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Did foreign policy affect Indian general elections?

Did foreign policy affect Indian general elections?

The Indian electorate has evolved to a point that it might be incorrect to assume that the average Indian voter is not affected by foreign policy as a political issue. Foreign policy has been an elite discussion mostly with a class angle attached to it, where it used to dominate in urban centers only. But it has been observed since the last parliamentary elections held in 2019 that foreign policy has been traveling from elite dinner table conversations to a much more democratized space. This is highly observant in the campaigning style of the political players where Bharatiya Janata Party has juiced out every opportunity of projecting India’s rising image in the globe through its ultra successful diplomatic victory in the recently held G20 Summit. The leading opposition parties like Indian National Congress, also acknowledges the power of foreign policy and thus reflects its vision for India in multiple pages of its election manifesto, elaborating on its foreign policy and security goals.

Winning for the third term under Narendra Modi, Bharatiya Janata Party has a strong track record with respect to foreign policy that it is showcasing to its electorate. The growing importance of foreign policy has to be understood in the context of India’s strategic positionality in the global world order and how an average Indian has reacted to this rising brand of India.

Domestic vs foreign policy agendas

If we examine other countries, this trend will not remain unique to just India, for instance public opinion regarding foreign policy has affected electoral results, but mostly in conflict periods. With the single exception of Atal Bihari Vajyaee, foreign policy and national security concerns have been leveraged as equivalent to domestic political agendas. India’s 1998 nuclear test was emphasized during his political campaign, quite in sync with Modi’s post 2014 election campaigning, which had significant emphasis given to public diplomacy as well his presence in high-level visits all across the globe. A 2023 survey done by Lokniti CSDS and NDTV showed that 63 percent of respondents reported that India’s global status has risen since Modi assumed office. While it is unclear whether foreign policy and the perception of India on the global stage offer greater electoral benefits than domestic issues like inflation and development, foreign policy plays a significant role in influencing public sentiment, casually called the “mood” of the elections.

The Indian brand

India’s journey in the global arena is not restricted to its trajectory post 2014. Prior to that, India has been playing a critical role in one of the most powerful multilateral setups, but what remains striking is its shift from being a “balancing” power to a “ leading one”, as argued by Milan Vaishnav and Caroline Mallory. While India’s multipolar setup is not new, its rise as a principal agent in this multipolar world is definitely new. Despite western criticism and pressure, India kept purchasing Russian oil since the war in Ukraine and has maintained close ties with a natural ally like Moscow. Last June, at a panel in Bratislava, External Affairs Minister Jaishankar faced questions about this controversial choice, and he responded.” Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems, but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems”. While diplomats like Ashok Kantha argue that India’s foreign policy has not changed drastically, but its style has changed, the above-mentioned statement from an external affairs minister, which later garnered millions of views in social media, projects how India’s robust foreign policy choices have become great electoral brownie points.

The public display of India’s contemporary style of  foreign policy has another significant feature i.e. criticizing western standards of benchmarking democracy and western media in projecting an opinion on its national issues. Although Indo-US relations remain strong, India’s position in this multipolar swing set remains crucial in making sense of its strategic autonomy. While being criticized for maintaining relations with Russia, during the ongoing war against Ukraine, and alleged assassination allegations of a Khalistani separatist in a foreign land, the Indian messaging aligns with its ‘national sentiment’ of choosing what is right for them, rather than what is deemed to be right by the West. This is also consistent with a recent announcement by the Modi government, that India will come up with a homegrown democracy ratings index which is supposed to reflect Indian narratives regarding its democratic principles and practice rather than western rankings.


It is to be noted that the changing nature of the global order has a huge impact on the way foreign policy is growing as an election topic in democracies like India. With the continuous rise of powers like China, the United States has been increasingly being questioned about its legitimacy of being the strategic security provider of the world. With conflict-stricken Eurasia and currently even the Middle East, China seems to be heavily invested in creating an alternative to the west-dominated liberal international order. The fragmentation of this order, however, has given a good chance for rising powers like India, which want to position themselves carefully yet robustly. India’s growing economy, diplomatic positions in multilateral bodies and its overall rising image, is testament to this evolution of this robust foreign policy strategy. And this has found a way back home, where the government has projected the idea of “Amrit Kaal”, which is quite simply opening up the grandeur nation to the world, from “twelve centuries of slavery”. 

However, this growing importance of foreign policy implications in national elections requires a much more nuanced inquiry. As argued by Vipin Narang, it seems unclear as to how the foreign policy successes have a positive impact in projecting a government’s global stance, but it does not suffer from any downside from supposedly contested foreign policy failures, for instance Chinese incursions in the LAC. In addition, it can be argued that foreign policy might just be an important impact factor in influencing national sentiments, but it needs to be balanced carefully in order to not risk India’s relations with international players, just for electoral benefits back home.

The author is an Assistant Professor of Political Science in Manav Rachna International Institute of Research and Studies. He is currently pursuing his doctorate from National University of Juridical Sciences, India specializing in South Asian Politics and Conflict Studies