Asia Society, Mumbai, had staged a well-attended event to discuss my book ‘Staggering Forward’ on October 30. The video link of the discussion is at
Asia Society, Mumbai, had staged a well-attended event to discuss my book ‘Staggering Forward’ on October 30. The video link of the discussion is at
[World leaders in Paris to mark the 100th anniversary of the ending of WWI; Indian Vice President Venkaiah Naidu and spouse can be seen in the middle of the second line from front]
The sombre marking of the 100th anniversary of World War One in Paris Nov 11 by world leaders has several hard lessons for India, but the Narendra Modi government seems too inattentive to learn them. The first lesson is not to fight a foreign power’s (read in 21st Century Asia US’) battles, become cannon fodder in its military ventures (as signing the foundational accords puts them on the way to becoming), as Indian troops who disembarked on Europe’s shores in September 1915 as part of Field Marshal Douglas Haig’s 1st Army in France and Belgium, were.
In the lead-up to the event, French President Emmanuel Macron harked to the context set by US President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ policy that conspicuously distanced the US from its traditional; NATO allies by reiterating his call for a “true European army”. He explained that “When I see [Trump] announcing that he’s quitting a major disarmament treaty [the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty signed in the 1980s after the so-called “Euro-missile crisis”] who is the main victim? Europe and its security. We have to protect ourselves with respect to China, Russia and even the United States of America. We need a Europe which defends itself better alone, without just depending on the United States, in a more sovereign manner.” ]. Trump twittered in response that Macron’s view was “Very insulting” before rounding in on his controversial policy saying “but perhaps Europe should first pay its fair share of NATO, which the US subsidizes greatly!” See https://www.politico.com/story/2018/11/09/trump-macron-european-army-paris-981759
Not to be easily bullied, Macron elaborated his position to Fareed Zakaria in a Nov 11 CNN interview. Trump, he said, “is in favor of a better burden-sharing within NATO.” And added “I agree with that. And I think that in order to have a better burden-sharing, all of us do need more Europe. And I think the big mistake — to be very direct with you — what I don’t want to see is European countries increasing the budget in defense in order to buy Americans’ and other arms or materials coming from your industry. I think if we increase our budget, it’s to have to build our autonomy and to become an actual sovereign power.”
The case that armaments self-sufficiency epitomizes national sovereignty has been repeatedly made in my last two books — ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’ and the recent ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’. But such a clear linkage has not been publicly made by any world leader until now by Macron, because the international discourse until everything began going wrong was the myth of “geoeconomics” and “interdependence”. Of course, in conceptualizing an European military force independent of the US and NATO, Macron obviously hopes European countries will contract for military hardware and services from Dassault Avions, MBD, DCNS, Thales, SNECMA, et al and keep the flagging French defence industry from going under. But the larger theme he highlighted that European sovereignty isn’t served by buying American military equipment and enriching the US defence industry — which is what Trump would have NATO member states do, holds.
It is the longtime NATO-European malady of relying on the US and American arms that Macron has urged resistance against, now afflicts India and its government in trumps. As the military indigenisation group active on the net, SITARA, headed by a former Ambassador to Switzerland, Smita Purshottam, has pointed out, in closed councils even DRDO scientists and engineers tasked with making the country self-sufficient in arms, smirk any time any one brings up the issue of stopping imports and going in for full indigenous development of major military hardware which the Indian private sector is entirely capable of, used as they are to taking the easy way out: Importing technologies, assemblies, sub-assemblies, and sub-systems from diverse sources, “integrating” them, producing something, and calling this a huge advance on the path to self-reliance in arms! It is in the vested interest of the Indian political class, the despair-inducing state bureaucracy, and the be-medaled flag-rank uniformed brass to swallow such nonsense whole. They are so inclined because how else are Western residential visas, work visas, and “scholarships” to be secured for progeny, shopping sprees in New York, Los Angeles, Paris, London, Stockholm, and Rome by families of those inside and outside the defence procurement loop to be financed, and the health of the performance, productivity, and technology ingestion-wise dismal socialist era defence public sector units (DPSUs) to be assured? No surprise then that Modi’s much trumpeted ‘Make in India’ policy exactly fits the GOI-MOD-Finance Ministry-DPSU way of doing things — screwdrivering stuff from imported kits, and passing it off as ‘Made in India’ when genuine MADE IN INDIA requires that all research, and the process of designing, developing and producing armaments be carried out by Indians in Indian firms in India.
