Decisively Submissive

Donald Trump and Narendra Modi (Photo Imaging: Saurabh Singh)

(Modi and Trump in a clinch)


Delhi’s compliance with Washington on Iran will let China gain influence


The omnibus US sanctions policy under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) targets India on two fronts. Regarding Iranian oil, the Bharatiya Janata Party government of Narendra Modi has less than a 138-day reprieve. India will have to show substantial progress during this period in“zeroing” out its energy supplies from Iran, or face the music. On the other front, India is sought to be punished for continuing to buy military hardware from Russia. The Donald Trump Administration has justified sanctions ostensibly hurting Iran and Russia – with whom India has had historically strong ties– in terms of curbing their supposedly “malign” activities.

Because being in the good books of America at any cost, including self-respect, national interest and strategic common sense, is apparently the Modi regime’s top priority,India finds itself in the familiar role of a supplicant begging for exceptional treatment. The National Security Adviser Ajit Doval’s numerous interactions with the poobahs in Washington failed to budge the US from placing India squarely within the crosshairs of its sanctions policy meant to coerce friendly states into doing its bidding. Coercion being President Trump’s preferred means of dealing with allies and “strategic partners”, with consultation reserved for its foes — Russia, China and North Korea.

But the Trump Administration’s waiving sanctions on India despite its purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence system should have alerted Prime Minister Modi to the geostrategic factors driving its India policy and how these constitute the leverage Delhi could have used to shape a more assertive response to US sanctions. The fact is in the entire Asian littoral no country, other than India,has the resources, territorial expanse and pivotal location for staging and sustaining massive military operations in the Indo-Pacific region. Without India, US military forces would be restricted, as they are now, to concentrated deployment at the two ends – US 7th Fleet out of Yokosuka, Japan, and the US 5th Fleet in Bahrain. In this context, the question the PM should have asked himself is not whether India can manage without an indifferent America, but whether the US can do without a friendly India.

Except by appearing too eager, too ready to please, Modi showed obsequiousness, a quality Trump disdains, respecting willfulness and strength in leaders and nations. It led Washington to assume, correctly as it tuned out,that the BJP government, unmotivated by national interest, can be fobbed off with small favours, such as conditional waiver of CAATSA sanctions on Iran oil and the buy of the Russian S-400 system. And that the Modi dispensation will happily be a party to India’s strategic reduction as camp follower.

In the event, rather than putting in place an alternative sovereign banking channel to facilitate India-Iran trade, such as the one contemplated with Russia, and a “blocking statute” providing legal cover for Indian companies doing business with Iran – the sort of move the European Union has made in response to US’ Iran sanctions, and otherwise ruthlessly using geopolitical logic to leverage a hands-off attitude to India’s Iran and Russia policies from Washington, Modi caved in.

India’s strategic autonomy and policy freedom as a result are being compromised, the decimation of this country’s longstanding Iran policy being an egregious example. Modi is siding with the US in strangulating Iran’s oil and gas-based economy. The US aims to slash Iranian oil production to some 300,000 barrels per day – the bare minimum necessary for survival, from a high of 3.9 million barrels in 2004. Delhi has done its bit by cutting its Iranian oil imports by a third with more to follow, even expensively retrofitting Indian refineries that previously processed Iranian crude with the wherewithal to process Saudi oil.

The consequence of India’s complicity in furthering the American design means that Tehran will close in with China as savior and degrade its ties to India. Instead of India cementing its vantage point in Chabahar, consolidating its presence in the Gulf, and radiating its influence northwards to Afghanistan and Central Asia, it will be Beijing in the driver’s seat. Worse, the possibility of pincering the Chinese and Pakistan navies ex-Gwadar and ex-Djibouti on the Horn of Africa (where China has established a military base)with Indian naval presence in Iran and Seychelles, will be nullified. Domestically, it will erode BJP’s support among the Indian shia community.

Doval recently referred to India under Modi as a “decisive” power. India is decisive alright — decisively submissive to the US (and China). Bad policy from a supposedly strong “nationalist” leader and government.


Published as a ‘Web Exclusive’ by Open magazine, Nov 16, 2018, at



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Opportunities stay missed

Image result for pics of 2018 Indian Ocean Naval symposium in Kochi

[CNS, ADM Sunil Lanba, and RADM Hossain Khanzadi, chief of the Iranian Navy in Kochi]

Thank God for the Indian Government showing some sense in inviting the Iran naval chief, Rear Admiral Hossain Khanzadi, to attend the 10th Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) conducted in Kochi, HQrs Southern Naval Command Nov 13-15.  Billed as a home-grown maritime initiative in the new Century that is aimed at information sharing to obtain “mutually beneficial outcomes” (per an Indian Navy press release), IONS has 36 member and observer states (Australia, Turkey, Netherlands, etc) . Given the Modi regime’s incurable desire to please Washington every which way and then some, the permission to Iran was by no means foreordained, considering Delhi seems intent on upsetting Tehran by falling in with the US policy of killing Iran’s oil economy softly with sanctions. Why else has India reduced its Iranian oil off-take by a third? So Khanzadi’s presence was a welcome departure from what was  expected.

