The Discovery of India’s Heft (but not yet of how to use it)


[Modi and Jaishankar]

That India has clout if it acts independently in pursuit of narrowly defined national interest is something the Narendra Modi government apparently discovered, courtesy the Ukraine war. It reveals what is fundamentally wrong with Modi’s world view and how the S. Jaishankar-led Ministry of External Affairs assesses the world and India’s role in it.

     Initially skipping around moral issues to avoid condemning Russia for its messy military intervention, India became more forthright in pursuing its national interest. It was  uneasy about running afoul of the United States and the West but  unwilling to court President Vladimir Putin’s wrath.

     The balance of Delhi’s concerns was this: The US and European states, could be persuaded to be flexible on account of China, West’s other great rival, otherwise benefitting strategically. The Modi government hinted at the possibility of China using the Ukraine tensions to initiate hostilities across the disputed border as it had done in 1962 when exploiting the super powers’ distraction with the Cuban missile crisis to start the mountain war that India lost. It is a danger heightened by an unpredictable Putin, in a pique, slowing down the flow of military spares and creating no end of trouble for the Indian armed services. It eventuated in India’s “neutral” stance and abstentions on several UN votes, which preempted Putin from getting punitive.

     The success in dealing with the US and Russia led Jaishankar, at the Raisina Dialogue 2022, to declare, a trifle triumphantly, that “It’s better to engage with the world on the basis of who we are rather than try and please the world by being a pale imitation of what they are” and to not let “others define us, [or, have the] need to get approval from other quarters, [which] era”, he said, is “behind” us.

     This is very rah-rah and self-congratulatory, of course.  But the era he would like the country to forget is the one in which he had ceaselessly talked up India as needing to be part of “a rules-based order” — one dominated politically by the United States and the West, and economically by the US and China. It is a system, moreover, that because India had no part whatsoever in crafting, requires it to traipse through the minefields of clashing US, European, Russian and Chinese interests. In the event, like it or not, India and its interests are defined by whichever powerful country or countries it wants to sidle up to.

     Still, taking Jaishankar at his word, is he saying the extant correlation-of-forces was examined, India’s choices pondered, and decision made to pursue national interest by relying on itself? In that case, what’s not to like? Except, the success in resisting American pressure to disengage from Russia without alienating Washington, it must be noted, was at the sufferance of both the US and Russia.    

     The Indian foreign minister’s statement, however, suggested something else: A new, more disruptive, attitude and a departure from, what I have called, a “creeper vine” foreign policy that India adopted post-Cold War of clinging to the US to rise. Plainly, this is not so as Modi subsequently clarified. On the eve of his European tour, the PM reassured everybody that India’s rise would not be at the “cost” of any other country. So, disruption of the existing international order is not on the cards. In reality, it means India remaining what it has always been — a tame and timid country ready to ride any passing coattail with little gain in sight.     

     That’s not a surprise. The 2008 India-US civilian nuclear cooperation agreement promised “20,000 MW by 2020”, and the 2012 Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) advanced military technologies and high-value tech collaboration. Neither delivered. The only important project involving US help to design and develop a combat aircraft jet engine in India was terminated by President Donald Trump, notwithstanding the “Howdy, Modi!” and “Namaste Trump” galas in Houston and Ahmedabad respectively. And the series of DTTI and 2×2 meetings with the US have, like the Joint Working Group negotiations with China to resolve the border dispute, produced only promises to meet again.

     The “India as responsible state”-mantra that’s routinely rolled out to explain the country’s external behaviour has covered for India’s foreign and military policy inaction, lack of political will, loss of nerve, and for compromises at every turn. India has failed to respond to China’s nuclear missile arming Pakistan with like strategic arming of countries on China’s periphery. Incidentally, this was a late 1970s-vintage provocation the US was party to. Delhi then delayed the export of conventional warheaded Brahmos supersonic cruise missile to Vietnam, Philippines, et al, until now but blamed Russia for not previously permitting such sale, when India had the indigenous short-range Prithvi missile that it could have liberally dispensed.  And India did not instantly retaliate with air strikes against significant targets within Pakistan when terrorists attacked Parliament in December 2001, and Mumbai in November 2008.

