Book review... “Sizzle” turns into “fizzle”: Evaluating Modi’s strategic and economic performance - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 24 September 2018

Book review... “Sizzle” turns into “fizzle”: Evaluating Modi’s strategic and economic performance

Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition
Bharat Karnad
Penguin Random House, 2018
476 pages; Rs 599/-

Many of the themes in Bharat Karnad’s latest offering were earlier fleshed out in his 2015 book, “Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)” and have since been amplified in his prolific writings, blogposts and speaking appearances. Mr Karnad, who styles himself in his blog as “India’s foremost conservative strategist”, has robust views. He believes that if India wants to be treated like a Great Power, it must start thinking like one. New Delhi’s defence and security focus should be on China, without wasting effort on minnows like Pakistan. To ward off China, India must abandon its pusillanimous “No-First-Use” nuclear doctrine and be ready to go first with nuclear weapons to halt a Chinese conventional attack. To persuade Beijing from responding in kind, Mr Karnad wants India to develop, test and deploy thermonuclear weapons, which he regards as the final arbiters of power. Washington, he believes, constrains not benefits India. The relationship with Moscow must be nurtured more carefully. Karnad also wants India to outflank China and Pakistan through military bases in Central Asia and the Gulf.

In this book, Mr Karnad looks inwards at the trajectory Indian politics and policymaking has followed since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014. Given the author’s unapologetic, nationalistic, India-first approach to security policy, many would logically expect him to endorse the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) policies and achievements. But the hawkish Karnad of foreign and security policy reveals himself as slightly leftish liberal on domestic policy. This revealing sentence sums up his book: “This book is in the main a critique of Modi’s foreign and national security policies – an audit if you will… If readers find the analysis suffused with disappointment, they will not be wrong.”

Mr Karnad’s divergence with Modi’s worldview stems from a sophisticated understanding of India’s delicate social geography, and the way this impacts security dynamics – both internal and external. Mr Karnad writes that Modi has “nudged the fairly tolerant social order that has evolved over the millennia to accommodate an extraordinarily complex Indian society into a Hinduist straitjacket in line with the thinking of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh).” Quite clearly the author regards the BJP’s assault on internal social faultlines as more damaging to national security than any potential challenges from external foes. 

In a provocative chapter, Karnad attempts to decode Modi’s political psychology, based on his documented actions since his days as an RSS sevak, emerging on the political landscape of Gujarat. Professor Ashish Nandi has elsewhere declared that Modi bears all the characteristics of a fascist. But the author chooses between David Rosen’s six psychological types – which are narcissist, obsessive-compulsive, Machiavellian, authoritarian, paranoid and totalitarian – and concludes that Modi is a narcissist. In Rosen’s theoretical framework, narcissists are “charismatic, attention-seeking… extremely convincing liars and are the ultimate users of people – demanding loyalty from others they seldom give in return, and don’t always make the best decisions but… [they] generally make the best leaders.”

In a disparaging analysis of Modi’s international policy, Mr Karnad terms it a “creeper-vine foreign policy”, based on the logic that it cannot stand on its own, without the support of a Great Power. He contrasts that with Jawaharlal Nehru’s policy of non-alignment, which forced the two superpowers of that time to compete for India’s favour, while retaining our freedom of action and choice. Mr Karnad is dismissive of the nominal policy of “strategic autonomy”, which he considers a veil behind which India is cozying up to the United States and bending to its diktat.

In the book’s most original strategic construct, the author suggests New Delhi could obtain genuine strategic autonomy and counter the “proto-hegemons” – the US and China – through two new security coalitions. The first is BRIS – named after Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa – which is BRICS, with China removed. Mr Karnad does not clarify who will expel China, or how. 

The other coalition India should join is the catchily named Mod Quad – short for Modified Quadrilateral. This weaponised grouping cuts out America from the current Quadrilateral (India, US, Japan and Australia), replacing it with a rash of south east Asian countries. Myanmar and Vietnam book end the landward side, while Indonesia and the Philippines anchor the sea end; with other countries like Singapore, Thailand, Brunei and Malaysia in the middle. Given the difficulties these very countries face in presenting a united front in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Karnad should have clarified how they would manage with the additional contradictions of the Quadrilateral.

