Limits of Modi’s personalised diplomacy

THE DEFINING CHARACTERISTIC of Narendra Modi’s tenure as Prime Minister are the foreign trips he has racked up—16 in his first year, followed by another 10 in his second year in office. It seems he likes nothing better than jaw-jawing in foreign climes.

For all the media hoo-ha, Modi’s tours are fetching diminishing returns, with each new foreign tour appearing less fresh, less substantive, but more wearisome. Consider Modi’s interactions with the US President: He has met Barack Obama seven times in all, four times in America, and twice on visits to Washington. But a few days before the supposed honour done Modi with the invitation to address the US Congress, the US Senate rejected recognising India as America’s ‘global strategic and defence partner’ and the White House did not pitch India’s case to Ireland, New Zealand, Austria, Brazil and Turkey, for admission to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), unlike in 2008 when the then President George W Bush burned the wires—including with China—to get India its NSG waiver. And, notwithstanding Modi’s charm offensive and personal pleading on state visits to Mexico and Switzerland, neither Mexico City nor Berne relented in opposing India’s NSG membership.

So, what’s going wrong with Modi’s forays in the external realm, which made such a splash early on, transfixing the country and at least the expat part of the Western world, replete with crazed crowds in Madison Garden, New York, Wembley Stadium, London, and the Allphones Arena, Sydney? Well, they hit the limits of personalised diplomacy.

What makes personalised diplomacy tick? Mainly, its rarity and the manner in which it is conducted and for what purpose. It is a double-edged sword, though. A helmsman putting his prestige and status on the line, and doing the slog-work—the domain of professional diplomats—of stumping for support from foreign countries, endows the venture he is involved in with significance beyond anything the foreign country may accord it. But there have been more failures than payoffs. This is due to the hyperbolic media build-up and raising of expectations that have provided clever adversary states the opportunity to show India in bad light, pull Modi down a peg or two, and magnify his failure. Thus, Chinese President Xi Jinping ignored Modi’s entreaties for “a fair and objective assessment” of India’s case for NSG membership in their meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Tashkent on 23 June, resulting in egg on the latter’s face and a hit to India’s reputation.

Modi’s calling card—his tight embraces, bear hugs and hand- holding—unique to his personalised diplomacy, which he believes makes for instant warmth and cordiality, hasn’t worked either. Nawaz Sharif responded happily to such gestures, and Obama, who roomed with a Pakistani during his days at Columbia University, reciprocated. But it has left most other leaders, such as French President François Hollande, in a state of embarrassed discomfort.

At its core, the trouble is that the Prime Minister has made too many foreign trips and converted too many foreign policy issues into occasions for grandstanding, and his interventions have now palled, eroding his credibility and raising doubts about his ability to distinguish between the truly significant national interest that needs pursuing with his direct involvement and relatively less important concerns that can be productively handled by diplomats.

It underlines just how precious a head of government’s personal political capital is in international relations and why it should be carefully husbanded, doled out in very small doses, and his presence deployed only in rare situations to obtain decisive results on large issues of war and peace, or to garner huge economic gains. In the field of foreign policy, ‘out of the box’ thinking and actions that Modi extols do not require that he always lead the charge. Since squandered personal capital cannot easily be restocked, the Indian Prime Minister may soon discover he has exhausted this resource when he most needs it in the future, rendering him less effective as a statesman.

There is also the danger that every passing failure will lead him to engage his ego more deeply in failing causes and to ‘lose face’. The great Chinese strategist Sun Tzu had warned that losing face has costs. But Modi indicated in his interview to Times TV that his Government will bull ahead regardless on the NSG front. Or as MEA spokesman Vikas Swarup put it: “Today, Indian diplomacy doesn’t fear failure. If we don’t get desired results, we [will] redouble our efforts.” But doggedness is not always a diplomatic virtue; it can result in the country digging itself into a bigger hole, nor is backing off to mount an offensive on another axis a show of weakness.

Modi’s personalised diplomacy is affected by other factors as well. It is clear the Prime Minister has his own foreign policy agenda and plan of action, has strong views on everything, and welcomes only policy ideas conforming to his own notions, summarily rejecting contrary advice from any quarter. Convinced of his power to persuade Xi, Modi, for example, shrugged off the MEA’s apprehensions about China’s unwavering opposition to India’s NSG entry. Modi’s style of working reveals tremendous confidence, and massive ego, pride, and vanity to match—natural for a person who has traversed the distance from the lowest rungs of society to the highest position in the country.

In this set-up, his National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar are mere functionaries doing Modi’s bidding. It has simplified the policymaking process. Jaishankar, for instance, has dispensed with the ‘collegium’ system followed by his predecessors of consulting other secretaries in the Ministry because such collective counsel is deemed extraneous to his brief and the Prime Minister’s needs. The MEA, including its Minister Sushma Swaraj, are thus marginalised.

