In the last five years of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s regime, incongruities have crept into India’s international relations.

On one side, there has been an enhancement of India’s international profile having become the third largest economy in the world. Modi is feted by heads of government of several key countries and world leaders have made a beeline to India looking for investment opportunities. A lot of money has been spent on neighbours under the “Neighbourhood First” policy.

On the other side, strains have appeared in relationships both with the strategic partner, the United States, and the neighbours. There is a clash between India’s commitments to its “strategic partner” the US, and its eagerness to exercise “strategic autonomy” vis-à-vis the US.

India’s partnership with the US has been firmed up through foundational agreements such as the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) in 2020, the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018, the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016 and the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) in 2002.

But as the Indo-American strategic analyst, Ashely Tellis, said in an article recently, India has been wanting in reciprocity in its relationship with the US, making him wonder if India is a reliable ally.

India’s relations with its neighbours have also been fraught. While asserting its right to exercise strategic autonomy vis-à-vis the US, India is unwilling to give the same right to its weaker and smaller neighbours. Any move on the part of a neighbour to befriend a country India is not well disposed towards (namely China), invites its censure or even a hostile intervention. The sensitivities of neighbours are disregarded as they are expected to swallow their pride and capitulate.

It is now well known that India’s relations with the US have been under strain ever since New Delhi refused to go along with Washington on the Ukraine issue and bought oil at a concessional rate from Russia disregarding US sanctions.

Derek Grossman, a senior defence analyst at RAND, describes the strains in the relationship in an article in titled: “US-India ties remain fundamentally fragile” dated April 7, 2024.

Touted as a relationship between the world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest democracy, there was much optimism when New Delhi and Washington became strategic partners to contain aggressive China, Grossman recalled.

But in fact, the relationship has proved to be “considerably more fragile” than it might appear to be. If this is left unaddressed, it could ultimately undermine or even derail future cooperation, he warned.

“On democratic values, for instance, the United States holds deepening concerns that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are making India less tolerant of minorities, especially Muslims,” Grossman pointed out.

He mentioned the revocation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution which gave some autonomy to Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir. “Kashmiris have suffered from repressive government policies that include curbs to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and other basic rights,” Grossman said.

He mentioned the Citizenship Amendment Act, which discriminated against Muslims. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom condemned it as a “significant downward turn in religious freedom in India.” Grossman said that the building of a temple for Lord Rama over a demolished mosque raised “fresh questions about India's future as a secular and tolerant nation.”

He noted that many policymakers in Washington continued to be concerned that Modi and the BJP have transformed India into an illiberal democracy. In 2021, Freedom House downgraded India's score from “free” to “partly free,” citing “rising violence and discriminatory policies affecting the Muslim population.”

Freedom House observed in its latest report that Modi's government engages in the “harassment of journalists, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), and other government critics” and that “the BJP has increasingly used government institutions to target political opponents.”

On the arrest of the Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, Grossman said: “India bristled at US criticism of the arrest, warning Washington not to interfere in India's internal affairs. India was also angered when the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi invited several Kashmiri activists to its Iftar party last week.”

Grossman recalled that Washington was shocked hearing reports that India might have backed covert missions to commit extrajudicial killings in Canada and the United States.

Giving an idea of the grim future of US-India relations, Grossman said: “Concerns in Washington about India's illiberalism are likely to grow in the coming years. The highly popular Modi is all but certain to be re-elected this spring, and it is entirely possible that when he finally leaves office, an even more extreme Hindu nationalist successor will have emerged—such as Home Minister Amit Shah or Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.”

On Amit Shah, Grossman said: “In December, for example, Shah boasted that Modi had “taught a lesson” to Muslims. In 2019, Shah also referred to illegal Muslim immigrants as “termites” who should be thrown into the Bay of Bengal.

In December 2023, the BJP-led government suspended 141 opposition parliamentarians for unruly behaviour in parliament. One of those suspended, Congress party MP Shashi Tharoor, told The Guardian: “Unfortunately, we have to start writing obituaries for parliamentary democracy in India as open debate and criticism of Modi's government are squashed.”

Although India participates in US-led formats such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (along with Australia and Japan) and supports some of Washington's interests, New Delhi's desire for multi-polarity manifests itself as anti-Western.

For example, India has routinely sought to engage in multilateral fora explicitly designed to counter the West, including the China-Russia-led BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. India also continues to maintain a strong strategic partnership with Russia, a top geostrategic adversary of the United States and trades with it despite US sanctions, Grossman pointed out.

In conclusion he stated: “It is conceivable that Washington could eventually become frustrated with the way that New Delhi prioritises achieving great-power status in a multipolar world over Washington's attempts to maintain the global status quo.”

India’s relations with its neighbours have also been problematic. India earned a good name in Sri Lanka by giving it financial as well as material aid when it went bankrupt in 2022. But India also pressurised Sri Lanka to give a container terminal project and a renewable energy project to the Indian businessman Adani.

India stopped an ADB approved Chinese renewable energy project in North Sri Lanka citing security issues. It objected to the visit of Chinese research vessels saying that these were “spy” vessels.

More recently, there was a flutter in Sri Lanka when Prime Minister Modi and Foreign Minister Jaishankar said that the Katchatheevu island was “callously” given away to Sri Lanka by a Congress government in 1974.

Newspaper editorials in Sri Lanka wondered if India would respect the sanctity of agreements signed with it. One paper even wondered if Sri Lanka would be forced to seek the help of China to defend itself against any Indian bid to take back the island.

As part of politics in the State of West Bengal, Indian Home Minister Amit Shah described alleged Muslim illegal immigrants from Bangladesh as “termites” who should be pushed into the Bay of Bengal. What effect will such a description have on the psyche of the Bangladeshis?

If indeed the millions of alleged illegal immigrants in West Bengal and Assam were pushed into Bangladesh, a terrible anti-India feeling would sweep through Bangladesh.

In 2020, in a vicious attack on the then Nepalese Prime Minister K.P.Oli, a Hindi-language Indian TV channel said that Oli was “honey trapped by the then Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqi.”

This resulted in Indian channels being taken off in Nepal. Another former Nepalese Prime Minister Pushpakamal Dahal told a distinguished audience in New Delhi that Indians should not forget that Nepal is a sovereign, independent country and that it should be treated as such.

Partly due to poor diplomacy on the part of the Indians and their predilection to interfere in local politics, and partly due to an entrenched fear of Indian domination, “India Out” campaigns have surfaced in the Maldives and Bangladesh. In Nepal, an underlying anti-Indian sentiment surfaces whenever there is a provocation from India.