Uneven Accountability? Public Attitudes on Indian Foreign Policy since the 1960s


India is the world’s largest democracy and is growing steadily more important in the international system, yet we know very little about how India’s 800 million-person democratic public thinks about, and influences, foreign policy choices. This paper explores public opinion about India’s foreign policy by leveraging both historical survey data from the 1960s and 1970s, and modern, scientific surveys from the 2000s onward. Historical and modern data show three notable trends in Indian public opinion on foreign policy. First, the dynamics of public opinion vary across foreign policy issues. Attitudes toward Pakistan and China, for example, are remarkably consistent over time and across society while attitudes on India’s nuclear program are more variable. Second, historical data reveals systematic sub-national variation in attitudes. Even leaving aside foreign policy issues that have particular high salience in one region (like the 1971 war impacting West Bengal), foreign policy attitudes seem to vary between the South and North, East and West. Finally, we find significant variation by income and education in the rate of Don’t Know responses: Poorer and less educated respondents are systematically more likely to demur when asked about foreign policy and world affairs. The implications of these findings provide a direction for future research - the portions of the Indian public able to consistently offer opinions on foreign policy may be too small and irrelevant to affect policy-making, or may act as a powerful, relatively elite constituency with disproportionate influence on media, state, and the thinktank/academic community. We also outline future data collection directions.