Doval and Jaishankar have only to take care not to question Modi’s outlook and approach, or to contradict his views, and to deliver on cue. Then again, they have the same orientation the Prime Minister does of seeing the West as the source of solutions for India’s problems. Apparently, they have had a harder time adjusting to Modi’s peculiarly Gujarati conceit (representative of the trader community of that province) central to his diplomacy that because his negotiating wiles cannot easily be countered, he can cut beneficial deals all by himself with anybody. With Modi, in effect, both writing the diplomatic music and directing the orchestra, the PMO and MEA are reduced to keeping the musicians and their instruments in order.

With long experience of dealing with egotistical Third World leaders, Western governments long ago finessed the ministering to their vanity as means of advancing national interests into a fine art. Western capitals quickly learned, for instance, that gargantuan returns can be raked in by making the right noises, seconding Modi’s perspective, and waxing emphatic about his ‘Make in India’ programme. Fawned on and feted by Hollande in Paris, Modi suddenly announced the buy of 36 Rafale fighter planes that torpedoed the underway medium multi-role combat aircraft procurement process and undermined Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s more economical and effective option of buying twice as many Indian-assembled Su-30MKIs for the same amount as the Rafale, that would have left money over for producing the locally-designed Tejas light combat aircraft.

Likewise, in tilting towards the US, Modi has been unmindful of the huge economic and geopolitical costs involved in terms of loss of strategic autonomy and alienating Russia, an indispensable strategic partner. Unlike the US, Moscow has been relaxed about transferring frontline military equipment (such as the Akula-II nuclear attack submarine) in contrast to Washington flogging 1970s vintage F-16 and F-18 aircraft, and in assisting in the design and production of the Arihant-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile-firing submarines. Compare this technology level to the US promise of help in producing short-range tactical drones and battery packs.

Modi has seemingly bought into Washington’s transactional policy requiring New Delhi to make endless buys of inordinately expensive technology and military hardware just so the US grows to trust India. Except, US punitive policies created the trust deficit in the first place, which Modi doesn’t think matters.

He has thus agreed to purchase six Westinghouse AP 1000 light water reactors that will divert scarce funds from Indian projects to develop breeder reactors and follow-on thorium reactors. The US offer of the electro-magnetic aircraft launch system will make the Indian-built carriers cost-prohibitive, at $10 billion per vessel. And importing the 155 mm M-777 howitzer from the US instead of procuring the Bharat Forge-designed and produced lightweight, air transportable utility gun, will dampen private sector initiatives and mock Modi’s defence indigenisation policy. The total bill will be in tens of billions of dollars.

There’s no one to tell Modi he is on the wrong track. A liability in diplomacy, vanity won’t permit him to acknowledge his mistakes. Worse, it has made him susceptible ‘to be turned’, as a senior diplomat put it, ‘for small cash’.
Published as ‘Open Essay’ under the title “As Modi Embraces the World: Limits of personalised diplomacy” in Open magazine, July 15, 2016 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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27 Responses to Limits of Modi’s personalised diplomacy

  1. Punjabi Sardar says:

    He doesn’t realize we don’t have the economic weight & the soft power that comes with it, to behave like this.

    Xi or Putin acting like this would be seen as slightly shameless, let alone leader of a 2nd rate regional power like India. It was necessary though, after a long hiatus of no diplomacy.

    Best that Modi focus on the countryside. That’s where the poor and the the votes are.


  2. As Karnad sir repeatedly point out Modi is no Vajpayee, Rajiv or Indira. He falls into a deadly failure – insult – failure cycle.

    • Modi is the only Indian leader ever since independence who has not taken a bribe in defence deals.MODI IS THE GREATEST INDIAN LEADER EVER UNTILL NOW!!!!!

      • Re: corruption, absolutely no doubt — he is as clean as clean can be.

      • andy says:


      • andy says:

        @Veerpratap Singh Chohan
        One knows there’s hot blood coursing through the veins, but there’s no need to bring out the sword at every turn in the story. One can get one’s point across in a milder way ,even if it doesn’t match Bharats viewpoint.

        One likes to be here because one knows it’s many steps above run of the mill blogs that are a dime a dozen on the net,here we are interacting with a true intellectual (although he wants to reach for his pistol whenever he hears this word)so let’s not abuse this privilege by being militant in our outlook,we can differ with his opinion without rancour. That’s saying a lot.

