The defence of Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi’s foreign policies are both disjointed, and reflect the confusion at the heart of India’s foreign policy
by Bharat Karnad
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 miniscule 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 “Atmanirbharta”, 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 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.