OP-ED

Domestic and foreign policy challenges before Modi 3.0

Monday, 10 Jun, 2024
PM Narendra Modi with foreign dignitaries who joined his swearing-in ceremony. (Photo courtesy: X@narendramodi)

PM Narendra Modi's top priorities include strengthening ties with America and improving ties with neighbors to checkmate China's growing influence in the region.

By K S Tomar

Prime Minister Narendra Modi achieved a hat-trick from Varanasi but it was a bittersweet gift as the vote share plummeted drastically. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 303 seats in 2019, which came down to a mere 240 in 2024.

On June 9, Modi was sworn in as India’s prime minister for a third time. In Britain, leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair also managed to secure three terms. However, managing a coalition government with a thin majority presents its own challenges.  The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by Modi will have its plate full of national and international issues that will warrant immediate attention and formulation of strategies and action plans.

Foreign policy priorities

Experts feel India must resolve the US threat to impose sanctions so that the Chabahar Port deal, signed between India and Iran this year, is not scrapped. The US did not raise any objection when India took up the construction of the port because it suited it owing to the occupation of Afghanistan. But ever since it moved out, its interest waned and now, Iran is facing the pangs of sanctions which debate that any friendly nation, including India, to not have any trade relations with Iran.

As regards neighbors, India needs to adopt a flexible approach with the previous Modi government alienating countries like Maldives, Nepal, etc. The foreign policy needs to be 'relooked' as these South Asian nations have drifted towards China which is using them to expand its influence in the region. Regarding Pakistan, India should keep political issues aside and work on developing trade ties.

Experts feel that the Modi government must prioritize those neighbors that have drifted towards the Dragon. In this sequence, the presence of leaders from the neighborhood and the Indian Ocean region at the inauguration of Modi's third term as Prime Minister highlights the significance New Delhi accords to these countries.

Notable attendees included Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe. The swearing-in ceremony also witnessed the participation of Bhutan Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, Nepal Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Kumar Jugnauth, Seychelles Vice-President Ahmed Afif, and Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu. The inclusion of President Muizzu is being interpreted as a good diplomatic move especially when both nations are currently having strained ties. It may be recalled that Modi invited leaders from the eight member states of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to his swearing-in ceremony in 2014. For his 2019 inauguration, the guests included leaders from the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), along with Mauritius and Kyrgyzstan.

China's expansionism in the region is evident, and India needs to tread cautiously to counter its influence, as seen in the case of Nepal. The recent political shift in Nepal towards a communist government ideologically aligned with China is concerning, especially considering the Asian nation's "Debt Trap" strategy. Here, Pakistan serves as a stark example, with China extending a massive debt of $23 billion, a substantial portion of which is tied to the Belt and Road Initiative. Pakistan's mounting debt to China, totaling $67.2 billion from 2000 to 2021, underscores the risks associated with this debt dependency.

India also needs to be worried about Maldives already moving in the lap of China. Nepal's closeness to China is evident from its offending action of printing a new map showing Indian territories in the Himalayan Kingdom, infuriating India, which rejected and expressed surprise over this new misadventure.

A trade agreement between India and the United Kingdom is already in progress and the new regime will have to wait till the July 4 elections in Britain. The 14th round of India-UK Free Trade Agreement (FTA) talks had concluded without progress. Negotiations over the FTA have faced challenges, including disputes over visas, social security, and market access which need to be settled but it can become reality after a new government is in place in London.

Understanding the coalition dynamics

Modi will face the biggest challenge of his political career to manage his coalition partners -- the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), headed by N Chandrababu Naidu, and the Janata Dal-United (JD-U), headed by Nitish Kumar. The BJP's reduced strength can increase the bargaining power of coalition partners, complicating governance and policy implementation.

While Modi will be under the obligation to change his style of functioning, experts say that he is known for pulling surprises and hence, may pass this litmus test to ensure the survival of a fragile coalition that is not based on ideology. Further, the BJP never gave weightage to its partners during their ten-year rule, and even the elections were focussed on Brand Modi guarantees.  

Now the showdown in parliament will be different after newly-elected MPs take oath as INDIA bloc partners will have a strong strength of 234 to counter the shouting brigade of BJP which had their sway during ten years of NDA with a brute majority. The ruling party will have to chalk out a strategy to ensure the smooth running of the Lok Sabha which was not required when the BJP and its allies ruled the roost.

Also, the Opposition exploited the Agniveer Scheme to the hilt which may warrant review especially when several retired generals expressed their apprehensions about their long-term utility to the army. It is being argued that the retired Agniveers may not be technically competent and efficient to handle modern weapons and it would be a huge risk to utilize their services in the eventuality of war. The new government must discuss it with the Opposition and retired army generals to amend its parameters.

Given the big setbacks in these polls, economists say that the Modi government may fall on the idea of considering more freebies which may unsettle the economy. Hence, there will be a need to desist from such temptation. It will be an uphill task to ram through fanciful ideas of One Nation One election or Uniform Civil code as well.  

In the final assessment, Modi will govern the nation for the next five years with a weakened position of his party and leadership but he has shown resolve to carry on economic reforms to make India a world power and Viksit Bharat (Developed India) by 2047. In this backdrop, the Opposition is expected to play a constructive role that will be in the interest of the people of the country.

(The writer is a Shimla-based journalist and political analyst having six years of foreign posting in a neighboring country)

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