India not walking Modi’s big talk

Image result for pics of modi in asia

[Modi at the 10th East Asia Summit]

The recent G-20 Summit offered Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi the occasion he has frequently used to bolster his political standing at home. Except, while the domestic audience lapped up the Indian media coverage attending on his umpteenth such outing, in the real world of global power politics the Indian prime minister, sans hard power and/or hard cash to wield, was reduced as usual to a prop by Donald J. Trump, Xi Jinping, and Vladimir Putin. But Modi did in Buenos Aires what he has done in similar circumstances in the past – tried to make India relevant by seeming to be part of clashing coalitions. Thus, he met with Putin and Xi in a threesome to ballyhoo the prospects of the RIC (Russia-India-China) group before turning around and joining Trump and the Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe to extol the strategic virtues of Japan-America-India or “JAI”.

By not clearly indicating which side of the authoritarian-democratic divide India is on Modi hopes to firm up India’s standing as the balancer in the fluid global correlation of forces. This would be fine if the country was up for the great power game which it is not. Unlike other big powers India is not adept at realpolitik requiring an agile foreign policy and does not have a military clout with distant reach in support. This begs the question: Why has India with its size, strategic location and resources failed in the new Century to have impact?

India cannot become great only because of these attributes. It requires a leader with a powerful national vision, iron political will, and the ruthlessness to implement it by disrupting the extant balance of power and the extant balance of power in order to compel the world to deal with India on its own terms.

There was hope, now belied, that Modi would be such a leader. He has not articulated anew vision nor charted a new course but has doubled down on the retrograde policy of bandwagoning with the United States to ‘balance’ China in the Indo-Pacific region while distancing the country from old friends, such as Russia and Iran. By giving away free what could be sold dear, the Modi government finds it cannot wring concessions out of anybody. India signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement and the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement Washington desired and lost the leverage accruing from permitting contingent access to Indian bases, etc. or from playing ball on this or that issue in return for substantively furthering the country’s vital national interests. It permitted China unbalanced trade and finds it cannot easily reverse it.

Instead, Modi has made common cause with Washington in pressuring Tehran by reducing India’s off-take of Iranian oil by a third, and expensively retrofitting Indian refineries to handle Saudi crude, and alienated Russia by facilitating the US attempts to replace it as the principal arms supplier even though the American technology on offer is dated (F-16 versus Akula-II class attack submarine, for instance).And the US promise of collaboration on advanced military technology has produced nothing. Now India is facing the music for Modi’s gullibility.Washington has allowed Delhi just a 138-day reprieve on the CAATSA sanctions to zero out its oil purchases from Iran, and only a conditional waiver for its buy of the Russian S-400 air defence system. And, disregarding Modi’s fevered pleadings to desist from doing so, Trump shut down the H1B visa channel for Indian techies to work in the US and seriously hurt the $200 billion Indian IT industry.And Beijing allows grudging access to the Chinese market while China opens  the Indian bazaar for its goods, small openings at a time.

The problem is more serious. Modi seems unaware of the geostrategic costs of surrendering India’s foreign policy space, freedom and flexibility. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, for instance,declared without a trace of irony that “there’s no contradiction between strategic autonomy and strategic partnership”! That this overly-friendly attitude to America, which to-date has fetched meagre results, could lose India its access to the Iranian port of Chabahar, for example, and endanger its larger strategic plans of consolidating its presence in the Gulf and rail and road connectivity to Afghanistan and Central Asia as  counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, of pincering the Pakistan and Chinese navies operating out of Gwadar, and generally of hindering the enlargement of the Chinese military footprint in the Indian Ocean apparently concerns Modi little, but having the armed forces bully a lowly Pakistan has priority.

The truth is the Indian government has not walked Modi’s big talk.  India’s ‘Neighbourhood first’ policy can’t get over the Pakistan hump. Its ‘Act East’ policy is limping along. The build-up of military cooperation with the Southeast Asian nations, especially Vietnam, is slow-paced and lackadaisical, the freedom of navigation patrols by Indian warships in the disputed waters of the South China Sea infrequent, the annual summits with the Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe notwithstanding, the security links with Japan are in the doldrums with the Indian defence bureaucracy sidelining Japan’s flagship project it is willing to subsidise concerning transfer of the entire production line of the  Shinmaywa US-2 flying boat, and Australia’s admission to the Malabar naval exercise remains barred by Delhi.

Elsewhere,the development assistance Modi promised the Central Asian Republics is floundering for want of an efficient delivery system. And all this while China is racing ahead to cement its domination of Asia. The odd “success”, such as Indonesia handing over Sabang port in Sumatra for eventual Indian naval use, highlights a receptive milieu should India care to capitalize on opportunities.


[A version of the above piece entitled ‘Indian foreign policy not walking Modi’s big talk’ published 24 December 2018 by the East Asia Forum, Australian National University, Canberra, 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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2 Responses to India not walking Modi’s big talk

  1. Bob Debilder says:

    It would be great if Dr. Karnad could write an article on the latest re: Indian military bases on foreign soil. Including potential opportunities, offers that India has actually taken up, and the progress it has made in those respective locations.

  2. Read the section on the need for foreign mil bases in my last book, Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet), and match it up with analysis of what the Modi regime has done in this respect, in my new book — Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition.

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