Modi turns foreign policy as tool of national strategies

(File photo of S. Jaishankar who took over as India’s External Affairs Minister)

This is the season for political gossiping and for tossing hypotheses into the air. Most of them perish, while a handful may survive. The election fever has subsided except amongst a clutch of irreconcilables who won’t accept defeat. 

But they forget that elections in India have never been free and fair and manipulation of electoral outcome is nothing new, while the scale today may be staggering. Not too long ago, booth capturing was commonplace on the polling day in Indian elections. Impersonation was made into a fine art. 

The media was seldom impartial (although its influence is often overrated.) The ruling elites always tried to manipulate the media and journalists willingly succumbed to the weaknesses of the flesh and turned themselves into time-servers to make career (and/or money) out of their proximity to sources of political power. And, of course, the ruling party always considered it to be its prerogative to pack the Election Commission with ‘trusted’ people — although erring in judgment at times and once even ended up with a maverick in TN Seshan. 

However, it is extremely difficult to manipulate a general election of India’s magnitude. Clearly, our political class has accepted the results and life moves on. Serious attempts have begun to critique the election results.

That brings me to the strategic community in Delhi, which is in great animation over the new appointments. It is partly linked to the scramble to secure jobs under the new dispensation. But there are dispassionate observers, too. Of course, what lends enchantment to the view is first, S. Jaishankar’s appointment as EAM, and second, the elevation of the NSA’s post to cabinet rank following Ajit Doval’s reappointment. The pundits are struggling to digest the two bones that PM Narendra Modi threw at them within the space of 10 days. 

Frankly, bureaucratic appointments are not my forte. Nor do I attribute undue importance to personalities — except, of course, when they cause damage to the country’s interests. Doklam standoff was one such moment. Truthfully, we still do not have a definitive picture as to who precipitated such a dangerous situation in the Himalayas. Both Doval and Jaishankar were involved in decision-making and the intriguing part is that both have now been ‘promoted’. 

One must conclude stoically that neither was probably culpable for the reckless decision, or, perhaps, both were in varying degrees — and the buck didn’t stop with them — and therefore in the best traditions of India’s political culture, there shall be no accountability. 

 Unsurprisingly, our analysts choose to be ‘security-centric’ in their estimations of the appointment of Jaishankar. This resulted from the creeping ‘militarisation’ of foreign policy during UPA-II and is linked to the evolution of the ‘defining partnership’ with the US in the aftermath of the India-US nuclear deal of 2008.

However, this militarisation has become unsustainable today and has consequently caused friction in India-US relations. The paucity of resources for the making of New India bugs the leadership. Neither the Americans nor their lobbyists in India are willing to accept that for the Indian political leadership, the priority at the moment lies in the social and economic spheres. The economy must grow and develop first so that resources become available and social discontent is contained. The point is, the strategic pundits are faced today with the daunting task of taking this intellectual ellipsis. 

On the other hand, Modi has surged ahead on a journey where the national security state cannot and will not be the (sole) locomotive, but the corporatisation of the political economy has caught up with it and it is only natural that the latter will inexorably pull ahead. Jaishankar’s appointment as External Affairs Minister is a signpost. (The topic deserves a full-fledged discussion.)  

Thus, what Indian analysts overlook is that both Doval and Jaishankar are savvy enough to know what is good for them and won’t want to meet the fate of Icarus in Greek mythology. They will remain wary of complacency and hubris alike — flying neither too low nor too high, so the sea’s dampness would not clog their wings constructed from feathers and wax or the sun’s heat melt them.

One loses the way by dwelling too much on turf wars and Byzantine intrigues. Alas, many observers drew the conclusion that Jaishankar lost out in a struggle with Doval and found himself in the ‘dog house’ — that is, ended up with the great tragedy of landing no more post-retirement jobs in the government. But that was not what really happened. Brilliant bureaucrats like Jaishankar do not retire. Jaishankar actually went on a sabbatical that was in the nature of a ‘retooling’ of himself. Conceivably, PM encouraged it by waiving the rules regarding ‘cooling-off’ periods.

The place where Jaishankar underwent the ‘retooling’ gives the story away — Tata Group, which has a profound personal and corporate relationship at the leadership level in Nagpur with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). 

Suffice to say, a replay of the Doval-Jaishankar rivalry — if there ever was one — is unlikely to happen, not only because Jaishankar has metamorphosed but also since PM would have a division of labour on his mind, which keeps the two sufficiently apart so as not to dissipate themselves, while also enables him to tap into their professional skills and expertise. 

At any rate, Doval is too old to ‘retool’ himself at this stage in life. Whereas, Jaishankar is a finished product today — a diplomat with corporate mindset attuned to the New India, who is flexible enough, intellectually and morally, to temper his innate ‘westernism’ with the imperatives of nationalism that RSS espouses. Actually, there is no contradiction here, per se, between the ruling elite’s nationalism and ‘westernism’, in an era when corporate funds provide the lifeblood of politics.

Indeed, all this should also tell us something about PM’s foreign-policy agenda in this second coming. From what we know of him, PM Modi is neither a strategic thinker in the mould of Kissinger nor a pedantic besotted with textbook IR theories. Also, he has the benefit of 5 years as statesman. And his astute political mind would tell him that India’s hyper-militarised foreign policies have gone haywire — all geopolitics and out of sync with national priorities of development. 

Modi is determined that the priority of India’s diplomacy lies in assisting the ‘corporatisation’ of India. That is to say, there is hardly any scope for a turf war between Doval and Jaishankar. Of course, Doval remains a strategic asset, an intelligence czar indispensable to the political leadership, especially for Amit Shah whose domain lies far beyond what passes for ‘internal security’. Intelligence is power and power gives leverage to manipulate men and situations. Thus, Doval will be the provider of actionable intelligence — while Jaishankar remains a curious consumer.

The salience is that PM has avoided the disastrous formula that Manmohan Singh opted for in 2009 by having two NSAs. More importantly, he is the first PM of independent India who realises that diplomacy involves professional skill. The PM opted for a model in vogue in the Russian, Chinese and South Korean political system where career diplomats went up the professional ladder to become foreign ministers so that the message percolated down the line amongst the cadres that diplomacy functioned on the ground as the handmaiden of national strategies. Significantly, all three countries have ‘presidential’ form of government.  

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