On the other hand, the Modi government was true to form on Pakistan. Despite our immediate neighbour to the west being a charter member of the 36-member IONS, it was disinvited from the Kochi event. It led Pakistan to warn that the “precedence of selective invitations” will “erode the spirit of the forum”. This is no small matter, given that the Symposium is meant to encourage “cooperative capacity-building to deal with common security concerns” and partake of collectively helpful activities, like information sharing at the heart of the Information Fusion Centre, located in peninsular India, that the Indian Navy has been authorized to establish. Singapore has such a centre to keeps tabs on merchant ships plying the Malacca Strait and the proximal waters.

With the Indian and Singapore IFCs connected, there will be in an interlocked information grid spanning the seas from the Philippines to the arc Simonstown-Suez-Hormuz to track and mount surveillance of “white shipping” in this oceanic expanse. It could be the information/data base to instantly identify Chinese merchant vessels in the “theatre-switching strategy” — if PLA acts up on the land border, India turns the screw on Chinese naval and merchant marine in the Indian Ocean — that Delhi is enamoured by. This even though such a strategy, as I have argued, promises to be ineffectual — the reasons why have been elaborated by me in in previous posts and in much detail, particularly in my book ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’, and won’t be repeated here.

But it is precisely the military undergirding of the IFCs that may have played on the Pakistan-induced paranoia the BJP government suffers from.  It is in line with Modi’s complaining bitterly  about the 26/11 Pakistani villains Hafeez Saeed and the LeT lot being “mainstreamed” into the Pakistan system (because they have been allowed to fight elections)  — as has by now become the Indian norm — to US Vice President, Mike Pence, on the sidelines of the Asia summit in Singapore Nov 14. In response, Pence said little that was relevant to the issue of Pakistani terrorism raised by Modi. Just how noncommittal the American VP was may be gauged from Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale’s statement issued after the Modi-Pence meet:  “There was some good understanding of how we can move forward in building cooperation in counter-terrorism, and both countries recognized this as a challenge we have to fight together and along with the rest of the international community.” This as, the American idiom goes, does not amount to a “hill of beans”! Likewise, Modi’s pleas on the other issue that the BJP government cries itself hoarse about — the fast-closing H1B visa channel for Indian tech coolies with his talk of India as a “treasury of talent” and of people capable of technological innovation, fell on deaf ears.

If India boasts of such huge talent and capacity for innovation, well, how about making the Indian milieu receptive to upwardly striving young engineers, scientists and doctors by removing the dead hand of the Indian government from the lives of the Indian people, Mr Modi, so that Indians can fulfill their aspirations in their own country, and you wouldn’t have to beg for consideration from Western leaders? But, of course, such thinking is not on the prime minister’s mind. In the event,  the Indian PM received not a nod in acknowledgement from Pence about the issue Delhi has been hammering away at for all of Modi’s so far 4 and half years in office.

By making so much about the supposed threat from Pakistan and thus raising that country’s stock in the world for which Islamabad should be eternally grateful, it stands to reason that with IONS gone, another opportunity to bind the countries of southern Asia into an economic whole to benefit India at the centre of it, this one to do with the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) gas pipeline, too will go waste.

Muhammetmyrat Amanov, the Turkmen CEO of the TAPI pipeline project recently announced to an industry conference in Dubai that it was on track, with the total cost being reduced from from $10 billion to $7 billion, with the first, foundational, stage costing only $5 billion. “We are planning”, he said, “to make a final investment decision in the first half of next year and then, stage by stage, finalize construction in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India.” He also stated that the gas would be flowing to Afghanistan by next year end and to Pakistan inside of two years. What has helped the TAPI project to be up and running is the financing secured from German agencies whose credit line will fund the purchase of the necessary capital equipment.

