Ajai Shukla’s review in Business Standard of my new book:
Many of the themes in Bharat Karnad’s latest offering were earlier fleshed out in his 2015 book, “Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)” and have since been amplified in his prolific writings, blogposts and speaking appearances. Mr Karnad, who styles himself in his blog as “India’s foremost conservative strategist”, has robust views. He believes that if India wants to be treated like a Great Power, it must start thinking like one. New Delhi’s defence and security focus should be on China, without wasting effort on minnows like Pakistan. To ward off China, India must abandon its pusillanimous “No-First-Use” nuclear doctrine and be ready to go first with nuclear weapons to halt a Chinese conventional attack. To persuade Beijing from responding in kind, Mr Karnad wants India to develop, test and deploy thermonuclear weapons, which he regards as the final arbiters of power. Washington, he believes, constrains not benefits India. The relationship with Moscow must be nurtured more carefully. Karnad also wants India to outflank China and Pakistan through military bases in Central Asia and the Gulf.
In this book, Mr Karnad looks inwards at the trajectory Indian politics and policymaking has followed since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014. Given the author’s unapologetic, nationalistic, India-first approach to security policy, many would logically expect him to endorse the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) policies and achievements. But the hawkish Karnad of foreign and security policy reveals himself as slightly leftish liberal on domestic policy. This revealing sentence sums up his book: “This book is in the main a critique of Modi’s foreign and national security policies – an audit if you will… If readers find the analysis suffused with disappointment, they will not be wrong.”
Mr Karnad’s divergence with Modi’s worldview stems from a sophisticated understanding of India’s delicate social geography, and the way this impacts security dynamics – both internal and external. Mr Karnad writes that Modi has “nudged the fairly tolerant social order that has evolved over the millennia to accommodate an extraordinarily complex Indian society into a Hinduist straitjacket in line with the thinking of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh).” Quite clearly the author regards the BJP’s assault on internal social faultlines as more damaging to national security than any potential challenges from external foes.
In a provocative chapter, Karnad attempts to decode Modi’s political psychology, based on his documented actions since his days as an RSS sevak, emerging on the political landscape of Gujarat. Professor Ashish Nandi has elsewhere declared that Modi bears all the characteristics of a fascist. But the author chooses between David Rosen’s six psychological types – which are narcissist, obsessive-compulsive, Machiavellian, authoritarian, paranoid and totalitarian – and concludes that Modi is a narcissist. In Rosen’s theoretical framework, narcissists are “charismatic, attention-seeking… extremely convincing liars and are the ultimate users of people – demanding loyalty from others they seldom give in return, and don’t always make the best decisions but… [they] generally make the best leaders.”
In a disparaging analysis of Modi’s international policy, Mr Karnad terms it a “creeper-vine foreign policy”, based on the logic that it cannot stand on its own, without the support of a Great Power. He contrasts that with Jawaharlal Nehru’s policy of non-alignment, which forced the two superpowers of that time to compete for India’s favour, while retaining our freedom of action and choice. Mr Karnad is dismissive of the nominal policy of “strategic autonomy”, which he considers a veil behind which India is cozying up to the United States and bending to its diktat.
In the book’s most original strategic construct, the author suggests New Delhi could obtain genuine strategic autonomy and counter the “proto-hegemons” – the US and China – through two new security coalitions. The first is BRIS – named after Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa – which is BRICS, with China removed. Mr Karnad does not clarify who will expel China, or how.
The other coalition India should join is the catchily named Mod Quad – short for Modified Quadrilateral. This weaponised grouping cuts out America from the current Quadrilateral (India, US, Japan and Australia), replacing it with a rash of south east Asian countries. Myanmar and Vietnam book end the landward side, while Indonesia and the Philippines anchor the sea end; with other countries like Singapore, Thailand, Brunei and Malaysia in the middle. Given the difficulties these very countries face in presenting a united front in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Karnad should have clarified how they would manage with the additional contradictions of the Quadrilateral.
In a well-written book with lots of catchy phrases, the author concludes that Mr Modi’s sizzle – based on promises to end corruption, improve delivery, structurally transform the economy and use technology to provide development solutions – has ended in a fizzle.
Notwithstanding several contradictions, Mr Karnad presents an interesting evaluation of Modi’s strategic and economic performance, which will probably be widely read in an election year. The reader’s complaint would, however, be that he has taken too many pages to do so. This, despite an inordinately small font that makes reading difficult – the hallmark of a publisher that has chosen the wrong way to economise.
[Published in Business Standard Sept 25, 2018, at