The Hindu’s review of ‘Staggering Forward’

‘Staggering Forward-Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’ review: Foreign policy in a hurry

'Staggering Forward-Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition' review: Foreign policy in a hurry

An examination of India’s diplomacy finds it wanting on many counts, from Pakistan to tackling ‘blind-spots’ like the U.S. and China

Books on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy have one thing in common: they come too soon. In order to judge the efficacy of any policy it requires more than the four years that the Prime Minister has occupied his position. One needs to put some distance between NDA-II’s tenure and present times in order to distinguish what was driven by policy and what is simply a reaction to a set of events.

Talks with Pakistan

Was the decision not to have talks with Pakistan a policy, for example? If so, why did the PM visit Lahore? If calling off talks was linked to acts of terrorism, then why were Foreign Secretary level talks scheduled in August 2014 cancelled over a meeting the Pakistan High Commissioner had with the Hurriyat? Similarly, if “Neighbourhood First” is a policy, what must one make of the 2015 blockade of Nepal, or the fact that outlays for all SAARC neighbours (with the exception of the Maldives) were actually lower in 2018 than they were in 2013? If stated goals are a parameter of policy, then how should one grade Modi on his twin-ambitions for the UN Security Council and the Nuclear Suppliers Group memberships? Finally, how does one judge success with the great powers as distinct from the past in such a time span: U.S., Russia and China, when each comes with its own legacy and historical baggage of ties over 70 years? Ironically, the area of Modi’s foreign relations that are seen as his best success, i.e. with West Asia, is not even defined as a considered policy by most.

Nevertheless bookstores abound with volumes on Modi’s foreign policy, including The Modi Doctrine: New Paradigms in India’s Foreign Policy (Ganguly & Chauthaiwale), Modi Doctrine: The Foreign Policy of India’s Prime Minister(Sreeram Chaulia), Modi’s World (C. Rajamohan), Modi’s Foreign Policy(Tremblay & Kapur), and Modi’s Midas Touch in Foreign Policy (Surendra Kumar). Many are simply hagiographies, written by admirers of the Prime Minister, and most are by adherents to a ‘muscular’ India that shows its ‘red eyes’ to adversaries, and takes its rightful place on the world stage beside other great powers. Criticism of Modi’s foreign policy, thus far, has been derided as the work of ‘weak-spirited peaceniks’, ‘Cold war relics’ or ‘champions of non-alignment’ (which is now a discarded policy).

‘India First’

The latest book on this shelf, Bharat Karnad’s Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition, is however, different for a number of reasons. To begin with, Karnad, who describes himself as a conservative strategist, is very much an adherent to the ‘muscular India’ policy. Long before Modi burst on the national scene, Karnad advocated staring down China, using force with neighbours who didn’t come to heel, and argued against India’s self-imposed moratorium on nuclear testing. In his introduction, Karnad claims primary ownership of the “India First” concept since 2002, which became a commonly used phrase during Modi’s 2014 campaign. He also admits to having been disappointed by Modi’s foreign policy in practice, particularly on three counts: what Karnad sees as supplication to the United States, appeasement of China to the detriment of India’s influence in its neighbourhood, and a lack of respect for India’s strategic integrity including an over-yielding nuclear posture. “Candidate Modi roared like a tiger, as Prime Minister he has been a purring kitten when dealing with big cats,” writes Karnad, comparing Modi’s actions to “uncoiling his ruthlessness only against a weak and enervated Pakistan, and his domestic political opponents on the other.” The sentiment is startling because the author is otherwise himself a proponent of harsh measures against Pakistan’s military.

Staggering Forward… is its most incisive, even brutal, in its discussion of Prime Minister Modi’s style of diplomacy, with a chapter devoted to the ‘Impact of Modi’s Persona on Government’. While conceding that Modi’s “unselfconscious hugging” of world leaders is a “diplomatic innovation”, only possible because of his personal confidence levels, Karnad believes Modi’s “narcissistic” belief in a “God-given gift (Modi’s words)” to understand the world around him has reduced most officers of the Ministry of External Affairs to “glorified peons”. He also accuses the PM of conflating good personal ties with world leaders with an idea that they will be guided by India’s interests instead of the country they represent. Throughout the book, Karnad is clear that Indian foreign policy must tackle its two “blind-spots”: U.S. and China, and among the solutions he propounds are the ouster of the U.S. from the Quadrilateral (a ‘Mod-Quad’ with Australia, Japan and ASEAN) and the ouster of China from BRICS (BRIS).

The book is remarkably up-to-date, and discusses events through to the middle of 2018. Karnad even weighs in on the COMCASA agreement that was signed during the Pompeo visit this week. Two chapters focus on the task ahead for both military modernisation as well as defence procurement, with a detailed critique of the Modi government’s Make in India policy. The book is intense reading, with the prose clearly flowing from the angry pen of an author upset with every aspect of the direction India has “staggered forward” in. If it upsets the PM and his admirers, they can take comfort from the fact that it judges his predecessors even more harshly.


[Published in The Hindu, Sept 8, 2018, 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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5 Responses to The Hindu’s review of ‘Staggering Forward’

  1. AD says:


    What is your theory on why those promoted to the top in Indian armed forces are so willing to buy “phoren” stuff over indigenously developed weapon systems? Also, why does the apparatus keeps on promoting the most naive and/or compromised people to the top? It is as if it was specifically designed to work against best interest of the country.

    Even much smaller nations prefer to develop and make their own weapons as far as possible- for reasons both strategic and linked to self-respect. On the other hand, a country of over a billion people which makes its own ICBMS, launch inter-planetary spacecraft and nuclear reactors pretends to be unable to build (or even copy) a decent assault rifle.

  2. Vishnugupt says:

    @ Prof. Karnad

    Mrs Haidar says “the author is otherwise himself a proponent of harsh measures against Pakistan’s military.”…………… clearly she haven’t read your work, being a religious follower of your work, i know that you that you are a very vocal proponent of free trade and unconditional withdrawal of Indian missiles and strike corps, because apparently New Delhi is the one who is spooking the “peace loving” Generals in GHQ Rawalpindi and “compelling” them to wage a holy war in Kashmir.

    So basically she failed to see that both of you want the same thing, which is basically nothing but Delhi “bending over backwards” to accommodate the Pakistanis on their terms.

    May be you should tell her this when you see her next time.(She can take a sigh of relief that even hawks in India believe that Indians and Pakistanis are still “co-optable”)

    On Mrs. Haidar saying that “unselfconscious hugging” of world leaders is a “diplomatic innovation”

    Well a hug is much more dignified than a “fraternal kiss” like the one between Brezhnev and Eric Honecker, which was the signature move of Leftist leaders when they met their comrades from other countries.

    I hope as a journalist she remembers the bear hug Castro gave to Mrs Gandhi.

    Its hypocritical for a ‘far left’ paper like The Hindu to take pot shots at Modi for hugging world leaders, when it is their ideological leaders who set the precedent of embarrassingly conspicuous public display of affection.

    Perhaps Modi is more leftist that ‘The Hindu’ realizes, because his actions clearly disappoints conservatives like me.

  3. Well, yes, that aspect of co-opting Pakistan — one of my pet themes — escaped Ms Haidar. Time guillotine coming down on a review deadline?

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