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India Foreign Policy Analysis

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The writer has a Master's Degree in Economics. She enjoys researching and writing about economic and business issues.


Located in South Asia, India is one of most populous countries in the world with more than 1.3 billion people. The country has a long and interesting history and is regarded as the world’s oldest civilizations, lasting for as long as human being’s history. On the global sphere, the role and influence of India have fluctuated throughout history, rising and falling within the historical contexts and development. Nonetheless, all in all, it remains a significant player – in some studies, it has been considered an emerging global superpower – and deserves proper examination to thoroughly understand its position, policy and potential development in the near future (Tellis, 2005). India has also long been associated with populism. With the rise of such populist leaders as Donald Trump, President of the United States, and Ji Jinping, Chinese President and General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, populism has gained much attention in the media as well as academic world (Calléja, 2020). Therefore, this article provides a foreign policy analysis for India through the lens of populism.

What Is Populism?


The term “populism” has often been misused and ill-defined by scholars and political writers due to the changes in its meaning from states to states, over different periods of time, and the official classification of populism from the left to the right (Gagnon, et al., 2018). Populism typically divides the world into two “camps”: one for the people, and one for the elite. According to Rooduijn (2011), populism is often characterized by its focus on people, although “people” means different things in different studies and across different timeframes. Nonetheless, most notably, in populism, the elite has negative connotation because they are often believed to exploit the normal people economically, politically or socially.

Moreover, populism often alludes to some sort of crisis or threats that endanger the well-being or even the existence of normal people. The crisis can be due to ideological, social, economic, terrorism reasons, calling for people to take collective actions to protect themselves under the guidance of the state or other party proclaiming to represent the rights/ welfare of the normal people (Betz, 2002). For instance, the Great Recession over the past decade has been claimed to trigger another wave of populism in Europe. The long-existing political tensions among social classes and the so-called European core countries and European outlying countries have been intensified by high unemployment rate and deteriorating economic conditions. As a result, Europe is believed to fall into a crisis state, calling for more extreme actions from the authority which has gained power in various countries (Passari, 2020).

Third, as the result of the focus on the people, populist leaders often employ simple language with uncomplicated and direct arguments to address their points. They also make the most use of exaggeration and polarizing examples in their speech. The language aims to evoke emotional response and actions from both the educated and uneducated people (Barber, 2019). To illustrate, such behaviors can be seen from populist leaders around the world including Present of the United States Donald Trump, former President of Venezuela Hugo Chavez.

Overview of India’s Foreign Policy

After gaining independence from the British in 1947, India was ruled by the Indian National Congress, which declared to bring liberalism, democracy, and harmony for the Indian people. During the Cold War, under the leadership of Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1960s, India maintained neutral foreign policy, abstaining from taking either sides. However, things changed in the next period as India entered into an agreement with the Soviet Union called the Indo-Soviet Treaty, bringing itself closer to the umbrella of the Soviet Union which gradually became not only political ally but also economic partner of India. However, with the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the dissolution of the Soviet Union Bloc, India was left in a difficult position as it must find a new direction for its foreign policy. Therefore, with the election of Narasimha Rao as a new Prime Minister, similar to many other former Soviet allies, India had to undertake major economic reforms to liberalize and open its economy, allowing for more economic freedom, international cooperation and investment in order to save its economy from collapsing. This transformation also led to essential changes in India’s foreign policy, from a closed country to a more active global actor. For example, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao started making official trips to visit China, the United States, and many other countries in ASEAN, Africa, and Europe and established the foundation for further cooperation between India and other nations (Horimoto, 2017). In 2014, Narendra Modi became India’s Prime Minister, winning his second term in 2019. As of 2020, India has formed official bilateral relationships with more than 110 countries around the world and has signed partnership agreements with 29 countries (Ministry of External Affairs, 2020).


