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Staggering Forward – Excerpt

Is Modi’s foreign policy a failure? – An Excerpt from Staggering Forward
Narendra Modi has never really articulated his India First policy in extenso but spoken about it in dribs and drabs and broad-brush terms. In a town hall setting in New Delhi in August 2016, he elaborated on this concept as the “central point [of Indian foreign policy]. It is about protecting India’s strategic interest [and] ensur[ing] that India marches forward in achieving economic prosperity by leaps and bounds and reach[ing] the position which it is destined to reach.”
Here is an excerpt from Bharat Karnad’ book, Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition where the author talks about his views on Modi’s foreign policy. Argumentative and thought-provoking, Staggering Forward is a must-read to understand India’s foreign and national security policies since 2014.
In the end stage of his first term as prime minister, Modi, the sole fount of all policy ideas in the BJP government, has done nothing very meaningful in meeting the India First metrics. In early May 2017, he defined his foreign policy priorities to an assembly of the country’s ambassadors as follows: increasing India’s economic profile in the newer, untapped markets of the world, enhancing its security in a difficult neighbourhood and building it into a leading power and net security provider. These are unexceptionable goals, not the stuff to vault India into the heaving scrum of international power politics. The impression of Modi’s small-time objectives is backed by the fact that there is no mention anywhere in his many pronouncements of the inherent strengths and resources of the nation and how he means to harness them. More troublingly, there’s no hint, much less a detailed articulation, of a national vision, of the preferred global order and rising India’s place in it, the time-frame in which he expects the country to achieve it and with what effect on the Asian region and the world and, most significantly, utilizing what plan and strategy. Indeed, there has been nothing from
Modi by way of a national vision, game plan or strategy. Nor has there been a public mustering of the iron resolve and political will necessary to signal to the people his intentions, just a series of mostly alliterative slogans and, in practice, staying with the foreign and military policies charted by his predecessors, Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. It doesn’t come close to fleshing out a genuinely ‘new India’, much less an India First attitude and policies.
Consider in this respect what Modi sees as constituting a ‘new India’: A more efficient apparatus of state (better coordination between government agencies, distribution of LED bulbs, etc.), speeded up governmental processes (less time to get passports, income tax refunds), streamlined delivery of social benefits (farmer insurance, free gas connections, rural electrification, bank accounts for the poor), more effective implementation of infrastructure programmes (rail projects, increased electricity generation), and accelerated creation of jobs (extending shop hours). The impression one has of these markers is that of a list of ingredients and tools a car designer may crave without an inkling of what he is supposed to create. The result could be a Rolls- Royce or a Tata Nano. If all Modi’s vision for the country is a bagful of relatively small achievements, meagre economic accomplishments and unspecified but timid objectives in the external realm dressed up in acronyms (such as SAGAR—Security and Growth for All in the Region), his ‘new India’ is much like the old India he inherited. It’s the ‘same old, same old’ with Modi’s ministrations, producing only marginal changes because he is relying on the existing rickety government system and the old way of doing things to deliver new, different and dazzling outcomes. So, India continues to lag way behind the South East Asian states to go no farther out than that and, where China is concerned, remains overmatched.
Compared and contrasted with the agendas of the other strongmen, Modi’s vision and schemes appear meagre, mostly of local import, and not designed for anything other than minimal international impact. If he has been restrained and convivial in his dealings with foreign countries, his government at home, like Trump’s in the US, Xi’s in China, Putin’s in Russia and Erdogan’s in Turkey, has been only about himself. Having first ruthlessly eliminated the residual resistance to his primacy within the ruling BJP with some deft political manoeuvring, Modi has, with the help of his confidant Amit Shah (installed by him as party chief), reduced the opposition to bumfuzzled irrelevance, sharing the fate of the Kemalists at the hands of Erdogan in Turkey, of the Communist Party and the Liberal Democratic Party by Putin in Russia, and the shrinking of the support base of the Democratic Party and Constitutional Democratic Party by Abe in Japan.
But it is hard not to attribute this outcome to Modi’s political skills and rhetoric, his keen social sense, insights into caste arithmetic in various regions and the gripes and grievances of the common man. Combined with his killer instinct, it has assured Modi and his party a longish stint in power. A domineering presence in national life has resulted in the Indian system and policy establishment—the deep state—adjusting to Modi’s likes and dislikes, becoming attentive to his every tick and ready to do his bidding. It has reinforced the prime minister’s autocratic style of functioning, rooting the top-down decision-making model that’s presently in vogue—very different from the more collegial model of the previous regimes that fitted the personalities of Manmohan Singh and Vajpayee. It mirrors developments in the US, China, Russia and Turkey, and a good part of the developing world, and in the states formerly comprising the Soviet bloc. It represents what John Lloyd, founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University has called ‘semi-authoritarian nationalism’. Whatever their differing ideologies, autocratic regimes find other governments of the same ilk easier to do business with.

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