Excerpted from “Staggering Forward” by Bharat Karnad, published by Penguin India.
Inflection points in national and international airs are routinely heralded, and each decade is perceived as more dangerous than the previous one. Invariably, there’s a person, a country, an event or a series of incidents or an emerging situation that is identi ed as the trigger for things going askew. e second decade of the new millennium has been marked, in this respect, by the rise of political strongmen in major countries across the globe—Vladimir Putin in Russia, Xi Jinping in China, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Shinzo Abe in Japan, Donald J. Trump in the United States and Narendra Modi in India. these are highly motivated leaders who by the force of their personalities and ambitions and sometimes quirky policy agendas have changed the international relations dynamic. their similarity means they are each alive to what drives the others, and this makes for wariness all round, as well as, perhaps, a strained sort of regional and international peace. But it is peace all the same.
In the two vital democracies, India and the US, moreover, there are the walrus-moustachioed individuals coming into their own as influence-wielders. If Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the powerful right-wing social service organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), represents Hindu triumphalism and is the acknowledged éminence grise of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government headed by Narendra Modi, John Bolton, no friend of India, the new US national security advisor (NSA) who replaced the steady General H.R. McMaster, will likely put teeth into President Trump’s truculent ‘America First’ policy and increase the dilemma for Delhi.1 Inclined to wage wars of denuclearization and regime change against Iran and North Korea, Bolton will encourage Trump’s worst tendencies and set the world up for a hair-raising ride to the nuclear abyss, because it is unlikely Putin and Xi will sit idly by and see Washington take out these states that are potentially levers to stall America’s regional designs.2 India will have to negotiate this international milieu, already rendered unpredictable and di cult by Trump’s ‘rash’ foreign policy ‘instincts’, and face the hazards of US policy fuelled by his pet peeves.3 That Modi has developed a rapport with Trump augurs well. But it also means that the White House will expect New Delhi to fall in with its policies without demurring and contribute to furthering US objectives, which expectation if belied can lead to Trump turning on India. Meanwhile, at home, Bhagwat and the RSS have hurrahed Modi along as he seeks recognition for India as the ‘jagat guru’ (world guru) and pushes the Indian state towards a palpably Hindu identity, heightening tensions in society along caste and religious lines and affecting the Indian polity—a problem Modi has publicly avoided addressing.4
Global power politics is a serious game requiring countries that matter to think and act big. Given its many attributes, India belongs in this group but has not been in the running for want of an inspiring leader with a clear national vision, the ability to get things done and the will to put India on the path to accelerated economic growth and prosperity and to great power. But the pursuit of great power requires a lean and effective apparatus of state that is able to efficiently implement policies and deliver on programmes in double-quick time and enable the ease of doing business. It also needs talent for conceiving and implementing agile realpolitik-minded foreign and military policies and obtaining an appropriate mix of war-fighting and credible strategic deterrent capabilities for the purpose, along with the knack for using hard power effectively as a tool of diplomacy.5
Narendra Damodardas Modi was elected with a thumping majority in 2014 in part because the people believed he would make the country progress on all these fronts. But he was sidetracked; his government got mired in the Hindu fringe politics of cow worship, beef-eating, ‘love jihad’ and the Ayodhya Ram Temple instead, and failed to initiate any kind of system transformation. Contrary to expectations, Modi also retained the rickety administrative structure—centred on generalist civil servants working in silos, immersed in the minutiae of cross-cutting laws, rules, regulations and procedures—that has hindered the nation’s progress. It is no wonder that so little was achieved during Modi’s first term, moving the stalwart diplomat K.S. Bajpai to lament the fact that ‘the country [seems] unaware of the deficiencies of mechanisms it has devised to serve its needs’.6
What is particularly surprising considering his big talk is how, in the external realm, Modi has stayed with the small stakes game anchored in short policy horizons that the previous governments had locked the country into. Continuing to lean overmuch on the United States, and keying on Pakistan and Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir rather than on the primary threat from China, is the sort of foreign policy a lesser state would follow for marginal gains. As a result, India has belied hopes, piled on disappointments, messed up on economic and strategic opportunities and underperformed in every sphere of national and international activity.7 e world, therefore, while not having given up on India just yet, has moved on from the ‘India story’ which, along with the ‘China story’, was all the rage on either side of the new millennium.8 While China has advanced by leaps under the strategically driven Xi and an enabling system, with its economy generating wealth at a rate that sees it racing to replace the US at the top of the heap, India has meandered, its global impact far less than the sum of its small successes.
this trend was expected to slow down, if not actually reverse, with Modi’s advent. His qualities as a self-made man, a showman and a strongman all rolled into one inspired confidence that he would get things done. India, it was widely believed, would be taken by the scruff of its neck as it were and frog-marched into economic plenty and the great power club. Too long victimized by a tardy nanny state spawned by pseudo-socialist ideology and politics and a di dent foreign policy, the Indian people desperately desired change. With his clean reputation, proven track record as chief minister of Gujarat and his formidable leadership qualities on display, Modi seemed the right t for the prime minister’s job, and just the man to turn the country around after the decade-long rule by the meek and mumbling Manmohan Singh.
In the Modi era, there is drive and bustle all right—corruption is at a lower ebb, at least in the higher reaches of government (counterpointed, however, by stories of ‘crony Gujarati capitalists’), some structural changes have been engineered in the economic sphere, new ideas to improve the lot of the people are being tried out and the focus on technology to provide development solutions is a departure from the norm. e government seems more responsive and the mechanisms to deliver public services and bene ts to the masses have improved. Coupled with the high hopes he held out for a new India, this part is what initially created the sizzle. But in the context of his many slogans heralding a new dawn for the country—‘Minimum government, maximum governance’, ‘Government has no business to be in business’—the radical makeover of the apparatus of state and economy along with a system redesign and overhaul, which Modi had hinted at, never came to pass. this is the reason for the puzzle.
Where the situation has changed for the worse is on the domestic scene. Social peace has a tincture of violence against Muslims and Dalits in it, with Hindu extremist groups interpreting the fact of Modi and the BJP in power as licence to create mayhem, fray the social fabric and exacerbate societal fault lines. Modi has tried to douse communal passions, but only half-heartedly, because the ruling party benefits electorally from religious polarization of the heterogeneous Indian society that is immune to other means of political mobilization. This is so because the majority Hindu community is divided into too many sects and diverse traditions to form a coherent political whole.
Excerpted from “Staggering Forward” by Bharat Karnad, published by Penguin India.