Open Essay

As Modi Embraces the World

Bharat Karnad is Professor for National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research and author of the forthcoming book, Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition
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Limits of personalised diplomacy

THE DEFINING CHARACTERISTIC of Narendra Modi’s tenure as Prime Minister are the foreign trips he has racked up—16 in his first year, followed by another 10 in his second year in office. It seems he likes nothing better than jaw-jawing in foreign climes.

For all the media hoo-ha, Modi’s tours are fetching diminishing returns, with each new foreign tour appearing less fresh, less substantive, but more wearisome. Consider Modi’s interactions with the US President: He has met Barack Obama seven times in all, four times in America, and twice on visits to Washington. But a few days before the supposed honour done Modi with the invitation to address the US Congress, the US Senate rejected recognising India as America’s ‘global strategic and defence partner’ and the White House did not pitch India’s case to Ireland, New Zealand, Austria, Brazil and Turkey, for admission to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), unlike in 2008 when the then President George W Bush burned the wires—including with China—to get India its NSG waiver. And, notwithstanding Modi’s charm offensive and personal pleading on state visits to Mexico and Switzerland, neither Mexico City nor Berne relented in opposing India’s NSG membership.

So, what’s going wrong with Modi’s forays in the external realm, which made such a splash early on, transfixing the country and at least the expat part of the Western world, replete with crazed crowds in Madison Garden, New York, Wembley Stadium, London, and the Allphones Arena, Sydney? Well, they hit the limits of personalised diplomacy.

What makes personalised diplomacy tick? Mainly, its rarity and the manner in which it is conducted and for what purpose. It is a double-edged sword, though. A helmsman putting his prestige and status on the line, and doing the slog-work—the domain of professional diplomats—of stumping for support from foreign countries, endows the venture he is involved in with significance beyond anything the foreign country may accord it. But there have been more failures than payoffs. This is due to the hyperbolic media build-up and raising of expectations that have provided clever adversary states the opportunity to show India in bad light, pull Modi down a peg or two, and magnify his failure. Thus, Chinese President Xi Jinping ignored Modi’s entreaties for “a fair and objective assessment” of India’s case for NSG membership in their meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Tashkent on 23 June, resulting in egg on the latter’s face and a hit to India’s reputation.

Modi’s calling card—his tight embraces, bear hugs and hand- holding—unique to his personalised diplomacy, which he believes makes for instant warmth and cordiality, hasn’t worked either. Nawaz Sharif responded happily to such gestures, and Obama, who roomed with a Pakistani during his days at Columbia University, reciprocated. But it has left most other leaders, such as French President François Hollande, in a state of embarrassed discomfort.

At its core, the trouble is that the Prime Minister has made too many foreign trips and converted too many foreign policy issues into occasions for grandstanding, and his interventions have now palled, eroding his credibility and raising doubts about his ability to distinguish between the truly significant national interest that needs pursuing with his direct involvement and relatively less important concerns that can be productively handled by diplomats.

Modi’s calling card— his tight embraces, bear hugs and hand holding—has left leaders such as French President François Hollande in a state of embarrassed discomfort

It underlines just how precious a head of government’s personal political capital is in international relations and why it should be carefully husbanded, doled out in very small doses, and his presence deployed only in rare situations to obtain decisive results on large issues of war and peace, or to garner huge economic gains. In the field of foreign policy, ‘out of the box’ thinking and actions that Modi extols do not require that he always lead the charge. Since squandered personal capital cannot easily be restocked, the Indian Prime Minister may soon discover he has exhausted this resource when he most needs it in the future, rendering him less effective as a statesman.

There is also the danger that every passing failure will lead him to engage his ego more deeply in failing causes and to ‘lose face’. The great Chinese strategist Sun Tzu had warned that losing face has costs. But Modi indicated in his interview to Times TV that his Government will bull ahead regardless on the NSG front. Or as MEA spokesman Vikas Swarup put it: “Today, Indian diplomacy doesn’t fear failure. If we don’t get desired results, we [will] redouble our efforts.” But doggedness is not always a diplomatic virtue; it can result in the country digging itself into a bigger hole, nor is backing off to mount an offensive on another axis a show of weakness.

