Assessing the paradigm shift in India’s foreign policy: Abandoning the traditional approach?

By Narendra Modi – BRICS leaders meet on the sidelines of G20 in China, CC BY-SA 2.0,


In the modern global world, where does India sees itself? A question that heeds into an “endless discussion,” still cloaks academicians, foreign policy and strategic experts into a debate. Using what elements will we able to understand India’s ambitious foreign policy? Prime Minister Modi’s “decisive” victory opened a “Pandora box” of new foreign policy initiatives addressing both the factors of hard and soft power, mixing the stage with an “ambitious initiatives” for the much eager world “eyeing” on what India brings to the global forums. However, the shift in India’s foreign policy from the “traditional” approach continues to create serious contradictions, as the nation steers to fulfil the image of global power at one level, at another level it portrays the image of an “ambitious” yet “emerging” power, whereas in South Asia, a passive actor. The different factors in India’s foreign policy continue to be effectively used by policymakers while individually strengthening different policy apparatuses. To further assess India’s “ambitious” foreign policy, the article extensively addresses India’s interaction at the global level, while comparing it to its traditional foreign policy and assessing India’s foreign policy through five key pillars:

India’s stance on climate change;
India’s stance on energy security;
India’s stance on food security;
India’s economic objectives and
India’s commitment to the UN

The article then concludes on how India is relentlessly pursuing its strategic interests by highlighting certain components while creating evident controversies especially drifting from its traditional foreign policy approach and actively reinforcing India’s current foreign policy agendas.


The question remains the same, in the modern global world where does India sees itself? What are the principal factors responsible for driving India’s foreign policy? Experts addressing the question have often reached to a never-ending complex “entanglement” during discussions. Foreign policy experts, however, argue on the “neo-realist” framework to effectively understand India’s foreign policy ambitions. According to this theory, the world is a “giant playing field with anarchist players,” especially where every policy draft begins and ends with state security. This theory makes it more valuable for policy experts and strategic affairs veteran academicians to understand India’s foreign policy-making in the “fragile” world of today. This theory is best illuminated during the time of crisis or wars, an experience which India has, not in short supply.

Still, these policy planning initiatives, are effective in understanding India’s actions/reactions/responses during bilateral discussion sessions with the neighbor Pakistan, but fails to draw a complete picture as India’s ambition lies beyond South-East Asia in an effort to achieve a degree of “power nation” while attempting to “forecast” an image of “regional strength” in South East Asia. Additionally, Indian foreign policy continues to face “multiple challenges” in spite of shortcomings it continues to move progressively on the global stage, showcasing the characters of an “emerging power” while responsibly playing the role of a responsible regional superpower.

To “effectively” understand India’s foreign policy, the article first addresses the history of India’s foreign policy, the ambition of the country and its decision-making scenarios at the global level. The policy structure/framework of any nation’s foreign policy lies in its “regional approaches,” a key element in policy which carries a significant influence in policy making, which India carries the same “trait.” This will further enhance an individual’s understanding of India’s foreign policy particularly by keeping in mind the role of South Asia in India’s foreign policy; India’s “South Asia specific” goals, ambitions; and how India sees itself in the global arena, a single “emerging nation” from the developing world, an “Asia-Pacific” superpower, or a regional hegemon.

From Nehruvian-era to rising of right-wing

Evidentially, India’s foreign policy has always followed an “outward” approach. During the years of Cold War, India led the Non-Alignment, inviting nations which were neither in support of the US nor the erstwhile Soviet Union, demonstrating India’s “leadership” and “commitment” at the global level. Then under the leadership of its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indian foreign policy stood on two (theoretically) pillars: the realist theory, which was largely followed because of India’s recent independence, along with the internationalist theory, the theory of “highest form of global diplomacy” which was heavily influenced by Nehru. Prime Minister Nehru played a crucial role in framing the structure of India’s foreign policy, which he believed to convert a “newly” independent yet struggling nation into the “wheels” of Asian diplomacy while reshaping the dependency of international politics on violence and power.

During the late 70s and 80s, the Nehruvian philosophy of India’s interaction with the global world remains an “enriched affair,” although Nehru’s most ambitious initiative of Non-Alignment significantly lost its importance.

