If the exit polls in India are to be believed, it is likely that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate, Narendra Modi, will be India’s next prime minister. Modi, a chief minister who continues to be excoriated for the communal riots that occurred on his watch in the state of Gujarat in 2002, has been vaulted to the status of a national leader viably staking a claim to govern the world’s largest democracy. The fact that he has come this far in a relatively short period of time remains fundamentally an indictment of the poor performance of the incumbent Congress Party–led government, especially during its second term in office.

To be sure, there are still uncertainties about whether Modi will win big or whether he will be compelled to expand his current National Democratic Alliance to attain a majority in the 16th Lok Sabha. And whether Modi will be able to satisfy the Indian electorate’s extraordinarily high expectations remains to be seen. After all, the Indian people not only expect that he will return the country to its previous path of high economic growth but also anticipate that he will remedy the enormous challenges of unemployment, rehabilitate India’s fraying institutions of state, correct the maladies of misgovernance, and even provide new direction to India’s flailing foreign relations. In the best of times, this would be a tall order. Today, these ambitions are almost certainly beyond reach—at least more than can be achieved in a single term at the helm.

Ashley J. Tellis
Ashley J. Tellis holds the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs and is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, specializing in international security and U.S. foreign and defense policy with a special focus on Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
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Modi’s ascension to the office of prime minister is also being watched closely by India’s friends and partners who have often been chagrined by New Delhi’s recent failure to play the confident role that they had imagined would accompany India’s emergence on the global stage. Nowhere have these expectations been dashed more grievously than in the United States, where successive administrations since 1998 have attempted to rejuvenate bilateral ties in the hope that India would become an effective strategic partner. Many Americans and Indians alike have concluded that the partnership has flagged considerably—though obviously not entirely—in recent times because of the political miasma in New Delhi.

Whatever else may be believed about Modi, there is universal agreement that he is a decisive leader. The possibility that such an individual may now take over the reins of government in India, then, raises new hope that the U.S.-Indian relationship may yet find its groove and realize the potential that former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee saw when he described the two countries as “natural allies,” courageously pushing aside the accumulated shibboleths of some fifty years.

In many ways, Modi, with his natural assertiveness, may be even better positioned than Vajpayee to rebuild the bilateral relationship. Particularly if he secures the overwhelming mandate he has sought in the recently concluded polls, Modi is well-placed to harness the remarkable commitment the United States has made to aid the rise of Indian power since former president George W. Bush’s term in office. It would be wise for officials in Washington, therefore, to engage Modi concertedly in the aftermath of the Indian elections for several reasons, including making up for keeping him at arm’s length until very recently.

Old Grudges Die Hard

Obviously, engagement will not come easily because of the uncomfortable fact that Washington and Modi managed to start out on the wrong foot. The complications attending Modi’s personal history are likely to affect the future trajectory of U.S.-Indian relations in unhelpful ways.

In 2005, provoked by allegations about Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, the United States revoked his visa under an obscure law on religious freedom. This action bruised Modi personally. And it has produced the awkward situation in which for the first time India, a fellow democracy and strategic partner of the United States, could be governed by a prime minister who resents a country that otherwise serves as an inspiration for his middle-class political base at home and an important source of funding and policy ideas.

The fact that Modi has never been charged, let alone convicted, in an Indian court for his involvement in the Gujarat riots only makes his bitterness at the U.S. action more implacable. He believes that he has been unfairly penalized on allegations that have not held up in his own country’s judicial system.

Today, both Modi and the United States are trapped in a catch-22: in understandable pique, Modi has declared that he will never apply for an American visa again—and there is no way to revalidate his now-expired visa if he will not apply anew. This constraint would not prevent Modi from visiting the United States in an official capacity as India’s prime minister because he would be automatically eligible for an A-class visa as a head of government. Yet this technicality is unlikely to satisfy Modi because the U.S. State Department’s previous revocation of his personal visa, coupled with what has been a deliberate U.S. distance from him over the years, remains an ingrained slight that will be hard to mollify once he has achieved validation through victory—especially if the outcome of India’s national election is decisive.

The prospect for a dramatic resuscitation of U.S.-Indian relations under a Modi government in India, therefore, looks less than promising, despite the fact that Modi is exactly the kind of assertive personality who could improve New Delhi’s outreach to Washington at will. Unless he were to reinvent himself as a latter-day Vajpayee bent on transforming bilateral ties, this shift is unlikely to happen. Modi has undoubtedly made careful efforts throughout his election campaign to emphasize the continuing worth of Vajpayee’s legacy on several issues. And where the United States and India are concerned, he has declared plainly, even if not entirely persuasively, that “relations between the two countries cannot be determined or be even remotely influenced by incidents related to individuals.” On this count, given the depth of his personal animus, there is little reason to take him at face value. Where international engagement is concerned, Modi is mostly likely to remember those who welcomed him while he was in the political wilderness—and that means Japan, Israel, Singapore, and even, with qualifications, China.

