Voice

Faster, Stronger, Worse

Why Narendra Modi's new foreign policy won't make Washington happy.

India is about to install a new prime minister who is not a Gandhi, not a member of the Congress party, not a policy intellectual, and not a product of India's westward-looking professional class. After a decade of increasingly stagnant Congress rule, India is heading into the great unknown. Narendra Modi had said a great deal about how he wants to change India's economic policy -- even if most of it is vague and hortatory. But he has said next to nothing about foreign policy. A figure as forceful as Modi and as disdainful of the country's political class would seem likely to reshape India's posture toward the world. But how?

First, it's worth noting that, like the United States, India is a continental nation with water on either side; very few people live near a foreign country. Questions of poverty, economic development, political corruption, and caste identity are vastly more pressing for voters than India's relations with its most powerful neighbors, China and Pakistan. Even India's professional and policy elites are far more preoccupied with domestic concerns than with foreign issues. For this reason, India's conduct of foreign policy has changed very slowly since independence and almost always owing to an evolving consensus rather than a change of government. Modi could, in fact, choose to let the machine run on its own.

I called Hardeep Singh Puri, Modi's spokesman on foreign affairs and India's former ambassador to the United Nations, to ask whether his new prime minister had a worldview and, if so, what it was. "Modi's worldview," Puri responded, "is captured in the Indian concept of 'the whole world is one family.'" That's good to know, but it doesn't dictate much in the way of policy choices. I posed the same question to a seasoned Indian diplomat whom Modi had consulted on foreign affairs. "His worldview is more economic than geopolitical," he said. "He speaks very warmly of East Asia and how they have outdistanced us economically. I have no doubt that Japan will be the first country he will visit." That was more helpful.

As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi visited China, Japan, and Singapore, seeking investments in his state. He is likely to focus his attentions as prime minister on countries that can increase investment in India. Modi would like to see the country urbanize, as China has, by developing the industrial sector, which now constitutes only 14 percent of India's GDP. He would also like to increase spending on infrastructure. Japan has been a major player in Indian infrastructure, including as a partner on the construction of highways to connect New Delhi to Mumbai and Chennai to Bangalore -- a crying need for a country with calamitously poor roads. (Even a quick trip on an Indian highway is both frustrating and terrifying.) India under Modi may thus practice a more frankly mercantilist policy toward the world, as China does.

On matters of national security, India's most fraught relationship is of course with Pakistan. Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with its roots in Hindu nationalism, has traditionally adopted a bellicose posture toward Pakistan. During the campaign, Modi took the kind of cheap shots at Pakistan that played to the gallery. He jeered at the Congress party defense minister, A.K. Antony -- who declined to authorize a sharp military response to a murky cross-border incident that led to the death of several Indian soldiers -- as one of several "agents of Pakistan and enemy of India." Puri dismissed the crack as an "election flourish," and said that Modi "will make a genuine effort to reach out to Pakistan."

That could be. India's previous BJP prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, made a historic visit to Pakistan in 1999 in the hopes of advancing talks on the disputed territory of Kashmir. Ashutosh Varshney, an India scholar at Brown University, has suggested that Modi could be India's "Nixon in China." That might be stretching it, but Modi's shrewd campaign left the impression that, whatever his personal views, he is more politician than ideologue. He is, however, a chesty figure who will not abide incursions, especially from weaker neighbors. Puri says that Modi "will have much less tolerance for acts of terror" than did his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, who did not strike back at Pakistan after the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai's Taj Mahal hotel despite abundant evidence of Pakistani involvement. Modi almost certainly would have shown no such restraint. Give that both countries have nuclear weapons, that has to be a frightening thought for Western policymakers.

