From Prime Minister Nehru to Narendra Modi, India has seen significant changes in its 75-year journey in the political arena. To protect its interests in a changing world, the country has made necessitated reforms in its foreign policy.

One can’t deny that the evolution of India’s foreign policy is influenced greatly by the country’s political leadership, internal priorities, and international orientation.

Unprecedented geopolitical developments are occurring quickly in India’s strategic vicinity at a time when it is well on its way to becoming a premier power.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict & Talibanization of Afghanistan had an impact on global order, with specific implications for India. Notwithstanding geopolitical turbulence, India is rapidly becoming the world’s fastest-expanding economy.

Principles of Indian Foreign Policy

Three guiding concepts underpin India’s foreign policy. India’s territorial integrity and foreign policy must be preserved. Promotion of world peace and security, as well as Indian economic prosperity.

Despite possessing such lofty objectives, the contrast that we observe in India’s vision & strategy is massive. The country’s compliance with the driving forces of its foreign policy is often questioned due to its inconsistent actions.

Factors influencing Foreign Policy

Many factors influence India’s foreign policy. The most important of these are geopolitical, domestic, and military forces. The other factors include population, culture, government system, economic development & religion.

India’s foreign policy has seen tremendous upheaval in recent years. Consequently, the surgical strike and the Indo-Chinese tensions also influenced the formulation of foreign policy.

Also read: Changing Dynamics of Pakistan’s Foreign Policy

Significant eras of Foreign Policy
The architect of policy: Nehru

Independent India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, is claimed to have defined the country’s foreign policy after independence. The world was divided between the West and East Blocs at the time due to the Cold War.

Naturally, India felt compelled to develop policies relating to its relationships with the two opposing blocs. In the background of these events, it also forges relationships with the United States (US), Britain, and the Commonwealth.

US President John Kennedy with Jawaharlal Nehru during a stroll in the White House garden.

During Nehru’s tenure, India’s foreign policy played an important role in Multilateral Institutions. It emerged as a critical advocate of the non-aligned movement.

However, his premiership is often criticized for the rationality & effectiveness of his non-alignment policy. Some contend that his vacillation on several crucial security matters caused India to lose Aksai Chin to China during the Indo-China war.

Hardcore Realpolitik Wave: Indira Gandhi

Indira Gandhi’s premiership spans the years 1967 to 1977. Her tenure saw a significant transition in foreign policy from idealism to Hardcore Realpolitik with particular emphasis on security, nuclear & border defense.

India also emerged as a regional force in South Asia. Her key foreign policy achievements include normalizing relations with Pakistan through the Shimla Agreement (1972) and boosting ties with China.

Indira Gandhi & Pakistani President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto signing the Shimla Agreement.

However, throughout her reign, she failed to achieve the anticipated results with her pro-Arab policies, hostility toward the Southeast Asia region, and rejection of significant power, Japan.

Foreign Policy transformer: Narasimha Rao

The 1990s saw a significant shift in India’s foreign policy under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao. He redesigned foreign policy by initiating economic reforms to reflect the changing global context.

Rao expanded India’s engagements with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). He was the first to establish official relations with Israel and visited Iran.

Instead of capitalizing on his strong start, his foreign policy appeared to fail after his tenure, coupled with his economic reforms, which caused the Indian stock market to fall.

Pragmatic shift: Atal Vajpayee

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the grand strategist, is credited for developing a pragmatic foreign strategy for India that is considered to have lasted to the present day.

His approach is most apparent in three interconnected sets of events that he shaped; India’s determination to acquire nuclear weapons to become a nuclear power in 1998. The Kargil War & outreach to China.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee is waving after successful nuclear tests in Pokhran.

His foreign policy is frequently criticized for its weak stance on national security, as illustrated by the Kandhar Hijack and the failure of the Kargil war.

Manmohan’s partnership doctrine

Manmohan Singh began his foreign policy by increasing engagement with Pakistan, China, and the US, three crucial countries in Indian foreign relations. This ultimately led to the initiation of various peace proposals to maintain the status quo.

His foreign policy, however, failed to pursue crucial economic reforms, resulting in India being at the high end of the inflation spectrum. As an economic administrator himself, many appeared baffled by his lousy handling of the country’s economy.

Modi’s passive-aggressive foreign doctrine

India’s foreign policy has seen tremendous transformation under Narendra Modi’s premiership. Modi’s proactive policies and international initiatives show that India is expanding its diplomatic influence & gaining allies.

The country is reviving its economic strategy, which has led to India becoming one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

However, Modi’s India has found itself in a bind after a promising start. Since 2017-18, India’s foreign policy failings have closely tracked the country’s economic deterioration.

Modi possesses a narrow policy orientation, as evidenced by his Citizenship Act, which refused to give citizenship rights to Muslim immigrants from adjacent Asian countries. This resulted in schisms between India and her neighbors.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tweet refusing to acknowledge Muslims as citizens.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tweet refuses to give Muslims citizenship rights.

The situation between India and Pakistan is one thing that hasn’t changed during the Modi administration. Despite signing a ceasefire agreement, the guns along the borders keep roaring from time to time, leading to tensions.

Also read: Growing Islamophobia in India

Modi’s passive and aggressive approach to democratic institutions and his promotion of religious bigotry have left a bittersweet taste in Indian foreign policy.

Foreign relations of India
Relations with the United States

India and the United States (US) have a broken relationship, a pattern that began in 1947 and is still present. Both countries have considerable cooperation on subjects such as international counter-terrorism, trade, and economic development.

Nonetheless, Washington & New Delhi have frequently disagreed on strategic issues. The recent Russian invasion of Ukraine has worsened and brought the disparity to the forefront.

