Is Narendra Modi’s India really a friend to the world?

Indian PM Modi

NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has described India’s Hindu-nationalist government as a “Vishvamitra”, or “friend of the world.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has on several occasions referred to his country as a “Vishvamitra,” or “friend of the world” — a term that he has used in recent speeches and at rallies across India.

“It is a matter of pride for all that India has carved a place for itself as ‘Vishwamitra’ and the entire world is seeing a friend in India,” he told Parliament in September.

The campaign is a reflection of the Modi government’s intent to become the leading voice of the Global South, Sreeram Chaulia, the director-general of the Jindal India Institute at O.P. Jindal Global University, told DW.

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“The idea is to position India as an independent power, which is different from China, different from the US and different from the Europeans,” Chaulia said, adding that the concept covers friendship, cooperation, coexistence and mutual benefit.

India last year showcased its cultural and diplomatic ties when it hosted the G20 summit in New Delhi. Since then, however, the Indian government has seen multiple diplomatic rows play out.

Less than two weeks after the G20 meeting, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused India of involvment in the assassination of Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjaron Canadian soil.

In December, the US said it foiled an alleged plot to assassinate on US soil an American citizen who also advocated for a Sikh separatist state. Both cases are under investigation.

Closer to home, India has announced plans to fence off its border with Myanmar against the backdrop of the escalating conflict there since the military coup in February 2021.

Also, the newly elected government in the Maldives has ordered the removal of Indian troops while flaunting stronger ties with China.

Does the world really consider India a friend?

“In the past, India had the intention to be a friend but no real capability because we were dealing with domestic issues,” said Harsh Pant, an international relations expert at the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi, adding that India has more credibility these days.

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“It is unlikely any major player can ignore India,” Pant said.

“At one point it looked like the war in Ukraine would destroy India’s ties with the West but that did not happen. Western powers, especially the US, have a strategic partnership with India because China is the long-term problem,” he said.

Though disagreeing with Russia’s war in Ukraine, Indian leaders refused to join the US-led sanction campaign against Moscow. Instead, New Delhi has accepted Russian oil at discounted prices leading to an increase in imports from Russia.

Despite this, India’s relations with the United States are stronger than ever.

India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar during an October 2023 visit to Washington declared that ties between the countries were at an “all-time high.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reciprocated the sentiment, calling the ties an “extraordinary success story.”

‘Neighborhood First’ policy
Chietigj Bajpaee, senior fellow for South Asia at the Chatham House think tank, told DW that the India-US partnership is embedded in a push to deepen relations in the defense, technology and energy sectors.

That is underlined by a long-standing perception, in Washington, to see India as a bulwark against China’s growing influence.

India is the only major economy with deep, favorable relations with Iran, Israel, Russia and Europe at the same time. Just within the last month, Jaishankar has visited both Iran and Russia while PM Modi hosted French President Emmanuel Macron.

“It is clearly a Vishwamitra in that sense,” Bajpaee said. “But what does it practically bring to the table beyond statements such as ‘now is not the time for war?'”

After coming to power in 2014, PM Modi signaled a revitalization of India’s Neighborhood First Policy (NFP) with an invitation to the leaders of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries for his oath-taking ceremony.

In Modi’s speech at his first SAARC Summit in Nepal, he said “the future I dream for India is the future I wish for our entire region.”

However, with the growing emphasis on India’s rise as the leader of the Global South, there is a sense that India is trying to “transcend” the region and its neighborhood, Bajpaee said.

“Three countries in its neighborhood are in the middle of IMF bailouts, some are failed states or near-failed states, in the midst of civil war, others which are adversarial countries with which you have dormant conflict,” he pointed out.

Walking a tightrope

India is likely to come under pressure to take sides as conflicts continue, said Bajpaee.

“On forums where China plays an important role, for instance the BRICS nations, where countries are playing the anti-West agenda, India is going to be the odd man out,” Bajpaee said.

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“If push comes to shove, if we see a conflict break out in the Taiwan strait or a direct conflict between Russia and the US, or an escalation in the Middle East, it will be at some point forced to choose.”

“The bigger problem would arise if India were to have a military conflict with China. That is when India would have to call upon friends,” said Sushant Singh, senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research and lecturer at Yale University.

“Because if you are friends with everyone, then you are friends with no one.”

Even with the US, Singh said that the country’s values — commitment to human rights, democratic standards, protection of minorities — have diverged significantly under Modi but the strategic vision keeps the ties strong for now.

While smaller diplomatic tussles are not a challenge for India, “something closer home in India’s sphere of influence or something which directly involved the US, India and China, that would really test India’s fine balancing act in this very tight rope,” Singh said.

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