Title: Modi’s World: Expanding India’s Sphere of Influence
Author: C Raja Mohan
Publihser: Harper Collins
Price: Rs 499
C Raja Mohan is undoubtedly one of India’s highly respected foreign policy analysts and commentators. He thinks strategically, is able to focus on key trends and his assessments tend to be reasoned and balanced. His latest book, Modi’s World, is a most useful commentary on foreign policy under India’s new Prime Minister, noting the continuities with the past, but significant departures as well. The various chapters of the book treat different aspects of India’s foreign policy, in particular, the relationship with the sub-continental neighbours, the evolution of ties with US, China and Pakistan, the re-connecting with Asia and the increasing salience of the island states of the Indian Ocean as part of India’s maritime strategy. There is a cogent stage-setting introductory chapter. A historical perspective is provided in the chapter ‘An Ambivalent Legacy’. The rest are based on the popular columns that Raja Mohan writes for The Indian Express, but the final chapter, ‘India as a Leading Power’, spells out what ought to be India’s role in a rapidly changing regional and international landscape and how India must order its external relations and foreign policy posture so as to advance its interests and expand its circle of influence as a confident, energetic and leading power.
Raja Mohan gives high marks to Modi for pursuing “enlightened self-interest”, unencumbered by ideological preferences or prejudices of the past. In reaching out to India’s neighbours, in seeking to harness China’s capital and infrastructural capabilities for India’s own development, the pragmatic alignment with the US despite a personally painful legacy of visa denial, the shedding of inhibitions in forging closer political, economic and security partnerships with Japan, Australia and Israel and a more pragmatic and flexible approach to multilateral institutions and processes, Modi’s performance receives an unambiguous thumbs-up.
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Raja Mohan divides India’s contemporary diplomatic history into three phases, one extending from the country’s independence in 1947 to 1990, which he labels the “first republic”. The “second republic” coincides with the end of the Cold War, India’s economic reform and liberalisation and the significant transformation in India’s relations with the US. He sees it concluding with Modi’s assumption of the office of the prime minister in 2014, which could mark the dawn of India’s “third republic”. While there are the usual caveats about whether the Prime Minister would really be able to bend an inertia-bound bureaucracy and a reluctant political class to his will, the author is, on balance, more than optimistic: “Yet, it is worth noting, the reorientation of India’s international role might well have acquired an irreversible momentum under Narendra Modi”.
One shares several perspectives put forward by Raja Mohan. Modi has been extraordinarily energetic and focused in the pursuit of what he believes are India’s vital interests. There are three priorities in his foreign policy which stand out — management of India’s sub-continental neighbourhood, the over-riding priority to safeguard and promote India’s economic interests and elevating the engagement with the Indian diaspora as a significant diplomatic objective. In addition, Modi has embraced “multi-alignment” as against non-alignment, strengthening relations with each major power and leveraging them to then upgrade relations with other major powers. This is a departure from the often defensive and ambivalent posture adopted by India in the past, which saw a partial revival in UPA-II. However, one must acknowledge that the departure we witness is mostly perceptional as of now. Unless this is followed by structural changes that are long overdue, and, most importantly, unless the economy regains and sustains a high growth trajectory, positive perceptions may evaporate very quickly. We have seen this happen before. Raja Mohan himself acknowledges that the lack of delivery and follow-up continue to erode India’s credibility among both its friends and adversaries.
Raja Mohan credits Modi for initiating major departures in India’s foreign policy, but, at various points, he also acknowledges that the Prime Minister is treading on paths marked out by his Congress and non-Congress predecessors. One may credit Modi with more energetic diplomacy, but he has wisely recognised the logic of the continuities that mark India’s foreign policy, even if this entails, as it has in the case of the Indo-US nuclear deal and the India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement, jettisoning his own party’s opposition in the past. He has persisted with the now longstanding “walking on two legs” policy of engaging China even while confronting its threats to our security. He has also been unsuccessful, like his predecessors, in turning around India-Pakistan relations. Perhaps, I see more continuity and less departure than he does.
On India’s relations with the US, Raja Mohan blames what he sees as a visceral anti-Americanism in the Indian political class and the bureaucracy in the past, which he believes still lingers on in South Block. He fails to mention that the US was, for most of the Cold War years, deliberately and systematically targeting India. Kissinger was relentless in his pleas to his new-found Chinese friends in 1971 to attack India so as to relieve pressure on Pakistan. History must not become a millstone round our necks and prevent us from pursuing a promising, productive strategic partnership with the US, but we must not deny history and neglect its lessons.
I agree with Raja Mohan that we must move away from the non-aligned mindset of the past, certainly in its defensive and anti-West mode. However, I do not believe that “strategic autonomy” too must be abandoned as a negative mindset. Every country pursues strategic autonomy, which is the capacity to take relatively autonomous decisions on issues of vital interest to the country. Despite occasional stumbles, India has consistently sought to expand its strategic space by increasing its options. As the book itself acknowledges, Indira Gandhi intervened to help create Bangladesh in 1971 and incorporated Sikkim in 1975. Narasimha Rao transformed a crisis into an opportunity, helping India navigate the dramatically altered landscape in the post-Cold War world of the 1990s. Vajpayee, who described the US as a “natural ally”, was wise enough not to send Indian troops to fight America’s war in Iraq in 2003. And Manmohan Singh’s success, against heavy odds, in delivering the Civil Nuclear Agreement with the US and getting the waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group has been a game changer. This record on foreign policy of what Raja Mohan calls the first and second republics, does not square with the somewhat sweeping charge of “perverse diplomatic culture of negotiating against India’s long-term interests”.
Despite some debatable propositions, Raja Mohan has delivered an excellent overview of India’s recent diplomatic history. He provides a context in which the country’s foreign policy and action should be judged and spells out, with clarity, Modi’s fresh initiatives and new points of emphasis. He is right that India under Modi is at an inflection point, full of promise, though scepticism is warranted on some counts. This is a book well worth reading for the sharpness of its analysis and the careful articulation of India’s challenges in navigating a rapidly transforming regional and international landscape.
Shyam Saran is a former foreign secretary. He is currently chairman, RIS, and senior fellow, CVPR.