It is only then that Modi or any other the PM of the day will be able to credibly claim for India the status of security provider to, at a minimum, countries in the Indian Ocean basin and Southeast Asia.
With respect to providing security this is what Macron also said: “What Europe needs is to build its own capacities and its autonomy in order to protect itself. That’s why I do want to build more solidarity within Europe. And I think it’s very important because if you want to build an actual Europe, if you want to reinforce the homogeneity and the strength of our Europe, you have to convey the message to people in Hungary, in Poland, in Finland and in very different places, that the day they have an issue, the day they are attacked, Europe is the one to protect them, and not another power.”
In an alternative reality, were India really sovereign and boasted only home-designed and built weaponry, it’d be standout nation that even distant states would consider a go-to friend and partner, and an Indian Prime Minister would then be able to restate the above Macron statement but with India replacing Europe, and South Asian neighbours, Gulf countries, the East African littoral, and Southeast Asian states replacing Hungary, Poland and Finland, with this entire group of vulnerable Asian nations asking for Indian protection and security assistance against a rampaging China rather than calling in extra-regional entities such as the US for help.
The other thing that was on notice in Paris was the not so subtle display of change in the rank ordering of countries. Even as the phalanx of invited world leaders (Naidu included) stood at their assigned positions to salute the “unknown fallen” in war, Trump kept all waiting. The US President finally made a late appearance only to be upstaged by the Russian President Vladimir Putin, who strolled in last and was ceremonially escorted to the frontline of the podium. And unlike Trump, he was not snubbed or rebuked by Western European leaders, or upbraided by the host, indeed Macron made it a point in the Zakaria interview to implicitly elevate Russia, along with China, as the threat that a European-armed “real European army” would defend European states against.
The reason Putin strutted onto the stage is not hard to see. The Russian military has just conducted a couple of the largest war exercises in recent times — ‘Vostok 2018’ and ‘East 2018’. These involved 300,000 troops (including, incidentally, 35,000 PLA troops), 36,000 tanks and other armoured vehicles, 1000 combat aircraft, helicopters and drones and 80 warships and ancillaries in, what Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu called, “conditions as close to a combat situation as possible.” NATO was quick to condemn these war games as demonstrating “Russia’s focus on exercising large-scale conflict”. But that was just the message Putin wanted to drive home, that he can intervene in Syria or anywhere else, do another Crimea in eastern Ukraine or whatever else he pleases, and US and NATO can do squat about it.
This is Putin’s Russia our low-sighted, strategically blind, America-besotted, Modi government, which instead of reassuring Moscow by reaffirming India’s strategic autonomy, has set out to alienate by following through on a tilt-policy set in motion during Vajpayee’s days, which gathered momentum during the Manmohan Singh decade, and is reaching its culmination under Modi. It has India jumping into bed with US led by Trump and his henchmen — Bolton, Pompeo, confidence in whom , Macron says, Europe has lost.
The 2018 US Congressional Elections are over, and the Republican Party has lost control of the lower House in the legislature — the House of Representatives rather decisively. What does this portend for India-US relations?
