Modi’s ‘India First’ Agenda

Various ministries in the government of India are reportedly preparing for transition to a Narendra Modi-led BJP regime by getting policy documents ready for the incoming ministers to sign off on. In a similar vein our ambassador in Beijing, Ashok Kantha, jumped the gun by declaring there’d be no change in India’s China policy.

Such transition activity is explained self-servingly as permitting the new dispensation to “hit the ground running”. Actually, it is a way to entrench hoary policies the generalist civil servants are accustomed to purveying. But their attempt at ensuring the so-called “continuity in policy” pre-empts the incoming government from rethinking policies, setting new goals and objectives, and ringing in wholesale policy changes in accordance with Modi’s “India first” schema. The potentially incoming National Democratic Alliance ministers, therefore, need to be careful not to endorse any papers pending a comprehensive policy review and “house cleaning”. Otherwise, a Modi government will get locked into Sonia Gandhi’s policies.

Power transition should be handled in the manner it is reportedly being done with regard to oil where the BJP’s energy cell is active, with the prospective changes in policy being sourced to the soon-to-be ruling party, not babus who have no political stake in the new government’s policies, and are not accountable to the people for their success or failure.

This is to say that civil servants should be disabused of the notion that they are any part of policy making, something that weak governments with feeble prime ministers, post-Indira Gandhi, have failed to do. They need to be told to confine themselves to implementing the political decisions and to hue strictly to new policy parameters.

While Modi has raised expectations with promise of small government, good governance, and development, it is in the foreign and military policy fields where his “India first” doctrine is especially relevant. The phrase “India first” was originally coined by this analyst in 2002 in a series of writings culminating in a longish piece in the serious periodical, Seminar, in November of that year ( It was frustration with the tendency of the BJP government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee to bend over backwards to please the United States that prompted it. Vajpayee’s term begot the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership, which led to Manmohan Singh’s catastrophic nuclear deal. National interest was grievously hurt and the country’s strategic options were curtailed. The “India first” precept advocated an unbending and uncompromising attitude to national interest as replacement for the soft, malleable, concepts that have animated policies to India’s detriment.

It was with a bit of proprietary pride then that I heard Narendra Modi talk of “India first” as his guiding principle. What Modi has said on foreign policy issues to date is down-to-earth and encouraging. His core belief that he’ll do whatever needs to be done in the national interest is a pointer. His view that India has to produce its own armaments is reassuring; that our diplomats should primarily promote Indian economic interests abroad is the sort of practical instruction that’s likely to fetch rich dividend and a task the foreign office should gear up for. Modi’s muscular thinking has been taken to mean that Pakistan should expect more steel in the Indian fist when, as he subsequently made clear, he expects to win over the neighbouring states with the means of trade and commerce. It is, however, his approach to China that will be the litmus test.

In building up excessively against Pakistan, India is left vulnerable against China. Modi will have to decide if such vulnerability is to continue. Pakistan is a lowly threat but consumes a lot of the Indian defence effort and resources. What terrorist-asymmetric threat it poses can be reduced, as Modi hinted with regard to Dawood Ibrahim, by resort to targeted intelligence operations, what Kautilya called kutayuddha (covert warfare). India’s making goo-goo eyes at Beijing, which has got away with nuclear missile arming Pakistan without suffering a tit-for-tat response, is incomprehensible. Passivity and inaction in the face of grave Chinese provocation convey the impression of a country that can be trifled with. Modi needs to rectify it as a first step in raising the country’s stock in Asia and the world.

But to get the country’s foreign and military policies on the right track requires articulation of an expansive geostrategic vision and iron political will, and appropriate strategy and plans. Modi will have to create his own brain trust. The trouble is the BJP has a flawed record in husbanding congenial talent. The proof is in the formation of the first National Security Advisory Board in 1998. It was an omnibus collection of disparate-minded people trawled from the strategic enclave, with no thought given to whether the thinking of those selected resonated with that of the BJP. That it didn’t was evidenced by the fact that it had persons who starred in the successor Congress party regime’s set-up. Among them were M K Narayanan—a manifest disaster as national security adviser (NSA), Sanjaya Baru, as media adviser, and a prolific “strategic affairs” commentator close to Washington who propagated the Congress government’s view that India should be part of “the political West”, which policy lost India politico-military standing and diplomatic leverage. A stalwart minister and Vajpayee’s confidante now admits that the latter’s government erred in not tapping the talent they had relied on when out of power.

The slew of retired civil servants and diplomats who have jumped onto the BJP bandwagon are of limited utility in this regard; long years in government rendering them incapable of generating fresh ideas to realise Modi’s “India first” agenda. After becoming prime minister, Modi should constitute a Special Policy Unit (SPU) attached to the PMO of the kind that Thatcher did in Britain in the 1980s to assist her in dismantling the socialist state and making that country more assertive. Separate from the more institutionalised NSA system, the compact, freewheeling, and bureaucratically unconstrained SPU can develop policy ideas for the PM’s consideration. The selected options can be followed up by NSA.

