Does Narendra Modi Have A Foreign Policy?


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Over the past five years, analysts have bickered over how much of a divergence the Narendra Modi administration has exhibited in foreign policy. As with all things Modi, opinions seem to lie at both ends of the spectrum with plenty of room in the middle.

On the one hand are those who believe that the prime minister has merely tinkered with the policies of his predecessors and there is nothing remarkable about Indian foreign policy in this ‘era of Hindu nationalism’ – the pragmatic elements of running a state has tamed the exuberant rhetoric out of the Modi and his foreign policy team.

On the other hand are those who see a distinctly new foreign policy path being charted out by this yugpurush of a prime minister. A sea change in attitude is posited in relations with India’s neighbours and partners, and incidental events are fielded as evidence of a Modi doctrine that fundamentally alters the basic structure of Nehruvian foreign policy.

A closer study of Modi’s foreign policy indicates a third position – of a desire to not repeat the errors of the past yet constrained by a hidebound bureaucracy and the intellectual shortcomings of India’s foreign policy apparatus. More out of necessity than design, the Modi administration has chosen a gradual divergence from India’s non-aligned past but promises a much greater variance to come.

The sharpest example of this small yet radical foreign policy shift is seen in India’s ties with Israel. For decades, even after the establishment of full diplomatic relations in 1992, Delhi treated Jerusalem like a mistress, accepting favours without recognition. Modi pulled the curtains on the relationship with a stand-alone trip to Israel in 2017 but his embrace fell short of wholehearted as India continued to vote against Israel in the United Nations and maintains its embassy in Tel Aviv; moreover, India has kept up its paeans to solidarity with the Palestinian people, which serves little purpose other than as an annoying vestige of Gandhian moralpolitik.

In some ways, the relationship with the United States is even more intriguing. Most of the foreign policy commentariat accepts that America is India’s most important partner in the foreseeable future, yet there remains in Delhi a symbolic sliver of stubborn anti-Americanism. As India makes bigger, more sensitive defence purchases from American vendors, enters into logistical agreements with the US military, and resuscitates the ‘Quad’ grouping that also includes Japan and Australia, it still sits with Russia and China in a trilateral that is at odds with the rest of its strategy. Delhi’s ambivalence sends mixed signals to international capitals about Indian intentions and its reliability as an ally in case the balance of power gets worse in East Asia.

A third major departure from Nehruvian guidelines has been in Modi Sarkar’s handling of the threat from Pakistan and its terrorist proxies. Like its predecessors, the Modi government has used diplomatic pressure against Islamabad, arguably with greater success, yet has not hesitated to use military force against terrorist camps across the border and called Islamabad’s nuclear bluff at least twice now while remaining open to peace initiatives.

On the other security front, with China, India stands far behind in most benchmarks of development and power. In preparation for the worst eventuality, Modi has focused on substantially improving infrastructure near the border without concern for Beijing’s sensibilities. This has been a glaring weakness in all previous administrations’ resolves since 1947 that this administration has ameliorated. A glimpse of the new infrastructural ease was seen during the standoff at Doklam. At the same time, India has been less hostile than the West to Chinese business to avoid provocation and to encourage a fruitful conversation.

It is true that India under Modi has kept all doors open in its dealings with foreign powers in a manner that some might misconstrue as more non-alignment. The prime minister has not substituted inaction for recklessness, understanding the arguments for India’s behaviour so far. However, it is in the boldness of his actions that a new picture emerges that not only outlines a different mode of thinking from the moribund Nehruvian school of Indian foreign policy but clearly indicates the early makings of a Modi doctrine.

While excessive moralising and equivocation were the hallmarks of the earlier era, the prime minister has introduced a dash of vim into Indian foreign policy. Modi’s interjection, however, is no novel creation – it is merely the country’s awakening to machtpolitik in international affairs and a desire to wield some of it. To this end, the administration needs a vibrant community of aides, bureaucrats, and researchers free of old ideological commitments to consider the full implications of its bold new policies. It is this lack that has so far inadvertently camouflaged the Modi administration’s foreign policy intentions and led many to underestimate the potential of what has passed over the last five years.

This post appeared in the Hindustan Times on March 30, 2019.