The incoming Democratic Party Chairpersons of the various House committees (Ways & Means, Finance, Intelligence) have made plain their intention to hold Donald J. Trump accountable for a raft of acts of omission and commission in the 2016 presidential elections and since (in terms of hindering and obstructing the Congressionally-ordered investigation into Trump’s alleged wrongdoings headed by Robert Mueller). His promise to respond by loosing the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on the opposition leaders, presupposes FBI will play ball. The chances, however, are it won’t, because unlike the CBI in this country, FBI is a separate and independent agency which zealously guards its functional autonomy. In any case, very soon, there may be a replication of our own intra-CBI kind of feuding in Washington, and generally for the situation to turn politically venomous. With the House of Representatives unwilling to give him a free pass, and stonewalling the president’s political agenda, what is Trump to do?
He may well decide that a series of rapid and stellar successes in the foreign policy arena may add lustre to his record. North Korea looms as possible success except there’s the equally unpredictable Kim Jong-un at the other end who will not take any guff from Trump and won’t play ball if that results in his looking a chump. Hence, the foreign trade area offers possibility of success by way of beefing up Trump’s “negotiator”” credentials and helping win him a second term in office in the 2020 elections (assuming he isn’t impeached before then for crimes that Special Investigator Mueller’s Final Report may reveal in its findings). He has already said that a trade agreement with China will happen soon. Because Xi Jinping is a hardball player and doesn’t blink in a face-off, and because China has reacted harshly to Washington’s imposts on Chinese goods and services accessing the American market of some $250 billion with retaliatory tariffs of its own on imports from the US, and indicated that it will not shy away from getting involved in a trade war if that’s what Trump wants, Trump has thought discretion the part of his gamesmanship and promised to be more accommodating. There may still be a showdown of sorts — a sort of shadow trade war — but there will be no real change in the flow of two-way Sino-US trade now touching $635 billion featuring a trade deficit for the US of $ 376 billion in 2017.
Given the strong economic interlinks the US can’t hurt China without hurting itself grievously, Washington will desist from doing anything really radical, like stopping the Chinese trade cold by imposing prohibitory levels of extra taxes on it, the proprieties of the World Trade Organization be damned! So Trump will “negotiate” some compromise and get enough back to crow to the American public about his success with Beijing. That will play well with his political base in middle America.
But the corrections in the trade with China aren’t going to be enough for him to make a splash in an election year. He needs another, softer, target, a country that’s prepared to take US economic blows without counter-punching, and assures Washington of an easy prize. Narendra Modi’s India fits this slot nicely. Indeed, Trump has set India up a for a hit. Trump and other US leaders never talk of China without also mentioning India, as one of two nations that are egregious in exploiting US’ free market, and how they ramp up trade imbalances without fear of the US government, when actually there is no comparison. The American trade deficit with India of $ 23 billion is dwarfed by that of China, but it is India that is disproportionately bearing the brunt.
Modi’s government has avoided inflicting counter-tariffs and held off saying much about Trump’s very determined bid to seal the H1B/L1 visa rules and regulations as part of the protectionist tenor of his policies, is mostly hurting the $150 billion Indian IT industry. This despite the Prime Minister and his cabinet colleagues pleading without effect with Trump directly and with his Administration for less taxing US policies. Indian IT majors that relied on shipping relatively low cost skilled labour are thus being compelled to hire Americans at high wages. This is hurting their profit margins and dimming the till now bright spot on the economic exports scene. Before the shrinking of the H1B visa channel, Indian IT majors had estimated that their exports to the US would reach $50 billion by 2030. Those good times are gone. They will be lucky if they can retain the present levels of exports by value into the future. Currently the US, according to NASSCOM, offtakes some 62% of the Indian exports of IT services-Business Process Management services of some $126 billion. Realizing it was slipping dangerously into a US dependent status, the Indian IT industry is now desperately trying to find and cultivate other markets.
