India would get tougher on territorial disputes with China and in its old rivalry with Pakistan if opposition leader Narendra Modi becomes prime minister in May, two of his aides said yesterday.
Modi, a Hindu nationalist who is the front runner to win the five-week election starting on April 7, has taken an aggressive tone against the two neighbouring nations. On the campaign trail, he has warned Beijing to shed its "mindset of expansionism" and in the past he has railed against Pakistan, an Islamic state, for attacks by Muslim militants in India.
"I swear in the name of the soil that I will protect this country," Modi said at a rally in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh last month, a region claimed by China.
India, China and Pakistan are all nuclear powers. They are also jockeying to take positions in Afghanistan as Western troops start to withdraw from the war-torn nation after a 12-year insurgency.
India has fought three wars with Pakistan and had a 1962 border skirmish with China. It came close to a fourth war with Pakistan in 2001 but since then its foreign policy has been mostly benign.
Modi has painted the ruling Congress party, which has been in power for more than 50 of the 67 years since India became independent, as weak on national security. But the country is one of the top buyers worldwide of military hardware, purchasing US$12.7 billion in arms from 2007 to 2011, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, everything from basic military goods to an aircraft carrier.
As leader of the economic powerhouse state of Gujarat for more than a decade, Modi has courted investment from China. As prime minister, the advisers said, he would seek to steer a course between defending India's security interests and boosting business links.
Modi has never clearly spelled out his foreign policy vision for his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but he has praised former BJP prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee - who ordered a series of nuclear tests in 1998 - for adopting a strategy based on both shakti and shanti, Sanskrit for power and peace.
"The Chinese will understand the new PM is not a wimp and they won't do anything adventurous," one BJP strategist said.
According to India, China has made hundreds of intrusions along their disputed border in recent years. China denies crossing into Indian territory. Adding to disquiet are China's forays into the Indian Ocean and its involvement in building a string of ports stretching from Pakistan's Gwadar to Chittagong in Bangladesh.
The BJP wants a rapid naval build-up and a firmer response to border violations. It also plans to speed up construction of roads and communication lines along the land border to narrow the gap with China's infrastructure on the Tibetan plateau.
The advisers said Modi would move quickly to lay out India's core security interests in its neighbourhood.
Topping the list would be an early settlement of the border dispute with China, an assertion of India's primacy in the Indian Ocean, and a low tolerance of Muslim militancy that India believes is often backed by Pakistan.
"You will see a more nationalistic approach on issues relating to terrorism in our neighbourhood. It is a much more hard view of these things," said one adviser.