India's Modi on Course for Absolute Majority
India's Modi on course for absolute majority

The world's largest-ever general election has finally ended, with a record-setting two thirds of India's 814 million eligible voters taking part over an epic six-week campaign. In what has been India's most expensive, but also most media-savvy poll to date, results signal the return to power of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under the leadership of Narendra Modi.

The BJP is all set to give the most successful and decisive performance of its political career. In turn, the Indian National Congress (Congress) has had its worst, with many people heralding the downfall of India's hitherto dominant political force. Out-maneuvered, out-campaigned and out-funded, Congress look set to be India's Opposition party for some time, with their heir apparent Rahul Gandhi largely discredited.

Amidst such unprecedented events, what consequences will the BJP's resounding victory have for the direction, nature and ambition of India's foreign policy? Any re-orientation will be firmly based upon bolstering India's international standing, and buoyed by a substantial election victory that could indicate a decade of BJP rule, any change will have a global impact.

Ensuring heightened economic success will be the core plank of all major relationships. This imperative reflects most voters' chief electoral concerns being the economy, corruption and inflation. Economic success is also highly convertible, and can be used for the development of India's domestic infrastructure, as well as modernising her military and diplomatic capabilities. India's stock markets hit record levels upon expectation of a BJP victory, reflecting a belief that the party's pro-capitalist, pro-market and pro-investment stance will result in a stronger economy.

With China, a continued strategy of shrewd engagement – and an improvement of all the benefits that interacting with a (now) top-tier power brings – will be evident. Whilst wanting to appear firm on border issues, the BJP's penchant for pragmatism will certainly be pre-eminent, potentially allowing for the greater resolution of land disputes in Arunachal Pradesh and elsewhere. Drastically boosting levels of mutual trade and investment, and learning from Beijing's economic success will also form the bedrock of relations. Together, such moves can enhance India's regional stability, domestic modernisation, and overall legitimacy as a responsible great power.

In a similar vein, although a full-blown normalisation of relations with Pakistan may initially appear infeasible given the BJP's Hindu nationalist nature, it is certainly not impossible. Critically, the leader of the 1998 to 2004 BJP-led NDA, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, was able to leverage India's relative strength vis-à-vis a weak Pakistan to improve their relations. The BJP also lack much of Congress' emotional baggage concerning the status of Kashmir, and if suitably recast (perhaps as a shared negative colonial legacy), some resolution could be reached. However, Pakistan must distance itself from supporting terrorism against India or will face a belligerent BJP.

US relations could prosper

Beyond South Asia, close ties with the US will remain as a key pillar of India's international relations but again viewed through a primarily economic (rather than strategic) lens. The fulfillment of several large military deals will provide another key touchstone. These will allow India to better protect vital trade and energy security routes across the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), which are essential to ensuring her improved rates of economic growth. Relations will prosper provided India can act in an autonomous / flexible manner that eschews any direct alliance, and if Washington does not try to use India as an explicit balancer against a rising China. The BJP will also be keen to enhance relations with key US allies, such as Japan and Israel.

In the European sphere, core relations will remain largely unchanged. With Russia, linkages will stay focused upon military ties. This will include the sale of weapons (about 75% of New Delhi's military imports currently come from Moscow), collaboration in terms of training and the development of weapons, and regular exercises. Both sides also shared a similar vision of the world, wanting greater equality between the major powers, especially for developing countries. Given longstanding principles of non-intervention and non-interference in its foreign policy, India will not criticise any escalation of Russia's current activities in Ukraine or elsewhere.

With the UK, clear mutual gains are to be made in terms of investment and services, with some potential for better cooperation on counter-terrorism. The two sides heavily invest in each other – linkages added by cultural bonds via a prominent South Asian migrant population in the UK. Significantly, the UK was one of the first countries to engage with Modi after lifting a boycott in August 2012 that dated from his alleged involvement in anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002. Such positioning (and in contrast to the US, who only removed such embargoes in May 2014) may give the UK particular benefits, certainly in the earlier stages of the new Modi regime.

India will also wish to finalise the proposed EU-India Free Trade Agreement that has been under negotiation since 2007, and whose conclusion would significantly improve mutual trade levels.

Foreign policy to carry economic focus

When last in power from 1998-2004, the BJP were unafraid to advance their policies, and resolutely pushed Indian foreign policy beyond its traditional expectations. Modi will also be keen to make his mark, and further legitimise the BJP as a credible long-term alternative to Congress. His personality as an ambitious, decisive and tough leader will be a critical factor, especially in terms of restoring India's international status and bolstering her position as a major Asian power. He will thus be highly vocal / visible whenever India's national interests are involved.

Under the new government, the overall orientation of Indian foreign policy will remain but with an explicit economic focus. However, grand gestures (such as the resolution of some of India's historical border issues) are not out the question, particularly if they can enhance the BJP's domestic credentials.

As India's economy grows stronger, and the BJP become more established as an electoral force, so too will their nationalist, populist and Hindu-orientated brand of politics. As shown in 2002 in Gujarat, such politics can become very extreme when circumstances allow. Such a development could be the most important legacy of the 2014 elections, which may force the international community to re-evaluate their relations toward the world's largest democracy.

Chris Ogden is Lecturer in Asian Security at the University of St Andrews. His book on the 1998-2004 BJP-led NDA government entitled Hindu Nationalism and the Evolution of Contemporary Indian Security: Portents of Power, is out now with Oxford University Press. He also recently authored a volume entitled Indian Foreign Policy: Ambition & Transition (Cambridge: Polity). You can read more about him and his work here.