India and the Bomb


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Harsh PantPant, Harsh, Yogesh Joshi. Indian Nuclear Policy. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2018. 193 pp.

They are indeed murky waters in which the contours of Indian nuclear (weapons) policy lie, yet the field of research is fast becoming a tiny cottage industry of its own as more and more scholars are turning their attention to India’s quest to militarise the atom. In a unique trajectory of development, India is perhaps the only country to develop nuclear weapons from what was initially an energy programme and also the only country to have a long and public debate over the matter; even more astonishingly, the military had little to no say in India’s nuclear decision-making.

Harsh Pant and Yogesh Joshi have addressed this complex thread in the history of modern India in the pithily titled Indian Nuclear Policy, an impressively succinct introduction to the subject. The authors lay out the basic framework of the argument with the help of four causal variables – status, security, domestic politics, and the role of individuals – and proceed to expand on each into the book. This is a clever organisation that allows neophytes to quickly grasp the salient features of the narrative.

The four causal variables mentioned are not unique to India – they influence the actions of all powers, the varying degrees and different manners of which are the hotly contested among scholars. Debates also focus on how some of these terms are to be interpreted – status, for example, may imply to realists something intangible and therefore an indication that the nuclear programme is not serious. These scholars do not deny that the conquest of the technical difficulties in assembling a nuclear device is difficult and therefore accrues status but this is seen as a byproduct rather than a motivator.

Indian Nuclear Policy emphasises a layer of nuance that is often overlooked or forgotten in discussions of security – although the motivation for the peaceful nuclear explosion at Pokhran in 1974 was most certainly China, the journey down the path to nuclearisation was in response to the threat from Pakistan. This periodisation provides a worthy explanation as to why the Indian nuclear establishment remained inert for 24 years after its first test rather than weaponise and perfect its nuclear arsenal, although economic factors certainly do contribute to the picture.

Domestic politics is a critical input in any policy formulation, particularly in democracies with a relatively free press. Indian Nuclear Policy highlights the pertinent trends in the Indian public sphere that influenced the thinking about nuclear policy such as India’s principled stance against nuclear weapons, its idealist vision of international relations, and its vaunted non-alignment. In addition, bureaucratic differences of opinion between various ministries such as Defence and Finance, for example, added to the hubbub on domestic bickering.

It is presently not popular to credit individuals with much influence over the affairs of states but Pant and Joshi buck this trend, it is heartening to see. Despite the fairly public nature of Indian nuclear decision-making, actual power resided in the hands of very few individuals and everything, from information to construction, was tightly controlled. It is not implausible then, that the prime minister and the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission commanded greater influence in the country’s atomic quest.

For a short introduction, as Oxford University Press advertises the book, Pant and Joshi have produced an excellent manuscript that narrates the history of India’s nuclear efforts from independence until the five nuclear tests of 1998. The brevity of the final product should not deceive the reader into thinking that the argument has not been sufficiently researched – indeed, as the bibliography reveals, prodigious use of primary source material at the National Archives of India and the document collection at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library have been made. The secondary material also spans the major works in the field.

In thinking beyond the scope of this particular text, a provocative thought experiment would be to challenge the hagiographic coverage India’s leaders have usually received at the hands of academics. There is some merit to the argument that the moralist and “preachy” complexion of Indian foreign policy did little more than annoy the Great Powers with little for Delhi to show for it in return. In a costly error, India timed itself out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty; nor could Delhi secure the desired security guarantees from the United States and the Soviet Union against nuclear blackmail. India’s efforts at the United Nations were also for naught. India’s weak economy and military simply did not give its idealism the political heft required to influence world affairs. In retrospect, a pertinent observation from Henry Kissinger comes to mind: moderation is a virtue only in those who are thought to have an alternative.

While one might not be able to guess from Indian Nuclear Policy, there is still plenty that is not known about decision-making in Delhi. The Indian government seems to have an aversion to transparency, easy access, documentation, and declassification; it has been suggested by some retired bureaucrats that paranoia in the top echelons of the political class meant that notes were sometimes not kept on crucial meetings relating to Indian nuclear security. Pant and Joshi do a fabulous job of weaving together a coherent narrative from the material available but some of the several debates that remain unresolved could perhaps be quelled with further release of information.

