Karnad’s critique of Modi’s foreign and security policies stands out as an important broadside from a prominent political commentator.
At the very outset, Karnad correctly argues that Modi had represented a potential break from India’s recent lacklustre past under the previous regime. Modi seemed to embody a clean image, a leader who was decisive and would bring about the much-needed reforms across the board. Few, if any, of these promises, Karnad argues, have been realised. Worse, stemming from his ideological convictions or because he is beholden to the foot soldiers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Modi has given free rein to highly divisive forces within the Indian society. Apart from this dubious domestic stance, Karnad argues, Modi has engaged in much fanfare on the foreign policy front, but has failed to produce commensurate results.
Karnad attributes a good deal of these shortcomings to certain features of Modi’s alpha male personality, traits that he apparently shares with a number of other nationalistic and populist leaders across the world. Whether or not one accepts the premises derived from this form of popular psychology, there are at least some superficial similarities that he does share with a number of other nationalist leaders ranging from Donald Trump to Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Some of Karnad’s criticisms of Modi’s policies, whether or not they can be traced to his personality, are clearly on the mark. Among other matters, he faults Modi for his failure to devise a coherent strategy for dealing with India’s principal long-term adversary, the People’s Republic of China (PRC). More to the point, he takes Modi to task for his preoccupation with Pakistan, a country that poses a far more limited threat to India’s critical national security interests.
The other charges that are levelled against Modi’s foreign and security policy choices seem to stem mostly from his ideological leanings. For example, he is overly critical of what he deems to be Modi’s inordinate fondness for the United States at the cost of a tried and tested relationship with Russia. Elements of Indian elite opinion across the political spectrum do share this view. However, they, along with Karnad, fail to recognise the obvious: in the present global order, Russia is, at best, a partial power and is structurally incapable of wielding the clout of the erstwhile Soviet Union.
Karnad also returns to one of his favourite hobby horses: why India should have pursued thermonuclear weapons and how the US-India nuclear agreement has, for all practical purposes, undermined that goal. Yet, it is far from clear that India needs a thermonuclear deterrent to keep its principal adversaries, Pakistan and the PRC, at bay. On the contrary, it can be argued that the acquisition of a thermonuclear option may actually undermine the strategic stability in the region.
Finally, Karnad remains an ardent proponent of an indigenous defence base for India and so has harsh words for the country’s willingness to import a range of advanced weaponry. The quest for domestic defence capabilities, no doubt, is admirable. Yet, surely, Karnad must be aware that its limitations did not emerge under the Modi regime. Hardly a single homegrown weapons system seems to have been produced in a timely or cost-effective fashion.
These quibbles notwithstanding, Karnad’s critique of the Modi government’s foreign and security policies stands out as an important broadside from a prominent conservative political commentator. Accordingly, it is an assessment that is worth heeding.
(Sumit Ganguly is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science and holds the Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington)
Bharat Karnad’s response to the above review:
It requires pointing out that Ganguly’s description of my treatment of the subject as “uneven” betrays his own desire to side with his adopted country, the United States, and to have his country of origin, India, join with it in countering China and to buy “advanced weaponry” from. If I have an ideological leaning it is towards hard realpolitik and agile policies untrammeled by sentiment or the personal proclivities of leaders, and the need for India to assume its role and responsibility as, potentially, the heftiest balancer of international power, forces, and interests in the world today. Whence the case made in the book for not leaning over-much on America’s side, or alienating old friends, Russia and Iran, to please Washington.
As regards his slamming India’s indigenous defence industrial capability with his remark that the mainly public sector-led campaign has to-date produced little worthwhile in time or within cost misses out on the model I have explicated in this and previous books and in my other writings that the indigenization effort would be better led by a capable, profit-minded, and exports-driven private sector. Except, the US defence industry is hardly a great example for anybody to emulate, considering that the US has squandered in excess of a trillion dollars to produce an absolute disaster of a combat aircraft — the F-35 Lightning-II, and that too more than a decade past its deadline. The US Air Force has grounded the plane for faulty design and performance, and the ‘C’ variant of this aircraft with the US Navy can barely manage 15% serviceability rate. And mind you, this is supposedly the world’s leading aerospace company we are talking about, one that over the last 100 years and more has produced over 150 types of combat and transport aircraft. Now pit the F-35’s problems against the 4.5 generation Tejas light combat aircraft, designed and produced in the country that has survived despite the unhelpful attitude of the Indian government, proven weaknesses of a defence public sector unit such as HAL and the Indian Air Force’s visceral antagonism to anything home-grown. To wit, IAF’s shameful role in the 1970s in killing off the successor aircraft, the Dr. Raj Mahindra-designed Mark-II of the redoubtable HF-24 Marut, thereby setting India on the course to importing aircraft and becoming an abject arms dependency. The Marut, it may be recalled, was the first supersonic jet fighter to be designed and manufactured outside of North America and Europe, which took to the Bangalore skies in 1961. It provides a very different perspective, doesn’t it?