Modi is unlikely to give a high priority to relations with the United States, a country to which he has not been permitted to travel owing to his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. Indians did not miss the brusque undertone of President Barack Obama's invitation to Modi to visit the United States at "a mutually agreeable time." The Delhi policy elite believes, with some reason, that Obama has relegated India to the second-class status that it had endured until 2005, when President George W. Bush struck a "strategic partnership" with India, followed three years later by a major nuclear deal. Indians are mystified that Obama, unlike Bush, has not embraced an enthusiastically democratic nation with tremendous potential for economic growth. The "pivot to Asia" seems to bypass India altogether.

Obama will be, if anything, warier about an India under Modi than he was when the country was governed, more or less, by the anodyne Singh. The problem, however, is not personal. India illustrates the fallacy of the assumption that democracies share a common outlook on the world. As a young nation under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, India, like the United States in its infancy, saw itself more as a collective idea than as a set of interests, standing up for the principle of nonalignment and for international peace.

But the 1950s were a long time ago. India is now a regional power with strong economic and national security interests, as well as a skepticism bordering on hostility toward many Western norms. It may well be the most vibrant democracy in the emerging world, but India does not believe in promoting democratic values abroad. India guards the sanctity of national sovereignty almost as zealously as China and Russia do, and it abstained on U.N. Security Council votes on intervention in Libya and Syria. In an essay in the volume Shaping the Emerging World: India and the Multilateral Order, David Malone, Canada's former high commissioner to India and a scholar of the United Nations, along with Rohan Mukherjee, a doctoral student, note a strange paradox: As India has grown stronger, it has become more defensive about sovereignty and less prepared to defend the international order. This inevitably places it at odds with the United States, the chief guarantor of that order.

India is an important partner for the United States where the countries' interests converge, as in Afghanistan, but not in the many places where they don't, most notably Iran, a major oil supplier to India. And with an aggressive nationalist whose party's slogan is "India First" in power, New Delhi will, if anything, make fewer concessions to Washington and the West than his predecessor did. Modi feels a much deeper intuitive bond with the disciplined and socially conservative countries of East Asia than he does with the United States and social democratic Europe. Worse, India's bad habit of aligning with authoritarian states on international questions is likely to increase under Modi, a man considered even by many of his most ardent supporters an autocratic, if benevolent, leader.

In short, Modi is likely to be a net negative for the West. But unless he picks a fight with Pakistan, that won't matter nearly as much as whether he can address India's sense of stagnation. Modi believes that he can spread the business-first, no-red-tape model he established in Gujarat across India. His stunning electoral victory (though with slightly under 32 percent of the popular vote) gives him a mandate to do so. Hundreds of millions of all-too-hopeful Indians are about to find out whether Modi can do what he said he would. Despite merited suspicions about Modi's commitment to democracy and secularism, Western leaders need to begin thinking about what they can do to help him succeed.

PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Egypt Isn't Stable

Former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is sure to win the upcoming presidential elections. But a new poll shows that he will be taking the helm of a profoundly divided nation.

There is little drama to the upcoming Egyptian presidential election, which will take place on May 26 and 27. Former Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is certain to emerge victorious. While international observers and his Islamist rivals will question the legitimacy of his victory, Sisi will emerge from the vote in control of the Egyptian state.

Much of the media coverage from Egypt since Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were pushed out of power nearly a year ago has focused on Egypt's sometimes virulent nationalism and the emerging cult of personality around Sisi. Tired of instability, frustrated with a poor economy, and experiencing buyer's remorse from electing Islamists, the Egyptian people -- so the argument goes -- turned to Sisi and the military to save them from extremism, restore order, and bring back the optimism that followed the toppling of Hosni Mubarak.

However, a new Pew Research Center survey -- conducted between April 10 and April 29 among a representative sample of 1,000 randomly selected Egyptians -- shows that once he settles into the presidency, Sisi will confront a wide array of challenges. First, the new regime may not be as popular as many people think: 54 percent of Egyptians say they have a favorable view of Sisi, while 45 percent view him unfavorably -- not a bad rating for a national leader, but not the kind of numbers that suggest Egypt is unanimously rallying around a national hero either. Public opinion about last July's military removal of Morsi is almost identical: 54 percent say they favor it, while 43 percent oppose it. Again, it's more than half, but not overwhelming.

