Carpe diem, India?

PM Modi meets IFS probationers | YouTube

[PM Modi meeting with IFS probationers]

It is hard to know if the poet Horace, in 23 BC, was being satirical or optimistic about the future of Rome with his cry “carpe diem quam minimum credula postero”— ‘seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the next one’ — after Augustus Caesar had vanquished his domestic foes, ended the Republic and began the Empire by pacifying Iberia, conquering Egypt and installing himself as the pharoah.

The foreign policy comparisons  

Horace came to mind with three recent, probably unrelated, events. In his column (The Times of India, 29 May), BJP Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta fulminated against the “left liberal” and “global ‘woke’ fraternity” for slamming Narendra Modi’s management of, and his government’s performance during, the Covid-19 pandemic and hinted darkly at the “Old Establishment” forging “alliances with foreign entities” to pull down India and besmirch the Prime Minister. But there is also a minuscule group of socially liberal right-wingers that has been lambasting Modi 2016 onwards for something a lot worse – for not even making an effort to deliver on his election slogans and promises. “Minimum government, maximum governance”, “Government has no business to be in business”, and “atmnirbharta”, they argue, have remained just rhetoric in the Modi oeuvre, even as conservative precepts touting individualism and the rapid privatisation of the public sector are ignored.

On 2 June, a government order proposed to dock the pensions of retired intelligence officers and the like who reveal some skulduggery or cloak-and-dagger business in their memoirs, and tasked the current heads of departments they worked in to decide what revelation breached which sensitive information threshold. While unexceptionable — the vetting requirement is standard in CIA and MI 6, for example — department heads in the Indian context, however, are likely to play safe and redact all interesting stories. This may preserve national secrets but render a potential bestseller-manuscript dud on arrival, and aspiring memoirists sans fat book contracts.

The vetting directive and the shrill reaction to criticism generally suggest a thin-skinned Modi regime that wants to ensure its advertisements about itself are not publicly shredded. Unfortunately, such actions don’t burnish India’s democratic credentials or the Prime Minister’s personal reputation.

A day later on 3 June, four foreign service stalwarts – Kanwal Sibal, Shyamala Cowsik, Veena Sikri and Bhaswati Mukherjee — fronting for something called ‘Forum of Former Ambassadors of India’ (FFAI) published an apologia for Indian foreign policy post-2014 in The Indian Express. It started with an attack against “those who were at the helm of our foreign and security policies in the past”, “relentlessly” criticising “Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policies”. This article drew interest in part because Jyoti Malhotra highlighted in her 8 June column in ThePrint that FFAI is patronised by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s ideological fount and political bedrock. These critics of Modi the FFAI is at loggerheads with, it turns out, are members of the Constitutional Conduct Group (CCG), which like FFAI, is of recent vintage. The former founded in 2018 is more settled with a proper Constitution, etc; the latter, currently better placed, is still finding its feet, its defence of Modi’s record marking its public debut. If CCG has in its ranks former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon and ex-Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, who served Manmohan Singh and, by Dasgupta’s reckoning, constitute the “Old Establishment”, FFAI is led by Sibal, Foreign Secretary for a couple of years in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. At one level, this seems to be an intramural fight to influence the public perceptions of Modi and his policies.

And why the comparison isn’t worth it

There is, however, nothing to choose between the quality of CCG’s defence of the Manmohan Singh-era foreign policies, when the strategically debilitating civil nuclear cooperation deal with the United States was formalised, for example, and the policies of the successor BJP government during which the three “foundational accords” were signed with America, and the Quadrilateral (India, US, Japan, Australia) to contain China in the Indo-Pacific articulated. They are both equally incoherent and disjointed, reflecting the confusion at the heart of Indian foreign policy. (For substantive critiques of the foreign and national security policies under Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi, refer respectively to my 2015 book Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet) and my 2018 book Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambitions.)  

Indeed, Sibal, et al, in trying to argue that CCG’s criticism is unwarranted because its leading members had a hand in crafting Manmohan Singh’s policies that Modi has persisted with, acknowledge that the BJP government has, Gulf countries apart, done absolutely nothing new in the foreign policy field, there being “clear continuities”, as they put it, in Modi’s approach to the neighbourhood, the United States, China, Russia, and the Quadrilateral – the “security diamond” (not “Indo-Pacific” they claim was) conceived by Shinzo Abe in 2007.  But FFAI’s assertion, for instance, that “The Modi government has paid far more attention to its neighbours than the previous government”, does not mean relations with most of them have improved, nor that Modi’s “109 visits abroad, visiting 60 countries” other than as a record of his travel, really benefited India. These are the sorts of elementary mistakes CCG and FFAI representatives make in overstating the alleged successes of Modi and Manmohan Singh in external affairs.

Trouble is FFAI seeks protection from brickbats for the BJP government on the ground that in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic it deems a “national calamity”, the country has to be “united”. This self-serving argument, smacking of the desire to ingratiate itself with Modi seeks, in effect, blanket immunity from criticism for those in power because India, after all, faces some calamity or the other all the time.

Where both Congress and BJP failed

Both the Congress and BJP governments can be seen to have failed if the ‘India First’ metric — originally conceptualised by this analyst in 2002 (‘India First’, Seminar, Issue 519, 2002) which Modi flogged in his first election campaign — is used to judge Indian foreign policy. This is so because the ‘India First’ tilt, predicated on overturning the regional and international status quo, has been missing. Reason why a heavyweight India has all along boxed in bantamweight-class, and desperately needs disruptive foreign and military policies to carve out an independent strategic space and role for itself with appropriately re-configured armed forces. But this sort of thinking is anathema to risk-averse Indian policymakers whether in the BJP or Congress, and their sympathisers in FFAI or CCG.