[Published in the New Indian Express, May 2, 2014 at

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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8 Responses to Modi’s ‘India First’ Agenda

  1. Aryan Dogra says:

    You mention ‘kutayudha’ and targeted intelligence strikes, but how does that dissolve the training camps in POK? Also, do you think NDA would give India the 1 Mt Diwali we have all been waiting for?

    • Infiltration of the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) and the Tehreeq-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — a medium to long term project is how.

      • Aryan Dogra says:

        If only the damn Gujral doctrine was non existent. CIT-X would have impregnated them with moles by now.

  2. Shaurya says:

    India First is fine as far as FP is concerned. The problem is Modi has used this word to describe “secularism” in India. Now, the word secularism itself has been “prostituted” so to speak but Modi’s definition was completely off the plank. I can probably guess, why he said what he did and Pratap Bhanu Mehta has a take on it too. As long as the word is in a FP context the word fits well – Secularsim means “India First” is not the answer.

    To be clear: I am not a proponent of the concept of Secularism or as it is practiced in India.

  3. Vihan says:

    Hi Bharat,

    Couple of points :

    1)The Special Policy Unit (SPU) is a fantastic idea and I hope one is constituted and hope that you and other like minded people are in it.

    2)“India first” is indeed a good and much needed national doctrine but I think Modi has mentioned it in the context of secularism. I hope it is extended to a greater national and global strategic landscape.

    3)Re-activation of the covert action capability against Pakistan is an imperative. While I do know for sure if we have or ever had a covert action capability against the PRC, it would be definitely desirable as intelligence gathering alone is not enough. Any resistance in restricting R&AW a purely intelligence gathering and analysis organisation should be overcome. Covert operations need to be very much within R&AW’s mandate and the Secretary, R&AW should have one to one access to the PM and not be compulsorily routed through an NSA/Principal Secretary/other.

    4)While you have mentioned it many times before, I will re-state it – India needs a reliable thermonuclear weapon matching the the PRC 3 MT. Though I personally feel we should aim for higher yields (say about 27 MT or more) with a large battery of tests over a long period of time while persistently and mischievously espousing the virtues of global universal disarmament in parallel a la the US and Russia. My rationale is that when we look at the strategic landscape it has to be not just within our lifetime but many generations ahead. The PRC is our present day rival. Will it still be our rival 100 years down the line? Will we have stronger rivals in other parts of the globe? Our minds should not neglect these questions while keeping our primary focus on the PRC.

    5)The “house cleaning” is also a good idea. While Modi has remarked and demonstrated that he can make an existing system work with the same people, house cleaning no doubt sounds better. However, Modi can amaze the best of us, ergo lets see what he finally does and wish him all the best for it!

    Best Regards,

    – vihan

  4. Not to disappoint you Sir, but Modi’s India First, most likely is KR Malkani’s book title, about RSS’s vision.

  5. Atul says:

    Dear Professor,

    Congratulations ….
    This was the ideal expectation which no one believed would come true. Finally, India got a stable, credible and efficient government. We not only proved that we are a powerful DEMOCRACY but also that the majority cares about the image of the country and its future. Especially, post 1980s generation doesn’t care about religion, caste or color and it can’t do family worship. So in future, whoever ignores us, would do so at his peril.

    Hope that a new era would begin now.
    Best Wishes to us all.

  6. hem raj jain says:

    Sub:- (i)- Political future of Modi (projected and perceived to be unprecedentedly strong PM) at stake if India now doesn’t take POK (ii)- Calling off Indo – Pak talks is secondary, primary issue is retrieve of POK (iii)- Mere verbal commitment by India to territorial integrity meaningless unless backed-up by action on ground (iv)- With battle lines already drawn, Modi should get Article 370 repealed (v)- Retrieve of POK will be game changer for South Asia, both India and Pakistan being nuclear countries

    Dear All

    Entire media and political commentators are baffled that when Pak – Separatists talks happened in past also then why did Government of India (GOI) call off Indo-Pak Foreign Secretaries talk scheduled on August 25, 2014 on the pretext that Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India Abdul Basit, despite warning from GOI, talked to Kashmiri Separatists [Moreover given the fact that (i)- In bilateral talks officially only governments of India and Pakistan participate and not any Kashmiri or their organization etc from either side of LOC (ii)- Pakistan (Islam) which, as per media reports, has already laid down lives of about one hundred thousand Muslims for Kashmir, can never agree that J&K is an integral part of India] .

    Reasons given by Defence Minister Arun Jaitely that Pak PM Nawaz heeded the advice and stayed away from the Hurriyat group when he came to Delhi on May, 26 has no meaning in international law. Because this was an occasion of different category being oath taking ceremony of PM Modi and this secret and personal advice by India to PM Nawaz was not made known beforehand to the people.