The question, therefore: Is the Modi government aware of any of these developments and on the same page as Mr Amanov? Oh, yes, the then minister of state MJ Akbar reiterated India’s commitment to TAPI pipeline when visiting Ashgabat in end-February this year, talking of it as a “benchmark” of regional cooperation. That’s the formal stand. Because the fact is, after the initial burst of enthusiasm, Delhi’s attitude to this energy boon, astonishingly, has been preternaturally tepid. Sure, the Indian government doubts whether, given the existing conditions, the gas will flow freely across Afghanistan and Pakistan. But then Delhi has insisted that payments for the gas will be made only on actual delivery to the Indian end of the TAPI terminal for onward distribution. Fair enough. But doesn’t Amanov’s statement suggest that the Turkmen government has worked out the arrangements for the smooth and uninterrupted flow of gas with Ghanis’s Kabul and Islamabad? So, where’s the problem and why the hesitation? Unless it is that Modi doesn’t want Pakistan to gain from the transit duties on the gas which will be a substantial sum of monies earned by Pakistan with the Asian Development Bank estimating that the TAPI pipeline will be profitable only if a minimum of  30-33 billion cubic metres of gas annually flow through it.

Meanwhile, China is waiting in the wings, ready to swoop in to buy the Turkmen gas and extend the  pipeline eastwards to grow the economy of Xinjiang,  if India falters. What are the odds that India won’t  (falter, that is)?

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Deconstructing India’s Global Ambition — Asia Society

Asia Society, Mumbai, had staged a well-attended event to discuss my book ‘Staggering Forward’ on October 30. The video link of the discussion is at


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Armaments and sovereignty

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[World leaders in Paris to mark the 100th anniversary of the ending of WWI; Indian Vice President  Venkaiah Naidu and spouse can be seen in the middle of the second line from front]


The sombre marking of the 100th anniversary of World War One in Paris Nov 11 by world leaders has several hard lessons for India, but the Narendra Modi government seems too inattentive to learn them. The first lesson is not to fight a foreign power’s (read in 21st Century Asia US’) battles, become cannon fodder in its military ventures (as signing the foundational accords puts them on the way to becoming), as Indian troops who disembarked on Europe’s shores in September 1915 as part of Field Marshal Douglas Haig’s 1st Army in France and Belgium, were.

In the lead-up to the event, French President Emmanuel Macron harked to the context set by US President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ policy that conspicuously distanced the US from its traditional; NATO allies by reiterating his call for a “true European army”. He explained that “When I see [Trump] announcing that he’s quitting a major disarmament treaty [the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty signed in the 1980s after the so-called “Euro-missile crisis”] who is the main victim? Europe and its security. We have to protect ourselves with respect to China, Russia and even the United States of America. We need a Europe which defends itself better alone, without just depending on the United States, in a more sovereign manner.”  ]. Trump twittered  in response that Macron’s view was “Very insulting” before rounding in on his controversial policy saying “but perhaps Europe should first pay its fair share of NATO, which the US subsidizes greatly!”  See

Not to be easily bullied, Macron elaborated his position to Fareed Zakaria in a Nov 11 CNN interview.  Trump, he said, “is in favor of a better burden-sharing within NATO.” And added “I agree with that. And I think that in order to have a better burden-sharing, all of us do need more Europe. And I think the big mistake — to be very direct with you — what I don’t want to see is European countries increasing the budget in defense in order to buy Americans’ and other arms or materials coming from your industry. I think if we increase our budget, it’s to have to build our autonomy and to become an actual sovereign power.”

The case that armaments self-sufficiency epitomizes national sovereignty has been repeatedly made in my last two books — ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’ and the recent ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’. But such a clear linkage has not been publicly made by any world leader until now by Macron, because the international discourse until everything began going wrong was the myth of “geoeconomics” and “interdependence”. Of course, in conceptualizing an European military force independent of the US and NATO, Macron obviously hopes European countries will contract for military hardware and services from Dassault Avions, MBD, DCNS, Thales, SNECMA, et al and keep the flagging French defence industry from going under. But the larger theme he highlighted that European sovereignty isn’t served by buying American military equipment and enriching the US defence industry — which is what Trump would have NATO member states do, holds.

It is the longtime NATO-European malady of relying on the US and American arms that Macron has urged resistance against, now afflicts India and its government in trumps. As the military indigenisation group active on the net, SITARA, headed by a former Ambassador to Switzerland, Smita Purshottam, has pointed out, in closed councils even DRDO scientists and engineers tasked with making the country self-sufficient in arms,  smirk any time any one brings up the issue of stopping imports and going in for full indigenous development of major military hardware which the Indian private sector is entirely capable of,  used as they are  to taking the easy way out: Importing technologies, assemblies, sub-assemblies, and sub-systems from diverse sources, “integrating” them, producing something, and calling this a huge advance on the path to self-reliance in arms! It is in the vested interest of the Indian political class, the despair-inducing state bureaucracy, and the be-medaled flag-rank uniformed brass to swallow such nonsense whole. They are so inclined because how else are Western residential visas, work visas, and “scholarships” to be secured for progeny, shopping sprees in New York, Los Angeles, Paris, London, Stockholm, and Rome by families of those inside and outside the defence procurement loop to be financed, and the health of the performance, productivity, and technology ingestion-wise dismal socialist era defence public sector units (DPSUs) to be assured? No surprise then that Modi’s much trumpeted ‘Make in India’ policy exactly fits the GOI-MOD-Finance Ministry-DPSU way of doing things — screwdrivering stuff from imported kits, and passing it off as ‘Made in India’ when genuine  MADE IN INDIA requires that all research, and the process of designing, developing and producing armaments be carried out by Indians in Indian firms in India.