Influenced by such acts of leadership in diplomacy, the initiation of new economic liberalisation policies by the then Congress Party (in the late 1990s) followed by the Congress Party’s successive reforms strengthened the image of a “strong nation with qualities for bilateral relationship”, and the successful nuclear tests conducted by the then BJP government in 1998 significantly increased Indian prestige at the global arena. Today, extensive US-India bilateral relations are bearing “fruits of successful relationship” while retaining a height which both New Delhi and Washington desired. Although, in spite of Indo-US extensive relationship, New Delhi remains wary about Beijing’s contentious approach, it continues to show its commitment to slowly expanding trade opportunities, which has resulted in the large participation of Chinese multi-national companies during trade summits while jointly addressing statements on countering terrorism.

On numerous accounts, the rise of India’s rightist, then Prime Ministerial candidate, now India’s Primer, Narendra Modi ambitions “reinforces” India’s ambitions for global power. Today, the nation is optimistic and progressive in its efforts to take a seat with the “global powers,” a high aspiration which many policymakers working within Modi’s administration and their supporters within the center-right wing political party, the BJP, consider as “once long-lost greatness of civilisation.” As New Delhi reinforces this image with “aggressive diplomatic factors” and sheer assertion, it initiates a system of, according to the experts, a saga of “multilateral diplomacy.” These initiatives are launched to be a part of a world which is more inter-connected, inter-aligned with the global affairs. This can be actively seen from India’s ambitious foreign policy goals. Changing its policy from “Look East to Act East,” India has redefined its commitments in foreign policy (not limiting) with the West (France, Germany, extending to Canada) extending its outreach to Asia Pacific, Indian Ocean Region (IOR), reaching the Arctic.

Modi’s rise to Prime Ministership has instigated numerous “progressive and positive” factors within the diplomatic community. While looking at the initial foreign visits of the PM to Myanmar, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, his visits have largely been extended to power nations and multi-national/regional forums. His aura which is reinforced with “bear hug” enhances what experts call as “high-octane rich diplomacy” that explains the charisma of Prime Minister Modi, and his extensive focus on “people-to-people connect” that can only be said in comparison to the late Prime Minister Nehru.

Evolving the concept of “Hard” power and strengthening “Soft” power

Prime Minister Modi’s new administration coupled with the “decisive” victory in the general elections of 2014, opened the doors of new “innovative” policy initiatives, steering the framework methodology to new a path, altering its course from the traditional methods employed by the previous governments. Although, within the context of hard and soft power, Prime Minister Modi’s policy of “thorough expansion” along with an “effective” response to China, continues to demonstrate a policy “unanticipated” by experts.

In the previous decades, India has not only “significantly” evolved its military capabilities at sea, land, and air, taking the podium for being the world’s largest importer of weapons, while continues to demonstrate its “military strength” in the region. By large, defense procurement has become one of the “vital” assets to India’s foreign policy.

Additionally, New Delhi’s “extensive relationship” with Washington and Moscow, followed by “numerous weapons deals” has credited Israel as the biggest supplier of military technology to India, and the two nations signed joint development weapons deal of over $2 Billion specifically focussing on missile architecture for domestic security. In the light of “extensive” India-Israel relations, India abstained during the UNHCR voting session which condemned Israel for “aggression” in 2014, a complete altering from its traditional stance with the Palestine. India, then issued an order of purchase to the Washington, mentioning an indictment of attack helicopters, aircrafts with strategic lifting capabilities, long and short-range howitzers, and maritime fast reconnaissance capable attack boats, while issuing an order to purchase conventional and nuclear-capable submarines from Moscow.

Statements issued by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) point towards a normalizing scenario between India and China, but the attention of Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to enhance technology and sciences to enhance directional policy planning suggests that the “push and pull” scenario will remain in place.

