Earlier in the year, the Pakistani columnist Ayaz Amir voiced the futility, apropos prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s efforts to get imaginative policies out of the advisers around him, of churning butter from water. A similar problem may be affecting prime minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy. Certainly, there is new direction to policy, such as in pacifying neighbours (Pakistan, Sri Lanka) and, importantly, in departing from the calcified thinking of the ministry of external affairs (MEA) that divorces diplomacy from military power. An example of the latter is the move to establish a forward Indian presence in the surrounding ocean, to begin with in the Agaléga Islands of Mauritius and in Seychelles, something long advocated by this analyst.
These innovations happened because Modi has relied mainly on his instincts. The PM’s setting himself up as the fount of all policy ideas explains the wariness of his cowed cabinet colleagues who refuse to take initiative for fear of falling afoul of his views. The PM thus saddled with too many policy areas to manage is unable to do justice to any of them, whence the many missteps by the BJP government.But such a system depends principally on the quality of the PM’s advisers and, even more, on the quality of advice rendered. So far there’s no evidence of any “brain trust” of realpolitik-minded outside specialists in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) ideologically in sync with the BJP. Indeed, there isn’t even a hint of existing structures being utilised in a meaningful way with many statutory bodies, such as the National Security Advisory Board manned by Manmohan Singh’s nominees, for instance, remaining un-reconstituted and high-flying economic advisers appointed with much fanfare feeling ignored.
The trouble is this is not a self-sustaining system of policymaking. The last time such a system prevailed was in Jawaharlal Nehru’s halcyon decade of the Fifties when the MEA acted on the premise, candidly recalled by former foreign secretary Jagat Mehta, that “Panditji knows best”. That episode ended in the Chinese Premier Zhouenlai politically eclipsing Nehru at the First Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung in 1955 and, seven years later, in China militarily humiliating India.
The era of one-man bands in the policy arena is long since gone. Except the prime ministers who succeeded Nehru went the other way, leaving any issue even remotely pertaining to foreign countries for the MEA to tackle immeasurably expanding its operational space. In the new millennium, the Westphalian order of sovereign states has grown more complex. Endemic intra-state turmoil and instability, permeable borders, technological advances, active social networks, and proliferation of non-state actors have upset the systemic certainties of the latter half of the 21st century. Specialist knowledge, technical acumen, and domain expertise are now the bread and butter of foreign policymaking. Absent such strengths in the MEA peopled by generalists and Modi’s unwillingness to trust in non-careerist policy counsellors, Indian foreign and military policies have tended naturally to stick to old policy lines justified in terms of continuity. Thus, the PM’s desire for close relations with the United States, for instance, was translated by MEA honchos into the nuclear “breakthrough” justified by tracing its origins to the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership obtained by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime.
The bureaucrats in the MEA, as in the rest of government, can at best implement policies. But they are happy to expropriate the policymaking role if allowed to do so. The result is a dearth of strategically agile national security policy options for the PM to ponder. While Modi from time to time calls in outside experts for consultation, these are episodic events, not everyday fare. It has left MEA officials free to insinuate themselves into the policymaking space the PM had carved out as his own by keeling over on the side it believes Modi is inclined.
This was evident in why no dialogue was initiated with Pakistan before Barack Obama advised this course of action, thereby according the US the go-between role it craves. It projected the impression of an India bending to Washington’s will, an image reinforced by the nuclear understanding, perhaps motivated by “professional” advice to Modi that a bad deal is better than no deal. It has confounded an already awful situation. It is doubtful whether Modi was advised about the negatives of this agreement, considering that the very persons and bureaucratic interests responsible for the 2008 nuclear deal, which achieved for the US its goal of “capping and freezing” India’s nuclear weapons capability—science and technology adviser to the PM, Dr R Chidambaram, the MEA, and Nuclear Power Corporation Ltd., also gunned for this nuclear compromise that violates Indian law—the Civilian Nuclear Damage Liability Act 2010. Assuming it withstands legal scrutiny, the disastrous consequences—the indigenous nuclear industry going into a tailspin, the burial of the 3-stage Bhabha Plan for energy independence based on Indian thorium reserves, and the commensurate revival and enrichment of the American, French and Russian nuclear industries—seem to be no one’s concerns, nor the fact that the promise of “63,000MW by 2032” is so much hot air.
But bending over backwards to accommodate the US makes little sense at a time when India’s leverage is waxing. Russia, post-Crimean annexation, has rediscovered its mojo, China has grown surer about realising its hegemonic plans, states on the Chinese periphery daily become more anxious, and the US is backsliding, desperately wanting regional heavyweights, like India, to join it in shoring up the status quo. These are circumstances tailor-made to enhance India’s strategic worth as balancer with respect to the US-China, China-littoral/offshore Asian states, and US-Russia tussles.
As a self-confessed Gujarati with an eye for opportunity and profit, it is surprising Modi did not capitalise on this situation to recover lost ground by rejecting the Establishment advice and sidelining the original nuclear deal, and extracting a high cost from Washington for an ambiguous promise of partnering it. So once again India is in the familiar position of supplicant. Modi surely did not want this but it is something he is unwittingly realising by relying primarily on serving and retired civil servants.
[Published in New Indian Express, March 20, 2015, at