It is only then that Modi or any other the PM of the day will be able to credibly claim for India the status of security provider to, at a minimum, countries in the Indian Ocean basin and Southeast Asia.

With respect to providing security this is what Macron also said: “What Europe needs is to build its own capacities and its autonomy in order to protect itself. That’s why I do want to build more solidarity within Europe. And I think it’s very important because if you want to build an actual Europe, if you want to reinforce the homogeneity and the strength of our Europe, you have to convey the message to people in Hungary, in Poland, in Finland and in very different places, that the day they have an issue, the day they are attacked, Europe is the one to protect them, and not another power.”

In an alternative reality, were India really sovereign and boasted only home-designed and built weaponry, it’d be standout nation that even distant states would consider a go-to friend and partner, and an Indian Prime Minister would then be able to restate the above Macron statement but with India replacing Europe, and South Asian neighbours, Gulf countries, the East African littoral, and Southeast Asian states replacing Hungary, Poland and Finland, with this entire group of vulnerable Asian nations asking for Indian protection and security assistance against a rampaging China rather than calling in extra-regional entities such as the US for help.

The other thing that was on notice in Paris was the not so subtle display of change in the rank ordering of countries. Even as the phalanx of invited world leaders (Naidu included) stood at their assigned positions to salute the “unknown fallen” in war, Trump kept all waiting. The US President finally made a late appearance only to be upstaged by the Russian President Vladimir Putin, who strolled in last and was ceremonially escorted to the frontline of the podium. And unlike Trump, he was not snubbed or rebuked by Western European leaders, or upbraided by the host, indeed Macron made it a point in the Zakaria interview to implicitly elevate Russia, along with China, as the threat that a European-armed “real European army” would defend European states against.

The reason Putin strutted onto the stage is not hard to see. The Russian military has just  conducted a couple of the largest war exercises in recent times — ‘Vostok 2018’ and ‘East 2018’. These involved 300,000 troops (including, incidentally,  35,000 PLA troops), 36,000 tanks and other armoured vehicles, 1000 combat aircraft, helicopters and drones and 80 warships and ancillaries in, what Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu called, “conditions as close to a combat situation as possible.” NATO was quick to condemn these war games as demonstrating “Russia’s focus on exercising large-scale conflict”. But that was just the message Putin wanted to drive home, that he can intervene in Syria or anywhere else, do another Crimea in eastern Ukraine or whatever else he pleases, and US and NATO can do squat about it.

This is Putin’s Russia our low-sighted, strategically blind, America-besotted, Modi government, which instead of reassuring Moscow by reaffirming India’s strategic autonomy,  has set out to alienate by following through on a tilt-policy set in motion during Vajpayee’s days, which gathered momentum during the Manmohan Singh decade, and is reaching its culmination under Modi. It has India jumping into bed with US led by Trump and his henchmen — Bolton, Pompeo, confidence in whom , Macron says, Europe has lost.

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Distant handshake: Rough weather ahead for Indo-US relations

Image result for pics with modi and trump

The 2018 US Congressional Elections are over, and the Republican Party has lost control of the lower House in the legislature — the House of Representatives rather decisively. What does this portend for India-US relations?

The incoming Democratic Party Chairpersons of the various House committees (Ways & Means, Finance, Intelligence) have made plain their intention to hold Donald J. Trump accountable for a raft of acts of omission and commission in the 2016 presidential elections and since (in terms of hindering and obstructing the Congressionally-ordered investigation into Trump’s alleged wrongdoings headed by Robert Mueller). His promise to respond by loosing the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on the opposition leaders, presupposes FBI will play ball. The chances, however, are it won’t, because unlike the CBI in this country, FBI is a separate and independent  agency which zealously guards its functional autonomy. In any case,  very soon, there may be a replication of our own intra-CBI kind of feuding in Washington, and generally for the  situation to turn politically venomous. With the House of Representatives unwilling to give him a free pass, and stonewalling the president’s political agenda, what is Trump to do?