It is important to note that, New Delhi has significantly adopted new initiatives of soft power approach in diplomacy. Although, hosting international events of games and sports followed by numerous successes achieved by Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) rose India’s pride, respect, honor, and prestige. Furthermore, Prime Minister Modi’s extensive efforts to connect with the Indian Diaspora received a massive response overseas Indians especially when the current government portrayed them as their “face on foreign land.” Also, during foreign visits, Prime Minister Modi did not limit his speech to socio-political but adequately and extensively addressed India’s cultural and historical importance, establishing a clear connection between India, its history, and its rich cultural heritage. However, many foreign experts termed it has “propaganda more foreign policy less,” Prime Minister Modi’s and his cabinet’s choice for giving the speech in Hindi at international arena especially when addressing the foreign media, gave a necessary “highlight” to the Hindu culture. Furthermore, the global recognition of International Yoga Day was one of the many diplomatic victories which were seen New Delhi’s response to Beijing’s international Confucius Centre initiative.

In the light of “Modi Modi” chants during his foreign visits, the “era of Modi” is a clear representation of “continuous and rapidly evolving” policy-making initiatives rather than the effect of “one-man” leadership on policymaking, as critics claim. India’s specific choice of stating itself “emerging” instead of “developing” is self-explanatory to the shift in India’s foreign policy from traditional approaches which then ensures a positive output multi-lateral and bilateral talks.

However, India’s foreign policy show slight Nehruvian policy presence, India’s position at the international level largely depends upon the sovereignty and a reputation for “mutual respect.” This can be highlighted particularly from the statements released from the Indian dignitaries which highlight the developing economies as “emerging economy.”
India’s global goals: From developing to emerging economy?

This section of the article focusses on five essential areas covering vivid topics of security, economy and traditional concepts such as food and energy security while ending with a detailed description of India’s active engagement at the UN. These topics are exclusively selected to highlight India’s stances on the multi-lateral, bilateral and international issue, showcasing India’s considerable approaches to overcome its “developing” needs while projecting key characters of a “power” nation.

India’s stance on climate change

India has ratified the “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” (CBDR), making it the “structural framework” for key negotiating points during discussion sessions. With developed economies pushing India and China to take more responsibility, India has stated that “it is doing the best it can to meet the climate change challenges successfully, but it would only take measures that do not compromise the security of its people.” This was largely mentioned in the National action plan (NAP) on Climate Change, which focusses on implementing strategies that are “progressive” towards development goals while adequately addressing the challenges, at the same time.” According to the plan, India would follow an “eight-step” procedure that specifically highlights India’s commitments to mitigate climate change while fulfilling the “energy deficiency” of over 3 billion masses.

Modi cabinet, then, introduced transfer of technology initiatives, policies on the regulation of energy which highlights the nation’s commitment towards climate change mitigation. India, on numerous accounts, has suggested developing economies to transfer “essential adaptable technologies” at a minimum or no cost. Frequently compared to China, India’s active engagement to identify and adopt climate change mitigation reveals India’s efforts to “disconnect” with this “myth” particularly when power nations view India and China jointly as “principal actors,” countering which New Delhi refocuses on the huge gap in carbon footprint between the two nations. Post-2014 ratification of US-China agreement on streamlining the nation’s contribution to effectively address climate change, New Delhi felt repetitive jolts, which forced the top Indian leadership to deliberate on inadequate domestic coal production for the masses.

It is important to note that, the decision making is effectively challenged on the practical approach. Moreover, India is a host to many “lobby and interested private actors” that use their influence to steer India’s “decision making” communities and top leadership to fulfill their gain. Some of the principal influencers are research-based organizations with a direct connection with fossil fuel extracting organizations, making it difficult for India to steer its foreign policy initiatives away from multi-national corporations with vested interests. These lobbyists can severely compromise policy-making mechanism, making it very difficult for Prime Minister Modi to fulfill his “strong commitments,” to mitigate climate change.

India’s stance on energy security

India remains an “energy” deficient country, especially in the light of its rapidly rising population and stable economy. Significant years have been used by India’s diplomacy to identify/reach out to nations which were “possible” or “probable” sources of affordable energy, which is visible from the establishment of a dedicated Energy Security Division of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), which functioned as a cell till 2007 which was later converted into a dedicated functioning division. In these efforts, many power nations have criticised India for working with “least-developing economies” particularly the ones with a poor human rights record, such as Angola, Niger, and Tajikistan, to gain access to their oil and uranium riches. Power nations continue to blame India and China to practice “pre-colonial tactics,” as they move towards significantly expanding influence within the Africa’s rich “natural resource” center while extending their “technological units” to the Arctic. Policymakers must understand that rich industrialized nations would gain more by engaging with an emerging power such as India especially when the nation extends its technology on carbon growth.