      • &^%$#@! says:

        One currently does not know if he is corrupt. Corruption is not the sole factor that ruined India. It’s the combination of incompetence + corruption that is one of the primary causes. It’s OK to be reasonably corrupt if one is competent. There’s plenty of corruption in China and the US. But the powers-that-be are not incompetent as compared to their Indian counterparts. Judging by his record till date, and assuming he is not corrupt, he is either grossly incompetent and/or appears to harbor an agenda that is detrimental to Indian strategic interests. The virtual freezing of the Agni program and his embrace of the foundation agreements (not signing them till now only because of possible domestic ramifications) are two examples to support this claim. .

      • &^%$#@! says:

        As an addendum, another example of Modi’s incompetence is his reliance on sloganeering and cheap gimmicks as a substitute for sound governance is his much touted :Make in India” initiative. Till date, I have still to come across a cogent document that formally describes the scope and ambit of this initiative. It’s like the so-called “Gujarat model” which he used for effect in getting elected. Till date, I have yet to come across a document that describes the fundamentals of this alleged socio-economic model in depth.

      • andy says:

        A narrative worth pondering over.

  3. andy says:

    I guess PM Modi has never heard about delegation of authority and wants to do everything himself.Nothing wrong with multitasking but it’s almost impossible for one individual to do so much unless he’s Superman.

    The PM would be well advised to concentrate on providing an over arching vision to MEA and let the career diplomats look after the nitty gritties of day to day affairs.No need for him to visit foreign capitals cap in hand, begging them to endorse India’s entry into world groupings like NSG or the UNSC.

    Also it’s embarrassing for an average Indian citizen to see serial hugging by the PM when meeting other world leaders as also business heads,maybe he should refrain from this act or at least curb his instincts to do so.If he had serial hugged the opposition leaders in India the GST bill,land acquisition act as well as the labour reforms would probably have been passed in Parliament by now and much needed impetus would have been provided to the economy.

    His fetish for America can probably be traced back to his sojurns there when he was a nobody from a small provincial town and travelled coast to coast in that country.

    One thing admirable about the man is if he fails it’s not due to lack of effort. Can question his methods but probably not his motives.

  4. andy says:

    ~!@#$%^&*()_+ ????

    Happens to the best of us.Main thing is our heart is in the right place vis a vis India’s national interest just like Bharat Karnad.

  5. To be fair, Modi inherited weak Sonia, Manmohan and Antony throne.
    Remember one decade ago he was a criminal to USA and UK. Now he is their guest of honor!
    There are limits to our soft, hard and economic power. We should play Russia, America and China cards ruthlessly in the new great game. Geopolitics is a poker game. France and Israel play Pakistan, Iran and Saudi cards for their gain.

  6. Reproducing a forwarded email response from a former FOC-in-C to an ex-CNS:

    Txns .I entirely agree with Bharat.History has shown that most autocratic rulers have had dramatic or violent ends. This person [Modi] too has limited choices. A Nation like ours needs mature and consensual approach, more so now since we have many regional entities and aspirations.Challenges within the country need better focus as the youth is getting alienated and agitated. Cosying up to Americans can give limited short term benefits and obsolescence technologies(F 16/18s and not JSF/Standard LRSAMs!), so let us not fall into a trap! Let the professionals stand up and be counted so that predigested inputs are put up for sound national level decisions and international/global interactions.We are nowhere close to any ‘high table’ in international affairs.A pity since despite our considerable national strength, we are yet to define our strategic vision and hence are content with mostly knee-jerk reactions!I wonder if Westinghouse has in recent years erected any modern technology nuclear power plants?

  7. Reproduced here an email response to above piece by Col. Gautam Das (retd), ex-Gorkha Rifles and presently senior researcher at the United Service Institution of India:

    Loved your recent piece on the subject.

    My personal belief, which has been growing for some time, is that Modi is digging himself into a Nehruvian foreign-policy hole; the same ego-driven one man policy-making and deciding that led to the 1962 debacle vis-a-vis China. This may sooner or later push us into a major difficulty, as China will find an opportunity to seriously embarrass us. We are being stupid.

  8. MS says:

    Ha ha ha. Can you write more such columns that are fun than reading some defence matter with serious face. Is life any fun if we can’t dine beneath the glittery chandeliers when the long camera lenses are flashing all around! But is that really a symbol of power? You rightly said that the western countries are massaging our ego and selling us the billion dollar stuff. They must be must be kicking themselves in glee every time they praise us and then get contracts.

    Modi is still the most capable person in politics – acumen and also the ability to see the breadth of issues-wise. I do not know others who could grapple with issues. Do we see a leader who could play on a wider canvass because our problems are more and only getting bigger? But we are not solving them. Indian expats are fine but the action is here in India.

    Thanks for mentioning the cost of that emals tech. Are big nuclear aircraft carriers really required when we do not have even a dozen stealthy submarines in the water?

