Realpolitik determines the contours of the Modi Doctrine embodied in contact and commercial diplomacy. This is the central idea of Sreeram Chaulia’s book, “Modi Doctrine: The Foreign Policy of India’s Prime Minister,” published by Bloomsbury in 2016. Chaulia is an academician specialising in both international security and international political economy. This opinion piece intends to discuss Chaulia’s certain ideas expressed in the book.
Narendra Modi sworn in as the fourteenth Prime Minister (PM) of India on May 26, 2014. Contrary to the general understanding of a doctrine — a stated foreign-policy principle of a government or the head of the government to express preferences of the government — Chaulia claims that Modi carried along his political career certain principles which can now be couched in the term doctrine. On page 28, Chaulia writes: “The earliest signs of what can now be labelled as the Modi Doctrine ... derive from the travels, impressions, learnings and work experiences from the period of his youth and middle age.” Here, Chaulia is making three points. First, the childhood of Modi is not somehow worth mentioning as a contributory factor. Second, the Modi doctrine is a one-man outlook. Three, like the US President, Modi is independent of the parliament.
Chaulia claims that Modi practices a kind of aggressive bi-faceted — contact and commercial — diplomacy owing to two reasons. First, Modi did social work for Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organization of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), promoting Hindu nationalism. For instance, on page 30, Chaulia writes: “Touring, travelling and contacting as many interlocutors as possible through a kinetic diplomacy are visceral to the Modi Doctrine. One need not look beyond Modi’s RSS background to understand why so much weightage is accorded to contact diplomacy [something like “retail politics” (page 32), to develop “personal rapport” (page 34), which is the most visible manifestation of the Modi Doctrine].” Second, Modi intends to temper the damage done to his name when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat (2001-2014). For instance, on page 46, Chaulia writes: “For a Modi who was eager to ‘wash off’ the negative image circulated worldwide by the horrific anti-Muslim riots of 2002, which he termed as a ‘blot during my tenure’, all-out commercial diplomacy was a redemptive move. The stigma of being blamed for inaction or complicity in the religious violence and the related setback of visa denials from the USA and some European nations had to be answered with a comprehensive economic developmental agenda as well as outreach to those nations still open to courting him.” Interestingly, as mentioned on pages 42 and 177, Chaulia thinks that the shared virtue between the Modi doctrine and the rest of the world (excluding Pakistan) is realpolitik: economic needs supersedes moral scruples.
Realpolitik is the mainstay of the Modi doctrine. For instance, on page 222, Chaulia writes: “The Modi Doctrine has artfully shelved the ‘either-or’ dilemma of India partnering with Israel and Arab countries. It has managed to de-hyphenate the two, while maximizing gains from each, a feat enabled by the fact that Sunni Arab states[constituting the Gulf Cooperation Council, especially Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, with whom India’s equations transcend the welfare of its vast diaspora, remittances and oil supplies] and Israel have controversially, but surely aligned closer with each other owing to common animosity towards Shia Iran. In 2015, it came to the light that India had become one of five international venues for secret back-channel talks between Saudi and Israeli officials to ‘discuss the threat posed by Iran’.”
Chaulia thinks that in the heart of realpolitik lies the longing for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI)to help India manufacture and export goods, as China did after Asian Tigers in the 1990s. On page 41, Chaulia writes: “Modi’s economic agenda of overcoming India’s unemployment crisis [is] through the China-styled FDI-premised heavy industrialization and developing the manufacturing sector via his flagship ‘Make in India’ campaign [instead of “current services-driven growth trajectory...based on the mass deployment of labour and capital” (page 87)].” Here, the emphasis of the doctrine is on the lower uneducated and unskilled labour class which can find their limited utility in the services sector, compared to the reforms introduced by the then Indian PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1999-2004) of BJP and which were focused on the educated and skilled youth of the middle class. In this way, the Modi doctrine has tried to neutralize the Communist or Marxist criticism that spoke vociferously for the economic uplift of millions of down-trodden Indians. Secondly, this point is a realization that the consequences of making India a market for selling imported goods swept away much financial gains earned through Vajpayee’s India Shining. The trickle down from the middle to the lower class could not take place appositely. This time, Modi complements Vajpayee.
Modi also wants the Indian diaspora to learn from the Chinese diaspora who made FDI act as a primer for an investor-exporter model in China. On page 73, Chaulia writes: “The Modi Doctrine on the diaspora aims inter alia at maximizing FDI from the Indian diaspora to motor India’s economic growth... As he told over eighteen thousand desis in Singapore in November 2015, ‘FDI is not only Foreign Direct Investment but also First Develop India’.” Here, Chaulia does not tell what Modi has done in India to meet FDI’s pre-requisites: physical infrastructure development, corporate law making and anti-red tape measures.
Chaulia claims that the Modi Doctrine plays a balanced diplomacy to secure India’s economic interests. For instance, on pages 168 and 169, Chaulia writes: “[T]he urgency of containing China through the ‘pivot’ and other means is obvious in the American strategy...But instead of bandwagoning with the USA to counterbalance against China, the Modi Doctrine has adroitly kept China interested in India’s growth through commercial diplomacy.” Similarly, on page 232, Chaulia writes: “Apart from the USA, the Modi Doctrine has devoted due attention to a number of European nations and Canada as part of a multipurpose diplomacy to further India’s economic interests. It has fashioned a ‘Link West’ agenda to complement the ‘Act East’ policy and presented India as a balanced player that is strategically attentive in all geographic directions.” Here, Chaulia has projected a bigger role of India, predicting the success of which is quite premature.
The book is an encomium and has used all available jargon of international relations to construct the Modi doctrine. Plainly, there is no Modi doctrine: it is just the Gujarat model of politics and economy that Modi is trying to impose on the whole of India.
The writer is a freelance columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org