Mint Explainer: The challenges of coalition politics and India's foreign policy

Lok Sabha Election Result 2024: Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets party workers on 4 June 2024. While the BJP has turned out to be the single-largest party, the number of seats it has won is nowhere near the number forecast by exit polls or the number it had in the 17th Lok Sabha. (Photo: PTI)
Lok Sabha Election Result 2024: Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets party workers on 4 June 2024. While the BJP has turned out to be the single-largest party, the number of seats it has won is nowhere near the number forecast by exit polls or the number it had in the 17th Lok Sabha. (Photo: PTI)


  • Although the BJP now has to contend with the challenges of coalition politics, the leadership of the Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, and S. Jaishankar trio will be crucial in navigating international relations and maintaining regional stability

Narendra Modi is on course to assume office as India's prime minister for a third consecutive term, the first threepeat since Jawaharlal Nehru in 1957. 

But Modi would have to contend with a slimmer mandate for his Bharatiya Janata Party, which means his next government would likely be subject to the pulls and pressures of coalition politics, potentially having to shift its focus inward.

In his first speech following the Lok Sabha election results on Tuesday, Modi emphasized that India would continue to look outward, seeking to integrate into global value chains and assist countries in need.

For the world, Modi is someone they have engaged with for the past decade, someone they have done business with, and hence someone predictable to work with.

The next government faces significant demands as well as challenges in terms of foreign policy. But unlike after the previous national election, when the BJP secured a majority 272 seats in the Lok Sabha on its own, it will now have to rely on its partners in the National Democratic Alliance to push forward its agenda.

Mint takes a deep dive into the potential impact of coalition politics on India’s foreign policy.

Modi, Shah, Jaishankar: a formidable trio

Underestimating the formidable duo of Modi and Amit Shah will be a mistake. Both astute politicians, they are adept at managing coalition dynamics. Modi in his post-results speech assured that his third term would see impactful decisions driving the country towards development. He has offered stability and predictability despite the lower mandate.

And S. Jaishankar, widely regarded as one of India's most capable foreign ministers, reinforces the team. Having played a key role in maintaining stable fuel prices by securing Russian oil despite international criticism, Jaishankar is known to share a strong rapport with the prime minister.

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Foreign policy experts will also also be watching which international leaders the Indian government will invite to preside over Modi’s swearing-in as the prime minister. 

For his first term as prime minister following the 2014 national election, Modi invited leaders of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation, comprising India’s immediate neighbours. 

In 2019 too, Modi invited leaders from Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal, and Bhutan—known by the acronym BIMSTEC. This signalled the primacy of neighbourhood and economic diplomacy, as well as connectivity, in Modi’s second term in office.

Whom the Modi government invites for the inauguration of the next government would provide clues to the priorities and challenges for Modi 3.0.

Foreign policy challenges

India's foreign policy will continue to navigate significant challenges, including the uncertainties from the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas conflicts, technological disruptions such as artificial intelligence and semiconductor developments, and increasing US-China friction. These issues necessitate a comprehensive government approach.

In the midst of this, prioritising the neighbourhood remains crucial. 

A peaceful periphery is essential for India's growth and ambition to play a larger role on the global stage. South Asia has traditionally been considered India’s sphere of influence, but China has been steadily increasing its presence through infrastructure projects, economic linkages, and aid. 

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Additionally, some smaller neighbouring countries tend to leverage the rivalry between India and China to their advantage.

Recently, however, India's relationships with many of its neighbours have stabilized, thanks to the smart diplomacy of Jaishankar and his team at the South Block.

Strengthening ties with Sri Lanka

Take, for instance, Sri Lanka. India's timely assistance to the southern neighbour during its economic crisis, extending nearly $4 billion in aid, has been pivotal. 

This support included lines of credit for essential goods, currency support, and facilitating access to loans from the International Monetary Fund, while China appeared passive. 

This timely intervention has positioned India as a saviour in Colombo's hour of need.

Rebuilding trust with Nepal

Recently, India has been focused on providing development assistance to Nepal, diligently working to ensure the completion of projects committed to, especially after the 2015 earthquake. An earnest effort in 2015 to encourage Nepal to amend its constitution for greater inclusivity of the Tharus, Madhesis, and Janjatis was met with resistance from the Nepalese.

