Modi’s Underwhelming Election Win May Portend More Tension Between India and China

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the coalition led by his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerged on top in India’s general election earlier this month. Despite coming in first place, the BJP failed to secure an absolute majority and will be forced to share power for the first time in Modi’s tenure. This result defies widespread media predictions and is seen by many as a slight electoral rebuke to Modi’s Hindu nationalist party. As Modi prepares for his third term, one year after Xi Jinping began his own third term, some commentators have analyzed how the new government will affect India’s already tense relations with China. At the U.S. Institute for Peace, Daniel Markey described the potential foreign-policy consequences of Modi’s relative drop in power, based on ideological and strategic factors:

Most important, over the past decade India’s key international relationships — with the United States, China, Russia, Pakistan and so on — never appear to have been dictated exclusively by doctrinaire ideological attachments. This pattern is likely to persist. Then again, precisely because the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] and Modi will exercise greater control over India’s international policy (as compared to domestic policy), they may choose to frame their foreign policy ambitions and decisions in increasingly ideological terms, for instance with more frequent references to “civilizational” tropes, in part as a sop to the party’s hardcore Hindu chauvinist base.

[…] One near-term consequence of Modi’s relative slip in power could come in the context of India’s difficult relationship with China. The long-awaited return of a Chinese ambassador to New Delhi in May suggested that Beijing and New Delhi were poised to pursue normalized relations after India’s elections. The political and strategic logic seemed sound. China, anticipating that Modi would win another sweeping majority, likely preferred cutting a deal to reduce bilateral tensions for the duration of his five-year term. Modi, also anticipating a solid election victory, would have leveraged his unchallenged political standing at home to assume an advantageous stance in negotiations with China.

Now, however, if Beijing perceives Modi to be in a tough political bind, it could rethink its negotiating calculations and take a tougher line. Alternatively, Modi could delay any outreach to China to preempt criticism from his domestic political opponents. [Source]

For the China-Global South Project, Saniya Kulkarni & Lukas Fiala highlighted the features that are likely to endure in Modi’s third term, such as the BJP’s control over key ministries and the Indian public’s leverage in foreign policy issues:

Looking ahead, Modi’s third term will very likely continue its foreign policy goals of seeking greater strategic autonomy, furthering cooperation within the Global South, and strengthening India’s image as a great power.

Although unlikely, it will be interesting to see if there will be a shift in these goals considering this is the first time Modi will be leading a coalition government since he came to power in 2014. Negotiations for cabinet posts are currently underway in the Indian capital, but it is difficult to imagine the BJP would part from core ministries such as Home, defense, finance, and external affairs, among others.

Importantly, India’s international stature has become a staple in domestic discussions, and also a key issue in electoral politics. One key change of the Modi years has been the dismissal of the idea that foreign affairs fall only within the remit of elite debates. For instance, the increased presence of the Indian public as stakeholders in the country’s foreign relations became evident over the recent Maldives ordeal.

It is yet to be seen how this phenomenon will play out in other avenues of India’s foreign policy, but it is certain that the Indian people have been paying more attention to India’s role in the world. [Source]

Part of Modi’s vision for his third term includes building India into an global manufacturing hub that could serve as an alternative to China for firms looking to diversify their supply chains. Analysts also predict that Modi will continue to expand defense cooperation with the U.S. During a Foreign Policy podcast conversation with Ravi Agrawal and Yamini Aiyar, Milan Vaishnav described the geopolitical dynamics between India, China, and the U.S.: “The one thing that does worry New Delhi is the extent to which Washington is going to strike its own rapprochement with Beijing […and] strike some kind of detente. It [would] be a G2 world and India [would] be left at the altar. If we start to see signs in that direction, that may change the strategic calculations, at least on the part of Modi. But right now I don’t sense any real diesire from either side of the border for a lasting thaw in China-India relations.”

After the election results were announced, Taiwan’s newly elected President William Lai Ching-te publicly congratulated Modi on X (formerly Twitter), and Modi thanked him for the message. Xi Jinping was the first to congratulate Modi after the latter won his second term five years ago, but this year the first message from a Chinese leader arrived a week after the election results were announced, and it came from Premier Li Qiang. Officials in Beijing indirectly criticized the Lai-Modi interaction, urging New Delhi to be vigilant about Taipei’s “political conspiracy” and emphasizing India’s one-China policy. In Foreign Policy, Rishi Iyengar described Modi’s motivations for engaging with Taiwan in his past and present terms:

Modi’s decision to publicly respond to Lai was unprecedented in many ways, and it was likely meant to send a subtle message to China, with whom India’s relations have dramatically frayed over the same period that its Taiwan links have deepened. 

