Modi's 'India First' Agenda

Published: 02nd May 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 02nd May 2014 12:41 AM   |  A+A-

Various ministries in the government of India are reportedly preparing for transition to a Narendra Modi-led BJP regime by getting policy documents ready for the incoming ministers to sign off on. In a similar vein our ambassador in Beijing, Ashok Kantha, jumped the gun by declaring there’d be no change in India’s China policy.

Such transition activity is explained self-servingly as permitting the new dispensation to “hit the ground running”. Actually, it is a way to entrench hoary policies the generalist civil servants are accustomed to purveying. But their attempt at ensuring the so-called “continuity in policy” pre-empts the incoming government from rethinking policies, setting new goals and objectives, and ringing in wholesale policy changes in accordance with Modi’s “India first” schema. The potentially incoming National Democratic Alliance ministers, therefore, need to be careful not to endorse any papers pending a comprehensive policy review and “house cleaning”. Otherwise, a Modi government will get locked into Sonia Gandhi’s policies.

Power transition should be handled in the manner it is reportedly being done with regard to oil where the BJP’s energy cell is active, with the prospective changes in policy being sourced to the soon-to-be ruling party, not babus who have no political stake in the new government’s policies, and are not accountable to the people for their success or failure.

This is to say that civil servants should be disabused of the notion that they are any part of policy making, something that weak governments with feeble prime ministers, post-Indira Gandhi, have failed to do. They need to be told to confine themselves to implementing the political decisions and to hue strictly to new policy parameters.

While Modi has raised expectations with promise of small government, good governance, and development, it is in the foreign and military policy fields where his “India first” doctrine is especially relevant. The phrase “India first” was originally coined by this analyst in 2002 in a series of writings culminating in a longish piece in the serious periodical, Seminar, in November of that year. It was frustration with the tendency of the BJP government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee to bend over backwards to please the United States that prompted it. Vajpayee’s term begot the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership, which led to Manmohan Singh’s catastrophic nuclear deal. National interest was grievously hurt and the country’s strategic options were curtailed. The “India first” precept advocated an unbending and uncompromising attitude to national interest as replacement for the soft, malleable, concepts that have animated policies to India’s detriment.

It was with a bit of proprietary pride then that I heard Narendra Modi talk of “India first” as his guiding principle. What Modi has said on foreign policy issues to date is down-to-earth and encouraging. His core belief that he’ll do whatever needs to be done in the national interest is a pointer. His view that India has to produce its own armaments is reassuring; that our diplomats should primarily promote Indian economic interests abroad is the sort of practical instruction that’s likely to fetch rich dividend and a task the foreign office should gear up for. Modi’s muscular thinking has been taken to mean that Pakistan should expect more steel in the Indian fist when, as he subsequently made clear, he expects to win over the neighbouring states with the means of trade and commerce. It is, however, his approach to China that will be the litmus test.

In building up excessively against Pakistan, India is left vulnerable against China. Modi will have to decide if such vulnerability is to continue. Pakistan is a lowly threat but consumes a lot of the Indian defence effort and resources. What terrorist-asymmetric threat it poses can be reduced, as Modi hinted with regard to Dawood Ibrahim, by resort to targeted intelligence operations, what Kautilya called kutayuddha (covert warfare). India’s making goo-goo eyes at Beijing, which has got away with nuclear missile arming Pakistan without suffering a tit-for-tat response, is incomprehensible. Passivity and inaction in the face of grave Chinese provocation convey the impression of a country that can be trifled with. Modi needs to rectify it as a first step in raising the country’s stock in Asia and the world.

But to get the country’s foreign and military policies on the right track requires articulation of an expansive geostrategic vision and iron political will, and appropriate strategy and plans. Modi will have to create his own brain trust. The trouble is the BJP has a flawed record in husbanding congenial talent. The proof is in the formation of the first National Security Advisory Board in 1998. It was an omnibus collection of disparate-minded people trawled from the strategic enclave, with no thought given to whether the thinking of those selected resonated with that of the BJP. That it didn’t was evidenced by the fact that it had persons who starred in the successor Congress party regime’s set-up. Among them were M K Narayanan—a manifest disaster as national security adviser (NSA), Sanjaya Baru, as media adviser, and a prolific “strategic affairs” commentator close to Washington who propagated the Congress government’s view that India should be part of “the political West”, which policy lost India politico-military standing and diplomatic leverage. A stalwart minister and Vajpayee’s confidante now admits that the latter’s government erred in not tapping the talent they had relied on when out of power.

The slew of retired civil servants and diplomats who have jumped onto the BJP bandwagon are of limited utility in this regard; long years in government rendering them incapable of generating fresh ideas to realise Modi’s “India first” agenda. After becoming prime minister, Modi should constitute a Special Policy Unit (SPU) attached to the PMO of the kind that Thatcher did in Britain in the 1980s to assist her in dismantling the socialist state and making that country more assertive. Separate from the more institutionalised NSA system, the compact, freewheeling, and bureaucratically unconstrained SPU can develop policy ideas for the PM’s consideration. The selected options can be followed up by NSA.

The author is professor at the Centre for Policy Research and blogs at


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