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Book Review: Sreeram Chaulia’s ‘Modi Doctrine: The Foreign Policy of India’s Prime Minister’

08 May 2017
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India Foundation

Despite the persistent domestic challenges of poverty and inequality, India enjoys recognition as arising and responsible power in the emerging world order. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India came to power in a landslide victory in May 2014 under the leadership of Narendra Modi. There was a lot of speculation at home and abroad over India’s possible foreign policy directions after Modi’s ascent to power. A parliamentary majority achieved by a single party for the first time in India since 1984 amplified the expectations, and hence, scholars and observers wondered how Modi’s leadership mattered for India’s foreign policy, and for the emerging global order.

Sreeram Chaulia’s Modi Doctrine decodes India’s external engagement under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi. The main argument of the book is that Modi is “globalising and revolutionising India’s foreign policy like no other prime minister since Jawaharlal Nehru”. Analysing the conduct of India’s external engagements through critical evaluation of Modi’s foreign policy, he explains the impact Modi has made in global affairs. The author has knitted together his arguments through six key research questions focussed on elements of style and substance, Modi’s worldview, global perceptions, achievements or indicators of paradigm shift, future prospects and finally identifying the gaps and ways to overcome them.

Addressing the elements of style, the author underlines the role of individual personalities in bringing about major shifts in foreign policy and views Modi as a “transformative leader” who has reconstructed India’s foreign policy through “fundamental changes with inspirational content”. As India’s “Diplomat-in-Chief”, Modi has developed a political framework at the highest level for engaging countries around the world. Due to his continuous and sustained interactions with the world leaders, Modi’s personal style is starkly different from that of his predecessor. Modi is charismatic, authoritative and a very effective communicator using face-to-face, print, electronic, digital as well as social media platforms. The author rightly argues that Modi is a very energetic and active leader and he takes a different approach from “diplomacy as usual”. Modi’s “retail diplomacy” and his reliance on personal chemistry has been painted as a “powerful tool in enhancing India’s diplomatic engagement”. Moreover, Modi’s break from the traditional ways of diplomacy gives him “a personal connect to use that to manoeuvre during tense situations”. Hence, the pro-active leadership of Modi has transformed India’s engagement with the world.

The Modi government has qualitatively and quantitatively enriched engagement with the Indian Diaspora. It is trying to simplify rules, quickly responding to their grievances, and engaging them in the overall development agenda of the government. “Dancing with the Diaspora” captures in great details Indian government’s pro-active approach towards the diaspora community which has re-energized Non Residential Indians (NRI) and Persons of Indian Origin (PIO) community. Further, Indian diaspora is very fragmented and Modi has become a unifying force for the community across the world. Modi’s policy initiatives are strengthening their ties with their country of origin and enhancing their stature in their country of residence. Moreover, digital diplomacy has become a very effective means of communication. For instance, diaspora community has approached the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) for assistance and due to quick and direct communications, timely assistance have been facilitated by the government.

Focussed on India’s development, Modi’s foreign policy “is guided by the constant drive to reform and transform India, for security and prosperity of all Indians”. The business of India is business, and therefore, Modi’s economic diplomacy is driven by “a sense of India’s retaking its position as a leading commercial power that once determined prosperity and business on a planetary scale”. Modi’s “sharp business brain with an earthly, common sensical grasp of monetary matters” has “redefined what it means to be “business-friendly” on transnational scale”. The author underlines some new elements in the government-to-business relations which has significantly enriched coordination between the government and investors, and has injected more economic dynamism.

The author has encapsulated various alphabet soup, for e.g. three Ds: democracy, demography and demand; three Cs: connectivity, commercial ties and cultural bonds; five Ts: tradition, talent, tourism, trade and technology; three Ss: skill, speed and scale –and has underlined that all these coinages of new concepts and acronyms are stimulating a “paradigm shift” in India’s role in global affairs.

The author argues that under the Modi Doctrine, there is a clear enunciation for India to drive and lead on global challenges and India seems prepared to play a vital role on issues of interest to the international community and humanity at large. He observes that India is on the right track to be a leading power “owing to its leader [Modi] and his unparalleled mobilisation of national will”. The author aptly notes that the USA-China-India diplomatic triangle will determine global power balance, institutional makeup and political outcomes in this century. While he explains transformation in India-USA relations, and India-China relations, he also recognises limitations and Modi’s red lines on India’s national interests and strategic autonomies. The author captures Indian government’s active engagement with major powers and several regional and global institutions on issues of common interests for better policy coordination. These issues range from climate change, technological cooperation, pandemics, terrorism, skill development, trade and services agreements, energy security and many others.

Some key features of the Modi Doctrine are: long-term thinking; deploying more human and material resources, restructuring policymaking; forging novel ideas and institutions and stepping up to assume greater international responsibilities. Moreover, while decoding various features of the Modi Doctrine, we must accept that doctrine is not a definitive statement, rather, it is a way of seeing a departure from the past. The world is dynamic where frames of reference are shifting rapidly. In Modi’s foreign policy approach, we see a sense of a broader shift in ideas which is more problem-solving.

Sreeram Chaulia is a prolific writer and an insightful scholar. However, there are some shortcomings to his approach. First, he has done the criticism of some of previous Prime Ministers of India which are not entirely true. He claims that Indian foreign policy before Modi was “a saga of ad hocism, improvisation and unpredictability”. His sweeping assertions like the “insular mindset of the Indian Foreign Service cadre and the absence of world class scholarly work in India” are unsubstantiated. Second, he asserts that the long-term policy planning and scenarios related work had been missing altogether, which is incorrect. He overlooks earlier works, for example, ICRIER’s National Interest project, in which many serving and retired diplomats and several eminent experts contributed including the current National Security Advisor. Third, while a seamless continuum between India’s choices at home and its external engagements or a tight integration of domestic and foreign policy is a key feature of the Modi Doctrine, the author is uncertain about the importance of domestic factors in ensuring success of the Modi Doctrine. When author contends that before Modi, India foreign policy suffered from shortage of political will and direction of top, he forgets that the same BJP—whose hold on government between 1998 and 2004 presided over events of lasting and global magnitude: India’s nuclear tests, and two significant crises between India and Pakistan.

Nevertheless, the author presents his experience and knowledge in a clear and candid manner and will provoke further research on emerging Modi Doctrine. The book is handsomely produced, with an index and sourced from the most relevant documents on the subject and is essential reading for all interested to understand transformation of India’s foreign policy.

(Reviewer is Research Associate at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), an autonomous research institute at the National University of Singapore. He can be contacted at isasrrc@nus.edu.sg/rrchaturvedy@gmail.com.)

(This book review is carried in the print edition of May-June 2017 issue of India Foundation.)