neither the BJP nor Congress is likely to make any strong overtures toward the United States. Instead, both may play safe and focus on strengthening ties with Asian allies, especially Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam. These ties will be important both for economic growth as well as for security, and the BJP and Congress appear to agree on the need to cultivate good relations with all three of these countries. A BJP government is also likely to seek better ties with Israel and Russia, especially on defense issues.