Objectives of India’s Foreign Policy

According to the Indian government, the aim of its foreign policy is to transform India into a modern country, promote Indian’s values to the global stage, and create a favourable environment for all Indians to thrive (Menon, 2020). National interests consist of a wide range of spheres from ensuring territorial sovereignty, economic and social security to advancing share of global integration. From the goals, it can be seen that the interests of Indian people lie at the heart of its foreign policy. By advancing the foreign policy, Indian government wants to improve the internal conditions of its political, economic and social state. Furthermore, it desires to carry out the mission independently without the influence or interference of any foreign state (Malhotra, 2019). This principle can also be observed in foreign policy by some populist Latin American states such as Argentine and Venezuela as they explicitly seek for autonomy and independence through their foreign policy (Wehner & Thies, 2020).

Principles of India’s foreign policy

The Indian government lays out some fundamental principles underpinning its foreign policy. First, it emphasizes the importance of soft power over hard power in its overall strategy, a paradigm also supported by Constructivism and Neo-liberalism (Malone, 2011). In political science, soft power is defined as the ability to achieve the desired results through negotiation and attraction rather than through punishment and force. Hence, soft power is gained through a nation’s policy and institutions and is exercised through its diplomatic ties and relationship with others (Nye, 2005). As a result of this principle, the government concentrates its resources on creating diplomatic relationships with other countries regardless of their political regime and status. To illustrate, in various speeches, Narendra Modi, Indian’s Prime Minister, has repeatedly promised to extend Indian’s connectivity with the outside world.

Nevertheless, some researchers claim that India’s choice of soft power as a tool to shape its foreign policy stemmed from the fact that the country lack of strong military and economic power. In terms of national defense, India’s military strategy relies mainly on its ground forces, and it does not have enough capacity for air or maritime force. The persistence of orthodox doctrine within Indian military forces and the limitations its military capacity indeed lower India’s ability to achieve its ambitious goals of becoming a global power (Ladwig, 2007). Regarding its economic factors, India remained a lower middle income country with GDP per capita of around USD 2,000. The country’s poverty rate was estimated at 17%, among the highest in the world (The World Bank Group, 2020).

Second, the Indian government opposed against the exportation of ideologies across borders. For many countries, in their foreign policy, they aim to increase their influence globally through the export of their values, cultures or even political regime. For example, in providing Official Development Aid to other countries, the United States was able to force the recipient government to implement or adopt some certain practice or adhere to the American’s principles (McMillan, 2011). This is indeed not the case for the Indian government. The country maintains a non-interference standpoint, criticizing other governments for interfering with other countries’ internal matters. This principle is in line with populism’s inward-looking orientation. In addition, if India does reach out, in many occasions, it tends to utilize “the people’s organizations” to connect with people with the same value/ belief. These organizations act as a bridge between India and the world, representing its collective identity and messages (Plagemann & Sandra, 2018).

Third, with the re-election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, populism has been argued to impact India’s foreign policy since Prime Minister Narendra Modi has long been considered a hardcore populist leader. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a son of a tea-seller – a classic example of the anti-elitism choice of leader – is an avid populist leader who advocates for “the people” of Hinduism, and takes “Muslim” as the others. This translated into his increasingly hostile foreign policy towards Pakistan since taking office (The Hindu, 2020). Besides, since taking office, he has taken drastic measures in response to global problems and crisis. For example, in the wave of COVID-19 pandemic spread at the beginning of 2020 to present, India has implemented the strictest policies to contain the virus. It has shut down its whole economy during lengthening period and cut down most relationships with the external world, preventing people from coming into India at the expense of the economy (Venkata-Subramani & Roman, 2020).

India’s Cultural Identity


Regarding Indian culture, it is among the most sophisticated and well-developed in the world. Culture is broadly defined as a set of norms, beliefs, values, behaviors, rituals, or a way of life adopted and shared by a group of people within a community (Schneider, 2014). Culture encompasses almost all aspects of the Indian society including food, clothes, religions, arts, languages, traditions, philosophy, etc. Culture can evolve and change over time to incorporate new developments in human’s society. It emphasizes harmony, tolerance, collectivism, and spirituality (Mohapatra, 2017). Since the main religion of India is Hinduism, there is a push in the country’s overall domestic and foreign policy towards uniting Hindus in India and around the world. The country’s culture and identity have also been used as part of its soft power in its foreign policy. For example, India has promoted International Day of Yoga, “Made in India” campaigns to introduce its image around the world, forming emotional ties with sympathetic audience abroad (Kinnvall, 2019).