He may well decide that a series of rapid and stellar successes in the foreign policy arena may add lustre to his record. North Korea looms as possible success except there’s the equally unpredictable Kim Jong-un at the other end who will not take any guff from Trump and won’t play ball if that results in his looking a chump. Hence, the foreign  trade area  offers possibility of success by way of beefing up Trump’s “negotiator”” credentials and helping win him a second term in office in the 2020 elections (assuming he isn’t impeached before then for crimes that Special Investigator Mueller’s Final Report may reveal in its findings). He has already said that a trade agreement with China will happen soon. Because Xi Jinping is a hardball player and doesn’t blink in a face-off, and because China has reacted harshly to Washington’s imposts on Chinese goods and services accessing the American market  of some $250 billion with retaliatory tariffs of its own on imports from the US, and indicated that it will not shy away from getting involved in a trade war if that’s what Trump wants, Trump has thought discretion the part of his gamesmanship and promised to be more accommodating.  There may still be a showdown of sorts — a sort of shadow trade war — but there will be no real change in the flow of two-way Sino-US trade now touching $635 billion featuring a trade deficit for the US of $ 376 billion in 2017.

Given the strong economic interlinks the US can’t hurt China without hurting itself grievously, Washington will desist from doing anything really radical, like stopping the Chinese trade cold by imposing prohibitory levels of extra taxes on it, the proprieties of the World Trade Organization be damned! So Trump will “negotiate” some compromise and get enough back to crow to the American public about his success with Beijing. That will play well with his political base in middle America.

But the corrections in the trade with China aren’t going to be enough for him to make a splash in an election year. He needs another, softer, target, a country that’s prepared to take US economic blows without counter-punching, and assures Washington of an easy prize. Narendra Modi’s India fits this slot nicely. Indeed, Trump has set India up a for a hit. Trump and other US leaders never talk of China without also mentioning India, as one of two nations that are egregious in exploiting US’ free market, and how they ramp up trade imbalances without fear of the US government, when actually there is no comparison. The American trade deficit with India of $ 23 billion is dwarfed by that of China, but it is India that is disproportionately bearing the brunt.

Modi’s government has avoided inflicting counter-tariffs and held off saying much about Trump’s very determined bid to seal the H1B/L1 visa rules and regulations as part of the protectionist tenor of his policies, is mostly hurting the $150 billion Indian IT industry. This despite the Prime Minister and his cabinet colleagues pleading without effect with Trump directly and with his Administration for less taxing US policies. Indian IT majors that relied on shipping relatively low cost skilled labour  are thus being compelled to hire Americans at high wages. This is hurting their profit margins and dimming the till now bright spot on the economic exports scene. Before the shrinking of the H1B visa channel, Indian IT majors had estimated that their exports to the US would reach $50 billion by 2030. Those good times are gone. They will be lucky if they can retain the present levels of exports by value into the future. Currently the US, according to NASSCOM, offtakes some 62% of the Indian exports of IT services-Business Process Management services of some $126 billion. Realizing it was slipping dangerously into a US dependent status, the Indian IT industry is now desperately trying to find and cultivate other markets.

Even as Trump has turned a deaf ear to Delhi’s entreaties on H1B and moved aggressively to restrict Indian exports with punishing tariffs, Modi has held off reciprocating as WTO rules allow in the hope that this show of tolerance will lead to Washington cutting it some slack. It hasn’t. Indeed, the BJP government’s willingness to  absorb US trade hits has only worsened the trade terms for India and convinced Trump that Modi when pressured will squeak but won’t bite in terms of acting on second thoughts about strategically partnering the US and that India can be pushed around at no real cost to America. Trump is not wrong in believing this. Modi has signed the two most significant “foundational accords” — LEMOA and COMCASA, without heeding the downside of these agreements that all but turn India into a secondary military ally — secondary, because unlike NATO member states, or Asian Treaty allies — Japan, South Korea and Philippines, India gets nothing for putting out so much. And, he is considering buying the performance-wise seriously awful US national air defence system missiles and antiquated F-16 combat aircraft in the hope that this will temper US’s attitude to Delhi continuing to buy military hardware from Russia when, in reality, it leaves the country just as exposed to CAATSA sanctions in the future. In this context, why Modi feels close to Trump when the latter betrays no like feelings and the US  has held India at an arm’s distance, and treats it as a third rate Third World country, and why Modi seeks by every means and at every turn to shrivel India’s standing in the world is hard to fathom.

Playing second fiddle to America in the clash in Asia of the two natural giants — India and China, is willfully to degrade India’s position.  Whether India will ever recover its prestige and status vis a vis Asian countries from the parlous state Modi has shoved it into remains an open question.

