What Modi 3.0 Means for the World

5 minute read
Michael Kugelman is director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center.

Some time ago, India achieved the status of a middle power: a country with a deep global footprint and heavy strategic importance, but not strong enough to ascend to the upper echelon of world powers. The reelection of Prime Minister Narendra Modi positions India to begin a transition from a middle to a major power. But that shift won’t be easy.

Modi will begin his third term on June 8 with a smaller mandate, and he will need to rely on coalition partners, who agreed to back him on Wednesday, to govern. But less political space won’t have a major impact on foreign policy, because there’s broad multipartisan support for Modi’s longstanding priority of deepening India’s role—and power—on the global stage.

India has truly come into its own as a top international actor. It’s the world’s most populous country. It has the fifth-largest economy (growing at one of the world’s fastest rates). It boasts one of the most rapidly expanding tech sectors. And, following its lunar landing last year, it’s now a formal space power.

Modi has plenty of motivations to leverage these achievements and accelerate India’s climb up the world’s power hierarchy. He has long prioritized strengthening India’s role in the world. The election manifesto of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014, the year he first became premier, vowed to build “a strong, self-reliant, self-confident India, regaining its rightful place in the comity of nations.”

Modi’s signature ideology, Hindu nationalism, is about making India stronger abroad, not just at home. Modi also views Hindu nationalism as a soft power tool; he promises to institute a program to highlight Lord Ram’s legacy abroad.

Modi has already done much to advance India’s global rise. He’s gained it membership in an array of global forums, from a new quad arrangement with the U.S., the UAE, and Israel to the prestigious Missile Technology Control Regime. Modi solidified India’s status as a net security provider, increasing arms sales to Indo-Pacific partners and projecting naval power in the Middle East to protect and assist ships targeted by missiles and piracy.

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To the world, expanding Indian global power in a third Modi term presents opportunities and obstacles alike. Washington and like-minded allies could have an increasingly formidable partner to counter China. The Global South, the causes of which Modi has increasingly sought to champion, will have a powerful advocate. For capital-rich companies and countries, massive Indian consumer markets will beckon. Last month, external affairs minister S Jaishankar described his boss as a leader with “networking, standing, and respect.” He’s not wrong: most governments are keen to engage with Modi’s India.

But India’s growing global clout could raise some red flags. New Delhi’s embrace of multipolarity, through efforts to empower the Global South and strengthen multilateral organizations (including those it belongs to that counter the West), risks diluting U.S. power. India’s growing power also brings into sharper relief a fundamental conundrum for the West: How to square the strategic imperatives of partnership with an accelerating Indian illiberalism that fuels transnational repression—including some allegedly carried out on Western soil. But none of this will reverse India’s deepening security relations with Washington—a concern for Beijing and Moscow.

Admittedly, this may be putting the cart before the horse. India’s path to great powerdom, while possible under Modi, is not inevitable. To get there, he’ll need to make extensive course corrections.

One is hardwiring India’s economy for longer term stability and sustainability. Youth unemployment ranges from 44 to 54% for those in their 20s—staggering figures in a country where half the population is under 30. India needs more jobs and more skilled workers to accommodate fast-growing sectors and truly transform its economy into a global juggernaut.

India must also get a handle on its China challenge. It’s struggled mightily to deter its main strategic competitor. Chinese forces periodically stage border incursions and have built villages and roads on land India claims as its own. China is rapidly developing the capacity to project power in the Indian Ocean—from its western reaches, home to China’s only overseas military base, to areas to the east near the Andaman Sea, where India has territorial assets. An aspiring great power can’t afford to be bogged down by its biggest rival so close to home.

Furthermore, India needs institutional fixes, like steps to accelerate the implementation of defense reforms and to increase the size of its diplomatic corps.

Another big challenge is the world itself. It’s undergoing severe churn and fraught with furious geopolitical competition.

India has traditionally navigated great power rivalry by doubling down on its core foreign policy principle of strategic autonomy, balancing ties with competing powers and avoiding alliances to maximize flexibility. But if current trends hold, and geopolitical competition and instability keep intensifying, Modi may find himself under growing pressure to get off the fence.

Still, he’s passed two tough recent tests. New Delhi has maintained close ties with Moscow, its longtime partner, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which India has declined to condemn, while managing to keep relations warm with the U.S. Meanwhile, it’s backing Israel’s war in Gaza, justifying it as a necessary counterterrorism move, even as its strong ties with the Palestinians and Arab capitals remain intact.

From this balancing act, India derives a unique form of global influence: It defies the polarization of power politics, straddling competing camps and positioning itself as a bridge and potential mediator.

Modi pledges to make India a Vishwaguru—a teacher and leader of the world. During his third term, India may strive to teach the world how a rising power can stay true to its founding foreign policy principle, even while staking out greater leadership in a changing world order.

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Write to Michael Kugelman at michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org

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