The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, at any rate, has sought to signal its willingness to let bygones be bygones, declaring through the congressional testimony of Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Desai Biswal that it “look[s] forward to engagement with the new government [in India] that will take . . . [the bilateral relationship] to new heights.”

While this constitutes an important overture, it is unlikely to win Modi’s heart and mind. What would make the difference to him is either a public American expression of regret for the visa revocation or an open personal welcome to the United States. However, it is politically impossible for Washington to do the former, and it is unlikely that the latter will happen before Modi is clearly elevated to the position of prime minister.

National Interests, Strategic Consequences

While it is doubtful that a Prime Minister Modi would go out of his way to spite the United States, he would not set out to consciously ingratiate himself with the United States either. If bilateral relations do receive a direct boost, it will be because he views undertaking certain actions as necessary for advancing India’s own interests. And because Narendra Modi is, above all else, a committed nationalist who cares deeply about Indian interests, it is not unreasonable to expect that he will do some things for India that would bring clear benefits to the United States. The improvements he promises, this time for India’s own sake, in the structural factors that have impeded a transformation in bilateral ties offer the greatest reason for hope.

In this context, Washington should remember that a strong India is in America’s strategic interest on its own merits. Especially in the face of an increasingly assertive China, the United States benefits from the presence of a robust democratic power that is willing to and capable of independently balancing Beijing’s rising influence in Asia.

Despite Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s deep commitment to transforming U.S.-Indian relations, the effort to do so lost momentum during his second term in office. A perverse turn in India’s economic policies (and fortunes) and a slowing in defense and strategic cooperation, which until then had been a key driver propelling the strategic partnership upward, largely accounted for the stagnation.

There is every likelihood that a Modi government would alter Indian policies for the better in both those areas—with U.S.-Indian relations thereby profiting at least as an externality, if not a directly intended consequence. Building up India’s defense capabilities rapidly and purposefully is a case in point. Modi already understands that India’s defense procurement and the higher-level management of its defense policy have both suffered grave reverses during A. K. Antony’s tenure as defense minister, which began in 2006. If Modi becomes prime minister, he will quickly become entirely convinced that it is not India’s nuclear doctrine that requires speedy change—he has intimated that already—but rather its conventional military capabilities. The modernization of those forces has fallen dangerously behind schedule. India’s defense procurement processes are badly clogged, and the failure to create a well-educated cadre of military leaders as well as better civil-military relations has cost the country dearly.

If the next government resolutely moves to correct these faults, U.S.-Indian relations will immediately benefit. For example, any Indian decisions to acquire additional U.S. military equipment (especially by closing those contracts that are close to fruition) will quickly improve the combat capabilities of the Indian armed forces while simultaneously strengthening the U.S. position as a desirable supplier of advanced technology. Both these outcomes are self-evidently in Washington’s interest.

Similar benefits will be reaped if a proposed defense trade and technology initiative comes to fruition. This initiative is an effort to strengthen bilateral ties among both private defense firms in the United States and India and the two countries’ militaries. If it is consummated, India’s defense research organizations and its emerging private defense companies will be linked more closely to the best American developers of cutting-edge systems, making the prospects brighter for future defense cooperation.

If a Modi regime can make quick decisions to enlarge the opportunities for more Indian officers to enroll in American professional military education, permit Indian officers to be cross-posted in the U.S. combatant commands, sign the so-called “foundational agreements” on interoperability and safeguards that the Vajpayee government agreed to in principle, and create new avenues for greater American investment in India’s defense industry, it will produce important gains for India while directly benefiting American strategic interests.

The United States would also profit from India’s continued economic reform and its return to high growth.

Modi knows better than any Indian politician that his success will be judged by the extent to which he can rehabilitate India’s economic fortunes. If he is elevated to high office in this election, it will be mainly because Indian voters, disenchanted by the country’s recent economic slowdown, have put their trust in him individually rather than in his party, hoping that he will be their ticket to collective success.

Not surprisingly, then, Modi has assiduously campaigned (at least at the national level) on the universally acknowledged necessities of returning to high growth, providing good governance, increasing employment, and empowering India’s states. Granted, toward the end of what has been a vicious electoral campaign by previous standards, Modi succumbed to the temptation of employing nativist tropes in eastern and northeast India and criticizing the Election Commission, which directs and controls the entire election process—actions that have intensified concerns among those constituencies that fear what they perceive to be Modi’s parochialism and dictatorial tendencies. And his relentless invocation of “no red tape, only red carpet” for investors has often given rise to the expectation that his economic policies will favor primarily big corporate houses, both Indian and foreign.

