On 4 November 2013, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke to over 120 heads of Indian missions and outlined the five principles that defined his foreign policy. These were:

First, recognition that India’s relations with the world – the major powers and Asian neighbours – were shaped by its developmental priorities. Singh said that “the single most important objective of Indian foreign policy has to be to create a global environment conducive to the well-being of our great country”.

Second, that greater integration with the world economy would benefit India and enable Indians to realise their creative potential.

Third, to seek stable, long term and mutually beneficial relations with all major powers. And to work with the international community to create a global economic and security environment beneficial to all nations.

Fourth, to recognise that the Indian subcontinent’s shared destiny required greater regional cooperation and connectivity.

Fifth, a foreign policy defined not merely by interests, but also by the values dear to Indians: “India’s experiment of pursuing economic development within the framework of a plural, secular and liberal democracy has inspired people around the world and should continue to do so.”

This was a clear exposition of what was sought to be achieved. India would use foreign policy to advance its economic development; it would be friendly with global great powers and its neighbours; and it would be helped in doing this by continuing to be a pluralist and secular democracy.

Whether this policy succeeded and to what extent and what its failures, if any, were can be debated, but there is clarity about what the foreign policy is meant to do.

The following year, Narendra Modi released his manifesto for the 2014 elections. Its foreign policy section was headlined “Nation First, Universal Brotherhood”. It made the following points:

  • The BJP believes India must get its rightful place in the world and in international institutions.
  • Political stability, progress and peace are essential for South Asia’s growth and development, however the UPA “failed to establish enduring friendly and cooperative relations with India’s neighbours” and “India and its neighbours have drifted apart”.
  • In the UPA’s policy, “instead of clarity, we have seen confusion” and because of “absence of statecraft”, India “is seen to be floundering, whereas it should have been engaging with the world with confidence”. One reason for this floundering was “the collapse of the Indian economy” which “has contributed to the sorry state of foreign affairs in no small measure”.

Having set up the problem, the manifesto looked at solutions:

  • The BJP would be ‘firstly guided by our centuries old tradition of “Vasudhaiva kutumbakam”’, however, ‘at the same time, our foreign policy will be based on best national interests’.
  • It would ‘integrate our soft power avenues into our external interchange, particularly, harnessing and focusing on the spiritual, cultural and philosophical dimensions of it’.
  • It would ‘revive Brand India with the help of our strengths of 5 Ts: Tradition, Talent, Tourism, Trade and Technology’.

These “solutions” would be achieved through a set of guiding principles, and these were:

  • To “champion uniform international opinion on issues like Terrorism and Global Warming”.
  • To not be led by big power interests.
  • With its neighbours, India would be friendly, but “where required we will not hesitate from taking strong stand and steps”.
  • It would strengthen SAARC and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
  • It would engage with BRICS, G20 and other global institutions. India’s states “will be encouraged to play a greater role in diplomacy”.
  • NRIs, PIOs and professionals settled abroad would be mobilised to “strengthen Brand India”.

The text was accompanied by some NITI Aayog-type jargon. For instance, this sentence that the BJP’s “vision is to fundamentally reboot and reorient the foreign policy goals, content and process, in a manner that locates India’s global strategic engagement in a new paradigm and on a wider canvas, that is not just limited to political diplomacy, but also includes our economic, scientific, cultural, political and security interests, both regional and global, on the principles of equality and mutuality, so that it leads to an economically stronger India, and its voice is heard in the international fora”. And “we will leverage all our resources and people to play a greater role on the international high table”.

It is not easy to narrow down the deliverables and outcomes of Modi’s 2014 foreign policy as it was Singh’s.

What is apparent in it is the idea that India has a “rightful place”, which was being denied it (the text refers to India as being “Vishwaguru” or the world’s teacher). Also, India’s primacy would be restored through leadership on global warming and terrorism and through the revival of “Brand India”.

