When Prime Minister
Narendra Modi begins his second term in office, he will have two major tasks in hand: protecting India's security, without compromising on its decisional autonomy and reconciling the ideological and the pragmatic.
Modi is the
second prime minister since the country's first post-independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru to return to office after completing a full five-year term. Congress' Manmohan Singh was the first to hold the PM portfolio for a second time.
Although Modi enjoyed a string of foreign policy successes during his term in office—one of the main reason behind his return to the helm—the new government will be confronted by significant tests suggesting that the PM will have his work cut out for him, several foreign and defence policy experts told CNBC-TV18.
Throughout the five-week election period, Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) carefully blended promises of economic development – reforms, better services, more jobs and security for all – with references that were both religious and cultural. But now comes the time to implement what was promised.
"The biggest challenge that this government will face now is keeping the promises that it made, be it on alleviating farmer distress or unemployment. These are going to be the real issues because you cannot survive on national security or nationalism," said Dr Josukutty C.A., assistant professor at the department of political science, University of Kerala.
The re-election campaign of Modi, carried out in the shadow of a brief military showdown with neighbouring Pakistan, has acquired negative tones. With his government’s mixed economic record in the last five years, the prime minister and other BJP campaigners ran the campaign on the agenda of national security, which has lifted the popularity of the ruling party.
But during this gradual rise of the BJP, Muslims have been marginalised politically, as per media reports.
According to a BBC report, the BJP fielded just seven Muslim candidates in the 2019 general election. It had fielded the same seven candidates in 2014 too, but none of them won. It was the first time in India's history that the government had no Muslim members of parliament.
"Since India’s founding, minorities of all forms have generally been protected and integrated into the fabric of the national Indian identity. However, those norms are now starting to break down," said Anish Goel, a senior fellow at the New America think-tank.
Modi's re-election campaign was a ringing endorsement of his Hindutva (Hindu-nationalist) ideology, which after five years in power faces a moment of reckoning. But many see it as a cause of concern for the world's biggest democracy and to other nations.
"Modi’s hardline political ideology is a significant concern for the future of India and its identity as a strong secular nation ... All countries that care about secularism, minority protection, religious freedom, and rule of law should be concerned by this ideology," said Goel.
"India's relationship with Muslim-majority countries, in particular, will suffer if Modi's ideology continues to take root in India," he warned.
Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, holds similar views but doesn't expect the BJP to rein on its Hindutva agenda.
"For the sake of stability, economic growth, and its reputation as a responsible global power, Modi would be wise to rein in the Hindu nationalist agenda. But given political exigencies and the BJP's underlying goals, I wouldn't bet on that happening," said Kugelman.
The US Agenda
Modi's foreign affairs in-tray is overflowing. While the US-India relationship has made solid strides across governments in defence and security, there are increased tensions on the trade and economic front, say experts.
"First and foremost is the relationship with the United States. Given the US President Donald Trump's relentless focus on trade issues, the new government will need to figure out how to put the trade relationship on a positive footing" said Goel, a former White House official under the Obama and Bush administrations.
This is complicated by the fact that the relationship will need to be balanced against India's ongoing interactions with Russia and Iran. Both countries represent strategic threats to the United States, yet remain vital trading partners for India, he said.
In an op-ed titled "Troubles Aplenty: Foreign Policy Challenges for the Next Indian Government", a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Ashley Tellis stated that Modi will have to confront serious external challenges both around India's periphery and farther beyond.
But some are optimistic. Despite the ongoing tug-of-war between India and the US on the tariff front, Trump has publicly highlighted his bond with Modi and the two countries have held talks on bilateral cooperation in defence, counter-terrorism and energy and coordination on regional and global issues.
"On trade, the relationship is certainly complicated at the moment but in other areas, the relationship is becoming closer. Also, the good relations with India is welcome by both the political parties in the US, be it the Democrats or the Republicans. Therefore, the US Congress is friendly towards India,” said Neelam Deo, director at Mumbai-based think tank Gateway House.
Relations With China and Pakistan
Beyond the global power politics, India will face challenges within its own neighbourhood, be it with China or Pakistan, say experts.
Neither Modi nor his predecessors have been able to resolve the problems posed by nuclear-armed rival Pakistan, partly because their ability to act constructively have always been impeded by the veto-wielding Pakistan Army.
"Modi's next government won't want to be seen as being too eager to patch things up with Islamabad. But after a few months have gone by, we shouldn't be surprised by some conciliatory gestures," said Kugelman, whose main speciality is Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan and US relations with each of them.
With China, an emerging great power, the situation is a lot different though. The challenges embodied by China are more enduring because its rise, despite likely slowing, is likely to make Beijing a formidable problem for New Delhi indefinitely, noted experts.
"The world's attention may be focused on US-China relations at the moment, but this doesn't mean that India-China issues are not serious and prevalent", said Goel.
According to Tellis, India will have to do a balancing act, which involves deepening ties with Washington while simultaneously minimising the offence to Beijing.
Some say India's relationship with China can strengthen in the light of the Sino-US trade war. The ongoing trade war between the US and China will help India tap export opportunities in both the countries in areas such as garments, agriculture, automobile and machinery, according to trade experts.
India's exports to the US went up by 11.2 percent in 2018, while to China it rose 31.4 percent in the same year, data from the Federation of Indian Export Organisations showed.
"One obvious thing that the government of India will look at is whether there’s any possibility of relocating manufacturing from China into India. Quite a lot of that has gone to countries like Vietnam, Philippines and Bangladesh but not so much have come to India," said Deo, who has served as the Indian Ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast.
But no one can be sure: either of Modi, or of his environment. In an unstable region, and in a vast country that is undergoing rapid social, political and cultural change, there are too many possibilities for anyone to be overly optimistic.Modi kicked off his re-election campaign with “miles to go” speech. Now with a second term in his kitty, he has "lots to do" before his vision for a new India is completed.