But after the election season, if his record in Gujarat after 2002 is anything to go by, Modi will likely return to the core themes of his national campaign: enlarging opportunities to accelerate national investment levels, revitalizing agriculture, improving infrastructure, removing regulatory constrictions, and pushing financial devolution in order to fulfill his electoral promises.

Modi clearly recognizes the benefits of institutionalizing wider and more efficient markets in India, but he also recognizes the limits to which he can go in light of the country’s statist inheritance. These boundaries will become all the more pronounced because Modi is a genuine outsider to the political class in New Delhi in a way that no previous chief minister who took the prime minister’s office has been. And he is, equally, an outsider in his own BJP, whose old guard he determinedly defanged in the prelude to the current elections.

Modi, therefore, will create space for greater private initiative in combating India’s economic problems. He will seek to improve the nation’s investment climate through more predictable, transparent, and inviting economic policies. But these virtues will be intended to appeal to a wide range of domestic actors and will not automatically translate into a free ride for either “India Inc.” or corporate America.

Yet, to the degree that India’s economic performance gathers steam as a result of Modi’s policies and his efforts to empower the Indian states create new competitive laboratories of economic reform, U.S. national interests are well-served. Any effort to enlarge India’s markets or make them more efficient through internal reforms will stimulate domestic growth and create expanded opportunities for bilateral trade and investment. If India’s economic strength and political confidence grow as a result, U.S. strategic aims in Asia and globally will be advanced.

The same will be true if Modi spends much of his foreign policy capital to rejuvenate India’s “Look East” strategy, a policy begun in 1991 that promised closer economic and strategic engagement with countries in East and Southeast Asia. A deeper Indian relationship with Japan, Singapore, and the other trading states of East Asia will bind New Delhi closer to countries that are otherwise American allies and partners. These states will profit from any renewed Indian engagement in their region, in the process advancing U.S. interests even if doing so was not India’s primary intention. Even an effort by Modi to improve Sino-Indian ties would not necessarily undermine American aims in Asia. Modi is astute enough to recognize the nature of the threats posed by rising Chinese power to Indian security, so it is unlikely that improved relations between Beijing and New Delhi would ever come to constitute strategic “bandwagoning” against Washington.

Even though Modi’s personal feelings toward Washington are not particularly warm today, he is not likely to go out of his way to spite the United States out of personal pique. In his official dealings with his American counterparts, Modi will be exceptionally mindful of what Indian national interests demand—and will do nothing less than what is mandated by those requirements. If both sides can avoid stepping on each other’s toes, especially in South Asia—an arena in which Modi will be fiercely protective of India’s prerogatives—the United States could find itself in a potentially productive bilateral relationship with India. This outcome will ensue as long as Modi’s government pursues domestic and foreign policies that end up creating new opportunities for the United States, even if the U.S.-India affiliation is at the same time stripped of the strong emotional commitments associated with the overtures pursued by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. The absence of driving personalities in the Obama administration who are committed to deepening the relationship with India makes such an outcome all the more likely.

In other words, even if Washington’s expected postelection overtures to Modi leave him unmoved, his government in New Delhi will be one that at its best yields benefits for the bilateral relationship while still remaining quite detached and distant from the United States. If his time in Gujarat is any indication, Modi clearly knows, and often speaks, his mind. His government will possess a defined center of power, Modi himself. And it will be able to implement difficult decisions with purposefulness, even ruthlessness.

The Dangers of Cynicism

If the immediate future of U.S.-Indian relations is thus likely to be more businesslike than warm, are there dangers lurking that could send this relationship into a tailspin? On this issue, there are arguably reasons for hope.

Historically, an important element that has ensured the stability of bilateral relations has been India’s enduring commitment to liberal, democratic politics at home. This commitment, which has been manifested through both constitutional government and the protection of India’s myriad social diversities, has often been questioned. But the vision of religious tolerance, the protection of minorities, and the necessity for some forms of affirmative action have all durably survived.

Modi’s ascension to center stage in Indian politics, because so many observers continue to associate him with the Gujarat riots, has revived fears in India and in the United States that India’s minorities may once again face elevated dangers. Were the events in Gujarat in 2002 to be repeated somewhere in India, the risks to U.S.-Indian relations would indeed be great and India’s international reputation would be severely besmirched.

The broad contours of Modi’s current electoral campaign suggest that he is mindful of such pitfalls. Although he had plentiful opportunities to campaign on a virulent Hindutva, or Hindu nationalist, platform, he generally eschewed that temptation and instead focused resolutely on issues of growth, development, and governance. Of course, his critics are wont to suggest that this strategy is aimed merely at securing the nation’s highest office from whence he would launch a renewed campaign against India’s minorities all the more dangerously.

At present, there is no way to discern the truth conclusively. On this, as on many other matters, including the details of Modi’s economic and social policies, only time will tell.

