What would be the foreign policy cost of the Narendra Modi government’s domestic behaviour? Many countries, including some friendly ones, have criticised how the Indian government handled the Delhi riots and the acts of omission or possibly even commission, by Indian authorities, especially by the police. The Modi government, however, appears to be of the opinion that India is now such a valued power, and can afford to ignore such criticism.
On one hand, it is easy to dismiss international criticism of India’s domestic policies—just the way external affairs minister S. Jaishankar did last week. On the other, it is also easy to imagine that India’s domestic behaviour will have severe repercussions on its foreign relations, as observers in both India and abroad seem to think. Both assumptions would be untrue.
It is true that there are foreign policy costs that the Modi government is not fully grasping. But at the same time, these costs aren’t as great as critics of the government assume them to be.
Other countries, even democracies such as the US or Japan, are not aligning with India despite its democratic, liberal domestic political culture. There are cruder calculations at play. But greasing the wheels of power does make such partnerships easier for India. By the same token, though others are not likely to abandon their partnerships with India simply because it slides towards majoritarianism, these relations will also require greater work on part of the Modi government.
Justifying India partnership
Within other democracies, the respective governments will have to justify before their domestic critics why the India partnership is so important for them and that why they need to overlook its horrible domestic behaviour. These governments will also have to justify before other international interlocutors their support for India. In multilateral bodies, they will be required to defend Indian behaviour, rather than promoting other Indian interests more relevant to the common purpose of their partnership with India, such as membership for New Delhi in some important global body, or promoting a global rule that serves their common interest. These will eventually grate on any partnership India has. Think of the slowly declining support for Israel in the West, and even in the US.
India’s partners are likely to accept some of these costs, but they are also likely to demand a price elsewhere. Moreover, it is also equally likely that such demands will lead to periodic friction within the partnership, beyond the normal friction of burden-sharing that is the lot of all such partnerships.
International politics is not a well-calibrated power game and states don’t always respond perfectly to the realities of power. Indeed, Indian foreign policy is a great example of how poorly states respond to the imperatives of power. We should expect the same from others. It is of little use saying that Indonesia should recognise power realities and partner with India, rather than focus on India’s domestic politics because the real world is a messier place where states and leaders sometimes make mistakes and respond to imperatives other than power.
Weakening India’s national power
What is more worrying is what has happened over the last six months in India is not an aberration or a couple of isolated incidents, or implementation of mere controversial policies. Rather, it appears more as a path that the Modi government has embarked upon, which is likely to result in continued domestic turmoil and conflict. If so, there will be periodic eruptions of civil unrest. They will also presumably be put down violently, with the distinction between state forces and the BJP’s supporters becoming increasingly blurred. While such collaboration is hardly unknown in Indian politics, they have usually been episodic, such as the 1984 pogrom directed at the Sikh minority by the Congress government at the time. The stain of even such episodic violence is difficult to remove, but the damage caused will be far greater, if this were to become a sustained, longer-term ideological project.
In addition to the international political costs, there is likely to be an additional cost that comes from internal divisiveness. India has always had difficulty in strengthening its national power for reasons as varied as inadequate state capacity to inattentive elites. We will now add social incohesion to this list, which will likely be much more damaging to the goal of building Indian power than any previous impediment.
Paradoxically, the Modi government is hoping that India’s power will mute others’ criticism, but what it is doing simultaneously undermines Indian power.
The other side of the equation is important too.
Foreign pressure won’t change domestic policies
Despite criticism from some foreign governments, legislators, analysts or the media, ultimately, many foreign governments will not abandon partnerships with India. Thus, the higher costs that India will have to bear is unlikely to be high enough to change the Indian government’s domestic policy. This is particularly true for the Modi government, which appears much more interested in pursuing a majoritarian Hindu supremacist domestic agenda than in enhancing India’s national power.
This means that the fight to return to a more sensible, liberal democratic domestic political order would continue to require internal political mobilisation around such ideas, rather than pinning hopes on international pressure producing domestic political change. In fact, international intervention in the domestic debate may actually make things worse by serving to delegitimise the opposition.
So, the relationship between domestic and foreign policy is a bit more complicated than either the government or its detractors imagine. Nations may continue to partner with India despite domestic developments, but the Modi government should not assume there are no opportunity costs.
The author is a professor in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views are personal.