The Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifesto promise to “fundamentally reboot and reorient the foreign policy goals, content and process” of its predecessor would suggest that the Narendra Modi government will break sharply in practice and philosophy from the foreign policy agenda of not just the previous Congress-led United Progressive Government, but all the previous governments including that of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance between 1999-2004.
The U.S. and U.K. rank among the most important countries, outside of India’s neighbours, that are of bilateral significance to the new BJP government. The historical links with India apart, the U.K. has a large non-resident Indian population. It also has a growing trade partnership with India, valued at £10.875 billion in 2012. In the last few years, Prime Minister David Cameron has been assiduously working to expand the >bilateral trade and >investment partnership . Mr. Modi’s promise of a business-friendly government that will clear the impediments to foreign investment has been welcomed by the U.K.
Building a new relationship The bilateral relationship with Britain that the Congress crafted rested on both the tensions and accommodations of a post-colonial engagement which Mr. Modi is unlikely to establish continuity with, given his immediate priorities. Besides, he has little connect with the legacy of the freedom movement. His political forebears were in the Hindu Mahasabha, a political formation whose practice and tenets went against the current of the nationalist anti-colonial stream.
Therefore, Mr. Modi is likely to build a >new relationship with the U.K. on terms dictated by his own priorities. Of reasonable certainty are the issues that will act as the bookends of the India-U.K. relationship under him, namely, trade and business relations at one end, and soft power, possibly through more cultural exchanges, at the other.
Between these two ends lie substantive foreign policy issues — security and defence, human rights terrorism, Israel, Palestine and West Asia, and the politically sensitive issue of immigration.
Unlike Atal Bihari Vajpayee who was foreign minister before he became Prime Minister, Mr. Modi has no experience in foreign affairs and has to therefore depend considerably on his Foreign and Defence Ministers. “If it is true that Mr. Modi has chosen to visit Japan first, it would speak to the fact that China is his biggest concern,” said Gareth Price, who heads the Asia programme at Chatham House, a leading foreign policy think tank in London. “If China and the countries of the neighbourhood are his focus, then the west in general is going to be secondary to other Asian countries.”
The Hindutva baggage The first roadblock in the U.K.-India relationship inherited from the recent past is the ten-year diplomatic boycott of Mr. Modi after the Gujarat riots of 2002.
Mr. Cameron’s government lifted the >visa ban on Mr. Modi in 2012, following the publication of the Indian Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team’s report which stated that there was not enough evidence to prosecute the former Gujarat Chief Minister for collusion in the 2002 killings. The official rehabilitation of Mr. Modi was met with both celebration and protest among British Indians. Prosperous and politically influential sections of the Gujarati and Punjabi diaspora successfully marshalled cross-party support to end the boycott. In October 2012, the British High Commissioner in India, James Bevan, established formal contact with him. Further, following the announcement of the election results on May 16, Mr. Cameron was also the first foreign head of state to personally congratulate Mr. Modi and officially invite him.
But despite the widespread international support and recognition he enjoys today, >Mr. Modi begins his tenure as Prime Minister with a considerable trust deficit owing to the political baggage of radical Hindutva that he carries. He was, after all, persona non grata in the U.K. and U.S. for a decade. Notwithstanding his large official and popular following in the U.K., British MPs with south Asian constituents will continue to watch his minority policy closely.
Prime Minister Modi is still viewed in the U.K. as a polarising figure, an attribution that he should prove wrong, says Hugo Swire, Britain’s Minister of State for the foreign office.. In a recent newspaper interview, Mr. Swire is quoted as saying that Mr. Modi would have to show “that he is the Prime Minister of the whole of India and of people of all faiths.”
“To convince sceptical Western governments that he is not the divisive Hindu nationalist they have for years been told he is, Modi would have to make some sort of overture to Indian Muslims,” said James Astill, Political Editor of The Economist , one of the few western publications that ran a pre-election leader in which it declined to support Mr. Modi on grounds of his “divisive” agenda. “At the least, he should issue an appeal for national unity to reassure them that they will not suffer under BJP rule. But if Modi takes no such steps, he will attract no censure from Western governments. They want India and Modi as their friend; merely not persecuting Muslims would be enough for that,” he added.
Same page on other issues On the other issues of bilateral relationship, the expectations from Mr. Modi’s government are more upbeat.
“The U.K. and India will be on the same page on a number of issues, including terrorism,’ said Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, Senior Fellow for South Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studiesin London. “The >U.K. is in the lead position to resume the high-level strategic interaction with the new Modi government that had been overtaken in the past three-four years by both France and Germany.”
Mr. Modi’s economic and development agenda may well lead in its neighbourhood policy, argues Mr. Roy-Chaudhury. Mr. Modi will neither reach out to Pakistan as Mr. Vajpayee did, nor will he take a “muscular” policy towards it, barring a “spectacular terror attack.”
“Mr. Modi’s priority will be on ensuring success in India’s economic growth and development, as well as on domestic governance issues, not on foreign policy. Essentially this requires a stable and peaceful regional environment, including the normalisation of relations with Pakistan,” he said.
The new government is expected to augment India’s >defence capabilities . “The question is how Modi might actually change India’s security policy, and, on this, relations with Pakistan and China are most important,” said Mr. Astill. “There are meanwhile some who suspect he can take India further towards peace with its neighbours than any of his predecessors. That would be wonderful, but I am not optimistic.”
>>“Roadblocks in reviving old ties” (May 27, 2014) referred to the government of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance between 2004 and 2008. It should have been 1999-2004.