Is Narendra Modi’s foreign policy “risk-prone”, “reckless” and unduly “personalised”? These questions and these expressions have been heard repeatedly. Recently they were raised after the August 15 reference to Balochistan. Earlier they followed the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) plenary in Seoul and found mention in analyses of Modi’s high-octane international visits.
How valid is such criticism? The answer requires reflection. True, some of the criticism has come from those politically opposed to Modi and congenitally or even hereditarily hostile to anything he does. Yet, some misgivings have come from veteran diplomats who have served India honestly and purposefully in the past. Many are agnostic to Modi, some may even be sympathetic. Why are they nonplussed?
Part of it is a caution born of years of seeing things done in a certain manner and using certain protocols – and it must be said that manner and those protocols often worked to India’s advantage. Part of it is an inability to understand the instincts of a competitive politician who tends to approach any political engagement — domestic or international — with a transactionalism and a horse-sense assessment of immediate and long-term implications, calculating the appropriate mix in his head.
Such transactionalism and calculations are not unknown to other diplomatic cultures, notably to the United States. Of course, the bureaucracy in the State Department could think differently and offer more measured advice to a president who may have his reasons for foreign policy innovation. This is not to suggest that the formal diplomatic corps is irrelevant and outdated. It’s just that its professional judgment will be adhered to, tweaked or even side-stepped given the priorities of the president (or in India’s case prime minister).
All of this has happened in the past. It happened when Manmohan Singh risked substantial slices of his precious political capital on the nuclear deal, despite influential sections of the Ministry Of External Affairs counselling a plan B. It happened when Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in his second month in office, went ahead with Pokhran II. If he had consulted the MEA, asked it to prepare the ground and suggest an appropriate date for the nuclear tests, the recommendation would never have come.
In Modi’s case, these impulses have got accentuated because of his background as a chief minister who pushed his civil servants in Gujarat to take his chosen projects to fruition, rather than barricaded himself in their counsel. He has brought this experience to diplomacy. Does that mean he is better than all his predecessors and always right? Not necessarily. More than about him being right or wrong, this is about understanding what he is.
It is pointless to look at Modi through a prism that existed before him — and may well be reincarnated with a future PM — and despair that he is not acting as previous PMs have or in the manner that the “strategic community” in Delhi would expect and want him to. This reflects a failure of several very fine foreign policy minds to sufficiently study and relate to how domestic politics works and shapes decision-making. You don’t have to agree, but there is a need to attempt to understand.
Many leaders have driven foreign policy initiatives that they believe in but which run counter to diplomatic wisdom or Foreign Office institutional memory. Modi has indicated a shift with his Balochistan gambit. Singh did this with the nuclear deal. A contentious example would be Tony Blair’s advocacy of the Iraq intervention. On another scale, a well-intentioned but missed opportunity was Woodrow Wilson’s failure to have the Treaty of Versailles ratified in his own backyard.
In terms of Modi’s “personalising” of diplomacy, there are two issues to note. First, Modi came to office with both a curiosity and an ignorance about him. He leveraged that to his advantage, recognising he could do it for the first two or three years but not beyond.
Not since Jawaharlal Nehru has a PM made his personal narrative such a force multiplier for diplomacy. This is not to compare Nehru and Modi — that is another argument, for another day. It is only to emphasise that the conditions under which they took office, Nehru in the 1940s and Modi after the mandate of 2014, allowed them a clean-sheet redesign. Such an option was neither available to nor actively sought by PMs in between.
Modi used the chance to pertinaciously cultivate a rapport with key counterparts. With Barack Obama it worked; with Xi Jinping it has not always worked. Further, there was a realistic, perhaps cynical recognition that for all the talk of institutions, personalities still drive foreign policy. When Modi visited Central Asia, often the only interlocutor was the individual country’s (elected) strongman: no number two, no leader of opposition, nothing.
Second, Modi is a general who likes to get into the trenches and not sit in a war room a thousand miles away. This is not the only template for diplomatic leadership, but it is the one he has chosen. It led him to invest heavily in the NSG campaign, and he took the consequences. Do remember though that it also led him to invest heavily in the resolution of the nuclear liabilities mess with the US and not leave it to an interminable “negotiating process”. India is reaping the benefits.
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