A Modi election victory will see Indian foreign policy grow more assertive – bringing risk and opportunity

India’s democratic credentials have been reaffirmed during the election cycle. But an erosion of India’s secular credentials could pose challenges for its global image.

Expert comment Published 29 May 2024 3 minute READ

India’s behemoth seven-stage election is reaching its climax with the results announced on 4 June. While exit polls will not be revealed until the election process is completed on 1 June, the likely outcome remains a third consecutive term for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government. 

However, contrary to expectations that the election would be smooth sailing for the BJP, the polls have thrown up a few surprises.

First, voter turnout has been lower than anticipated. Turnout over the first four phases was 66.95 per cent. That is about one per cent lower than the 2019 election. 

The fifth phase recorded the lowest turnout so far at 62.2 per cent although the turnout for the recently concluded sixth phase was a slight improvement at 63.37 per cent. 

The lower turnout has been attributed to everything from hot weather to voter apathy, although it remains unclear if this will work in favour of the opposition or the BJP. 

Hindu Nationalist rhetoric

While the drop in turnout is not significant, it has been enough to trigger anxiety within the BJP, prompting its candidates (including Modi) to double down on the party’s Hindu nationalist rhetoric. 

The BJP’s Hindutva or Hindu nationalist ideology has not resonated throughout the country, particularly in the south.

Several inflammatory statements have been noted on the campaign trail, including a comment by Modi that if the opposition Congress Party wins, it will redistribute wealth among so-called ‘infiltrators’ and communities that have more children. Although Modi denied it, that was an allusion to the country’s 200 million-strong Muslim population. His candidates have also referred to Congress engaging in a ‘vote Jihad’ against the BJP. 

While alarming, these developments also demonstrate that the BJP does not have complete control of the political narrative. The inflammatory language indicates anxieties about its ability to meet its 370-seat target (400 with coalition partners) that it has set for itself in India’s 543-seat Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament). 

The BJP’s Hindutva or Hindu nationalist ideology has not resonated throughout the country, particularly in the south where the party does not control any of the five state governments. 

The BJP has attempted to frame the election as a national personality contest, with Modi at the helm. But local politics and economic concerns have dominated campaigning across many states, including concerns about youth unemployment (which accounts for over 80 per cent of the country’s unemployed) and inflation – headline inflation is under control but food price inflation remains high. 

Democratic process over secular principles

Some irregularities have been noted in the release of polling information, with delays in the release of data (although this has improved during later phases) and a difference in polling percentages between the tentative numbers released on polling day and the final official turnout figures. 

There have also been sporadic instances of election-related violence, intimidation, corruption, and disinformation (much of which of which has been disseminated through social media).

However, Indian democracy remains largely intact, at least at a procedural level: recent state elections have seen fewer recounts or complaints about vote rigging or manipulation compared to previous contests.

India’s judiciary has also asserted its independence during the election cycle. In mid-February the court ruled that electoral bonds (a fundraising tool) are unconstitutional as they grant an unfair advantage to the ruling party. Then, earlier this month, it granted interim bail to Arvind Kejriwal, leader of the Aam Admi Party, who was arrested in March, allowing him to campaign.  

Neither development will have pleased the BJP, showing that a degree of checks and balances persist in India’s institutions.

The margin of victory

For now, a shock result on par with the 2004 general election – when the BJP-led government of then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee suffered a defeat – remains unlikely. 

The near certainty of a third Modi term will maintain pressure on the country’s secular credentials, as the government pursues its Hindu nationalist agenda.

Support for the BJP and Congress was more evenly split in 2004. Now, the BJP is in a much stronger position while the opposition remains weak and fragmented. 

Congress is a shell of its former self and the opposition coalition – which has goes by the acronym INDIA (India National Developmental and Inclusive Alliance) – has failed to put up a united front amid several defections and a lack of consensus on seat sharing arrangements in several states. 

The key watchpoint will be the BJP’s margin of victory. If the party returns to power with more than 272 seats required to form a government, but less than the 303 seats it currently holds, it will make it more beholden to coalition partners in the National Democratic Alliance. 

Even if the party surpasses its current seat count but falls short of its stated target of 370, this could dent the Modi brand to some degree. In this context, there is a risk that the BJP could become more entrenched in its ideological roots as it comes under pressure from the Sangh Parivar group of Hindu nationalist organisations, of which the BJP is a member. 

Regardless of seat counts, the near certainty of a third Modi term will maintain pressure on the country’s secular credentials, as the government pursues its Hindu nationalist agenda, eroding the divide between state and religion through its push to transform India into a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ (Hindu nation).

Policy implications

From a policy perspective, there is broad consensus across the right-wing BJP and left-leaning Congress on many key issues. Both want to foster development and raise India’s global status. 

On foreign policy, all of India’s major political parties maintain a longstanding commitment to preserving ‘strategic autonomy’.

However, there are differences in the details. While the BJP’s economic policy has been grounded in wealth creation through accelerating growth and attracting foreign investment, Congress’s focus is increasingly on wealth redistribution through combatting inequality and discrimination. This explains its push for a nationwide caste census, which would lead to an expansion of caste-based quotas in jobs and educational institutions. 

On foreign policy, all of India’s major political parties maintain a longstanding commitment to preserving ‘strategic autonomy’, which entails pursuing relations with all major poles of influence in the international system. 

However, the BJP favours a more assertive and muscular foreign policy, embedded in the country’s civilizational identity. So far, much of this has been benign and largely rhetorical, such as referring to India as ‘Bharat’, and the country as a ‘Vishvaguru’ (‘world teacher’) and ‘Vishvamitra’ (‘friend to the world’). 

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India has also sought to play a more constructive role in the international system, from recent naval deployments in the Indian Ocean to protect commercial shipping from piracy and Houthi rebel attacks to offering so-called Indian solutions to global problems during its G20 presidency.

However, there is also a risk that India seeks exemptions from global norms and rules because of its self-perceived special or exceptional status. 

Recent allegations of Indian complicity in assassination plots in several countries alludes to the potential hazards of such a viewpoint.

That would raise sporadic tensions in India’s relations with the West. 

However, when framed in the context of broader geopolitical developments, including US–China rivalry, the West will seek to maintain engagement with India, despite its rulers’ alarming rhetoric and unquestionably Hindu nationalist agenda.