    Thank God, the defence minister has put the missiles from Israel on hold because of cost. Could you write a note on what strategic choices on weapons we should make sometime. Should we spend on putting 15 stealthy powerful submarines in the water, have a few hundred SU-30 in the air, and hone in the best tech for our long range missiles OR go for these mindless things like nuclear aircraft carriers.

    You have written very very nicely and well, woven the concern on splurging on obsolete or onerous purchases into the scene that is playing out. I enjoyed it.

    • On the “strategic choices” of armaments — this is a running concern you will find addressed in numerous posts on this blog and in my writings, including my last book — Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet). It is a subject that will be tackled in greater depth with the future force structure in mind in my next book, which’s in the works. May I, therefore, counsel a bit of patience! Thanks. But until then, do please peruse previous posts. And specifically re: EMALS, may I direct you to my op/ed piece “US Defence bait is potent but impractical symbolism” in the New Indian Express published May 29, 2015 accessible at, or the post at

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      • MS says:

        Common sense and some interest in defence tells one that in today’s world a large country with its populace working hard(now in the private sector and earlier in the govt sectors) has to have 15(or 20?) stealthy submarines with lethal long range missiles, hundrerd of fighter planes and military with guns.

        Some expert may say- oh no, we would need much more diverse platforms.

        I did read your piece in Indian express when it was published and then went to the bottom to see who has written it. It appealed to me that someone was calling for restraint in spending amidst the chaotic big demands, That is how I got to know you.

        While I am interested, I suggested you write a column on the strategic choices ‘for everybody to read’ and repeatedly so that decision making could be influenced. That is the motive-not knowledge but influencing the decision on purchases.

  9. sanman says:

    I agree with Mr Karnad’s comments, although not necessarily with some of the commenters who like to hurl the most churlish insults at Modi. Fine, he is a man of humble origins and upbringing, and this obviously reflects in his personal demeanor, which contrasts with the likes of Manmohan Singh. This is why I feel the stately Mr Jaitley with his dignified manner and world-class oratorial skills would have been better in the Foreign Minister post than in Finance. His eloquence is wasted as Finance Minister, and he would have much better served the country by representing it on the world stage. This would have allowed Modi to spend more time on domestic diplomacy in cutting more deals with other parties to get around Congress obstructionism. Maybe Suresh Prabhu could have been made Finance Minister to handle the entire budget, instead of just the Railway budget. And Sushma Swaraj could have been given the HRD role instead of the combative Smriti Irani.

  10. SANKET says:

    If you say that Modi has made our PMO and MEA irrelevant then why has he not been able to take quick decisions on issues such as delivery of missiles to Vietnam and setting up of overseas Indian bases?

    • The delay, and it is not just vis a vis the Brahmos to Vietnam is, perhaps, because he is looking over his shoulders to gauge possible US reaction, I reckon.

      • In 1962 China attacked India and proved to the Soviets China will attack any Soviet ally with Impunity.
        In 2016 they proved to the USA they won’t blink and will attack all US allies in Asia. In the NSG fiasco five so called Indian friends turned Brutus.
        In the coming imminent, inevitable Chinese Invasion of India, Summer 2018, we can count only on Russia, France, Israel and Vietnam.
        So much for the Schelling doctrine. The less powerful competitor (in this case China) will back down first from escalation dominance. Sorry, Armchair Generals.
        Karnad Sir, will you cover lost 1969 and 1979 chances in your next book?

      • &^%$#@! says:

        India was not a Soviet ally in 1962.

  11. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    @andy, we are two different people :):

    ~!@#$%^&*()_+ and &^%$#@!.

    I was not commenting on this write up. But Modi ji does overdo a lot of his social/diplomatic overtures. I have stopped IDing myself as a supporter in public. Who goes to US 4 times in 2 years, unless its a punter going to Vegas?

    But for me at the moment, his prompt followups on defence matters and his drive are a saving grace. The Indian defence production is up and has hope for the future. Only cause for concern are the bloody foundational agreements. Elements of armed forces leadership were already compromised well before he came in. So nothing much can done about that currently.

    • Shaurya says:

      There are many more strategic blunders of Modi that can be cited but there is a TINA political factor that has set in.

      The way to compare Modi in an honest manner is to compare him with the ABV admin. One will immediately see the differences in style, approach and capabilities. It is difficult to stomach the hard truth, strategic policy blunders do not have ANY impact on political fortunes. Modi understands this and is acting accordingly. Only the “thinking” class has any inkling of the opportunities lost. To translate these to political costs is not a straight forward translation.

      I am glad that there are a few places where such policy can be discussed without partisan politics.

  12. andy says:

    OMG!Haven’t noticed the difference as I wasn’t looking out for them, the captions seem so similar if one skims over them!

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