     The fact is India never needed to placate the US, nor required the Ukraine issue to assert its policy freedom. It is America, the European Union, and Russia as I have long argued, that crucially need India to ringfence China. No other country in Asia has the location, size and the all-round heft. What is missing is an Indian government with the vision, iron will and self-confidence to talk straight with Washington and to demand a substantial price for partnering the US — expeditious transfers of high technology and such. Instead, New Delhi appears content with the H1B visa crumbs Washington throws its way.

     For reasons of economic and military counterweighting and access to its market, the US, EU, Russia and China alike find India indispensable to their plans.  It is “India’s moment” alright but not, as former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran roundaboutly argues, to get closer to America. That would be to squander a glorious opportunity for the country to emerge as international system balancer and great power, unconstrained by partnerships with big powers. Alas, that is not the path Modi and Jaishankar are taking.


Published in the Deccan Herald, May 9, 2022, 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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11 Responses to The Discovery of India’s Heft (but not yet of how to use it)

  1. Deepak says:

    Sir , you are correct in analyzing West needs India more than India needs West to counter raising China but India has failed to capitalize on this.
    We have not got any appreciable help from the West in the ongoing conflict in east Ladakh,lectures on human rights violation has not stopped, QUAD has not been able to put enough pressure on China to limit its aggression in sea or Himalayas.

  2. Amit says:


    The reasons the US has not parted with its top technologies are twofold – India still hedges wrt to China and the US does not part with technology even to its close partners (Germany and France have had no tech transfers even though they signed some sort of an agreement in 2017).

    With regard to the first reason, the Quad is mostly a talk shop and not a military grouping primarily because of India. Hence the formation of AUKUS. But the US has major concerns about Australian military capabilities. So the US would desperately like India to be more explicit militarily against China. But India uses the possibility of a detente with China to negotiate with the US rather than being more explicitly against China to extract tech transfers.

    Regarding the second reason, I’ve heard discussions in think tanks about changing US attitudes about sharing tech with allies and partners. They seem to realize that the US cannot alone contain China. For example, by 2027, the US will have 280 warships while China is expected to have 480 by 2030. Maybe this will make the US be more generous with India, who knows. However, so far the only allies and partners I’ve heard them talk about militarily upgrading are Australia and Japan, not India.

    So on the issue of top defence tech transfers, I think both India and the US contribute to lack of progress. On the Indian view on China, I can see Mr. Modi’s stamp – slight ambivalence on how it will deal with China. India’s handling of China is more political than military. In fact even how it has handled Russia is like that – nothing explicit, but unmarketed political moves to keep everyone guessing. Whether this is he right strategy to negotiate with the US, time will tell. The US would respond more quickly if India was explicit in its China containment. What you are suggesting is driving a hard bargain with the US on tech transfers for containing China. But I’m afraid until India is more explicit on China, the US may not overcome its own reluctance to part with top tech.

    • Sevak Sarkary says:

      You are making it sound that it is India’s fault. USA should PULL OUT all its business finance and manufacturing and stop buying goods from China before the USA or China can be trusted.
      It is wrong to assume that USA does not share technology with others. It definitively shares technology with China and other countries as it so chooses. IT Is NOT possible that China can make copies of USAs weapon systems without having high-level direct access to USA labs and manufacturing with consent. NO one is that smart in the Universe to produce identical copies of so many weapon systems even by secretly installing direct cameras/links.
      To summaries it for you, at least USA, China, UK, EU and even USSR are in Cahoots with each other and should be kept at a distance.

      • Amit says:

        @Sevak, you seem to be paranoid about having international partners and relationships. This kind of isolationist thought will be detrimental to India as India does NOT have the capabilities yet to be a great power.