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“The Reality of Narendra Modi’s Foreign Policy Failures Laid Bare” — Shivshankar Menon’s review of ‘Staggering Forward’

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Review of my book — ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’ by Shivshankar Menon, National Security Adviser till 2014, published in The Wire, Nov 3, 2018.


What worries me most is that if Bharat Karnad is right, we can only expect more of the same – or worse – should Modi return to power in 2019. That would further postpone or derail India’s transformation into a strong, prosperous and modern country.


If Bharat Karnad didn’t exist we would have to invent him. He is the one person who consistently and intellectually challenges every government on strategic issues, who says what needs to be said. He is the enfant terrible of the Indian strategic community, who respects no authority and calls it as he sees it. Not everyone sees it his way, but no one can doubt either his commitment to India becoming a great power in the classical sense or the scholarship he brings to this task.

His latest book, Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition, is no exception to the pattern he has established in the past. The book challenges one’s assumptions and forces one to think. The book is a critique of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign and security policies, and of Modi himself. The author finds them wanting against the criteria of India fulfilling its destiny and becoming a great power. It is hard to argue with his marshalling of facts that show that the past five years were years of lost opportunity – of India missing the bus; of roads and reforms promised, but not taken.

I will not summarise the book, but will try to describe what I agree and disagree with in three respects: the Modi government’s performance; the situation India faces today; and Karnad’s prescriptions.

The Modi government’s performance

On how the Modi government has fared over the past few years, Karnad’s analysis is focused on a detailed psychological profiling of Modi himself, which left me far more worried than I was when I started reading the book.

Karnad is frank about how he was a Modi supporter in 2013-14, and how he expected that his rhetoric of reform would be translated into action once elected. Instead, he saw a “small stakes game abroad” .

They say that a pessimist is a disillusioned romantic, or simply an optimist with experience. Karnad is both. He is pessimistic about the means and the people, but has faith in India and its destiny.

What worried me most is that if Karnad is right in his profiling, we can only expect more of the same – or worse – should Modi return to power after the next parliamentary elections. Judging by the performance of his government over the last four years, that would be a considerable setback for India and would further postpone or derail India’s transformation into a strong, prosperous and modern country.

The internal divisiveness of the last four years affects both our security and our ability to run a successful foreign policy in the neighbourhood. How can India be a great power when it is socially divided at home, Karnad asks. He also describes the Modi government’s complicity in India’s strategic shrinking influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region.

Karnad describes the Modi government, in which only Modi counts, as “bowing to the powerful and bullying the weak”. He sees Modi as reflexively deferential to the US and China. The net result of this deference to power has been the neglect of old friends like Russia and Iran.

More so, the Modi government’s sporadic and unskilled dealings with our neighbours has resulted in a deterioration in our relationships and security in our immediate periphery – be it in Nepal, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan, or in south-east Asia, where we have alienated friends. The lack of a coherent foreign trade and economic policy – as seen in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – has left us out of the reckoning in the larger region that affects us directly.

The situation at hand

I agree with Karnad that there is no coherent vision driving the frenzied visiting and eventing that we have witnessed for some time. The fundamental problem, to my mind, is that the situation around us and the world over has changed drastically over the past few years with the coming to power of new authoritarians, or “alpha-males” as Karnad rightly labels them, in China, the US, Russia, Japan, Turkey and India.

In the absence of a vision or conceptual clarity on the situation we face, the government, and instinctively the bureaucracy, continue to do what they have always done, relying on precedent and habit. But to do the same thing in a different situation and to expect the same results – which is what the present government has done – is another version of Einstein’s definition of lunacy.

Karnad’s prescriptions

We are in a situation where we cannot rely on any other power – not the US, not China, or anyone else to secure us or to promote our prosperity. True strategic autonomy is our way forward. No established power likes to see potential competitors rising, and there is therefore a limit to what we can expect from other powers.

Under Donald Trump’s presidency, the US is pulling back strategically, unwilling to underwrite an international order or provide security, and on-shoring production. China, on the other hand, is moving into the vacuum and defining her core interests in an ever expanding manner. But when Karnad extends Samuel P. Huntington’s hypothesis to argue that the great fault line in the world today is between the Islamic and the non-Islamic world, I disagree.

Where I do agree with Karnad is when he speaks about how Pakistan is a strategic distraction, and how India’s real strategic focus should be on China. Restoring the strategic unity of the subcontinent as a geopolitical actor requires an accommodation with/or a neutralisation of Pakistan, and Karnad makes suggestions for how we should do so – a few in terms of military and nuclear postures.


There are a few issues in Karnad’s detailed prescriptions that he may want to address when it comes to a revised edition. The first is his very positive assessment of last year’s Doklam face-off, where India appears to have followed an older playbook, and where the outcomes now appear more mixed. 