India’s Geopolitical Position

Geopolitically, India is located on a strategically important position in the world, lying on the trade route between the Europe and Asia. It is also surrounded by the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea, and the Bengal Bay, connecting the country with other economies around the world. It is this prime location that enables India to become one of the world’s oldest and most flourishing trade and economic hub. With its decision to move away from the long-held non-aligned policy to further reaffirm its position as an aspiring global power, India’s geopolitical position has also shifted over the past decades as indicated by its relationships with neighboring countries and other global superpowers (Scholar & Dar, 2017).

India - Pakistan conflict

India - Pakistan conflict

India – Pakistan Relationship

The relationship between India and Pakistan has been a controversial foreign policy debate. Once a single country, the separation of the two in 1947 by the British colonist has lasted for more than 70 years and seemed to become permanent. After that, each country declared its own independence, established its government and became individual member of various international organizations such as the United Nations and so on. Ever since then, the relationship among the two countries has never been an amicable one. As one element of the India’s populist government, the division between “the people” of Hindu and “the others” of Muslims has become irreversible. Consequently, the two states engaged in constant conflicts. The propaganda of the Indian government also consistently portrayed the Muslims as perpetrators who posed a great threat to the existence and prosperity of the Hinduism state (Jaffrelot, 1996). This belief also serves as the cornerstone of the two states’ relationship. Despite some efforts by international organizations and from both governments to bring the two countries to negotiation and dialogues, those efforts have proved to be fruitless and during the time when the nationalist movement is on the rise, the relationships between the two countries become worsen, highlighting the populist and nationalist sentiments within each nation (Mukherjee, 2019). With the reign of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it is unlikely that there will be big improvements to India – Pakistan relation even though both governments are under pressure to contain their conflicts for economic and regional cooperation reasons.

India – China Relationship

The India - China relationship is a testy one.

The India - China relationship is a testy one.

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Although India acknowledged and cooperated with China in various economic development programs, fostering bilateral and trade between the two nations, it has maintained a firm stand against Chinese ambitions to extend its soft and hard influence in the region. Specifically, it has outright rejected China’s Belt and Road Initiatives which China has since 2013. Through this program, it has invested heavily into various regions around the world, using the supposed development investment as a mean to exert its power on the receiving governments and consequently impose its doctrines and political roles in the region (Bekkers & Schroeter, 2020). Nevertheless, unlike other governments including Pakistan’s, Indian government has fought against this initiative as it recognizes the funding as a way for China to impose its value and power on other countries. Other than that, India strengthens its economic ties with other global superpowers such as the United States, Japan, Australia, etc. in a bid to diversity its alliances and maintain its soft power. This strategy reflects the desire of a populist state to remain autonomous and stay away from involving deeply or being impacted by other nation’s interference (Plagemann & Sandra, 2018).

In sum, for India, since its inception, the country has already possessed many elements of a populism nation, and these characteristics also underlie the country’s foreign relation strategy and action plan. Through the thick and thin of its history, the founding values and identity of the nations have always re-emerged, determining its course of foreign policy direction, its principles and other elements such as its relationships with other countries in the region and in the world. Under the management of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, foreign policy of India will be likely to display characteristics of populism. With the unprecedented impacts of COVID-19 pandemic causing much turbulence to the world’s economy and disruption towards the world order, India is expected to maintain the same foreign policy for some time to come.


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MG Singh emge from Singapore on March 22, 2021:

I must compliment you on a very scholarly exposition of Indian foreign policy. You have brought out many points that are valid but one point must be added. .Advent of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister has resulted in greater stress on the Indian military capability and as we have seen in the latest crisis in eastern Ladakh when both Indian and Chinese armies were face-to-face for many months, the Chinese had to withdraw. Modi is also cultivating the quad the alliance with Australia, Japan, and USA against China as India increasingly becomes more militant.

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