More damagingly, Indian regimes, of whatever ideological stripe, have stayed stuck in the subordinate State mindset, cementing the country’s standing as a pawn on the global chessboard. Preoccupation with the risk/reward calculus of band-wagoning with the US or Russia or China has resulted in nothing meaningful being done to make India, a nation with natural heft, a player. Or, to help the country to seize the moment.


[Published in ThePrint, June 14, under the title — “No great choices between the two ex-diplomats’ camps. Both equally incoherent” 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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10 Responses to Carpe diem, India?

  1. Amit says:

    Sir, I think that India has ambitions that are not commensurate with its capabilities. To be a leading power, it is necessary to be strong economically. However, this government has so far not delivered on India’s economic promise, in spite of attempts at bringing in good policies like the bankruptcy law, GST, farmers laws etc. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to draft/pass good policy. It is equally important to implement them well. So far India has failed to do this. Unless India grows it’s economic heft and be a stronger state (as Professor Fukuyama describes it), there is no point boasting about India on the world stage. For all its great philosophies which talk about humility and truth, India is currently in an exercise of empty boasting. And a lot of Indians seem to support such airy boasts. There is some progress happening no doubt. But let’s be honest – we are no leaders, and are hardly doing enough to fix the key thing which can enable leadership – the economy.

  2. whatsinitanyway says:

    Haha I will borrow some chapters from your books and some articles from this site for my book ‘The India way and Hitchiking’ or the other way around. The conclusive chapter will only have a single line – ‘Expect change of hearts from your enemies avoid …. avoid faceoff at ALL( quiet literally) cost’ .

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

    MEA following the old line and proffering that a virtue makes for hilarious reading.
    MEA has simply taken up the useless portions of the older UPA policies and put them on twin turbo. Surely there would have been some debate within the fraternity before the ill thought out foundational agreements were signed or the PM was asked to rally for Trump. Surely someone must have stood up for a contrarian view. Now the ‘friends’ already have the best deal in their bag and they don’t need the apologists stationed within the Indian establishment anymore. OTOH now we have Russians working out Gas Swap arrangements with Qatar, Pakistan and the EU buyers. We have ended up with the worst of all the possibilities.

    Just look at the kind of ‘analysis’ being fed to Indian public :
    China को लेकर Vladimir Putin का बयान- चीन हमारे लिए खतरा नहीं, एक मित्र राष्ट्र है – 15 Jun 2021 – TV9 Bharatvarsh

    I just hope the higher ups actually don’t believe in this drivel.
    Mostly the country does not deserve an Indian Putin after the Indian Yeltsin and the Indian Gorbachev but I believe we have all we need to be able to work with a simple ordinary leadership structure.

  4. Aeur says:

    Since 1986 the Indian foreign service is run not by political appointees ie ministers but by IFS babus who have shown total incompetence in pursuing Indian interests abroad. Pakistan manages to please both usa and china while India manages to irritate Russia while becoming vassal to usa

    • Pradeep Sharma says:

      Sadly, the country is run by incompetent leaders on the political front and non professionals in the IAS/IFS. By and large National Interests are ignored over personal interests, this leaves us nowhere! Over the past 70 odd years we have been dependent on foreign military equipment,imagine what would have happened if our own Industry had gone into produce defence requirements? A huge saving to the exchequer apart from adding to it and independence from out side supply.
      Three things are most important for development, Strong Economy( includes Agriculture), Strong Military Power and honesty of National Character.

  5. Sankar says:

    “Both the Congress and BJP governments can be seen to have failed if the ‘India First’ metric” –
    I am not sure whether such an assessment is correct to go along in an absolute sense.

    I mean, there have been sparingly few events in the post-1947 recorded history where one could discern Delhi’s vision to the contrary. First comes to mind, the Hyderabad operation under Sardar Patel (as the HM) although Nehru was at the helm (as the PM). Second, the Goa operation to boot out the Portuguese undertaken by Nehru in early 1960 when the Western World went deadly against India. Then 1971 Bangladesh war under Indira Gandhi defying the US all the way. Next comes perhaps the Pokhran test under the watch of Indira Gandhi. This was followed by integrating Sikkim within the Indian Union, again under Indira Gandhi’s command, when China sat dumb watching and the US did not know what to do. All such watershed events in India’s history happened under Congress’s leadership. And finally, the recent move on J&K by Modi-Shah to abolish(?) Art 370, or make the provisions in it virtually inoperative.

    All this is not to say that I differ from Professor Karnad in what he has politically analyzed and well documented in his work, I would agree with him totally in all the cases he has given his astute judgment. My point is that there could be other cases where one needs to look again to study the nation’s evolution

  6. Arindam Bora says:

    Mr. Karnad sir can you please confirm as to whether France had indeed provided India with the codes for nuclear delivery by the Dassault Rafales? There are news reports that it had but a confirmation from an expert like you would lend much greater credibility to the news.

  7. Rudra says:

    Hello Prof
    Can you tell us about the state of food security (also touch upon diversity, since wheat-paddy monoculture turned Punjab into cancer belt).

    What will happen if farmers switch to organic

    • Not my field. But I wonder if “organic farming” can be scaled up to obtain the same levels of production with similar efficiency (in terms of inputs — ammoniate fertlizers, etc.) as commercialized or industrial farming.

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