Another instance, which might need more explanation, is his understanding that Pakistan’s nuclear first-use threat against India is meaningless and empty. But he then goes on to suggest that India do the same and threaten first-use against China. Karnad does draw a distinction in what kind of use he has in mind, but it would be useful if he had explained why one threat is meaningful and the other is not.

Karnad also wrote of how India should re-test thermonuclear weapons and to somehow compensate for conventional military inferiority vis-à-vis China. These are moot and can be questioned. He assumes that our nuclear weapons are for war-fighting and that what we do not know in public does not exist within the government. I am also not sure where he got the idea that the India-US civil nuclear deal somehow included a commitment by us to cap our missile ranges at 5,500 km. This is the first I have heard of this.

Karnad seems more impressed by China than I am, assumes that it has got its way and seems to think that its dominance is inevitable unless resisted. In other places, he sees China failing to impose its “Tianxia” system, even in the South China Sea and Central Asia.

But whatever China’s trajectory is, he is right that it is India’s major strategic preoccupation. In his prescriptions for India’s China policy, he focuses largely on military responses to what is actually a Chinese challenge that is political, economic, military, and ideational too. Unlike others, who are so transfixed by the rise of China that they run to the US for comfort, Karnad rightly reminds us of our leverage in our relationship with China and that true strategic autonomy is our best way forward.

I do not see a resumption of nuclear testing by India as changing the Chinese calculus or behaviour. To my mind, the multi-faceted challenge from China requires an Indian response across the entire spectrum of power – from economics to politics to military to ideas, with both internal and external balancing, by strengthening ourselves and working with those who share our interests and concerns.

He suggests modifications to BRICS and the ‘Quad’ by removing China from the former and adding ASEAN to the latter, creating a ‘BRIS’ and a ‘Mod Quad’, as ways of improving our hand in dealing with China. I am not sure that formalising and announcing such plans are practical diplomacy. But Karnad is absolutely right that we must first come to terms with and pacify our own home in the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean region. It is when measured against these criteria that the Modi government’s policies have failed the nation.

Karnad is persuasive on the nature of military reforms and the changes in the mindset of the armed forces that he thinks are necessary if India is to drag her World War II-ready armed forces into the 21st century. He writes on the effects of technology on warfare in our context, and has extensive suggestions – many sensible and implementable – on defence production and procurement in India. He also makes a strong case for a string of Indian bases in the Indian Ocean region. I will not comment on the military options against Pakistan and China that he also describes in some detail.

What we have seen recently is the weakening of our defences that the deterioration in civil-military relations, the politicisation of the Indian army, its use in domestic politics, and the absence of necessary military and defence reforms have brought about.

I disagree with his characterisation of all policy since Jawaharlal Nehru as a failure. Deterrence has held and the peace necessary for India’s transformation has been kept, unlike the four debilitating wars we fought in the first 25 years of the republic. That might seem like a small achievement, but we have not only aimed to end poverty and improved the lives of more human beings in any country except China in the last 30 years, but also, by other measures of comprehensive national power, have improved our position in the world against most countries (again with the exception of China).

Where Karnad is right is that our strategic position in the world has deteriorated in the recent past, and much of this is because the situation around us is changing and will continue to change with rapidity, without an Indian response to the changes. This flux actually opens up opportunities for us as India. That is where we are failing ourselves, missing opportunities. His book is a useful reminder of what we could be, and a prod to consider what the next government should do.

The above book Review available at

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“Some Home Truths” — my response to Ravi Joshi’s review of my book, published in Open magazine


Image result for pics of Modi with G-20 leaders

The author of ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’ responds to Ravi Joshi’s review of his book


Ravi Joshi’s review is a bit of defensive writing by a former intelligence official who seems to have combined an eagerness to defend the policy Establishment the best he can with the method Indian reviewers with truncated knowledge adopt of judging books by skimming through them. It reveals more about Joshi than about the book. It is hardly surprising then that the meaty details in the tome are naturally overlooked, which undermine his pronouncements about it at every turn, as I will try and show.

The professional strength of the country’s external intelligence agency, R&AW, is its ‘penetration’ of the high circles in Islamabad and otherwise keeping the Indian finger on the pulse of the Pakistan government and military. The broader canvas of international affairs, history, and developments, geostrategics, the imperative need for strategic vision, for defining the national interest, articulating a grand strategy, and for intra-governmental coordination, and appreciation of the timely use of hard power to leaven policy milieus in the rest of the neighbourhood, and in the near and far abroad—these and other aspects dealt with in detail in all my books, including ‘Staggering’—and, more generally, a comprehensive understanding of the unfolding regional and global reality and their impact on India, is terra incognita to most R&AW persons who are also unable to summon analytical rigour when putting pen to paper.


