US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi walk from the Oval Office to deliver joint statements in the White House. (Win McNamee/Getty Images) 
Snapshot
  • A new book on India’s foreign policy argues that guided by his admiration for the US, Prime Minister Modi has avoided strategic risk and taken the line of least resistance.

Bharat Karnad. Staggering Forward. Penguin Viking. Pages 512. Rs 360

India has for a long time now stopped being thought of as a large country that matters, for the reason that it seems unable to stand by itself, for itself and do things on its own in its interests. The fact of Indian foreign policy tilting America-wards so far in the 21st century is supposed to help Delhi and Washington demarcate the Sinic-sphere in Asia and, in time, shrink it.

Had the Indian government (headed successively by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and now Narendra Modi) instead been driven by hard realpolitik coupled with what the pioneering theoretician of geopolitics Halford Mackinder called ‘The map reading habit of mind’, India, with its size and location alone, would have emerged as a decisive player on the world scene, the ultimate balancer of international power and central to shaping the future of Asia and, by extension, the world. Because successive governments have not done this, India seems only another self-absorbed Asian state that can’t see beyond its nose and grabs at any available great power’s coat-tails to save itself.

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India’s foreign policy in the new century, strangely enough, is not dictated by its geography, belying Napoleon’s view that ‘If you know a country’s geography, you can understand and predict its foreign policy’. The confusion and not a little bit of incoherence in Indian foreign policy appears to be because in its fundamentals, the driver of policy, Prime Minister Modi, is not clear about the difference between its two distinct and separate organizing principles, namely, ‘non-alignment’ and ‘strategic autonomy’, conflating the datedness of the former with the supposed disutility of the latter and throwing out the baby of strategic autonomy with the bathwater of non-alignment.

True, Vajpayee’s regime conceived of ‘strategic autonomy’ to mask its cultivating the US (which resulted in the NSSP). The subsequent decade-long Congress party government of Manmohan Singh and its successor BJP dispensation under Modi not merely stuck to this course but embellished it, subscribing, as a staffer at the VIF founded by NSA Ajit Doval has called it, ‘alliance diplomacy’ with the United States.

The cover of Bharat Karnad’s <i>Staggering Forward</i>. The cover of Bharat Karnad’s Staggering Forward.

The question is, how does this affect India’s foreign policy stance? The basic difference between non-alignment and strategic autonomy that Modi and his cohort seem ignorant of, and which the MEA has not grasped, has scrambled policy aims and objectives and distorted the perception of the means to achieve them. The policy of non-alignment that Jawaharlal Nehru practised and formalized in 1961 when the Big Four of the movement—Nehru, President Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, President Gamal Abdel of Egypt and President Sukarno of Indonesia—met in the northern Adriatic Sea port of Brioni (or Brijuni in present-day Croatia) was based on a sensible reading of the then ‘correlation of forces’.

Each of them led countries that singly were too feeble to influence world events or even matters concerning their own immediate regions, but together they comprised a spatially dispersed and vocally powerful presence drawing on support from the uncommitted nations of Asia, Africa and South America. They were able to wield disproportionate diplomatic clout in the initial years of the Cold War when what side the non-aligned tipped the scales on mattered to the two superpowers of the day: the USA and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Genuine ‘strategic autonomy’ (not Vajpayee or Manmohan Singh’s kind), on the other hand, is a concept that more neatly fits India and the geopolitical terrain in the new century.

Economically prospering after partial reforms, beginning to accumulate power and, with the proper use of resources, being in a condition to spread its wings within the region and beyond, a strategically autonomous India, on its own, can disrupt, stimulate and guide the direction in which power will shift in Asia and the world. This hasn’t happened because autonomy is being frittered away on the altar of pleasing the United States. A non-aligned India, by comparison, was mainly an international nuisance in the larger global power politics. Modi, however, has avoided risk, and taken the line of least resistance. Guided by his admiration for America, he has sought safety by clambering on to the US bandwagon that is conveniently at hand, and which he expects will help India get to where it wants to go. But, unwilling or unable to conceive a national vision, Modi finds his India in the position of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, discovering in Wonderland that if you don’t know where you are going any path will get you there. The pity is that the enormous capability and leverage India has acquired for the first time in the modern era is thus being wasted. A medley of flawed policies has followed as Modi, like his immediate predecessors in office, has reached for the crutch of the US’s big power protection and patronage because he foresees a limp in the future: India’s inability to handle a bellicose China. This reflects the fact that Indian prime ministers of late have been devoid of strategic imagination and habituated to safe, Pavlovian reflexes to external stimuli-qua-threats.

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The country’s characteristically overcautious, predictable and legalistic style of diplomacy—an Anglo-Saxon legacy of the Raj— moreover, is lauded by the US and its European allies because it is high on predictability, they are familiar with it and it serves their purposes. The Western praise strengthens Delhi’s instincts of always acting as a ‘responsible state’, seemingly the central policy tenet of its approach to international affairs in the Manmohan Singh and Modi years.

In practice, it means that it is better for India not to gain by being venturesome than to fail by taking risk. In fact, the US Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, on the eve of his first trip to Delhi in October 2017, praised India for just this peculiarity, praising it for, unlike China, ‘rising . . . responsibly’ without ‘undermining the international, rules-based order’ which, incidentally, is of US and Western construction.

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