India’s Modi and his Hindu-nationalist party have another five years in power. What does it mean for the world?

Analysis by Simone McCarthy, CNN

CNN  — 

Narendra Modi has raised India’s stature on the global stage like no other recent leader of the world’s most populous country.

The prime minister – who secured a rare third term in office this week – has positioned India and its fast-growing economy as a crucial player in global issues like climate change and development, while cementing New Delhi as a key security partner for the United States and an aspiring leader of the Global South.

Modi’s victory will give the 73-year-old leader and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) another five years to raise India’s global stature – and to manage its contentious relationships and contested borders with nuclear-armed neighbors China and Pakistan.

But the election results also place Modi in a radically different position from the one he enjoyed during his first decade in power.

The larger-than-life leader and his BJP fell well short of an expected outright majority and must rely on coalition partners to form a government.

That has widely been seen as a shock setback for the leader and his party, who have been accused by critics of fueling Islamophobia and religious violence in India, while rolling back civil liberties and failing to solve livelihood issues like soaring youth unemployment.

Now, Modi will need to “devote a lot of time to (domestic affairs to) keep the government intact with a coalition with different agendas,” said T.V. Paul, author of “The Unfinished Quest: India’s Search for Major Power Status from Nehru to Modi.”

“This idea of India pushing its weight around may be much less feasible for the time being, given that foreign policy issues did not impact the (election) decision as much as people had thought.”

Modi walks with US President Joe Biden along the White House colonnade during his state visit to the US last year.

Power politics

One aspect of India’s international ambitions that’s unlikely to shift in Modi’s new term is New Delhi’s relationship with Washington – a connection that has helped burnish the prime minister’s profile as a power player.

India has emerged as a key security partner for the US, a pillar of its Quad security grouping alongside Japan and Australia, and expanding cooperation on high tech and defense in the face of shared concern about an increasingly assertive and powerful China.

In a congratulatory message to Modi on his win earlier this week, US President Joe Biden hailed the US-India friendship as “only growing as we unlock a shared future of unlimited potential.”

That relationship is only likely to strengthen in the near term, according to analysts.

“The two countries have shared concerns over regional stability and are overseeing a burgeoning defense cooperation,” said Farwa Aamer, director of South Asia Initiatives at the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York.

“We can expect a more assertive India aligning closely with US interests in the Indo-Pacific and expanding tech cooperation.”

Ties between New Delhi and Washington have warmed in recent years even as Modi has firmly pursued India’s policy of strategic autonomy to push for a global order not purely dominated by the US or the US-China rivalry – another goal expected to remain unchanged by the election. For example, New Delhi has refused to give up its close relations with Russia, despite US pressure for its partners to cut ties with the warring country.

But one question is how Modi’s third term will affect percolating concerns in American policy circles about a widely documented backsliding of civil liberties in India under his right-wing leadership – as well as accusations the BJP aims to marginalize the country’s Muslim minority of more than 200 million.

India has also faced significant allegations of extraterritorial overreach, which raise questions about the risks of the country’s growing confidence, assertiveness – and commitment to international norms – under Modi.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in September said his country was investigating “credible allegations” linking India to the killing of a Canadian citizen and prominent Sikh leader. New Delhi hit back fiercely, accusing Canada of harboring terrorists and not acting against extremists, even as it denied the allegation.

Two months later, US prosecutors also alleged that an Indian agent was behind a foiled murder-for-hire plot targeting an American Sikh activist. New Delhi denied any involvement in that alleged plot and set up a high-level committee to investigate the accusation.

Indian soldiers patrol the de facto border between Pakistan and India in Jammu and Kashmir earlier this year.

A changed India?

One factor to watch following Modi’s bruising election win, experts say, is whether the new government ramps up or tones down posturing that impacts India’s relations with its South Asian neighbors.

They point to how Hindu nationalism over the past decade has not only stoked division and violence within the country, but threatened to inflame frictions in the region, especially with Pakistan – often the target of heated BJP rhetoric.

Now, Modi’s BJP will need to answer the interests of its coalition allies – and face stronger checks from a resurgent opposition, which could dampen its Hindu-nationalist agenda. And analysts stress it will take time to see how the BJP calibrates policy aims and rhetoric based on this new political reality.

“If it is normal politics, it would seem that the elbows would not be as sharp on various issues,” said Sushant Singh, a lecturer at Yale University in the US. “But to cater to their nationalist support base, (the BJP) may actually take the other path,” to ramp up rhetoric, he added. “We’ll have to see what political call is taken.”

Such a reaction could also be driven by the BJP’s relative position of weakness going into this term, observers say, noting that Modi’s landslide win in the 2019 elections followed a ratcheting of tensions with Pakistan.

Then, India claimed to have launched airstrikes on what it alleged was a terrorist training camp across its de facto border with Pakistan after a car bombing killed Indian paramilitary forces, in an incident disputed by Islamabad.

The BJP uses the “otherization of the image of Pakistan to rally its core Hindutva base,” said Fahd Humayun, an assistant professor of political science at Tufts University in the US, referring to the ruling party’s ideology that India is inherently a land for Hindus.

“To that end, it is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which, with its back against the wall, an embattled Modi government plays up the perceptions of external threats to try and rally domestic constituencies.”

In his weakened position, Modi may also be pressed to respond assertively to any perceived threats from China, observers say.

Modi has appeared unwilling to risk confrontation with India’s militarily superior neighbor, despite being slammed by critics for what they say was a soft response to deadly 2020 clashes along their disputed Himalayan border.

Governments and policymakers across the world will be watching for how these issues evolve in the coming months.

In the meantime, some observers suggest that while the election results may not have boosted Modi, they are already a boon for India’s global clout.

“If he has won a (super) majority and pushed the Hindu agenda, it would have probably dented India’s (international) agenda,” said Paul, the author, who is also a professor at McGill University in Canada.

Paul said democracy was “India’s biggest soft power tradition” and its perceived resurgence in the election may boost the country’s image among liberal nations.

“India coming back as a proper democracy is good for the world order in many senses,” he added. But “it all depends how Modi will play this game.”

CNN’s Rhea Mogul contributed to this report.

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