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Modi’s Election Victory: Where Does India Go From Here?

June 5, 2014

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Flickr/Narendra Modi)

From today’s news that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has accepted an invitation for a bilateral meeting with President Barack Obama, to the unprecedented attendance of Pakistan’s prime minister at Modi’s swearing in, India’s recent change in leadership has signaled possible improvements in key foreign policy relationships as well. Does the new prime minister signal a change in India’s relationship with the US and its neighbors in the region? How much should other leaders consider his association with the 2002 Gujarat state riots in their interactions with him? 

We spoke with Aspen Institute India Leadership Initiative Fellow and Times of India Senior Diplomatic Editor Indrani Bagchi, who filled us in on the hopes of the Indian population for their new leadership, and how this may affect their country’s troubled relationship with Pakistan. 

Aspen Idea: What is the general pulse across India right now about this change in leadership, both in the Parliament and for the prime minister?

IB: The results were eye-popping because we’ve never elected anybody with this kind of majority in recent history. While there was an expectation that Modi would win, the large majority in the Parliament was the big surprise. Modi ran an excellent campaign; it was hopeful and aggressive. He leveraged technology and engaged people in this country in a way we haven’t seen before. It used to be said that the Indian national elections were a collection of local elections. For the first time in a while, we have seen what can only be described as a “national” vote — transcending local considerations and caste/identity politics. Mr. Modi’s mandate therefore is for decisive change, a break from the past electoral bargains of reservations and sops. The Indian voter has done its job by giving Mr. Modi a clear governing space. The expectations from his government are tremendous, and therefore the pressure to perform [is high].

AI: What changes do you expect to see in India? 

IB: Mr. Modi ran a campaign promising a better economy, better governance, government efficiency, and reducing corruption. We expect to see a turnaround in the economy, though Indians will have to understand that after the inaction of the past five years, the Modi government has a huge cleanup to perform before India can get back on a growth trajectory. We also expect to see better governance, because Mr. Modi has a very different style and has proven his ability to get results from India’s notorious bureaucracy, and holding them accountable.

AI: There have been concerns raised about about President Modi in the Western media. Are they warranted? 

IB: The riots of 2002 were a blot on Modi’s career that he will have to deal with until his dying day. However, it’s important to note that since 2002, he has led Gujarat through the kind of economic growth that the rest of India has not seen. Additionally, since this incident, Gujarat has not experienced religious conflicts of this sort. While this tragic incident may shape Westerners’ perception of Mr. Modi, it’s important to also look at his accomplishments.

Most descriptions of him in the media are rather clichéd, for instance as the “Hindu nationalist,” “deeply divisive,” etc. It’s important the media begins to embrace a more complex identity. As a journalist myself, I believe a degree of skepticism is good and healthy, but we should be careful to not let the skepticism become prejudice.

AI: Turning to the Indian-Pakistani relationship. Many saw the attendance of Pakistan’s Prime Minster as a signal that relations between the two countries may improve with this new administration. What do you think? Are you optimistic? 

IB: No, I am not. The tone has changed, which is encouraging, but there are two critical issues that must be resolved in order for relations to meaningfully improve: 1) terrorism from Pakistan-based jihadi groups, supported by its military-intelligence establishment, and  2) opening of normal trading relations. Both of these are changes that need to come from the highest levels of political leadership in Pakistan.

AI: Are there previous times in the history of these two countries that you expected to see relations improve? What happened? 

IB: There have been so many times when relations have dramatically improved. Most notably, in February 1999, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee opened up a bus route and actually travelled on the bus to Lahore. We were on the cusp of history. Yet by May, Pakistan’s army had sent in soldiers to Kargil on the Indian side of the LOC to start a bloody war. In 2001, Vajpayee invited Gen. Pervez Musharraf for a summit in Agra. That was followed by an attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001. After a 10-month military standoff, Vajpayee again held out the now famous “ olive branch” to Pakistan and traveled for the second time to Pakistan in January 2004. Manmohan Singh, who succeeded Vajpayee, was even more determined to resolve relations with Pakistan. Between 2005 to 2007, India and Pakistan held a series of back channel negotiations on the final solution to the Kashmir problem. However, after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008, relations went downhill. The concurrent downward spiral of Pakistan’s economy and internal governance has made things even more challenging. 

AI: How can non-political leaders make an impact in this relationship? What is the role of the business community? 

IB: What gives me hope is that ordinary Indians and Pakistanis have tremendous goodwill for each other. There is a natural kinship between the people of these two countries. There is an inherent mismatch between the attitudes of ordinary people and the rhetoric of the political and military leadership in these two countries.

This is why opening up trade relations between these two countries is so critical. Once there is trade, leaders in the business community will be able to make a real impact in relations between these two countries. This will create an opportunity for large numbers of people in both countries. This is a decision that Pakistan has to make. India gave Pakistan “most favored nation” trade status about 20 years ago, but Pakistan needs to reciprocate.

The other crucial element that has to be in place is a decrease in terror attacks on the Pakistani side. 

AI: India is in one of the most challenging neighborhoods in the world. Where does Pakistan rank in terms of foreign policy concerns? 

IB: Well, yes, we are in a difficult neighborhood. And our real strategic challenge is China. Given their own relationship, Indian strategic experts now view Pakistan as a subset of the China challenge. China uses Pakistan to keep India off-balance, in a somewhat similar way North Korea, another Chinese ally, keeps Japan off kilter. The primary reason Indians worry about Pakistan is due to the threat of terrorism. China represents an opportunity, but is also a multifaceted challenge. 

For more on Indrani’s take on the India-China relationship, watch this clip of her from last summer’s Aspen Action Forum. 

Caitlin Colegrove is the network and communications manager for the Aspen Global Leadership Network.