On May 12 India completed national elections that saw the ruling party in national government change. The Bharatiya Janata Party won enough seats in Parliament to make one of their own, Narendra Modi, Prime Minister. According to the Financial Times, the BJP did not gain enough seats to form a majority government, and had to form a coalition, but Modi gets to be Prime Minister. Modi himself is a colorful figure. A former candy-maker turned politician, he campaigned on the promise of “toilets, not temples,” meaning he intends to focus policy on economic and infrastructure development rather than the Hindu identity that has long defined his party. A politician like Modi does need to make that distinction. Bharatiya Janata was founded in 1949 in response to the secular National Congress Party. BJP is Hindu Nationalist in ideology, and now they have the advantage of having been out of national power long enough to avoid associations with problems of corruption and inefficiency, like their archrivals the Congress Party.
Modi has been compared with Abe Shinzo, Prime Minister of Japan with whom he already has a personal relationship, and both of who seem to appreciate the comparisons. Modi announced that he intends to make an official visit to Japan this year, and during the campaign declared that he intended to do for the Indian economy what Abe has been trying to do in Tokyo. Modi’s campaign promised to clean up corruption in India’s government and business, pass economic reforms to encourage job growth and improve India’s relations with friendly countries, such as Japan. Where Abe is dogged by his association with the Japanese far right and its poor relationship with history, Modi has a similar problem. First, Bharatiya Janata was a founded by Hindu elites who found the Congress Party’s secularism frustrating. BJP is strongly associated with India’s religious authorities and often entangled with anti-Muslim discrimination. Modi himself was a member of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu group that calls itself a “volunteer service organization” guided by principles of “selfless service to the nation.” RSS was founded in 1925, and banned by the British. Although RSS participated in the Quit India movement it has been banned by the federal government of India three times, though the ban was lifted each time. Modi’s association with RSS has him banned from traveling to the Unites States.
Finally, Modi’s relationship with Japan reveals something about his foreign policy. The last ten years have seen Japanese-Indian relations grow closer together, but there have not been Prime Minsters of both countries that shared a strong personal relationship, the way that Modi and Abe already do. Modi is positioning himself outside China’s orbit. Placing oneself so close to Japan these days brings a strong risk of alienating China. I do not think Modi intends to be adversarial to China, but he is not eager to build a Sino-Indian alliance. If he were, his closeness to Japan would be a serious liability. So far, Modi has been subtle about his view of the US.
During the campaign, he delivered some simple bromides about America’s role as a democracy, but the US did not figure highly in his speeches, which is perfectly fair. But there are complications. Because of Modi’s past associations with anti-Muslim hate groups, he is still barred from entering the United States. Now that he is head of an important partner, the US will have to find a way to permit him entry sooner or later. Modi is replacing a government that was often characterized by pro-American policies. Being close to Japan may also force Modi to get closer to Japan’s other security partners, particularly the United States. So, even if he really prefers to set an Indian foreign policy independent of any great power, he will find himself drawn into the US’s orbit.