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India's New Muscle Man, Narendra Modi

Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate for India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), gestures during a public meeting in Vadodra, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, on May 16.
Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate for India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), gestures during a public meeting in Vadodra, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, on May 16.
As India prepares to swear in its new prime minister on May 26, the rest of the world is waiting to see what the hard-line Narendra Modi meant when he vowed to take a more "muscular" foreign policy tack and to make the world's most populous democracy a force befitting its size.

The polarizing Hindu nationalist's election has raised eyebrows in the region and across the ocean, and could have far-reaching implications.

Fears In Pakistan

India's new prime minister will dangle carrots in front of nuclear-armed rival Pakistan -- but will also wield a heavy stick.

Modi, who heads the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has pledged to continue India's policy of "outreach" toward Pakistan. In a positive sign, Modi has invited his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, to his inauguration and Islamabad, in kind, has said it is ready to host Modi should he decide to visit Pakistan.

But under his rule, there is little doubt New Delhi would be quick to take a hard-line approach if needed -- one that analysts warn runs the risk of pushing the deeply suspicious neighbors toward another war.

Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, says that Pakistan would feel the wrath of India if, say, Pakistan stirred unrest in the divided Himalayan region of Kashmir or if Pakistani militant groups carried out another attack in India.

"I'm very confident that Modi would not be nearly as restrained as the outgoing Indian government," says Kugelman, noting the Indian government's mild response to the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 164 people and were blamed on the Pakistan militant group Lashkar-e Taiba.

Modi stokes fear in the hearts of many Pakistanis. He is accused of failing to stop the bloody anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat state in 2002 when he was chief minister -- allegations that he denies.

But Modi does have a sweetener that could win over skeptics. His political rise in Gujarat was accompanied by economic growth even as India as a whole struggled, and with India using economic diplomacy as a springboard for better ties with Pakistan, analysts say there is room for business.

"One of the fastest ways of [reviving the economy] is by integrating India's economy into that of the region," says Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council of the United States in Washington. "In order to do that Pakistan is a key player because it lies between India and Afghanistan and Central Asia," says Nawaz, who adds that India needs Central Asian energy and new markets to spur growth.

Adventurous In Afghanistan

India is arguably Afghanistan's closest ally -- and military, economic, and political cooperation is expected to intensify under Modi.

"A Modi-led Indian government will not be quite as cautious as the last government was about being active and present in Afghanistan," Kugelman says.

New Delhi has poured billions of dollars into the country and trained hundreds of Afghan officers. Kabul has also pleaded for advanced military hardware such as tanks and jets, but New Delhi has been wary of overplaying its hand and provoking Pakistan.

That may well change. India has already signed an agreement under which it will pay Russia to supply small arms to the Afghan military. And if the dealings were to eventually expand to involve more sophisticated arms, it would happen under Modi.

Omar Samad, a senior Central Asia fellow at the New America Foundation and a former ambassador to France and Canada, predicts that Afghanistan will profit from Modi's election. "India is going to look at regional issues with a new perspective, meaning that they will prioritize security at the same time they will aim to boost regional business and trade," he says, noting India and Pakistan's long competition in Afghanistan. "Afghanistan, in that context, will benefit."

Keeping U.S. At Arm's Length

U.S. President Barack Obama has spoken to Modi by phone and invited him to Washington. The only problem is that Modi is probably not in any hurry to visit.

After the Gujarat riots, Washington cut off ties with Modi and in 2005 denied him an entry visa. Modi has not displayed any bitterness, saying recently that foreign relations "should not and cannot be influenced by incidents related to individuals."

Nawaz suggests Washington is at a real disadvantage because it does not have a relationship with Modi. "The U.S. has been very slow in responding to the rise of Narendra Modi," he says. "It took a long time [February] for them to reach out to him. There's also that history that remains. This is the difficulty Washington has in moving quickly [to revive ties]."

India has also felt slighted on other occasions. There was the highly damaging spat over the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York in December. Meanwhile, the U.S. ambassador to India, Nancy Powell, resigned in April, and the administration has yet to appoint a replacement.

Nawaz says New Delhi wants to distance itself from Washington. "India resists being taken on board as a partner for the U.S. in its pivot to Asia," he says. "India wants to retain its identity, independence, and its autonomy of action. It has its own role that it sees in the Indian Ocean and with its eastern neighbors."

Alyssa Ayres, a senior fellow for South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, says Modi's pro-business outlook presents an opportunity. "Their economic relationship has actually experienced quite a bit of stress in the last several years," she says.

Ayres mentions the overly protectionist economic environment in India that has dampened hopes of U.S. businesses. "Now the two countries will start focusing more on getting back on track with trade and investment."

Cozying Up To The Bear

While Modi has so far snubbed Washington, at least on Twitter, his message to Russian President Vladimir Putin was in stark contrast. Modi, in a tweet on May 19, said that he looked forward "to making our relations with Russia even stronger in the years to come."

Russia and India have a long-standing relationship and share close military and economic ties. And some analysts say a further deterioration in U.S.-India relations could push New Delhi closer toward Moscow.

Kugelman, however, says India will intensify its relations with Russia regardless of its ties with the United States. That is despite Russia's growing pariah status and India's own plans to become a bigger player on the international stage.

"India tends to set aside geostrategic political concerns from economic and natural-resource needs," Kugelman says. "I think India would want to pursue better relations with Russia in order to ensure it can start exploiting that sort of relationship. India has pursued a similar line of thinking with Iran."
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the regional desk editor for Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2012, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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