Given Oxford’s stated objective, Indian Nuclear Policy is an essential quick guide to the history of Indian nuclear weapons policy for rookies. By cutting through the details of India’s energy programme and maintaining focus on the weapons themselves rather than strategy, Pant and Joshi do yeoman service to the public who are mildly curious about how, when, and why India acquired nuclear weapons.

Nationalism Restored


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Hazony, Yoram. The Virtue of Nationalism. New York: Basic Books, 2018. 304 pp.

Ever since the cultural turn in academia in the early 1970s, it has become de rigueur to disparage nationalism as a volatile and dangerous sentiment susceptible to extreme violence and prejudice. Nationalism was cast as an imagined community with the implication that it was a simulacrum whose substance came wholly from fabricated myths, rituals, and symbols. In this echo chamber, Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism comes as a rare and welcome breath of fresh air that revives the idea and places it in context with other alternatives that have been offered over the ages.

Hazony looks to the Bible, specifically Devarim, to find his definition of nationalism. The scriptures actively promote the feeling of brotherhood among all members of the Jewish nation and Mosaic law would serve as their constitution; the king of the Jewish state, its priests, and prophets would all be drawn from among the brotherhood and each would have a role in preserving the traditions, customs, and laws of the community. Geographically, the boundaries of Israel are set by Moses as he expressly forbids the expansion of the nation-state into the neighbouring lands of Esau, Moav, Lot, and Ammon.

The ambitions of nationalism are clearly limited and not inherently expansionist or committed to world domination as critics are prone to hyperventilate. Hazony does not deny that there has been great violence in the past in the name of nationalism but that is also true of any other theory of mass organisation, ethics, and governance. This is an interesting proposition put forth by the author, that nationalism is not merely a feeling of cultural connectedness between people who do not know each other but properly seen, it also includes a system of ethics.

According to Hazony, the roots of nationalism are to be found in the structure of the family – individuals are biologically related in a family and share a sense of rights and duties, blood and belonging, vis-a-vis one another; the prosperity of one member is the success of them all. As families band together into clans, clans into tribes, and tribes into nations to provide better security and accomplish greater tasks, the loyalty commanded by the heads is transferred upwards towards common characteristics the members share, such as language, faith, or ethnicity.

Using the family as a model of organisation for the state is certainly not peculiar to the Bible – similar notions are found as far apart as China and Greece. Confucius clings to the metaphor a little too closely with the result that the ideal Chinese state tends towards authoritarianism; Aristotle sees the polis – state – as the full flowering of the family life but does not carry the analogy too far as he recognises that there is a difference in the nature of power within states and families, not just quantitatively but qualitatively as well.

The Virtue of Nationalism juxtaposes a localised nationalism with universalist ideologies such as imperialism, Christianity, Marxism, and Liberalism. Nations are inherently anti-imperial and therefore more stable, the argument runs, because its members are connected to each other through bonds not mediated by institutions of state. Nations are particular to geography, language, faith, ethnicity, or some other criterion that defines the community whereas the universalist aspirations of Christianity, Islam, Marxism, and Liberalism fall to the temptation of conquest and subjugation of the entire world to the one “true” doctrine of choice.

Hazony’s depiction of nationalism as limited may be true in the Jewish tradition but it has had a very different history in Europe and Asia, at least. Halakha distinguishes between milkhemet mitzva – war of obligation – and milkhemet hareshut – optional war. In the first category fall, for example, the wars of Joshua against the seven nations while David’s campaigns of expansion come under the latter classification. In fact, G-d prohibits David from building the Temple because he was “a man of battles and [had] shed blood.”

It is also problematic to portray imperialism as a universalist principle. Although imperialists have no bounds to their geographic ambitions, it is usually also true that the imperial quest is usually carried out in the name of a nation; the various nations that fall to a growing empire are neither treated nor seen as equals. We see this again and again from the Roman Empire to the pink-tainted map of British expansion. Rome expanded its citizen base only in the latter years to stave off a fiscal crisis brought on by decades of decadent emperors but ties by birth or marriage to the Italian peninsula and preferably Rome were favourable traits to possess well into the second century. Similarly, London scoffed at Mohandas Gandhi’s idea that Britain welcome all inhabitants of its dominions as equal citizens of their empire. Hazony accepts this at one point, but not before an unnecessary discourse on the universalist instincts of imperialism.