In a well-written book with lots of catchy phrases, the author concludes that Mr Modi’s sizzle – based on promises to end corruption, improve delivery, structurally transform the economy and use technology to provide development solutions – has ended in a fizzle.

Notwithstanding several contradictions, Mr Karnad presents an interesting evaluation of Modi’s strategic and economic performance, which will probably be widely read in an election year. The reader’s complaint would, however, be that he has taken too many pages to do so. This, despite an inordinately small font that makes reading difficult – the hallmark of a publisher that has chosen the wrong way to economise.


  1. My biggest nit with your review is the use of the maligned double-barreled word "left-liberal". I wish someone writes an essay on freeing liberalism from the left. Mr. Karnad is a well known conservative liberal. Conservatives juxtapose against progressives, not liberals. The tragedy of our times, especially in India, is the virtual hijacking of liberalism by proto-Stalinists whose progressiveness reeks of social anarchism coupled with economic Stalinism.

    I am yet to read the book but based on your review, I don't see logical weakness in the 'Mod' Quadrilateral idea. Execution will be a challenge but the reality of China's rise has seen smoother bilateral relationships among ASEAN countries and pushback to the bear hug even in traditional supplicants like Thailand. The banana pair of Cambodia and Laos apart, there has been an attempt to arrive at a common ground on the SCS dispute at the bilateral level especially between Vietnam, Indonesia and (surprisingly!) Philippines. Perhaps there is hope as yet to this idea.

    One tends to agree on the internal cohesion bit but how much of it is reality (definitely a material percentage) and how much is driven by award wapsi type behaviour of a Lutyens clique that cannot think of surviving another 5 years without the oxygen of establishment support, remains to be seen. Even if it is more of the latter, one expects a higher standard of rajdharma than the one currently exhibited by this dispensation.

    Not the CISMOA but deleveraging of Iranian oil supply in the absence of UN sanctions buttresses the US toady argument. Like all great powers, the US has either enemies or supplicants (aka allies). There is no such thing as equality in a great power relationship. This government has unusually strong family ties in the US (someone count the number of high functionaries in this government with kith & kin Stateside) which gives a sense of familiarity and false comfort that will face the harsh reality sooner rather than later. I suspect it has already begun, which is why Wuhan happened.

    The point on Pakistan is bang on. To actualise it, we need a modern defence force than can enforce a quick sub-nuclear but strategic victory. That requires quiet determination, hard work and hard decisions; qualities one cannot associate this government with, unfortunately. If and when this happens, we can just treat Pakistan as a known number in the equation rather than a variable.

    All in all, this is the most municipal of governments India had. The disease of confusing being busy with delivering results afflicts it from top to bottom. Modi is no Disraeli but he didn't measure up to even Thatcher. Like Arya Samaj dumbing down Sanatana Dharma to an agenda of cow protection, this government thinks surgical strikes makes for great strategic result. The unfortunate part in all this is that one can just choose not to vote in 2019; going out to vote for the nincompoop on the other side feels even worse.

    I just bought the book on Kindle; something you should do for the next book rather than worry about fonts. I chuckled at that comment - who reads physical books nowadays? ;-)

  2. shukla has lost credibility these days....openly hobnobs with khangress in what one cud call anti-india work too

  3. The previous anonymous comment where umbrage is taken to the word left liberal and where,In the commentators opinion “conservatives juxtapose to progressives’ -
    Re Anonomous at 27Sept 13;06
    This is nonsensical because.
    Libertarians juxtapose to left liberals and progressives are further to the left, apparently this commentator is unfamiliar with the works of the economists Hayek and Ludwig Von Mises of the Austrian economic school and has decided to define the meaning of the word left liberal all by himself. The above reminds me of Alice in wonderland - “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean -
    What the heck is a “proton stalinist” and what is this rather odd sentence “hijacking of liberalism by proto-Stalinists whose progressiveness reeks of social anarchism coupled with economic Stalinism”.
    The use of the English language in the above comment is as nonsensical as the English in judgements of our Chief Justice Dipak Misra, written primarily not to communicate clearly, but the need to show off an intellect, perhaps this commentator and perhaps Dipak Misra can emulate the clear simple and precise writing of the English Judge, Lord Denning.
    I conclude by saying this is an excellent book review by Broadsword on the basis of which I have ordered the book.


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