The “traditional” concept of sovereignty which is a principal driver of its foreign policy heavily influences India’s policy on energy security. Since “energy security” is a matter of national concern and a subject with direct relations with its military and economic power, it will be obvious of a nation to follow a “state-centric” foreign policy approach, independent but free from “zero-sum” interests. This is the principle reason which makes India a responsible sovereign country, especially when India maintains trade relations with power countries rich in resources.
In the light of “negative press”, Indian political leadership reinforced with active policymakers and aggressive diplomacy continues to relay examples of India being an indifferent country in the light of its extensive engagement with developing economies rich in resources through active participation and cooperation in strengthening multiple sectors of the host country, ranging from health, education to telecommunication.

India’s stance on food security

In the light of its major dependency on agriculture, India has an active stance in supporting multinational initiatives in their efforts to identify solutions to challenges of food insecurity. Today, India continues to face multifaceted challenges from food insecurity, poverty, and malnutrition in spite of a rapidly growing economy. In desperate attempt to find solution at policy making levels, India has designated food security as an important segment on the list of agendas and brings it repeatedly during negotiation rounds on international trade, however, India continues to retain its “cautious” approach to opening the prices, as it would drastically affect the agrarian dependent communities. Besides, India continues to host large-scale discussion sessions with non-governmental organizations, public policy think tanks, farmer unions to identify productive ways to address the issue of food insecurity on national and international fronts. India is quite particular with the issue of “food sovereignty”, which not only limits to right to grow food or the right to have adequate access to healthy food, and necessary resources, but continues to invite many international organizations particularly the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organizations (FAO) to further strengthen and reinforce its policies.

Active agrarian think tanks and agriculture experts in support of “food sovereignty” blame the pressure from the West to rely on pesticides and genetically modified seeds (GMOs), which continues to show a negative effect on India’s agrarian economy. In spite of introducing its patent act, which prohibits agricultural and horticultural materials from the patent, New Delhi continues to “strongly criticize” WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement for initiating patenting procedures for generic seeds and plants.

On numerous accounts, India has been accused by the West of playing the “weak economy” card at the WTO, although the tensions between international market to liberalize food supplements and India’s frequent “rough” experiences with famine, puts enormous pressure on the policymakers at New Delhi.

India’s stance on economy

India’s most recent significant contribution to the New Development Bank (NDB) also known as BRICS bank showcases India’s active participation in the changing global order. Established in cooperation with Brazil, India, China, Russia and South Africa, the $100 billion BRICS bank is seen as an alternative to the West established financial institution such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). The concept remains similar to that of WBG, the NDB would assist lesser developing economies with loans, especially after significant “economic downfall” faced by least economically developed countries while providing alternative opportunities to nations beyond the traditional Bretton Woods institutions. The NDB further solidifies “economic partnership” between the member of the BRICS, while giving opportunities for BRICS nations to take the maximum benefit from this initiative.

India’s commitment to the UN

India’s active commitment towards UN and intervention of UN troops has increased efficiently. The new leadership is looking toward more “active” cooperation particularly in the field of humanitarian assistance. India’s long-standing support for democracy and human rights have been greatly applauded by global nations, but its repetitive arguments on issues that escalated by regional hegemon nations, make the discussion symbolic. However, India’s contribution to United Nations Peacekeeping continues to grow extensively; the current leadership seeks to draw a thin line between “humanitarian assistance” and “sovereignty.” In the light of United Nations Responsibility to Protect doctrine, India’s stance remains cautious, especially on the third principle of the doctrine, which calls for a collective response to the event if the state fails to protect its citizens. New Delhi’s apprehension was clear during the initial discussion process of Security Council, where member nations deliberated on deploying NATO troops in Syria under Responsibility to Protect doctrine. India, along with China, Russia, Brazil, and Germany remains abstained during the voting while acutely criticised NATO’s actions especially when its focus began shifting to topping a regime instead of sticking to the third paragraph of the doctrine. India acutely criticized this act by stating this as an instigation from NATO to fulfill personal interests and topple a regime while leaving thousands of civilians stuck during the conflict in disarray.