Second, Egyptians' mood about the overall state of their country is grim. Seventy-two percent say things in Egypt are headed in the wrong direction, while just 24 percent are satisfied with the way things are going. This is a big change from 2011, when, in a poll conducted weeks after the overthrow of Mubarak, 65 percent were satisfied with the country's direction. Instead, the public mood today looks a lot like it did in the final two years of the Mubarak era, when two-thirds or more of Egyptians were unhappy with the state of the country.

A major reason for this discontent is the poor economy. Roughly three in four Egyptians (76 percent) say the economy is in bad shape, while just 21 percent describe the economic situation as good. Optimism about the economy spiked in 2011, as Egyptians temporarily grew hopeful that Mubarak's ouster would also serve as an antidote to widespread poverty and joblessness. In the spring of 2011, 56 percent of Egyptians said they expected the economy to improve in the coming 12 months.

Today, Egyptians are less optimistic that the new government will bring new economic opportunities. Just 31 percent of Egyptians believe the country's economic situation will improve in the next 12 months, while 35 percent expect it to worsen and 31 percent predict it will stay the same.

The Muslim Brotherhood -- which is down, but hardly out -- presents a third challenge for Sisi. Clearly, Morsi's tumultuous presidency led to conflict and instability that worried many Egyptians, and the Brotherhood's image has suffered significantly over the last year. Back in 2011, just after the revolution, three-quarters of Egyptians had a favorable opinion of the Muslim Brotherhood, and even in the spring of 2013 a solid majority (63 percent) still expressed a positive view. In the new survey, however, just 38 percent give the Brotherhood a positive rating.

Still, the fact that roughly four in 10 Egyptians continue to have a favorable opinion of the Islamist organization, which the Egyptian state has declared a terrorist group, means that Sisi will come to office facing significant opposition to his rule. In some ways, the Brotherhood's resilience shouldn't be a surprise: The organization has been around for nearly nine decades and has survived varying levels of repression over time, adapting and transforming itself as the political context changes. Egypt remains a country where many Islamist positions enjoy a great deal of acceptance, providing groups like the Brotherhood an ongoing base of support.

A fourth challenge for Sisi is that the new regime's institutional base of support -- the military -- is not as popular as it once was. During the 18 days of protest in Cairo's Tahrir Square that ultimately led to Mubarak's downfall, a familiar chant was "the Army and the people are one hand." And in the initial months of the post-Mubarak era, nearly nine in 10 Egyptians (88 percent) said the military was having a good impact on the country. In 2013's survey, roughly three in four still had a positive view of the military. But in the current poll, only 56 percent say the military is having a good influence on the country -- still a majority, but a narrow and shrinking one.

In the heady days of 2011, the major players who helped topple Mubarak basked in the warm glow of public approval. The military, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the youth-led April 6 movement all received overwhelmingly positive ratings. However, this unity proved fleeting, as Egyptians grappled with designing a new constitution and tackling the country's myriad problems. As the new survey highlights, the past year has been especially damaging to the image of these major organizations.

But perhaps even more ominously, Egyptians have also grown somewhat less enthusiastic about democracy itself. They still want a democratic government, but they are a little less likely now to say it is preferable to other types of government: 59 percent of Egyptians believe democracy is better than any alternative, down from 66 percent in 2013 and 71 percent in 2011. The importance Egyptians attach to free elections, free speech, and a free press has also ebbed: The share of the public that says it is very important to hold honest elections with a choice of at least two political parties has dropped from 56 percent in 2013 to 45 percent today. And for the first time since we started asking the question in 2011, Egyptians place a higher priority on having a stable government (54 percent) than on having a democratic one (44 percent).

In some ways, the desire for stability presents an opportunity for Sisi -- the strongman brought in to impose order on a country that at times seems to be spinning out of control. But he doesn't come into office with the wide base of support some imagine. And it's worth remembering that Mubarak and Morsi looked pretty strong at times too.

MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images