Read this: Will Modi 3.0 have to favour populism over big bang reforms?

India was perceived as blocking key supplies, including fuel, during a critical period when Nepal was still recovering from the 2015 earthquake, which soured sentiments towards New Delhi. 

Currently, India is focused on rebuilding trust through its aid projects and maintaining a low profile, deliberately staying out of Nepal's political infighting.

Maintaining strong relations with Bhutan

India's ties with Bhutan have remained close and steady. Modi's visit to Bhutan after the announcement of national elections in India underscores this relationship.

In the near future, India will have to focus its efforts to help Bhutan with its Gelephu Mindfulness City project unveiled last year. The project is seen as Bhutan’s effort to take advantage of the economic transformation opportunities in its near and extended neighbourhood—providing better jobs and meeting the aspirations of young Bhutanese. Another issue India will be keeping an eye on will be the boundary settlement talks between China and Bhutan.

Deepening engagement with Bangladesh

India has heavily invested in its relationship with Bangladesh, particularly over the past decade.

In 2015, India settled its land boundary with Bangladesh that also involved an exchange territory in adverse possession ie Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and vice versa. This removed an irritant festering for decades. Political ties between India and Bangladesh have warmed considerably since then. India has extended lines of credit worth $8 billion to Bangladesh, economic ties are at their closest that they have been in decades; connectivity in terms of railways, roadways and waterways have been established.

However, water-sharing of the Teesta River remains a contentious issue. An agreement on this has been a longstanding wish of the Sheikh Hasina government. Any pact to share the waters will require West Bengal state to sign off on it. With the BJP trounced by the All-India Trinamool Congress in West Bengal in these polls, that will be a tough challenge for India to accomplish.

Addressing challenges with Maldives

Since the election of President Mohamed Muizzu in 2023, ties between India and Maldives have been on a slippery slope – given Muizzu’s stated policy of maintaining distance from India. Under the previous Solih administration, Maldives had an “India First" policy that Muizzu has consciously disbanded.

One of the first moves by Muizzu was to evict Indian military personnel who were involved in medical evacuation activities in the Maldives. He also refused to renew a pact for the conduct of hydrographic surveys with India. Alongside, Muizzu has focused on building ties with India’s strategic rival China, and countries like Turkey. 

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India has adopted a patient approach, keeping a close eye on developments but maintaining distance. Last month, India extended $50 million in budgetary assistance to the Maldives, during a visit by Maldives foreign minister Moosa Zameer to New Delhi.

Managing instability in Myanmar

Myanmar is in many ways the “problem child" in India’s neighbourhood especially after the February 2021 coup. India has been urging the junta to restore democracy albeit without attracting attention given its insurgency concerns in India’s northeast. 

Many groups in states like Mizoram share familial ties with groups ranged against the junta in Myanmar – one of the reasons why there was an influx of refugees into India that led New Delhi to announce fencing off of the border.

Instability in Myanmar means India’s plans to link up with Southeast Asia remain unfulfilled.

Stalled dialogue with Pakistan

If there is one country in the neighbourhood that India seems to have given up on, it is Pakistan. New Delhi has been unequivocal in its stance that Pakistan must renounce terrorism before any dialogue can commence. With Pakistan unwilling to change its strategy, India has shown little interest in holding talks.

Currently, Pakistan is mired in economic instability, making it difficult for any peace talks to occur. Additionally, there is the perennial question of whom to engage with—the elected political leadership or the military. It is well-known that Pakistan's policy towards India is formulated by its military, leading some analysts to advocate for direct dialogue with the military.

Confronting complexities with China

Arguably the most complex relationship is with China, primarily due to the ongoing military standoff in Ladakh that began in 2020. Relations between the two countries have been frozen since then, with minimal economic contact. India has maintained that normalization of ties cannot occur until the disengagement and de-escalation process is complete.

With a coalition government in New Delhi holding a slimmer majority, it will be challenging for India to make any significant gestures to China to break the deadlock.

Elizabeth Roche is associate professor, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P Jindal Global University, Haryana. Views expressed are personal.

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