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Party Ideology, Populism, and Change in Indian Foreign Policy

Foreign Policy
India
Nationalism
Political Parties
Sandra Destradi
German Institute of Global And Area Studies
Sandra Destradi
German Institute of Global And Area Studies
Johannes Plagemann
German Institute of Global And Area Studies

Abstract

Indian foreign policy has often been described as static and reactive rather than dynamic. Reasons for this are typically attributed to a variety of interrelated institutional as well as ideological factors: a comparatively small and isolated strategic community, a stronger than usual role of the permanent foreign policy bureaucracy, limited public and media interest in foreign affairs as well as the prevalence of Nehruvian foreign policy principles amongst all of those stakeholders, including India’s major political parties. Yet, despite substantial elements of continuity, a range of changes can be observed in three elements of India’s foreign policy since the late 1990s: in its practices, its decision-making procedures, and the official foreign policy discourse. Among such changes are a shift towards the identification of China rather than Pakistan as India’s principal adversary during the 2000s, or the intensification of security cooperation within the Indo-Pacific; a further centralization of decision-making with the Prime Minister and a small circle of advisors under Modi; or the discursive marginalization of Nehru’s legacy in India’s foreign policy discourse since 2014. In this paper, we aim to make sense of such longer-term shifts by focusing on ideology and party politics. In particular, the rise of the Hindu nationalist BJP, with an intellectual tradition including both greatly divergent and congruent foreign policy ideas when compared to the Congress, has led to public rejections of Nehru’s foreign policy legacy and to the emergence of a more ‘muscular’ rhetoric rooted in Hindu nationalist thought. Prime Minister Modi’s populism, moreover, has contributed to some shifts in the procedural aspects of foreign-policy making. In the paper, we distil the core elements of foreign policy thinking over time in India’s two major political parties both in opposition and government (1998 to present) as well as within a changing geostrategic context. We thereby explore how the BJP and Congress reacted to and brought about change in India’s contemporary strategic debates. Theoretically, we seek to contribute to a better understanding of how party ideologies affect domestic foreign policy debates, processes, as well as actions.