Charting EU-India Relations Amid the 2024 Elections

On 19 April 2024, India began its seven-phase Lok Sabha (lower house) election. Spanning over 44 days, surpassing the 2019 Indian general election, this term stands as the largest-ever held election in history. Given the 2024 elections in both the EU and India, the future of EU-India relations must address the security challenges of the subcontinent by maintaining clear priorities, including enhancing regional cooperation in South Asia, improving EU-India economic collaboration, and aligning development and job growth objectives with the EU and India’s climate goals.

Insights into India’s 2024 Election Landscape

With more than 970 million voters, India has initiated its 44-day-long general election, placing prime focus on the ruling Hindu nationalist party led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. India operates under a multiparty parliamentary system, where the winning party or coalition appoints the prime minister. The voting process is divided into seven phases, each held on separate days, allowing constituencies across multiple states to cast their votes. India will thus vote in seven sequential phases to select 543 new members of the lower house of the Indian Parliament. This staggered approach facilitates the deployment of security personnel by India’s election commission, ensuring the safety and freedom of electoral officials transporting voting machines amidst the significant voter turnout expected this month. Approximate voter turnout data at the end of polling put the turnout for the second phase at 61% on 26 April, lower than the 65% in the first phase on 19 April, and 68% in the second phase of the 2019 elections. In July 2023, over thirty opposition parties united to contest the general election through the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), aiming to prevent the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from retaining power for a third consecutive term. Despite the collective aspiration represented  by the Indian opposition, the past ten months have seen setbacks, including the arrest of opposition chief ministers and significant parties within the alliance shifting allegiance to the ruling BJP government. Forecasts anticipate a sweeping victory for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), securing Modi a third consecutive term against the ambitious “INDIA” alliance led by the Congress party. The outcome of this pivotal electoral contest will not only shape India’s future but also significantly impact global geopolitics.

India’s Foreign Policy Priorities and its implications for the EU

After Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) to victory in the 2019 elections, the Indian subcontinent underwent major geopolitical  and security shifts. The previous term of the BJP government commenced with a sequence of protests, accompanied by concerns about job security in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition, there were military tensions with China in the Galwan region, while the term ended with  internet disputes with even smaller states like the Maldives. Against this backdrop, the European Union is confronted with the challenge of harmonising economic interests, security priorities, and democratic values within the Indian subcontinent. As the election looms, the EU must recalibrate its relationship with India and anticipate its potential impact.

In the last decade, India’s foreign policy has demonstrated an increasing inclination towards the Indo-Pacific area. In the context of intensified Chinese naval activities through the Indian Ocean, India initiated a maritime project called Project Mausam. Similar to the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road of China under the Belt Road initiative (BRI), this initiative seeks to restore cultural contacts and promote marine cooperation across the extensive Indian Ocean, following the historical maritime trade routes influenced by seasonal monsoon winds. With India’s focus now increasingly turning towards this pivotal region, it is imperative for the European Union to modify its strategy in order to align with the evolving geopolitical scenario. Considering India’s substantial influence in shaping the Indo-Pacific region, the European Union should reevaluate its approach from aid and trade to regional security, partnership and collaboration. The EU’s increasing focus on the Indo-Pacific region highlights its significance, given that a substantial proportion of its trade transits via this area, and particularly through the Indian Ocean. Amidst the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, the European Union must diligently assess India’s interactions with Russia, as India has expressed its willingness to collaborate with Russia in the areas of defence, space, and nuclear energy.

On 17 June  2022, the European Union relaunched its negotiations with India for a Free Trade Agreement, in addition to separate discussions for an Investment Protection Agreement and an Agreement on Geographical Indications (GIs). Although the European Union has experienced a 30% increase in the trading of goods for the last ten years with India, it now faces a crucial moment that requires a comprehensive evaluation of its current aid and trade approach in its partnership with India. Given the approaching 2024 elections, it is crucial for the EU to carefully anticipate the possible consequences of the election results on this alliance. The 2020 EU-India Summit established a strategy plan for collaboration until 2025, emphasising the importance of cooperation in various areas like trade, security, and efforts to address climate change. Nevertheless, the current geopolitical landscape has added intricacies to the relationship between India and the EU, primarily due to India’s ongoing border conflicts with China and the EU’s concerns regarding human rights. Given the complex nature of these difficulties, the European Union needs to examine its future involvement with India, making sure it stays aware of changing dynamics while protecting its interests and principles. The EU’s engagement with India must be responsive to the country’s strategic position in the Indo-Pacific region, where its foreign policy decisions can influence regional dynamics, including security, stability, and trade routes. 

Furthermore, the upcoming EU elections and the US election will play a crucial role in shaping the trajectory of EU-China relations, which could also alter the security parameters for India. While the United States and Russia attempt to establish their supremacy in the region, the European Union possesses the ability to serve as a neutral platform for reaching consensus. Balancing these factors requires the EU to navigate adeptly through the complexities of this evolving landscape, ensuring coherence in its approach toward one of the world’s largest democracies.

In addition to addressing conventional security concerns, it would be beneficial for Europe to prioritise the maintenance of high democratic standards in India. Reports of internet shutdowns and the growing number of political prisoners, as well as concerns regarding a decline in the democratic values have put a spotlight on the world’s largest democracy. The EU’s stance on addressing human rights issues, particularly concerning the Citizenship Amendment Act in India, while still upholding diplomatic ties, highlights the delicate equilibrium between economic interests and the advancement of democratic principles. As the EU charts its course in the Indian ocean for the upcoming five years, it will find itself at a pivotal juncture, crossing a complex landscape influenced by economic, geopolitical, and ethical considerations.

What Key Areas Should Define the Future of EU-India Relations?

The upcoming post-election period for both the EU and India presents a crucial opportunity to strengthen bilateral relations and foster regional cooperation, particularly in South Asia. With India’s strategic position and land boundary with seven neighbouring countries, there is immense potential for enhancing trade, investment, and economic partnerships. Recent successes such as the Trade and Economic Partnership Agreement (TEPA) between India and the European Free Trade Association (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland) highlight the benefits of collective agreements and sustainable development initiatives. Additionally, South Asia’s vulnerability to climate change underscores the importance of integrating climate goals into trade discussions, aligning with the EU’s leadership in environmental sustainability through initiatives like the Green Deal

In summary, as both the EU and India confront this significant election period, emphasising regional cooperation and sustainability holds the potential to yield mutually advantageous results and foster greater resilience for the future. While conventional and unconventional security issues persist on the Indian peninsula, the EU’s engagement with the region necessitates a deliberate approach, with a strong emphasis on regional cooperation and economic development aligned with sustainability and climate objectives. 

By prioritising resilience, flexibility, and a steadfast commitment to common principles, the EU can navigate the complexities of the post-election landscape and uphold the integrity of its relationship with India. Regardless of the election outcome, both the EU and India should be prepared to enhance their collaboration and navigate the constantly evolving geopolitical environment in the Indian Ocean and South Asia.

Author: Sajla Abdul Razack, EIAS Junior Researcher

Photo credits: Unsplash