The likely impact of the new coalition government on India’s external relations has been the focus of foreign policy commentary ever since the Lok Sabha election results were declared on June 4. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party fell short of winning a majority and returned to power, leading the National Democratic Alliance with two other parties.

There is consensus over the continuity of India’s foreign policy, not least because the coalition is likely to be stable and the core team responsible for executing it since 2019 has continued. There is, however, one area where change will be welcome: the use of foreign policy to secure political goals at home.

Foreign policy is the medium through which the government of the day tries to secure the state’s national interests. In the Indian system, the government changes every five years but the state remains a constant. This makes any government no more than a trustee of India’s foreign policy. Trusteeship enjoins the government to use the privileges of India’s membership of the international community to meet national goals such as security, development and international influence.

In the past decade, while the establishment in New Delhi sought to secure national interests as it executed the country’s foreign policy, it also used foreign policy to service the ruling regime, its ideology and leadership.

In terms of ideology, New Delhi promoted a particular reading of the Indian nation abroad. As part of what Foreign Minister S Jaishankar has described as “cultural rebalancing”, New Delhi dropped the mention of religion when speaking of India’s diversity. While India’s spiritual heritage was given more importance, it also became a channel for identifying India with the majority religion.

India’s history too was recast. For decades, India had articulated a modernist reading of national history on foreign soil. According to this history, in 1947 India gained independence from European colonialism, and with the dawn of a new era, it left the conflicted element of its history behind and embraced a forward-looking modernity.

But this foundational consensus of India’s polity was undermined, and the Hindu nationalist reading of India’s long history was rehearsed on foreign soil. For instance, in his speech to the US Congress in June 2023, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of India’s “remarkable journey of over 75 years of freedom, after a thousand years of foreign rule in one form or another”.

Similarly, while India was characterised as the “mother of democracy” – a claim that has struggled to gain international traction – the leadership stopped referring to India as a “liberal democracy”. This was a break from the immediate past as the governments led by Manmohan Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee had either explicitly or through endorsement of liberal democratic values of individualism, pluralism and constitutionalism, asserted that India was a liberal democracy.

Furthermore, India’s political culture allows considerable latitude to the party or coalition in power to criticise its opponents and the Opposition, but the unwritten rule is that criticism must take place at home. This was overlooked. Regime talking points about the record of past governments from development to corruption as well as its insistence that Indians lacked confidence or felt a sense of shame prior to 2014 were often rehearsed during events in other countries. Particularly conspicuous in this series were the comments of India’s ambassador to Ireland made in The Irish Times in April.

In the letter, the ambassador criticised the “deeply entrenched ecosystem of corruption (created by the 55-year rule, including first 30 years, by a single dynastic party in India)”.

Similarly, foreign policy was used to craft and enhance a distinct image of the prime minister, giving him an advantage in competitive politics at home. Mega public events such as those held at Madison Square Garden in New York, Wembley Stadium in London, Richo Coliseum in Toronto and Sydney combined populism and public diplomacy, fronting the leader over the nation.

It is true that the prime minister intervened in the Ukraine conflict to rescue Indian nationals, but this act was exaggerated and made part of election advertising. The prime minister undeniably forged personal equations with several foreign leaders, but it is India’s inherent importance in global geopolitics that has been the determining factor in producing several favourable foreign policy outcomes, especially in relations with western countries and Japan.

Where odds have been stacked against India, as in the neighbourhood due to China’s influence, the prime minister’s charisma has not been able to keep neighbouring states from being difficult from time to time. Geopolitics has trumped charisma vis-à-vis China.

Parties and leaders in power have the right to advertise foreign policy accomplishments of their governments in domestic politics to stay competitive and improve their chances of re-election. Taking credit for serving national interest is legitimate, but it is best to avoid using the country’s international relations and foreign policy apparatus to serve particular interests, be they related to ideology, party or the leadership of the ruling dispensation.

If the new National Democratic Alliance government continues with this practice, it will erode the Union government’s role as a trustee of India’s foreign policy. The more the state’s resources and privileges are used instrumentally for narrow ends, the more its aesthetic majesty corrodes. It will set a precedent and incentivise future governments to act similarly.

The verdict of the general election is in favour of the traditional Indian values of pluralism, inclusion, consensus and secularism. India’s foreign policy must rearticulate an Indian identity based on these values.

The mandate is for a coalition government and collective governance. It will be refreshing to see the nation gain prominence over the functionaries, whose job it is to secure India’s interests in international affairs.

Atul Mishra teaches international relations at Shiv Nadar University, Delhi-NCR. Views are personal.