[…] But Modi’s response to Lai—as calibrated as it may have been—has likely made any further engagement incredibly unlikely if not totally impossible, according to Sushant Singh, a lecturer at Yale University and Foreign Policy contributor who previously served in the Indian Army. “It’s a very clear provocation, it’s outside the norm that we have seen being established,” Singh said. “It has the potential to scuttle any path towards normalcy that many of us were seeing after Modi’s reelection.”

The manner of that reelection, which culminated with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party failing to secure a majority on its own and having to rely on smaller parties to form a coalition government, could also have played a role in the Indian prime minister’s decision to antagonize Beijing by publicly engaging Taiwan. “Many people believe that this was because Modi was being seen as a much weaker leader after the election results,” Singh said, adding that for Modi, the response to Lai “was also a way of conveying strength, conveying that he’s going to stand up to China, and he’s going to be as bold and tough as he was in Modi 2.0.”

[…] While Modi’s overtures to Taiwan may well be designed to provoke China, they may also be partly a function of his government’s foreign-policy doctrine of “multi-alignment,” in which India’s relationships are dictated more purely by its national interests than by external pressures or global rules-based order precedents. Modi’s message of thanks to Zelensky, for example, was followed by a similarly effusive post for Russian President Vladimir Putin. [Source]

Power politics may continue to push Modi in a more aggressive stance towards China. “To that end, it is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which, with its back against the wall, an embattled Modi government plays up the perceptions of external threats to try and rally domestic constituencies,” Fahd Humayun, an assistant professor of political science at Tufts University, told CNN. This month, New Delhi planned to rename more than two dozen places in China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, as part of a global campaign to offer a counter-narrative to Chinese claims on India’s Arunachal Pradesh state and other parts of the disputed border that the Chinese government renamed. But as Armaan Mathur wrote in The Diplomat this week, in potentially over-relying on nationalism to pursue his foreign policy priorities, Modi could risk imitating the alienating aspects of Chinese foreign policy

Here is where Modi 3.0 needs to tread cautiously. Rising powers are often nationalist, but that nationalism can just as easily blind them to the structural constraints of the system in which they operate. The nationalist invocation of “Bharat” might have an ideological motive, but the more concerning development is that the desire to be treated as a unique civilizational state is undermining India from being treated as a liberal one. There is no codification of the treatment that a civilizational state deserves, or why it deserves special treatment in the first place.

The civilizational argument can also lead to India being perceived as mirroring the Chinese approach of attempting hegemony, which can alienate key allies and trample over the goodwill that has given it strategic maneuverability. The creation of an indigenous democracy indicator seems to suggest that being “liberal” in terms of certain global universal values just does not cut it anymore. Stances taken outside that “liberal” framework should now be accorded respect because they are, purportedly, a consequence of India’s unique cultural inheritance and “decolonized” strategic culture.

[…] Plus, the very global order that India’s foreign policy nationalism lambasts is also what gives India the legitimacy to call out China on its borders, and the legal instruments to justify responding to a future attack on Indian soil. This is not to say that there is not a valid basis for raising the civilizational state question. The contemporary institutionalization of the global order is Eurocentric, and there may be a case to explore how the Westphalian order can accommodate the demands of civilizational polities. Yet, that will continue to be an academic debate for the foreseeable future, unlikely to fructify into concrete changes unless there is a stable balance of power. [Source]


Subscribe to CDT


Browsers Unbounded by Lantern

Now, you can combat internet censorship in a new way: by toggling the switch below while browsing China Digital Times, you can provide a secure "bridge" for people who want to freely access information. This open-source project is powered by Lantern, know more about this project.

Google Ads 1

Giving Assistant

Google Ads 2

Anti-censorship Tools

Life Without Walls

Click on the image to download Firefly for circumvention

Open popup

Welcome back!

CDT is a non-profit media site, and we need your support. Your contribution will help us provide more translations, breaking news, and other content you love.