    India does not arrest Separatists because they are Constitutionally protected under freedom of expression (as is the practice in modern democracies including in USA where Americans openly talk about secession and even move Court for it). But Aug, 25 Indo Pak talks were called off as Basit allegedly violated diplomatic norms under Geneva Convention regarding warning given to him (to not talk to Separatists) by GOI in view of territorial integrity of India

    [Though legally India made its case weak because Basit did not go to Srinagar but Separatists (whom Pakistan considers its citizens) came to Delhi to meet Basit which was known to GOI through media too – then why did GOI not stop Separatists from meeting Basit. If some Kashmiris from ‘Pak Occupied Kashmir’ (POK, whom India considers its citizens) want to meet Indian High Commissioner in Pakistan at Indian embassy then how can Indian High Commissioner refuse to meet them]

    Therefore this is not such a simple matter of calling off the talks due to any reason but of territorial integrity of India which demands retrieve of POK by India. Hence it has a potential where either Modi will go down in Indian history as exceptionally daring, brave and committed Prime Minister or will loose his Prime Ministership sooner than later, as explained below:-

    (1)- First and foremost it should be understood that notwithstanding the flirting with Federalism in democracies including in India, only martial matters legitimately belong to Union / Centre / Fed and civil matters to States, because Union has military whereas States have police as sanctioned physical coercive apparatus. Therefore even if any PM flounders on civilian matters it does not knock out a PM from office permanently. But if any PM blunders on military matters (including territorial integrity or Sovereignty) then he/ she can never survive in office .

    (2)- For example all these PMs could not survive in office after trifling with military matters- (i)- Nehru after India’s humiliating defeat in 1962 Indo – China war (ii)- Shashtri after cheaply surrendering conquered territory during 1965 Indo – Pak war (iii)- Indira Gandhi after using military in Golden temple instead of using police especially after DIG Atwal was killed by terrorists at Golden temple in 1983 (iv)- Rajiv Gandhi after half heartedly intervening militarily in Sri Lanka through IPKF in 1987

    (3)- Here it is in context to add that former PM Manmohan may not like to be PM Candidate in future due to his age factor (like Vajpayee) or out of unwillingness due to any other reason. But he still has a chance to return as PM because he lost power not due to blundering on martial matters but only on civilian matters (as rightly admitted by former Union Minister Kapil Sibbal also during a TV interview that the way GOI under PM Manmohan allowed Supreme Court and CAG the over reach and itself committed mistakes in case of cancellation of contracts especially of foreign companies in 2G spectrum, retrospective taxation, presumptive losses, clearance of projects etc ,- it triggered such anti-government massive wave engineered by business interests that it caused unprecedented defeat of Congress in 2014 Parliamentary elections)

    (4)- What is pertinent is that no PM will survive martial bungling and PM Modi will also not be an exception. India has been criticized all along that Pakistan believes J&K as its part hence it tried to take remaining J&K militarily in 1947, 1948, 1965, 1971 during Kargil etc, but India which also believes entire J&K to be its part, never tried to take remaining J&K militarily, not even once (even after UN Resolution 1948 on plebiscite failed because Pakistan refused to vacate POK, militarily). This was making the claims of India on POK untenable under international laws due to acquiescence and inordinate delay on the part of India in retrieving POK.

    (5)- Earlier also talks were called off due to allegedly Pak sponsored terrorist attacks in India or killing of Indian Jawans at LOC etc, but never on the ground of territorial integrity of India. Hence now when on the principle of territorial integrity of India GOI has called off August, 25 talks, it is imperative under international laws that India now should take POK in a time bound program, militarily or otherwise and which will be a game changer for South Asia, both India and Pakistan being nuclear countries [of-course India and especially BJP (who’s government acquired nukes in 1998 before retrieving POK) government considers it a white-man’s burden that how nuclear flare-up will be prevented in case India tries to retrieve POK militarily].

    (6)- PM Modi could have continued for his remaining term even if he does not deliver satisfactorily on civilian matters (like price rise, inclusive growth, unemployment, GDP growth, etc ) but he has no chance to remain in office if now India doesn’t take POK in a time bound program and instead under pressure from USA etc resumes dialogue (except for retrieving POK) with Pakistan, by giving some lame excuses. Moreover with battle lines already drawn (may not be publicly for some time), Modi should get Article 370 of the Constitution repealed not for changing demography of Kashmir valley in favor of Hindus but because it will go a long way in keeping anti – national element and terrorists, operating from J&K and especially from Kashmir valley, under check

    Therefore when India for the first time under PM Modi has taken a strong & irreconcilable position on territorial integrity of India then it should be taken to its logical conclusion by retrieving POK in a time bond period. Otherwise if any PM does not handle military matters with requisite responsibility, seriousness and application and rather trifles with it then he / she is not a Prime – Ministerial – Material.


    Hem Raj Jain

    (Author of ‘Betrayal of Americanism’)

    Bengaluru, India. email :

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