The difficulty of sustaining nations on abstractions such as liberalism stems from the inability to justify loyalty to the principle. The likelihood of changing our minds as we experience life and are exposed to more information means that any belonging to an ideal remains unstable at best. Hazony takes help from psychology to make the case that humans are social animals who have a need to belong to networks and believe in something greater than than the mere material of life. Here, he brings up a word not often seen in nationalism studies these days – loyalty – which is the crux of the debate. It is not easy, if at all possible, to have loyalty to an idea in the same manner one feels ties to a sibling or parent.

Hazony reworks several historical events to lend support to his hypothesis, in many cases problematically. For example, rather than see the Thirty Years’ War from the traditional perspective of a conflagration between Protestants and Catholics, Hazony casts it as being primarily motivated by universalist impulses against local inclinations. While most historians would agree that the religious element ceased to animate the conflict as the years passed, the war remained an old-fashioned struggle for geopolitical dominance between France and the Habsburgs.

Perhaps the most jarring incongruity in The Virtue of Nationalism is how the second Christian schism is repackaged as a contest between universalism and particularism. At a certain level, it is undeniable that Catholic allegiance to their Pope made way for dual loyalties. However, it is hardly the case that Protestantism was a particularist creed any more than Christianity a sub-sect of Judaism. While the theological reorganisation gave monarchs their independence from Rome, the faith itself still believed it possessed a universal message. The recent Evangelical movement has strongly underscored this conviction.

The largest empire in the modern era was put together by Britain and it was Prussian militarism that sank Europe into the first of its cataclysmic convulsions of the 20th century. The United States began its expansionist project with Manifest Destiny and then eyed territories beyond; none of these countries were Catholic. What is disappointing is that these ill-considered examples are unnecessary and distract from Hazony’s already persuasive defence of nationalism.

These weak digressions may conceal the real import of The Virtue of Nationalism, which is an assault on the cult of the solitary individual. Hazony traces the roots of this ideology to at least one of its origins, John Locke. Hazony finds the English philosopher’s initial assumption that all people are rational and his utilitarian methodology in assessing rationality flawed. Contrary to Locke, Hazony argues that the fundamental unit of existence is not the individual or even the family but the community. Our ethics arise from our communal interactions as does our sense of self; in turn, these inform all our other beliefs and relations, such as liberty or nationalism.

This is at the root of the conservative world view, that the community and family are prior to the individual. Ever since the early Liberals recast society as a collective of individuals, the idea has taken hold and grown to a point where it is not even questioned any more. The few who reject this modern normal have usually done so on theological grounds and have been easy to ignore in an increasingly profane world. By reviving a classical framework, The Virtue of Nationalism fires a broadside at not just the critics of nationalism but the entire Liberal project. Not only are the dangers of a universalist mindset compared against nationalism and found to be as dangerous if not worse, but individual liberty is argued to be mere license if not exercised within the bounds of community and morality. Thus, this is as much a work of political philosophy as it is about nationalism.

It is to the author’s credit that he does not pay much heed to the silly distinction between patriotism and nationalism – Vidura counters this best in the Udyoga Parva in India’s treasured epic, the Mahabharata, when he says, “[t]hose prone to get drunk get drunk on knowledge, wealth, and good birth; but the same are triumphs of the strict.”

The Virtue of Nationalism is a short book and not written in a solemn academic tone despite boasting an impressive bibliography. Hazony would do well to realise, however, that his understanding of nationalism is peculiar to Judaism and not characteristic of all politico-cultural movements. The inadvertent contradistinction, however, should be most interesting to scholars of nationalism. Readers should beware that the chatty affectation of the book belies a profound sociopolitical weltanshauung and a powerful critique of Liberalism in all its guises. There may be some historical quibbles but they do not, oddly, take away from the overall argument and to narrowly focus on those would be to miss the forest for the trees. In an era of Liberal activist academia, Hazony’s efforts to take us back to first principles and rethink our implicit assumptions is a welcome intellectual challenge.