        There are many reasons for the US not investing in India, primary among them that you still CANNOT make good money in India. Most Markets are still tiny compared to global standards and there are still major changes required to make Indian factors of production more globally competitive (I.e., labor, capital, technology and land). India is still sufficiently socialist in many industry sectors. China did this efficiently and that is the reason the US invested heavily into China. Of course, there was a policy mistake as well, as the liberal hegemonists thought that by economically integrating with China, they could change its political system. Well that proved wrong and now the US is Dialling back on its investments there. China additionally stole from the US. It is estimated that China stole between $200-$600B in IP per year between 2010-2016, when the US finally woke up. This is the reality, not being in ‘cahoots’ like you mention.

        And the US does not share defence tech with even its close allies and partners. Please read Up on this. I know it’s true. They are trying to change, but we’ll see if that happens.

        The US and EU have been economically integrating with China in the last two decades, but that’s changing. The US is forcing a decoupling of sorts. EU is starting to have similar thoughts, but they are still pretty integrated economically with China. Russia has been forced into the Chinese camp by stupid US policies. It would make more sense for the US to decouple Russia from China. But the current crop of foreign policy decision makers will make that close to impossible.

        In the meanwhile, India should continue to address its massive issues in labor, capital, technology and land so that more countries would want to invest in India. It is moving in the right direction, but like everything else in India, the proof will be in the eating.

  3. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    Every company in the world wishes to have numerous customers for its products/services in other to maximize its sales/profits. This is the simple reason that foreign corporate houses are interested in India.

    However getting access to Indian markets is a herculean task. Demographic dividend without corresponding disposable income doesn’t mean anything.

    Look at the number of Indians, who come under the BPL (Below Poverty Line) category.

    These folks survive on a few kgs of government provided free rice & wheat every month. What kind of luxury products/services can they buy and consume?

    Tariffs, import duties on foreign products are way too high in India. The country is the largest consumer of Whisky in the world yet, a mere 2% of it comprise of imported Scotch due to an import duty of 150% on a bottle of Scotch.

    98% of Whisky sold in India therefore is IMFL (Indian made foreign liquor) similarly, getting an imported car into the country involved paying an import duty of 100%

    These local businessmen are firmly established on their turfs since past many decades. They pay hefty political donations to political parties in power (Congress, BJP, Regional outfits) All of them benefit from the status quo therefore no one really wishes to change the system.

  4. Ayush says:

    “India’s time has come”.A repeat of op desert storm at LAC will dispel those illusions.We are no major power, not even close to it.What biden’s all out effort in UKR has done is,its ensured a bipolar world-A “G2” for at least a decade to come.The RUS-UKR war is now a classic US-China proxy war.Russian army is getting all of its rAdios from chinese baofeng.
    As for “putin becoming punitive”
    India has finally pulled the plug on russia.Our sec establishment has finally swallowed the bitter pill that russian weapons dont work in combat.Besides,the su-30 or even the su-35 for that matter is no match for Tejas Mk1A.They lack a basic functioning AESA radar or even EW/bvraams.This is something which people have pointing out since the gulf war but falling on deaf ears at MOD.

    • Gaurav Tyagi says:

      @Ayush- Russia is winning the war. Check the areas under Russian occupation in Ukraine on a map, practically the whole of Ukraine’s coastline is in Russian control.

      Ukraine’s loss of its marine centres makes it lose access to the Black Sea.

      Initially Putin didn’t plan on the war lasting so long. He was counting on a lightning quick victory, when it didn’t happen, he just altered his strategy.

      To use a cricketing analogy, he turned a T-20 game into a test match.

      The fact that the war is still continuing
      for the past three months is only due to the fact that the US and NATO are very heavily involved in the conflict.

      The Russians have already claimed that the British SAA are operating undercover in Ukraine, helping the Ukrainian Army in it’s missions.

      China btw is helping Russia by sending electronic chips used in weapons guidance system and communication.

  5. Debanjan Banerjee says:

    Very informative article.

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