Point, Counter-Point: Leader takes all, not.

Point, Counter-Point: A Four Part Series

Leader takes all, not, by  Jayita Sarkar

Pragmatism, the NDA and Sharif, by Hamzah Rifaat

South Asian Leadership and their Legacies  by Amina Afzal

Narendra Modi’s Leadership and his Pakistan Strategy, by Reshmi Kazi


Later this month, as the result of the Indian parliamentary elections will be announced, there will be— in all probability— a new leader in New Delhi. Notwithstanding, the multiple parties and factions involved, the average Indian voter is torn between the choice of economic development with Gujarat characteristics vs. a decadent, corrupt and unimpressive family-run political empire. As is also well known, the former is most likely to form the government in New Delhi this month.

Narendra Modi is different from his competitors. His forceful oratory skills, strong personality, humble origins, and escaping conviction in the 2002 Gujarat riots, make him a candidate to reckon with. The question however is: is that enough to warrant change in Indian foreign policy at the international and regional strategic levels?

The answer I propose is no.



In order to answer this question, I would not delve into the organizational character of a parliamentary democracy, and executive-legislative relations. This is because strong leadership personalities can transcend the executive in both parliamentary and presidential systems. Instead, I shall first cite some examples from the past 67 years of independent Indian foreign policymaking to my case. Moreover, I shall try and substantiate my viewpoint by briefly alluding to the Indian strategic culture debate, the question of the geopolitical threat of Hindu fundamentalism, and the aspect of US-Modi relations.

The historical examples I enlist demonstrate that in India, when a new leader from the opposition political party had attained power, s/he did not manifest a turnaround on larger foreign policy issues of the country. In other words, rhetoric had varied in its pitches, and explanatory rationales for state behavior had witnessed adjustments. Yet, at the larger foreign policy level, not much had altered.

  • The historical trajectory

The nuclear aspect

a.         The US-India civil nuclear agreement finalized in 2008 traced itself to the 2005 joint statement released by President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. This statement and the 2004 Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) were preceded by the Bush-Vajpayee joint statement of September 2001. This statement underlined cooperation in defense, space and energy among others. In later years, Vajpayee had criticized the nuclear deal, but that the deal was a gradual materialization of improving US-India ties initiated during Vajpayee’s prime ministerial stint is hard to deny.

b.         As is known, India conducted five nuclear tests in May 1998. Prime Minister Vajpayee’s letter famously underlined the Chinese threat as the cause for the tests. Yet, an attempt was made to test in December 1995, by then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. That Rao was from the secular Congress Party and Vajpayee from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) did not seem to matter in their propensity to test nuclear devices. Besides, the Indian nuclear program dating back to 1948 has been an endeavor of the Congress Party and its predecessors. The first nuclear test in 1974 also did not witness the involvement of the BJP. Then, why is May 1998 so often projected as an example of muscle-flexing Hindu nationalist foreign policy? A selective historical memory, I would say.

c.          During the Cold War, US insistence that India accept full-scope IAEA safeguards on the Tarapur reactors, was not accepted by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during the Emergency (June 1975-March 1977). Nor was it acceptable to the subsequent Morarji Desai government, much to the Carter administration’s dismay. In fact, the Indian ambassador to the United States during the Desai government, Nani Palkhivala published an article in Newsweek entitled, “Disarming the Unarmed,” which was reminiscent of V.C. Trivedi’s 1966 speech at the Eighteen Nations Disarmament Committee in Geneva, in which the latter had underlined that a nuclear nonproliferation treaty must not lead to the “non-armament of the unarmed countries.”[1] In other words, New Delhi’s position on the larger foreign policy issues related to the nuclear question remained largely unchanged. India’s refusal to accept full-scope IAEA safeguards persisted when Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980. In 1982, France eventually agreed to replace the United States as the fuel supplier to the Tarapur reactors.


Another interesting example is India’s military-strategic ties with Israel. Although Indo-Israeli ties acquired greater visibility during the NDA government, the military strategic relations between the two countries had existed since at least the mid-1960s. One tends to remember National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra’s address at the annual dinner at the American Jewish Committee but forget that Israel supplied military hardware to India in both the 1965 and 1971 war against Pakistan. [2]  This is more interesting because military and strategic cooperation preceded the formal establishment of diplomatic relations, which did not take place until early 1992. In 2009, during the UPA government, Israel became the largest defense supplier of India.

To my understanding, Indo-Israeli military ties have continued irrespective of the leader and the party in power. What has varied is the anti-Pakistan/anti-Muslim rhetoric concurrent to the ties. Such rhetoric is higher when a Hindu nationalist coalition is in power, and lower when a secular coalition hold the reins.

  • Another strategic culture debate?

It is understandable that when a new leader is poised to ascend to power in New Delhi, he and his cohorts would underline his leadership style as different and unique. To be fair, there are often tangible changes in leadership styles. However, does that amount to massive alterations in Indian foreign policy? Not always, as the historical examples demonstrate.

Personally, I am expecting a renewed debate on Indian strategic culture in the next years since New Delhi will soon witness the ascent of a Hindu right nationalist government. It would be interesting to see however, if the debate is differentiating rhetoric from substance.

  • The geopolitical threat of Hindu fundamentalism?

Many people in India are worried about the rise of Hindu fundamentalism with the ascent of Narendra Modi to power. With respect to foreign policy however, the moot question is, will Modi’s brand of Hindu fundamentalism be a geopolitical threat to India’s neighbors?

