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What will be the effect of India's general election on relations with its neighbors, the EU, and the United States?

Question submitted by Najibullah Adamji, from Mithibai College, Mumbai University, April 4, 2014

Answered by: Alyssa Ayres, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia


Historically, India's foreign policy has not oscillated on a partisan basis, exemplifying the American adage: politics stops at the water's edge. This doesn't mean politics has no effect on foreign policy in India; it is, however, more attenuated with powers farther away, and amplified with smaller neighbors.

On March 27, the Indian National Congress released its "manifesto," detailing official priorities. Trade and an "open and competitive" economy focused on inclusive growth feature in the Congress manifesto. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), based on past positions and speeches made by prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi would prioritize trade and investment. The next Indian government would likely continue to pursue trade-led ties with the EU through the ongoing free trade agreement negotiation.

Support for a strong strategic relationship with the United States has held across party lines, from the BJP-led opening in 2000 to the Congress-led past decade. On the economic front, while the Congress document highlights a pledge for India's "greater integration with the global economy," disappointments during its recent term have resulted in frictions. Many analysts assess the BJP as more focused on economic reform and trade, and see the party as likely to rekindle a positive economic spark with the U.S.

Both major parties have taken similar approaches to the insoluble question of Pakistan, with Prime Minister Vajpayee and later Prime Minister Singh offering the "hand of friendship" even while securing India's borders and strengthening India's counterterrorism capabilities. However, in general the BJP is seen as tougher on the issue of terrorism traced to Pakistan.

On China, the BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi gave a speech in February 2014 exhorting China to drop its "expansionist" mindset, a reference to Chinese claims on Indian territory. But Modi has a record of pursuing close commercial ties with China. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government has sought to manage differences with China through a joint border working group, and through consultations on trade and investment.

India has national security stakes in ties with neighbors Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Those are also the two countries in the region more likely to be the focus of regional state politics. With India's coalition dynamics, should the next government find itself reliant for support on either of the two major parties in the state of Tamil Nadu or from the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, it could face political pressures on its foreign policy, as has been the case in the last three years.