Even as Trump has turned a deaf ear to Delhi’s entreaties on H1B and moved aggressively to restrict Indian exports with punishing tariffs, Modi has held off reciprocating as WTO rules allow in the hope that this show of tolerance will lead to Washington cutting it some slack. It hasn’t. Indeed, the BJP government’s willingness to absorb US trade hits has only worsened the trade terms for India and convinced Trump that Modi when pressured will squeak but won’t bite in terms of acting on second thoughts about strategically partnering the US and that India can be pushed around at no real cost to America. Trump is not wrong in believing this. Modi has signed the two most significant “foundational accords” — LEMOA and COMCASA, without heeding the downside of these agreements that all but turn India into a secondary military ally — secondary, because unlike NATO member states, or Asian Treaty allies — Japan, South Korea and Philippines, India gets nothing for putting out so much. And, he is considering buying the performance-wise seriously awful US national air defence system missiles and antiquated F-16 combat aircraft in the hope that this will temper US’s attitude to Delhi continuing to buy military hardware from Russia when, in reality, it leaves the country just as exposed to CAATSA sanctions in the future. In this context, why Modi feels close to Trump when the latter betrays no like feelings and the US has held India at an arm’s distance, and treats it as a third rate Third World country, and why Modi seeks by every means and at every turn to shrivel India’s standing in the world is hard to fathom.
Playing second fiddle to America in the clash in Asia of the two natural giants — India and China, is willfully to degrade India’s position. Whether India will ever recover its prestige and status vis a vis Asian countries from the parlous state Modi has shoved it into remains an open question.
Review of my book — ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’ by Shivshankar Menon, National Security Adviser till 2014, published in The Wire, Nov 3, 2018.
What worries me most is that if Bharat Karnad is right, we can only expect more of the same – or worse – should Modi return to power in 2019. That would further postpone or derail India’s transformation into a strong, prosperous and modern country.
If Bharat Karnad didn’t exist we would have to invent him. He is the one person who consistently and intellectually challenges every government on strategic issues, who says what needs to be said. He is the enfant terrible of the Indian strategic community, who respects no authority and calls it as he sees it. Not everyone sees it his way, but no one can doubt either his commitment to India becoming a great power in the classical sense or the scholarship he brings to this task.
His latest book, Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition, is no exception to the pattern he has established in the past. The book challenges one’s assumptions and forces one to think. The book is a critique of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign and security policies, and of Modi himself. The author finds them wanting against the criteria of India fulfilling its destiny and becoming a great power. It is hard to argue with his marshalling of facts that show that the past five years were years of lost opportunity – of India missing the bus; of roads and reforms promised, but not taken.
I will not summarise the book, but will try to describe what I agree and disagree with in three respects: the Modi government’s performance; the situation India faces today; and Karnad’s prescriptions.
The Modi government’s performance
On how the Modi government has fared over the past few years, Karnad’s analysis is focused on a detailed psychological profiling of Modi himself, which left me far more worried than I was when I started reading the book.
Karnad is frank about how he was a Modi supporter in 2013-14, and how he expected that his rhetoric of reform would be translated into action once elected. Instead, he saw a “small stakes game abroad” .
They say that a pessimist is a disillusioned romantic, or simply an optimist with experience. Karnad is both. He is pessimistic about the means and the people, but has faith in India and its destiny.
What worried me most is that if Karnad is right in his profiling, we can only expect more of the same – or worse – should Modi return to power after the next parliamentary elections. Judging by the performance of his government over the last four years, that would be a considerable setback for India and would further postpone or derail India’s transformation into a strong, prosperous and modern country.
The internal divisiveness of the last four years affects both our security and our ability to run a successful foreign policy in the neighbourhood. How can India be a great power when it is socially divided at home, Karnad asks. He also describes the Modi government’s complicity in India’s strategic shrinking influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region.
Karnad describes the Modi government, in which only Modi counts, as “bowing to the powerful and bullying the weak”. He sees Modi as reflexively deferential to the US and China. The net result of this deference to power has been the neglect of old friends like Russia and Iran.
More so, the Modi government’s sporadic and unskilled dealings with our neighbours has resulted in a deterioration in our relationships and security in our immediate periphery – be it in Nepal, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan, or in south-east Asia, where we have alienated friends. The lack of a coherent foreign trade and economic policy – as seen in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – has left us out of the reckoning in the larger region that affects us directly.
