External Affairs

Six Lessons for India’s Foreign Policy from Star Wars VII

What Narendra Modi must do to make sure the “Force” remains with India

Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugs Afghan President Ashraf Ghani during his welcome ceremony in Kabul in December. Credit: PTI Photo by Shahbaz Khan(

Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugs Afghan President Ashraf Ghani during his welcome ceremony in Kabul in December. Credit: PTI Photo by Shahbaz Khan(

We know now from his speech to cheering crowds at Central Park, New York, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi sensed an awakening in the Force as early as last year.  The latest installment in the Star Wars saga has likely sent the PM’s advisors into a huddle to assess its implications. But beyond iconic lines or memorable dialogues, Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens offers a few lessons for both students and veterans of India’s foreign policy.

What’s past is prologue:  Perhaps the most instructive lesson from The Force Awakens is that powerful individuals are constrained by institutional histories.  Darth Vader has been vanquished, but a new challenger has emerged, one who seeks to redeem Anakin Skywalker’s legacy.  Kylo Ren wants to shed the past and his kinship with Han Solo and Leia Organa, but is bitterly torn about going over to the Dark Side. On the other hand, Rey, the lead protagonist, is desperate to hold on to her life in the planet of Jakku, but is compelled to join the Resistance to save the Galaxy. Both individuals are hemmed in by a larger institutional force at play, which is the enduring state of conflict between the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance.

In India’s case, its developmental needs have shaped external relations, which explain the fair degree of convergence between the foreign policy of the National Democratic Alliance and its predecessor governments.  Prime Minister Modi, his decisive mandate notwithstanding, has been careful not to articulate a radically different worldview for India. Sure, there has been talk of being a “leading power”, but as the government’s negotiators at the Paris climate conference and the Nairobi trade talks recently underlined, India’s foreign policy is motivated by the goal of making existing multilateral regimes more accommodating of its interests. There will be a great “disturbance” in the Force in 2016 – whether in the form of the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the One Belt, One Road initiative – pulling India in multiple directions.  International relations, however does not lend itself to the Manichean narrative of George Lucas’ universe: there is no Dark Side or the Light. The NDA’s foreign policy will likely pursue a familiar trajectory – securing its near geographies, ensuring India’s inclusion in the global stewardship of common spaces, and consolidating economic growth.

Protect your digital assets:  At its core, The Force Awakens highlights the need to protect Critical Information Infrastructure (CII). Luke Skywalker has vanished and a vital clue to his location is held by BB-8, a unique droid that belongs to the Resistance.  In the movie’s climax, droids R2-D2 and BB-8 join together the map’s missing pieces, successfully revealing Luke’s location. Resistance leaders Poe Dameron and Rey go great lengths to protect their digital asset BB-8, often at great personal peril.

Cybersecurity and the protection of CII has been a recurring theme in the Prime Minister’s foreign policy interventions.  At the Combined Commander’s Conference on board INS Vikramaditya this month, Modi asserted, “we must be prepared to defend [India’s digital networks and space assets], for they will be the first targets of our adversaries.”  India’s woolly cybersecurity policy of 2013, however, is in urgent need of clarity around its implementation targets. The country’s cybersecurity apparatus is slowly being put in place, but central agencies – especially the National Critical Information Infrastructure Protection Centre and the National Technical Research Organisation – need to coordinate better with state law enforcement agencies, who are often first responders to cyber-attacks.

Women leadership in the diplomatic corps: Among the most pivotal characters in The Force Awakens is Maz Kanata – essayed by the fantastic Lupita Nyong’o – who runs a watering hole in the planet of Takodana. She is the consummate diplomat: calling out Finn’s bluff that he belongs to the Resistance, cutting straight through Han Solo’s charms, and above all, convincing Rey that she is destined to join the ranks of the Jedi.  The trio of women characters in Star Wars VII carries the day with their leadership: Maz Kanata with her sage counsel, Rey through her tempered resistance to Kylo Ren’s interrogations, and General Leia as the decisive leader of the rebels to quell the First Order’s challenge.