Modi spoke on 17 January 2017 at the second Raisina Dialogue in Delhi. He said the following about his foreign policy:

  • He was here to change mindsets from a state of drift to one of purposeful action. This would come through bold decisions.
  • India’s economic growth, the welfare of its farmers, employment opportunities, access to capital, technology, markets, resources and security were impacted by external developments. But the world also needed India to rise and so the two were linked.
  • Sluggish economic growth and trade volatility were now a fact. Gains from globalisation were not as easy to come by.
  • Political and military power were more diffused. The world and Asia had become increasingly multi-polar.
  • India’s strategic intent was rooted in its civilisational ethos and consisted of realism (“Yatharthvad”), coexistence (“Sahastitva”), cooperation (“Sahyog”) and partnership (“Sahbhagita”). Self-interest alone was not in Indian culture or behaviour. India would be an anchor for regional and global progress.
  • It would help reconfigure global institutions and organisations. It would spread yoga and ayurveda to the world.
  • India would take a “Neighbourhood First” approach. It would shed the burdens of the past and connect the region. With Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Maldives, India would engage robustly, but Pakistan would have to first give up terror.
  • Farther along, India would partner Iran on Chabahar. And it would have strategic maritime interests in the Indian Ocean region.

We can observe that some of the more interesting facets of the 2014 manifesto – for instance, the idea that India’s states play a bigger role in diplomacy – appear to have fallen away or been demoted.

Similarly, South Asia drops out entirely of the 2019 manifesto for some reason and there is no mention of SAARC either. It repeats the point about vasudhaiva kutumbakam, a phrase that means all the world is one family.

How does that sentiment translate into actual policy in the realm of diplomacy, which is about pursuing self-interest? Something was missing here, and from broad platitudes, the manifesto text goes directly into programmatic detail. It adds a deliverable at the end: India would seek permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council. How would this be secured? This was not elaborated on.

Other than the idea that India was entitled to more than it had and should be given it by the world, there appears to be no direct and specific aim of the Modi foreign policy such as those articulated by Singh.

A link was required to connect Modi’s helter-skelter manner with something resembling a doctrine. This came from S Jaishankar, who served as foreign secretary to Modi and, after the passing away of Sushma Swaraj, as foreign minister in Modi’s second administration. Jaishankar produced a book, which is a compilation of the speeches he gave as foreign minister on things as diverse as China’s rise to power, India’s lost decades, the Mahabharata, maritime power and the Covid pandemic. This muddle shows in the book.

As a professional, Jaishankar makes much of the word “outcomes” (used six times in one lecture delivered in November 2019) and says that, in the past, Indian diplomacy has had an obsession with words. Form and process had become more important than outcomes, but this has now changed and outcomes, meaning the end result, would now be the target of the Modi government’s foreign policy.

Jaishankar assumes that the US and Europe will continue to look inward (his book was published just before Trump lost), while China would continue to rise. This would open the space for countries like India to be opportunistic in their engagements with the world and they did not need consistency. What India wanted was a “multi-polar Asia” – meaning one in which India could claim parity with China.

Many balls would need to be kept in the air (Jaishankar has a fondness for stock phrases) and India would handle them with dexterity. This was opportunism but that was all right because opportunism was India’s culture. The Mahabharata’s lessons, Jaishankar says, are that deceit and immorality are merely to “not play by the rules”. Drona’s despicable demanding of Eklavya’s thumb, Indra’s duplicitous appropriation of Karna’s armour, Arjuna using Shikhandi as a human shield, these were but “practices and traditions”.

Inconsistency in policy was not only fine but required because “obsessing about consistency” made little sense in changing circumstances.

Here was a man who could put into words the inane approach Modi displayed, such as we have observed in his Pakistan policy, and make it sound reasonable. But what was such a doctrine to be called?

In a speech he made where he first laid out this doctrine of opportunism and inconsistency, Jaishankar said it is hard to give it a name. He takes up and discards the phrases – “multi-alignment” (“sounds too opportunistic”) and “India first” (“sounds self-centred”). He settles at “advancing prosperity and influence”, which he says is accurate but admits is not catchy.

He believes some name for it will eventually come if it is pursued long enough, because part of the challenge is that we are still in the early phase of a major transition.

Perhaps that is so.

Another reason could be that this was no real foreign policy at all. What interested Modi, and what made for pageant and ceremony, was being passed off as something meaningful.

Price of the Modi Years

Excerpted with permission from Price of the Modi Years, Aakar Patel, Westland Non-fiction.