The situation at hand
I agree with Karnad that there is no coherent vision driving the frenzied visiting and eventing that we have witnessed for some time. The fundamental problem, to my mind, is that the situation around us and the world over has changed drastically over the past few years with the coming to power of new authoritarians, or “alpha-males” as Karnad rightly labels them, in China, the US, Russia, Japan, Turkey and India.
In the absence of a vision or conceptual clarity on the situation we face, the government, and instinctively the bureaucracy, continue to do what they have always done, relying on precedent and habit. But to do the same thing in a different situation and to expect the same results – which is what the present government has done – is another version of Einstein’s definition of lunacy.
We are in a situation where we cannot rely on any other power – not the US, not China, or anyone else to secure us or to promote our prosperity. True strategic autonomy is our way forward. No established power likes to see potential competitors rising, and there is therefore a limit to what we can expect from other powers.
Under Donald Trump’s presidency, the US is pulling back strategically, unwilling to underwrite an international order or provide security, and on-shoring production. China, on the other hand, is moving into the vacuum and defining her core interests in an ever expanding manner. But when Karnad extends Samuel P. Huntington’s hypothesis to argue that the great fault line in the world today is between the Islamic and the non-Islamic world, I disagree.
There are a few issues in Karnad’s detailed prescriptions that he may want to address when it comes to a revised edition. The first is his very positive assessment of last year’s Doklam face-off, where India appears to have followed an older playbook, and where the outcomes now appear more mixed.
Another instance, which might need more explanation, is his understanding that Pakistan’s nuclear first-use threat against India is meaningless and empty. But he then goes on to suggest that India do the same and threaten first-use against China. Karnad does draw a distinction in what kind of use he has in mind, but it would be useful if he had explained why one threat is meaningful and the other is not.
Karnad also wrote of how India should re-test thermonuclear weapons and to somehow compensate for conventional military inferiority vis-à-vis China. These are moot and can be questioned. He assumes that our nuclear weapons are for war-fighting and that what we do not know in public does not exist within the government. I am also not sure where he got the idea that the India-US civil nuclear deal somehow included a commitment by us to cap our missile ranges at 5,500 km. This is the first I have heard of this.
Karnad seems more impressed by China than I am, assumes that it has got its way and seems to think that its dominance is inevitable unless resisted. In other places, he sees China failing to impose its “Tianxia” system, even in the South China Sea and Central Asia.
But whatever China’s trajectory is, he is right that it is India’s major strategic preoccupation. In his prescriptions for India’s China policy, he focuses largely on military responses to what is actually a Chinese challenge that is political, economic, military, and ideational too. Unlike others, who are so transfixed by the rise of China that they run to the US for comfort, Karnad rightly reminds us of our leverage in our relationship with China and that true strategic autonomy is our best way forward.
I do not see a resumption of nuclear testing by India as changing the Chinese calculus or behaviour. To my mind, the multi-faceted challenge from China requires an Indian response across the entire spectrum of power – from economics to politics to military to ideas, with both internal and external balancing, by strengthening ourselves and working with those who share our interests and concerns.
He suggests modifications to BRICS and the ‘Quad’ by removing China from the former and adding ASEAN to the latter, creating a ‘BRIS’ and a ‘Mod Quad’, as ways of improving our hand in dealing with China. I am not sure that formalising and announcing such plans are practical diplomacy. But Karnad is absolutely right that we must first come to terms with and pacify our own home in the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean region. It is when measured against these criteria that the Modi government’s policies have failed the nation.
Karnad is persuasive on the nature of military reforms and the changes in the mindset of the armed forces that he thinks are necessary if India is to drag her World War II-ready armed forces into the 21st century. He writes on the effects of technology on warfare in our context, and has extensive suggestions – many sensible and implementable – on defence production and procurement in India. He also makes a strong case for a string of Indian bases in the Indian Ocean region. I will not comment on the military options against Pakistan and China that he also describes in some detail.