Modi’s personalised diplomacy is affected by other factors as well. It is clear the Prime Minister has his own foreign policy agenda and plan of action, has strong views on everything, and welcomes only policy ideas conforming to his own notions, summarily rejecting contrary advice from any quarter. Convinced of his power to persuade Xi, Modi, for example, shrugged off the MEA’s apprehensions about China’s unwavering opposition to India’s NSG entry. Modi’s style of working reveals tremendous confidence, and massive ego, pride, and vanity to match—natural for a person who has traversed the distance from the lowest rungs of society to the highest position in the country.

In this set-up, his National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar are mere functionaries doing Modi’s bidding. It has simplified the policymaking process. Jaishankar, for instance, has dispensed with the ‘collegium’ system followed by his predecessors of consulting other secretaries in the Ministry because such collective counsel is deemed extraneous to his brief and the Prime Minister’s needs. The MEA, including its Minister Sushma Swaraj, are thus marginalised.

Doval and Jaishankar have only to take care not to question Modi’s outlook and approach, or to contradict his views, and to deliver on cue. Then again, they have the same orientation the Prime Minister does of seeing the West as the source of solutions for India’s problems. Apparently, they have had a harder time adjusting to Modi’s peculiarly Gujarati conceit (representative of the trader community of that province) central to his diplomacy that because his negotiating wiles cannot easily be countered, he can cut beneficial deals all by himself with anybody. With Modi, in effect, both writing the diplomatic music and directing the orchestra, the PMO and MEA are reduced to keeping the musicians and their instruments in order.

Convinced of his power to persuade Xi, Modi shrugged off the MEA’s apprehensions about China’s unwavering opposition to India’s NSG entry

With long experience of dealing with egotistical Third World leaders, Western governments long ago finessed the ministering to their vanity as means of advancing national interests into a fine art. Western capitals quickly learned, for instance, that gargantuan returns can be raked in by making the right noises, seconding Modi’s perspective, and waxing emphatic about his ‘Make in India’ programme. Fawned on and feted by Hollande in Paris, Modi suddenly announced the buy of 36 Rafale fighter planes that torpedoed the underway medium multi-role combat aircraft procurement process and undermined Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s more economical and effective option of buying twice as many Indian-assembled Su-30MKIs for the same amount as the Rafale, that would have left money over for producing the locally-designed Tejas light combat aircraft.

Likewise, in tilting towards the US, Modi has been unmindful of the huge economic and geopolitical costs involved in terms of loss of strategic autonomy and alienating Russia, an indispensable strategic partner. Unlike the US, Moscow has been relaxed about transferring frontline military equipment (such as the Akula-II nuclear attack submarine) in contrast to Washington flogging 1970s vintage F-16 and F-18 aircraft, and in assisting in the design and production of the Arihant-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile-firing submarines. Compare this technology level to the US promise of help in producing short-range tactical drones and battery packs.

Modi has seemingly bought into Washington’s transactional policy requiring New Delhi to make endless buys of inordinately expensive technology and military hardware just so the US grows to trust India. Except, US punitive policies created the trust deficit in the first place, which Modi doesn’t think matters.

He has thus agreed to purchase six Westinghouse AP 1000 light water reactors that will divert scarce funds from Indian projects to develop breeder reactors and follow-on thorium reactors. The US offer of the electro-magnetic aircraft launch system will make the Indian-built carriers cost-prohibitive, at $10 billion per vessel. And importing the 155 mm M-777 howitzer from the US instead of procuring the Bharat Forge-designed and produced lightweight, air transportable utility gun, will dampen private sector initiatives and mock Modi’s defence indigenisation policy. The total bill will be in tens of billions of dollars.

There’s no one to tell Modi he is on the wrong track. A liability in diplomacy, vanity won’t permit him to acknowledge his mistakes. Worse, it has made him susceptible ‘to be turned’, as a senior diplomat put it, ‘for small cash’.