How Modi has moved foreign policy from elite to mass category

G20 summit has all of the hallmarks of an election campaign

INDONESIA-G20-SUMMIT Assuming charge: Prime Minister Narendra Modi taking over the presidency of the G20 from Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo at Bali in November 2022 | AFP
Milan Vaishnav Milan Vaishnav

We are at a moment when the stars have aligned for India, where it finds itself in a geopolitical sweet spot. Despite its economic struggles, India will remain one of the fastest growing major economies, if not the fastest, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Although India failed to unambiguously condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine, that has not really cost it much diplomatic capital. In fact, the west, led by the United States, has rushed in with even more fervour to court India. Furthermore, it is symbolic that this year India has surpassed China as the world’s most populous country. It is an important signal to the world of the potential that India's consumer market holds for foreign companies as well as the potential productivity gains India can reap from possessing such a young population. The G20, coming against this backdrop, is in many ways a coming-of-age moment.

Since 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has consistently talked about his desire for India to move from being a balancing power to a leading power. If one follows the arc of the past decade, this G20 summit arrives at a moment where he can arguably make the case that the transition is under way. The 2024 symbolism is not lost on anybody; in some ways, the 2024 election campaign started on December 1, 2022, when India assumed the G20 presidency. It was on that day that every mobile phone customer in India received an SMS declaring that this was a proud moment for the nation. We saw G20 logos projected on to historical monuments. Metros have been lined with G20 paraphernalia. This has all of the hallmarks of an election campaign.

The 2024 symbolism is not lost on anybody; in some ways, the 2024 election campaign started on December 1, 2022, when India assumed the G20 presidency.

Political analysts have traditionally divided issues into two categories: elite issues and mass issues. Elite issues include foreign policy, trade and national security―matters that most ordinary people do not discuss much. Then you have mass issues that appeal more broadly, such as price rise, welfare delivery, jobs, livelihoods and the like. What is so noteworthy is that Modi has helped to move foreign policy from the elite to the mass category. The aam aadmi may not necessarily have a very detailed understanding of the nuances of what Joe Biden and Modi negotiated or what will be in the G20 communique. But they do come away with a sense that India is closer to assuming its rightful place as a major power.


When it comes to the United States, there is a feeling that the strategic convergence between Washington and New Delhi is greater than it ever has been. There is a perception that, when it comes to China in particular, the Modi government is willing to take steps that previous governments have been unwilling to take for fear of angering China. For example, India has traditionally talked about the need for freedom of navigation or peaceful dispute resolution in the abstract. It has never been particularly comfortable about talking about those things in specific, contested geographical zones. But it does that now; it talks about the South China Sea or the Indo-Pacific in very clear terms where it is obvious who the intended audience is.

Again, this does not necessarily mean India is willing to exit from what America views as problematic relationships with Russia or Iran, but New Delhi is willing to come closer to Washington in many ways, including with regard to military collaboration and intelligence-sharing.


When it comes to diplomacy, there is a new assertiveness or brashness with which it is being conducted. And it betrays a sense of confidence that I think the government of India has. This comes from four things. First, India's leaders believe that they have at least a 15-year runway to implement their vision for a “new India”. This kind of political certainty allows you to speak your mind. Second, there is a clear worldview, articulated by both External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and the prime minister, about the desire and ambition to move India from being a swing state to a gravitational force in its own right in the global landscape.

Third, their reading of the foreign policy landscape is that we are moving from a moment where we had a unipolar power in the United States to a much messier, more fragmented system with multiple poles. This set-up creates a lot of tensions, but also increases room to manoeuvre. India will not want to simply throw away its long-term defence partnership with Russia. But, at the same time, it can use the west's desire to wean India off Russian arms to develop alternative platforms. Fourth, for all of this brashness in foreign policy and even domestic policy―take the Citizenship Amendment Act, abrogation of Article 370 or the Ram temple―there has been very limited diplomatic cost to pay. Yes, The New York Times editorials may get harsher, think tank experts will be more critical, Freedom House may downgrade the ratings, but in terms of government-to-government relations, you could argue that India is better positioned than it has been in years. In sum, it is a combination of these factors that fuels this sense of confidence that the world needs India as much as India needs the world.

Historically, there has been a sense going all the way back to Jawaharlal Nehru that India has an important role to play in the global scene, but it had such great domestic needs in terms of lifting people out of poverty, redressing old inequalities and keeping the state together. This government's belief is that you can prioritise both. At the end of the day, however, the two are inextricably linked. If you start to see economic growth slowing down and/or social conflicts rise, that is going to force a series of uncomfortable trade-offs between domestic and foreign/security policy. That is the risk India faces.

But I think this government feels very confident that it is going to be able to walk this high wire act.

The author is senior fellow and director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.

As told to Mandira Nayar.