What we have seen recently is the weakening of our defences that the deterioration in civil-military relations, the politicisation of the Indian army, its use in domestic politics, and the absence of necessary military and defence reforms have brought about.
I disagree with his characterisation of all policy since Jawaharlal Nehru as a failure. Deterrence has held and the peace necessary for India’s transformation has been kept, unlike the four debilitating wars we fought in the first 25 years of the republic. That might seem like a small achievement, but we have not only aimed to end poverty and improved the lives of more human beings in any country except China in the last 30 years, but also, by other measures of comprehensive national power, have improved our position in the world against most countries (again with the exception of China).
Where Karnad is right is that our strategic position in the world has deteriorated in the recent past, and much of this is because the situation around us is changing and will continue to change with rapidity, without an Indian response to the changes. This flux actually opens up opportunities for us as India. That is where we are failing ourselves, missing opportunities. His book is a useful reminder of what we could be, and a prod to consider what the next government should do.
The above book Review available at
The author of ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’ responds to Ravi Joshi’s review of his book
Joshi identifies me as someone ‘who always makes the contra point and not often in a pleasant manner’. So, he doesn’t like my calling a spade a shovel. OK. But one would have thought that straight-talk advocating major changes would be valued in a policy environment mired in precedent, risk-aversion and mealy-mouthed do-nothingness. Then again I forget that in a bureaucratised system, as I have long maintained, embroidering the status quo is all that is acceptable, whence the reviewer’s discomfiture at my not only critiquing Modi’s foreign policy but also providing an alternative policy framework when, actually, the two cannot and should not be separated. Would a critique make sense if it didn’t offer different ingredients for policy and a different way of conceiving and conducting it?
But let me briefly point out a few of the review’s other inadequacies. He questions the assumption of a fading United States and quotes some SIPRI defence budget figures. But he does not know any better because had the US defence outlays been deconstructed, he’d have discovered that, just as in India, the escalating payroll costs are at the expense of major arms and military build-up programmes, and the resulting capability shortfalls are making it impossible for Washington simultaneously to tackle Russia and China. He disputes that the relationship with Russia has weakened, in this regard mentioning the S-400 buy. Except, he fails to mention that the S-400 will escape CAATSA sanctions only if India also buys the markedly inferior national air defence missile system from the US and the antiquated F-16 combat aircraft to boot, as I predicted. And he crows triumphantly that ‘Even Manmohan Singh’s famous India-US nuclear deal of 2005 that was to be a game-changer in our relationship did not result in a single nuclear reactor being contracted from an American company, while half a dozen nuclear reactors were ordered from Russia’, while conveniently forgetting the price extracted by America from the Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh regimes—that India would not develop ICBMs nor resume nuclear testing. Anything nuclear seems outside Joshi’s comfort zone because he nowhere refers to my design for reorienting our nuclear forces China-wards, beginning with a specific ‘first use’ option using the passive-defensive atomic demolition munitions, and pointed nuclear targeting of Chinese high-value assets—the Three Gorges dam and the entire Southern and Southeastern coastline of China—the engine of that country’s wealth production. Instead, he wonders if the ASEAN and other states fringing China would have confidence in India as security provider when it has failed miserably to deal with Chinese forays in the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Nepal—precisely the question I have all along raised! But to get around India’s credibility gap I have reiterated in the book the solution I provided some two decades back, namely, nuclear missile/Brahmos cruise missile arming the countries on China’s periphery. Beijing may pooh-pooh India’s guardianship of ASEAN interests but will be less dismissive of Vietnam, Indonesia, or Duterte’s Philippines separately wielding these strategic armaments. This tit-for-tat payback for China’s nuclear missile arming Pakistan, of course, entirely escapes the skimming Joshi.