South Block should take a cue. Sushma Swaraj is the External Affairs Minister (sadly one whose canvas Modi has confined to largely consular activities), but there are far too few women in leadership positions at the foreign ministry. Indian diplomacy owes a great deal to outstanding women, from the days of C.B. Muthamma and Vijaylaxmi Pandit to contemporary veterans like Nirupama Menon Rao, Vijay Latha Reddy, Meera Shankar, Leela Ponappa and Sujata Singh. What’s more, there is no dearth of talent in the current crop of senior diplomats in the IFS, with excellent diplomats like Sujata Mehta, Deepa Wadhwa, Preeti Saran and Smita Purushottam already serving key assignments. Needless to say, it is incumbent on the political leadership to bring more women into the higher ranks of India’s diplomatic corps.

Don’t discard your Millennium FalconThe Millennium Falcon, Han Solo and Chewbacca’s iconic spacecraft, is described by Rey in Star Wars VII as “garbage”. Yet, the veteran of many a battle proves to be a game-changer on at least two occasions in the movie: first, surprising Rey and Finn with its resilience in a prolonged dogfight and later, playing a crucial role in helping the Resistance sneak past the shields of the Starkiller base.

Few pillars of Indian foreign policy are considered so outdated as the Millennium Falcon as the principle of non-alignment.  Many argue, perhaps justifiably, that non-alignment has no place in India’s modern day engagement, having served its purpose in a bi-polar world. It has been suggested a multi-polar world demands “multi-alignment”. Whatever mandarins may call it, the pursuit of an independent foreign policy will be crucial in 2016. The United States and China are set to unveil a comprehensive set of military and economic measures that will pit these great powers against one another in the Asia-Pacific region. India should carefully assess the opportunities and challenges that this struggle throws up: like the Millennium Falcon, much depends on how skillfully India can maneuver its foreign policy as autonomous, rather than treating non-alignment as a sacred dogma. Votaries of a muscular foreign policy for India should flag Poe Dameron’s advice to his fellow X-Wing pilots in Star Wars VII – “fly low” to avoid detection by adversaries.

Take ownership of your initiatives: The latest galactic crisis, to put it bluntly, has been precipitated by Luke Skywalker’s abdication of his responsibilities as a Jedi, and Han Solo’s failure to protect his son Kylo Ren from the lure of the Dark Side. If there’s a lesson here for the NDA government, it is that initiatives need sustained diplomacy even after they are off to a flying start.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has personally helped incubate key multilateral initiatives, at the United Nations and elsewhere. The Technology Facilitation Mechanism – created under the aegis of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs – will play a significant role in technology transfer and financing for the global climate and ICT regimes. For the past year, Modi has been pushing India’s old initiative, the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism, which is likely to have many takers given the failure of existing arrangements to counter radicalization and the role of non-state actors.  The International Solar Alliance, an India-France initiative that will be headquartered in Gurgaon, received great press at COP21 in Paris but its ability to push solar energy on top of the climate agenda will be contingent on Modi’s efforts to expand its membership and draw in financial contributions.

No first use of Weapons of Mass Destruction:  This is a no-brainer, really. Star Wars VII introduces us to a new and improved version of the Death Star, the Starkiller Base. Like its predecessor, the Starkiller is a destroyer of planets. Its reckless deployment by the First Order results in swift and effective retaliation from the Resistance, who are able to defeat the aggressors by entirely conventional means. Thankfully, India’s calibrated nuclear posture continues to subscribe to a no-first use doctrine, and the First Order’s devastating folly should be a welcome reminder of the need to ensure it remains intact.

Arun Mohan Sukumar heads the Cyber Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

  • ashok759

    # 7. The strength we wish to project abroad can only be created at home, especially from the economy.

    • revoltman

      It is always mistaken that economic strength is directly linked with national strength. You are very wrong.