Learnt from mistakes in Syria, India reiterated its support to the Brazil’s concept of Responsibility while Protecting. This doctrine, however, formed drafted with significant relevant peacekeeping initiatives takes into certain consideration before deploying peacekeepers into conflict-ridden areas. In the light of India’s discontent with Responsibility to Protect doctrine especially the absence of a thin line between intervention and violation of sovereignty (as learned from Syria), RWP retains the message of “humanitarian aid” without violating the principle of sovereignty.


Prime Minister Modi surprised many strategic and security experts, foreign policy academia with ambitious policies on foreign relations right as soon as took office in 2014.Prime Minister Modi’s “neighborhood first” was hailed by academia as “solid policy on regional affairs.” Although as the saga of policies unfolded, academia realized that the “policy of neighbors first” was a small part of an extensive approach which stood all odds, even when his policy was threatened on numerous occasions by India’s neighbors. The “aggressive” after elections diplomatic policy was a small part of Modi’s plan to “reclaim India’s glory” which was also displayed his charisma. Even in the times of crisis, be it a humanitarian assistance to Maldives or extensively assisting Nepal during its post-earthquake rehabilitation or successfully carrying out “military operations behind enemy lines” in Myanmar, Prime Minister’s message to display India’s regional power is well received by the world.

India’s extensive interaction with neighboring countries while focussing on “road connectivity while initiatives of cooperation and coordination” a few confidences building mechanism initiated by Prime Minister Modi portray a character of a regional power. Today, India’s significant socio-economic growth and frequent interaction with South Asian countries are further diminishing “suspicions” within countries. Although, even today, India carries a traditional method of interaction with the regional economies. Regional economic interaction and “inter-connectivity” are pillars of India’s foreign policy, India remains deprived of a dedicated “regional” foreign policy in South Asia. Alternatively, India is unable to see its “future” in South Asia beyond the context of “foreign policy” since it is dedicating its resources on a global level but at the “regional” level it remains to be largely passive, in spite of constant appeals made by academic experts. India continues to limit the interaction in South Asia to a “multi-lateral” level while focussing majorly on securing areas of strategic importance while “diplomatically” countering China. While looking through the “regional” frame, India’s foreign policy is maturely extended to Asia Pacific rather than South East Asia itself. Facing certain limitations within the “South Asia” policy approach, India is trying to “initiate a passive policy” within South Asia.

Furthermore, in the context of India’s extended neighborhood, its boundary extends to beyond South-East Asia, compromising a major section of Central Asia. This has been largely credited to be the reason behind India’s ambitious foreign policy, through which India would extend its “playing field” to become the “emerging” nation from South Asia.

Although, one of the major challenges India continues to face is from its “repetitive implementation of traditional foreign policy and its anticipated outcomes”, the application of a new innovative “aggressive” foreign policy results in unanticipated outcomes which will bear complete new results in comparison to the results obtained by a traditional contemporary foreign policy.

Evident from the policies of other developing economies during the onset of Cold War, India projected significant weakness and formidable strengths particularly about safeguarding areas of strategic importance, its economy, often addressing the issues faced by the general masses. Critics may note that this behavior portrayed from Prime Minister’s more “aggressive” foreign policy is not relaying the same results as often criticised. The India of today has learned the art of “playing on multiple fields” and has significantly adopted it as a structural framework in multilateral diplomacy. India is emerging and strengthening while developing, all at the same time, playing the role of an active, responsible South Asian regional power while demonstrating characteristics of a power nation from South. The composition of such characteristics can be seen in India’s initiatives to address global challenges. Within the context of aforementioned statements, arguments particularly on five essential drivers of India’s foreign policy, India will continue to find itself “engaging” different sides of complex scenarios to which power nations will continue to contest India’s “emerging” role in the global politics, making it a perfect study for future policymakers and academic experts.