But Joshi shows his hand with his comment on my thesis about India as an independent power balancer able to check the ‘proto-hegemons’—China and the US, by minimising American influence on the one hand and Chinese power on the other in the Indo-Pacific by, among other things, configuring BRIS—BRICS without China, and Mod Quad—ASEAN states taking the place of the US in the quadrangle—India-Japan-ASEAN-Australia with the US entering the fray when it chooses to do so which, in any case, is what the US will do. ‘Asking India to become a ‘net security provider in the Pacific’,’, he writes, a trifle joyously, ‘that too without US partnership, is to live in cloud cuckoo land.’ Realistically, it is more ‘cuckoo’ to rely on America, but try telling this to the likes of Joshi, Modi and everybody else in the babu-dominated system in India who expect the US Cavalry to ride to the rescue of Indians.
But Joshi needs to digest some home truths. Yes, handing out green cards, scholarships, work visas to dependents of babus, politicians, and senior military personnel does get the US what it wants. You didn’t look at the evidence adduced in the book for this, did you Joshi saheb?
Remarkably, for an intel officer, the reviewer shows antipathy for disruptive actions, measures and policies and imaginative use of the available hard power capabilities of the state, urging a more realistic assessment of the country’s military capabilities. Had China been run by such realists it would be in the same boat as India is in now—something to ponder, ain’t it?
And, no Ravi Joshiji, pugnacity—a quality you attribute to me—which India reserves for Pakistan, is what it requires to show against big powers, and reflection comes from being immersed comprehensively in international affairs and not by making excuses for unmet promises and ‘fork-tongued’ foreign and military policies typified by ‘Make in India’ type of programmes that have contrived to keep India inconsequential and a dependency.
[Published in ‘Open’ magazine, 29 Oct 2018, at
Review by Ravi Joshi. former R&AW official
The author in his haste is too blinded by the negatives to see the achievements
CRITIQUING A government’s foreign policy does not necessarily require one to provide an alternative foreign policy framework. But that’s the ambitious project of Bharat Karnad’s book. Karnad is well known in the Delhi seminar circuit as a strategic analyst who always makes the contra point and not often in a pleasant manner.
There are so many things one can find wrong in Modi’s policies and Karnad finds them all. He starts with the ‘Alpha Maleness’ of Modi and compares it with the other Alpha Males of our times—Presidents Trump, Putin, Xi Jinping and Erdog.an, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—and notes that Modi has only the pretence of an Alpha Male.
While Trump, Putin and Xi are all getting something done, it’s only Modi who has failed in everything he promised, says Karnad. Firstly, because he has no vision, no strategic doctrine, no geopolitically bold and imaginative policies that stress India’s neglected ‘hard power’. Hard power is what India should project vis-à-vis China, insists the author, though he is fully aware of the glaring asymmetry in the power equation.
Secondly, ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’ is neither a vision nor a policy, especially if your neighbours have their own plans for ‘vikas’—which typically means jumping on to the Chinese bandwagon and thumbing a nose at New Delhi.
Karnad takes up four of India’s most important relationships—that is, with the US, Russia, China and Pakistan—for detailed examination and finds that Modi comes up short on all of them. With the US, Modi is personally in awe of the overpowering might of the country and kowtows unabashedly, as was seen in his body language with both Obama and Trump.
Karnad is of the view that ‘where India is concerned, Washington does not have to exert itself much at all because… it can simply hand out Green Cards, H1B visas, scholarships and jobs in US companies to the progeny of the nomenklatura in Delhi. It’s a nice, clean and easy solution to resolve any of India-related problems.’ If that were so, how come the USSR, and later Russia, continued to be our most steadfast defence partner since 1971 and despite the threat of US sanctions—and even the kowtowing— Modi has signed up for the ‘Triumf’ missile defence systems from Russia? The truth is that most US presidents found India frustratingly moralistic and judgemental, and a difficult country to handle, unlike the more malleable Pakistan. Even Manmohan Singh’s famous India-US nuclear deal of 2005 that was to be a game-changer in our relationship did not result in a single nuclear reactor being contracted from an American company, while half a dozen nuclear reactors were ordered from Russia.
