Skip to main content
iain marlow

Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, prime ministerial candidate for India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Gujarat's chief minister, attends the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) national convention in New Delhi February 27, 2014.Reuters

On the other side of India's ongoing elections, the current frontrunners would pursue a pragmatic foreign policy aimed at rebuilding the moribund economy, reinvigorating regional multilateral forums and luring foreign investment from East Asia, says a foreign policy adviser to the man likely to be India's next prime minister.

Hardeep Singh Puri, a 39-year career diplomat who was most recently India's permanent envoy at the United Nations, recently joined the buoyant Bharatiya Janata Party, which polls suggest will win some form of majority in India's general elections under the leadership of Narendra Modi, the current chief minister of Gujarat.

Don't expect a BJP-led India to rock the boat, he said in an interview. Expect India to focus on the economy.

"It's not as if we're going to come up and open up a large number of question marks in a volatile neighbourhood," Mr. Puri said. "Our approach will be to get things done in a pragmatic fashion."

Mr. Puri described how, if the party wins enough seats for a strong majority, Mr. Modi's foreign policy would likely be partly informed by the chief minister's admiration for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's centre-right, political-business model, as well as by trips both to that country and to China, where he was once given the type of motorcade generally reserved for visiting heads of state. There will also be a priority on repairing relations with countries in India's immediate South and Southeast Asian neighbourhood, such as Sri Lanka.

Mr. Puri said the last 10 years of rule by the Indian National Congress-led coalition government has been marked by a foreign policy of "hesitance."

And although he said there would not be a wholesale jettisoning of existing foreign policy priorities, there would be renewed emphasis on economic statecraft and countering terrorism, as well as more actively engaging India's massive states in foreign diplomacy.

"There have been a lot of missed opportunities in the last ten years," Mr. Puri continued. "When the economy was going well, everyone was wanting to woo India… The question that needs to be answered is, 'Were we able to build on those relationship?' I would respectfully say no. We let those opportunities go."

He would also want to repair the relationship with the U.S., which has been strained under the perceived mistreatment of a Indian diplomat in the U.S., as well as strengthen ties with Canada – where free trade negotiations ... have stalled where business people are desperate to sell energy to India (as well as more peas and lentils).

"Canada is a very important country for us," Mr. Puri said. "The Canada-India bilateral relationship has been somewhat under-worked... Trade issues are central. My own background is in multilateral trade negotiations, (so) I'm sure the new government in Delhi will focus on those issues."

Mr. Puri says the economic basis for India's foreign policy would have strong roots in Mr. Modi's many trips overseas, as well as his frequent and often successful attempts to woo foreign investors into investing in Gujarat, a relatively prosperous state in northwest India that has numerous ports and a strong economy.

But India, more broadly, has seen its economy fade in comparison with other emerging markets, as investment and growth – spurred by previous reforms – were taken for granted and began to wither.

Mr. Modi's momentum in the current campaigning has come from his track record in Gujarat and his promise to bring prosperity to all of India – a topic of furious debate in India, given his home state has regressed on many social metrics, such as health spending and female infanticide.

But if the world's largest democracy is to take bold positions abroad and cultivate new influence in the region, it must first start at home – creating the sort of walking-the-talk situation that gave Canada's late, former finance minister Jim Flaherty such heft in international economic discussions in the post-recession era. India would love to wield that sort of influence, but most people think India will have to move slowly.

"He needs to fix the economy before he does anything," says Ashok Malik, a veteran Indian columnist who writes on foreign affairs. "He needs to fix the economy to have the political capital at home to tackle challenges internationally. If he doesn't fix the economy, other countries won't take him seriously. You may see a year and half where India looks inward, fixing the economy, and not telling the world how to run itself. The world's not interested if you're growing at 4.5 per cent (GDP growth)," as opposed to India's 10.3 per cent GDP growth in 2010.

Mr. Puri stressed, however, that the boldness of India's foreign policy under the BJP will depend heavily on the size of the mandate his party wins in the election. On that note, welcome to the Indian election debate in New Delhi, where the conversation is on the size of Mr. Modi's mandate, rather than whether he'll win or not.

Follow me on Twitter: @iainmarlow