The US wants India to choose sides, but India has remained as neutral as it can in the Ukrainian War. India-US relations are trading thinly, but the two nations cannot completely sever ties. Only time will tell which way the pole will tilt.

Relations with Russia

Russian-Indian relations are undergoing a significant change against the backdrop of the Ukrainian war and the close Sino-Russia ties. Yet, for India, Russia remains a significant supplier of weapons and, most recently, oil.

India has not joined the West’s sanctions on Russia. By doing so, it has demonstrated its long-standing with Moscow. Their relationship spans two generations. India has no reason to forsake the benefits of this relationship. Nor does Russia.

But the concern is how China would react to Russian weaponry supplies to India and what Russia will do if forced by China to stop them. Russia-India relations are at a crossroads, and only the future will reveal how they develop.

Relations with Europe Union

India is now the world’s fastest-growing economy, and the European Union (EU) is both its biggest market and most significant trading partner. India is a key ally of Europe in Asia, particularly in the context of China.

The EU and India are discussing a free trade agreement (FTA) after a hiatus of seven years. The planned accord is politically and economically essential for both sides. However, progress ultimately depends on New Delhi’s and Brussels’s political leadership.

Challenges to Indian Foreign Policy
Concerns over China

Concerns about China’s assertiveness in Asia-Pacific and the hostility between China and the US pose one of the most severe threats to Indian foreign policy today.

The Modi era has seen significant political and military tensions between India & China. The situation worsened because of military skirmishes in the Galwan area of Ladakh.

According to the official statement released by the Indian Army, 20 Indian personnel lost their lives due to the clashes. In addition, four Chinese militants have been declared dead.

Statement by Indian Army regarding Ladakh clash
Official Statement by Indian Army regarding Ladakh clash.

Despite these reservations, New Delhi’s China policy appeared confused, cautious, and contradictory. On one side, India is actively promoting a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) with Japan, the US, and Australia to address China’s security problems.

On the other hand, it is a concerted effort to strengthen trade ties with Beijing. These opposing viewpoints highlight India’s foreign policy quandary.

It wants to benefit from initiatives that contain China while still being wary of antagonizing superpowers and willing to collaborate with them in some areas.

This muddled stance of India disadvantages it and confuses its alliances with the US and QUAD, both of which are hardening against China.

Russia-Ukraine crisis

India has maintained a neutral stance over the Russia & Ukraine crisis. It did not participate in successive UN votes to censure Russia for its provocative attack on Ukraine, gaining it the plus points from Russia. The Russian Embassy in India acknowledged the perspective.

However, the fundamental reason is that India’s policy has concluded that avoiding outright criticism of Russia allows it to halt the tightening Sino-Russian embrace. Similarly, it may deter a new dalliance between Moscow and Islamabad.

This subtle pro-Moscow stance, however, has landed India’s foreign policy in hot water with its Western allies. The neutrality has marked a significant schism between Washington and New Delhi on a fundamental issue of world order.

Ergo, India’s decision to avoid all public criticism of Moscow is the “best of the bad choices” facing New Delhi’s diplomatic policy.

India’s Taliban problem

With the Taliban in the heart of Kabul, Indian diplomatic policy has few options. It desires to set aside the past to protect its interests and guarantee the region’s stability.

However, due to the ramifications that superpowers may bring, India is finding it difficult to recognize the Taliban government officially. To maintain the status quo, India continued to negotiate with the Taliban.

In contrast, the West is forming a united front to maintain pressure on the Taliban. This is the most critical time for India to decide how much it wants to be involved with the Taliban and against anti-Taliban organizations.

Latest developments in Foreign Policy

Today’s India is materially better equipped and outwardly more aspiring to pursue its proper place in the international order. It mainly wants to portray itself as a “soft power.”

To pursue this, successive Indian leaders have engaged in intensive bilateral, mini-lateral, and multilateral summitry. They strongly advocate for a permanent place on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

The pro-activeness of Indian foreign policy is visible in conducting the first-ever summits of the International Solar Alliance, the Summit with Central Asian nations, the Summit with Pacific Island nations, and the India-Nordic Summit.

On the other side of the coin, instead of progressing, the policy has regressed to the old template of “not taking sides.” Strangely enough, when it comes to Pakistan, the leadership in India has always been very vocal, engaging in a war of words.

Without a doubt, India’s foreign policy is at a crossroads. Because of China’s military and economic rise, new geopolitical currents have brought Delhi closer to Washington and its allies.

In contrast, China-US rivalry and the deterioration of Russia-US relations have brought Beijing and Moscow closer strategically. It is fitting to say that India is living in “interesting times.”

However, one can argue that by conquering these hurdles & challenges, India might be making a great step forward to becoming a significant power in the future.


In essence, India’s foreign policy has undergone significant changes, but the premiers have taken a liking to ambivalent foreign doctrine. However, as Himalayan snow melts, India must take deterrent actions to define its trajectory.

Firstly, it must prioritize solid strategy and look for broader questions, which entails looking beyond short-term self-interest. This is crucial if India aspires to become a significant player in the international community.

Secondly, the country should make a clear choice about which superpower it wishes to maintain relations with. It is currently torn between Russia, China & US. India’s foreign policy will continue to be complex & multifaceted if it maintains this pattern.

Finally, rather than engaging in blame & shame politics, India should bring the neighboring nations to the negotiation table because the expansion & success of its foreign policy are inextricably intertwined with peace & stability in the Asian region.

*The writer is a Fellow at The Diplomatic Insight, published by the Institute of Peace and Diplomatic Studies 

Disclaimer: The Diplomatic Insight does not take any position on issues and the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Diplomatic Insight and its staff.