Karnad opines that India is seeking ‘great power’ status as an ‘entitlement’ and is hoping to ‘achieve it on the cheap at the sufferance of a big power patron’ and suggests that the rulers in Delhi should follow Bismarck’s principle of ‘blood and iron’ instead of wallowing in the soft-power influence of its civilisational values and trying to become a ‘Vishwa Guru’ as Modi wants.
The underlying assumption of Karnad’s world order is that the US is a ‘fading power’ and China is racing to replace it. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute database on military expenditure for 2017, the US defence budget was $610 billion, while that of China was $228 billion and India’s was $63.9 billion. Obviously, the US is far from fading away anytime soon; yet the author wants the weakest power in the triangular equation to realise its ‘hard power’ and start asserting itself by dumping the US as its ally and ‘kick China in the shins’!
Disparaging all attempts by India to align with the US, Karnad who is dismissive of the new notion of ‘Indo- Pacific’ suggests that India should go for a modified Quad, what he calls the ‘Mod Quad’, that is, the ‘Quad minus the US’ but including all Southeast Asian states. Why they should join India, that too against China, is not clear. Undeterred by such doubts, he says that this would put China on the defensive and prevent any military misadventure by Beijing in its extended neighbourhood. This, however, envisages India having a strong military partnership with South- east Asian states that would permit the positioning of not only its frigates and submarines but also Brahmos missiles to face China. Does the author seriously believe that any of the Southeast Asian states would depend on India in case of an attack by China?
When the tiniest of India’s neighbours, the Maldives, snuggled up to China and joined the Maritime Silk Route Initiative and when it signed a Free Trade Agreement with China, New Delhi twiddled its thumbs in utter helplessness. Subsequently, Delhi promised Beijing that it would not interfere in the Maldives in return for China’s early retreat from the disputed territory in Doklam. Such being the case, does Vietnam or the Philippines believe that India will come to its succour against China? Karnad knows the answer all too well, but his advocacy of hard power doesn’t countenance such minor oddities.
India as a ‘net security provider in the Indian Ocean’ is only an aspirational proclamation of the country’s Navy and not a proven experience of any of the littoral states. Asking India to become a ‘net security provider in the Pacific’, that too without US partnership, is to live in cloud cuckoo land.
Similar to this idea of Mod Quad is another called ‘BRIS’—BRICS without China. The author forgets that BRICS was forged as an alliance of developing economies to face an unequal trade framework foisted upon them by the US and Europe. But in today’s world of trade wars unleashed by Trump, it has clearly become the US versus the rest. Both India and China are on the same side as victims of Trump’s hyper-nationalism and China is calling on India to jointly fight America’s anti-free trade policies. Which way will India go or should go? Given that Karnad considers both the US and China as inimical to India’s interests, what would his advice be?
The advocacy of hard power should be based on realistic assessments of our strengths and potential, not on fantastic notions of alternative reality. Karnad knows fully well India’s strengths and weaknesses, yet he makes some very strange assumptions about the behaviour of other nations.
Nevertheless, Karnad is an extremely well informed writer who raises some serious questions on the country’s foreign and defence policies and their underlying assumptions. But his pugnacity leads him to see only the negatives and robs him of reflection on the good that men do, either by design or default.
[Published in ‘Open’ magazine on 26 Oct 2018 at at
Back after sojourning abroad; getting into harness!
But first a cordial invite to all ‘Security Wise’blog readers in the Mumbai region. Pasted below is the notice by Asia Society about an event it is hosting — a conversation about my new book — ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’ on Tuesday, October 30, 6:30 PM, at the Nehru Centre, Worli, Mumbai. It is ‘Free’ but do please RSVP the Asia Society or register your names (in the invitation below.) Thanks.