Modi may well continue to harbor rigid Hindu nationalist beliefs that are anathema to many of his own countrymen. That is a privilege offered to him by India’s democratic order. But it does not matter.

What is solely relevant is his behavior in power. And on this count, there is reason to believe that Modi is unlikely to provoke any divisiveness that undermines his larger economic and political ambitions. His own evolution as a politician, the structural constraints imposed by India’s democratic system, and his recognition of India’s complexities from the vantage point of the prime ministership all suggest that he will avoid any single-minded pursuit of sectarian policies.

More to the point, it is reassuring that Modi has reiterated both in public and in private that “the only holy book of the government is the Indian Constitution.” If he acts according to its writ while in office, the worst fears of his detractors will not come to pass. If he does not, he will be booted out of power—and will, in fact, be stymied in the implementation of his agenda long before that happens. If he is elected with the mandate he seeks, it will be because the people of India want him to repair a faltering economy and a rudderless government, not to impose a parochial agenda that most of them do not share. If Modi misreads that verdict to mean something else, he will not be doing himself and his cause any favors.

From an American perspective, therefore, U.S. administration officials and members of Congress should not rush to premature conclusions about Modi’s presumed future domestic policies. That is especially true in an environment in which his detractors have already launched furtive and not-so-furtive campaigns in the United States aimed at persuading official Washington to view Modi as a threat to India and to American interests.

Similar caution is justified in the case of contingencies involving Pakistan. For several decades now, India has been at the receiving end of terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil—some of it state sanctioned if not actually state directed. The traditional Indian response to such attacks consisted of forbearance, given that successive Indian prime ministers from P. V. Narasimha Rao onward concluded that any retaliatory responses could produce military escalation that would make the cure worse than the disease. With a contentious personality like Modi at the helm of affairs, many Pakistan-based jihadi groups would be greatly tempted to engage in terrorist attacks in India in hopes of inciting a violent response by New Delhi that fuels a larger cataclysm in the subcontinent.

How a Modi government would react to such provocations is unknown. It is likely that not even Modi himself knows today and that he would not be sure until actually faced with that moment of truth in office. To be sure, India has many more retaliatory options short of all-out war than it did during a 2001–2002 military standoff with Pakistan and the 2008 terrorist attacks in Bombay. But international observers should not suppose that a Modi government will be automatically inclined toward more kinetic responses to Pakistan in the event of a terrorist attack emerging from that country. In such circumstances, and despite his desire to squarely confront terrorism, Modi, just like his predecessors, will have to make tough decisions about whether to risk subverting his focus on restoring economic growth for renewed regional conflict.

In fact, the larger danger in a possible Modi policy toward Pakistan is that he will choose to ignore Islamabad, either because of his concentration on economic renewal at home or because he views Pakistan, with its myriad problems, as marginal to India’s destiny. That decision would create incentives for the “deep state” in Pakistan to rely even more heavily on jihadi groups. It would also cost India the opportunity to accelerate regional economic integration, which would increase Indian prosperity and provide Islamabad with incentives for constructive engagement with New Delhi, thereby enhancing India’s safety.

Precisely because such eventualities represent the most serious threat to U.S. interests in South Asia today, the Obama administration ought to reach out publicly and generously to Modi as soon as it becomes clear that the Indian nation has chosen him as its next prime minister. A congratulatory call from Obama to Modi followed by a visit to India by a U.S. cabinet member or higher-ranking official would go a long way. These overtures will not make up for the lost opportunity to engage Modi while he climbed the national stage or efface his accumulated grievances against Washington overnight. But they would be the necessary first step toward developing a relationship with a leader who will govern India for the next five years.

High Stakes, High Gains

Whatever his present misgivings, Modi will realize upon taking office that a fruitful relationship with the United States serves India’s interests and vice versa. At a time when India remains continually challenged by Pakistan’s growing weakness, China’s rising strength, the pervasive fragility of many smaller states along its periphery (including Afghanistan), and mounting threats to several global regimes of importance to New Delhi, U.S.-Indian cooperation is not optional but necessary. The benefits of friendly relations with the United States, still the world’s only superpower, should make this conclusion inescapable to India.

Sustaining such collaboration will require considerable dexterity on both sides. In New Delhi, it will require a willingness to engage with the United States on multiple fronts, including by proposing a robust agenda for diplomatic, strategic, and economic cooperation in the next U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue. In Washington, it will demand extraordinary personal outreach to a miffed Modi, given both his past encounter with U.S. policy and the larger American stakes in India’s success, not to mention the importance of promoting peace and prosperity within Southern Asia writ large. Thinking about India in strategic terms will be essential for the success of this endeavor.

Only a successful reciprocity of this sort can slowly improve what could otherwise become a productive yet joyless bilateral relationship that comes to represent a lost opportunity for both countries.