This is not very likely. In other words, Hindu rightwing politics could not be a source of major geopolitical concern regionally, and even less so internationally. Although there may be high anti-Pakistan content in New Delhi’s foreign policy rhetoric under Modi, at the more substantive level, radical changes are not foreseenThis is because of at least three reasons:

a)      Modi has to conduct his foreign policy through the Indian Foreign Service— the bureaucratic corps of Indian foreign policy. As a result, the institutional inertia will check his gung-ho calls.

b)      In order to radically alter the foreign policymaking, especially with respect to military strategic issues, the nature of civil-military relations in New Delhi will have to undergo a major shift, which is unforeseeable in the near future.

c)      The BJP election manifesto does not elaborate much on foreign policy issues. This might mean that there is less clear thinking on external issues of the country— a consistent post-independence era trend.

However, since “anti-Muslim” stance of the BJP in the domestic sphere is effortlessly equated with its anti-Pakistan position in the external sphere, tensions may be witnessed between South Asian adversaries during Modi’s tenure. In fact, it is possible that the anti-Pakistan rhetoric might give the impression that the situation is far worse than it probably is. Moreover, aggression and armed conflict between India and Pakistan cannot be entirely ruled out since fundamentalist/right-wing nationalist forces often thrive on rallying around the flag. Yet, to my understanding, massive map-changing military campaigns will be avoided by Modi’s New Delhi.

  • US-Modi relations a check on regional brinkmanship?

The United States has an important role to play with respect to chaining Narendra Modi. This is because:

(a) Modi was boycotted by the United States for his involvement in the 2002 Gujarat riots and was denied visa to enter the country. As former US ambassador Nancy Powell’s recent meeting with Modi demonstrates, the US is willing to reconsider and welcome Modi as the new leader of India. As the new Prime Minister, Modi himself will aspire for better relations with Washington.

(b) Modi is “good for business” and this economic diplomacy will boost Modi’s aspirations for better ties with the United States, and US goals of having better relations with a highly market-friendly national leader.

Washington hence has the possibility of transforming its economic leverage into a political one, and thereby to ensure that Modi does not do anything rash in the regional strategic environment of South Asia, so much so that it deeply upsets US ally Pakistan.


In other words, I do not see any massive changes in foreign policymaking in India under Narendra Modi. I do however foresee a lot of fundamentalist rhetoric. In the next years, foreign policy analysts will thus be faced with the challenging task of differentiating all that noise from the actual action.


[1] See Nani A. Palkhivala, “Disarming the Unarmed,” Newsweek, 19 June 1978, attached to letter from Palkhivala to President Jimmy Carter, 16 June 1978, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File India, Box 27, Jimmy Carter Presidential Library. For Trivedi’s speech see V.C. Trivedi Speech at ENDC Geneva, 15 February 1966, Foreign Affairs Records, 1966, Indian Ministry of External Affairs, accessed 7 February 2014, http://mealib.nic.in/?9992554?000

[2] For an in-depth analysis of Indo-Israeli relations see P. R. Kumaraswamy, India’s Israel Policy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).

Posted in , Elections, Foreign Policy, History, India, India-Pakistan Relations, leadership, Pakistan, Point Counter-Point

Jayita Sarkar

Jayita Sarkar is a Research Fellow with the Security Studies Program at MIT's Center for International Studies. Her expertise is in international security, nuclear proliferation, foreign policy analysis, and South Asia. Dr. Sarkar’s writings have been published in peer-reviewed journals like Cold War History, International History Review, and Critique Internationale and policy-relevant outlets like The National Interest and Foreign Policy magazine among others. Sarkar is a former Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and holds a Ph.D. in International History and Politics from the Graduate Institute Geneva in Switzerland.

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7 thoughts on “Point, Counter-Point: Leader takes all, not.

  1. @Joyita

    One counter argument re: the IFS

    One would say the main driver of the Gujarat model is that for the first time since 1947 a leader has managed to terrorise the bureaucracy into doing what its paid to do.

    Why do you think he won’t be able to bulldoze/terrorise the IFS?

  2. Thanks for the comment, Obhijeet.

    I have more faith in institutional inertia. Besides, Gujarat is not the rest of India. A ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy, if it exists at all, in N. Modi’s toolbox cannot be successful nationwide. Moreover, the IFS is not the only obstacle to Modi’s radical foreign policy choices.

  3. @Joyeeta

    With this kind of majority (with the possibility of 2/3rds if Jayalalitha joins) I think all checks and balances calculations are out of the window.

    That said looking at his modus operandi in Gujarat he will set up all those who can challenge him in powerful posts ‘commensurate ‘ with their seniority… allow the Peter principle to take over…. purge them after three years, and that’s when the real changes will happen…when people least expect it.

  4. Obiwan & Jay-Z-ita,
    PM-to-be Modi’s first move — inviting all neighboring leaders — speaks volumes. Indian policy seems to be going from analog to digital.

  5. @MK

    True, thank god for small mercies,

    You remember in my 26th March article here i had said NaMo would take the peace peace process forward? Today’s attack on our Consulate in Herat notwithstanding, the BJP has expressed optimism that Sharif will attend. I am optimistic, and i do believe he will take the process forward like no one before has.

    Sadly the two more alarmist trends i had spotted in that same article are also coming true, a lack of preparation for a response when a major terror strike attacks India (this is a matter of if not when IMO) and the fact that he seems to be following a nationalist defense policy based on procurement and spending, rather than good old fiscally responsible, right wing, effects based policy.

    Note that in their presentations the three chiefs have been asked to categorize their shopping lists as “urgent” and “necessary”, instead of justifying what they want to achieve and their grand strategy.

    Euphoria came true, sadly i think Alarm and Exasperation will also come true.

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