Prime Minister designate Narendra Modi and his key lieutenants have been carefully mature in underlining the fact that foreign policy in India, as in all stable democracies, follows broad continuity. There are indeed changes as elected regimes change but these are more in the nature of fine-tuning, subtle tweaking, embellishments, like a touch of embroidery to lift some familiar old weave.
You could argue both for and against this claim. Broad continuity has been the most reassuring aspect of Indian foreign policy for nearly seven decades now. To such an extent, in fact, that even when ideological power shifts take place, new governments continue with stale, old and idiotic hypocrisies. The non-aligned movement, for example. Or, even more pointless but still cutely exotic, the Commonwealth. It is simpler to understand why nations need foreign policy stability and consistency as governments change. Because at the global high table, nations are reassured relating to other nations, and not regimes. That is one of the factors that makes democracies much stronger states than the most brutally powerful dictatorships.
But you could also argue that within that set tapestry, new prime ministers have made shifts. Indira Gandhi, on her return to power in 1980, sought out Ronald Reagan at Cancun the very next year to break the chill of the 1971 Nixon-Kissinger tilt. Rajiv Gandhi, somewhat more spectacularly, reached out to Deng Xiaoping. P.V. Narasimha Rao, though truly a dyed-in-the-pink Cold Warrior, opened up to Israel, upgrading our relations to full diplomatic status one dramatic January morning in 1992. Atal Bihari Vajpayee later made even bigger shifts, dropping nuclear hypocrisy and then, horror of horrors, hailing America as a natural strategic ally and reaching out to Pakistan despite enduring two and a half war-like phases (Kargil and the Kandahar hijack, 1999, and the Parliament attack, 2001), and nearly reaching a settlement with Nawaz Sharif first and Pervez Musharraf next. We have sufficient evidence, therefore, to conclude that there is enormous scope for change within continuity. And that is Modi’s big opportunity, particularly as he has succeeded in giving this brilliantly virtuous foreign policy flavour even to his swearing-in on Monday.
Just when he takes up his first job on the national stage, he has given himself an opportunity to feature on an international one. He can relaunch himself as a big-hearted moderate rather than a shrill demagogue or, in other words, switch from electoral campaign to governance