Joshi identifies me as someone ‘who always makes the contra point and not often in a pleasant manner’. So, he doesn’t like my calling a spade a shovel. OK. But one would have thought that straight-talk advocating major changes would be valued in a policy environment mired in precedent, risk-aversion and mealy-mouthed do-nothingness. Then again I forget that in a bureaucratised system, as I have long maintained, embroidering the status quo is all that is acceptable, whence the reviewer’s discomfiture at my not only critiquing Modi’s foreign policy but also providing an alternative policy framework when, actually, the two cannot and should not be separated. Would a critique make sense if it didn’t offer different ingredients for policy and a different way of conceiving and conducting it?

But let me briefly point out a few of the review’s other inadequacies. He questions the assumption of a fading United States and quotes some SIPRI defence budget figures. But he does not know any better because had the US defence outlays been deconstructed, he’d have discovered that, just as in India, the escalating payroll costs are at the expense of major arms and military build-up programmes, and the resulting capability shortfalls are making it impossible for Washington simultaneously to tackle Russia and China. He disputes that the relationship with Russia has weakened, in this regard mentioning the S-400 buy. Except, he fails to mention that the S-400 will escape CAATSA sanctions only if India also buys the markedly inferior national air defence missile system from the US and the antiquated F-16 combat aircraft to boot, as I predicted. And he crows triumphantly that ‘Even Manmohan Singh’s famous India-US nuclear deal of 2005 that was to be a game-changer in our relationship did not result in a single nuclear reactor being contracted from an American company, while half a dozen nuclear reactors were ordered from Russia’, while conveniently forgetting the price extracted by America from the Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh regimes—that India would not develop ICBMs nor resume nuclear testing. Anything nuclear seems outside Joshi’s comfort zone because he nowhere refers to my design for reorienting our nuclear forces China-wards, beginning with a specific ‘first use’ option using the passive-defensive atomic demolition munitions, and pointed nuclear targeting of Chinese high-value assets—the Three Gorges dam and the entire Southern and Southeastern coastline of China—the engine of that country’s wealth production. Instead, he wonders if the ASEAN and other states fringing China would have confidence in India as security provider when it has failed miserably to deal with Chinese forays in the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Nepal—precisely the question I have all along raised! But to get around India’s credibility gap I have reiterated in the book the solution I provided some two decades back, namely, nuclear missile/Brahmos cruise missile arming the countries on China’s periphery. Beijing may pooh-pooh India’s guardianship of ASEAN interests but will be less dismissive of Vietnam, Indonesia, or Duterte’s Philippines separately wielding these strategic armaments. This tit-for-tat payback for China’s nuclear missile arming Pakistan, of course, entirely escapes the skimming Joshi.

But Joshi shows his hand with his comment on my thesis about India as an independent power balancer able to check the ‘proto-hegemons’—China and the US, by minimising American influence on the one hand and Chinese power on the other in the Indo-Pacific by, among other things, configuring BRIS—BRICS without China, and Mod Quad—ASEAN states taking the place of the US in the quadrangle—India-Japan-ASEAN-Australia with the US entering the fray when it chooses to do so which, in any case, is what the US will do. ‘Asking India to become a ‘net security provider in the Pacific’,’, he writes, a trifle joyously, ‘that too without US partnership, is to live in cloud cuckoo land.’ Realistically, it is more ‘cuckoo’ to rely on America, but try telling this to the likes of Joshi, Modi and everybody else in the babu-dominated system in India who expect the US Cavalry to ride to the rescue of Indians.

But Joshi needs to digest some home truths. Yes, handing out green cards, scholarships, work visas to dependents of babus, politicians, and senior military personnel does get the US what it wants. You didn’t look at the evidence adduced in the book for this, did you Joshi saheb?

Remarkably, for an intel officer, the reviewer shows antipathy for disruptive actions, measures and policies and imaginative use of the available hard power capabilities of the state, urging a more realistic assessment of the country’s military capabilities. Had China been run by such realists it would be in the same boat as India is in now—something to ponder, ain’t it?

And, no Ravi Joshiji, pugnacity—a quality you attribute to me—which India reserves for Pakistan, is what it requires to show against big powers, and reflection comes from being immersed comprehensively in international affairs and not by making excuses for unmet promises and ‘fork-tongued’ foreign and military policies typified by ‘Make in India’ type of programmes that have contrived to keep India inconsequential and a dependency.


[Published in ‘Open’ magazine, 29 Oct 2018, at

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