External Affairs

Why Are India’s Strategic Thinkers Silent About the Country’s Decline Under Modi?

The country’s national interest would be better served if foreign policy analysts think of their vocation more broadly than merely paying attention to the nuances of diplomatic ties.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: PTI

The Twitter handle of India’s former national security adviser Shivshankar Menon makes for interesting viewing. In December, he had a tongue-in-cheek response to former UK Labour party leader Ed Miliband’s tweet where the latter referred to the ruling Conservatives as a “brewery bunch of jokers there are running the government at the most critical time in a generation for the country.” A few days later, Menon retweeted this tweet by a well-known critic of the Narendra Modi government, the former IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt:

Menon is known for his poise and reserve and as one who weighs his words carefully, even in retirement. He was virtually India’s foreign policy czar for several years during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s tenure and is rated highly as a thinker in strategic circles worldwide. If he is obliquely suggesting that India’s direction under Modi isn’t particularly wholesome, policy circles across the world are bound to notice.

Menon’s tweets prompt the question as to why he is among the relatively few in India’s strategic and foreign policy community who are directly or remotely expressing their misgivings about the consequences of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s policies. The international relations (IR) collective in India comprises a few hundred figures, including serving and retired diplomats, military officers and security professionals, academics, journalists, think-tank members and students. (Besides these, there are several analysts in other countries interested in India who work in governments, think-tanks and universities.) With their grasp on geopolitical shifts, technological developments, international governance structures, the minutiae of bilateral and multilateral ties and so on, this cohort seeks to impart to the public and policymakers an understanding of events and forces that are shaping the world.

Analysts are active on several platforms; they tweet and post on Facebook about everyday developments and long-term trends, they write op-eds, appear on TV shows and are active in the conference circuit both in India and elsewhere. They are often opinionated and are quick to weigh in on, say North Korea, Iran, extremism in Pakistan, the limiting of freedoms in China or Beijing’s ambitions in Asia. But oddly, given their expansive sweep of interests, many in this collective are somehow reluctant to comment on the consequences of the BJP’s rule in India.

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There are analysts in India who are critical of the Modi government. This is not the place to identify them but to wonder about the many who are silent on developments in India, particularly those that have a bearing on its democracy and ultimately its prospects as a major power. To consider this, take a look at the publication record and conference programmes of leading think-tanks and academic departments in India, the commentary by retired military figures and diplomats, the thrum of opinion on 40-50 popular foreign policy-related Twitter handles and assess where the balance of opinion in this community lies regarding the Modi government’s record. One can argue that notwithstanding criticism on issues like policies toward Pakistan, approaches to the conflict in Kashmir or gaps in military preparedness, India’s experts on international affairs seem less concerned about political and economic upheavals in the domestic sphere. This despite the fact that those upheavals can and do impinge on foreign policy.

What the relative silence of strategic experts does is to distort the division of intellectual labour in the country. We have a situation where political scientists, economists, historians and other social scientists generate the bulk of criticism on issues relevant to India’s future – in their roles as scholars, writers, journalists, activists etc – whereas the strategic community is mostly sitting out of domestic debates and is, in effect, being as uncritical as the government expects loyalists to be.

This must count as a form of professional failure, as strategic and foreign policy thinkers are in the business of understanding power, particularly shifts in national power. Analysts are supposed to harness insight from other disciplines – political science, economics, development studies etc – and paint the big picture about India, how it is getting on with its ambitions, whether it is making progress or not. Experts such as Menon have long maintained that the goal of internal and external security policies is “to transform and improve the life of the unacceptably large number of our compatriots who live in poverty, with disease, hunger and illiteracy.”

If India’s ambitions as a power are intimately linked to lifting its millions out of poverty, how can the strategic community appear so underinvested in domestic developments that not only militate against achieving those goals but are actively undermining the country’s productive capacities as a whole?

Labourers wearing helmets take a break from laying underground electricity cables along a roadside in Ahmedabad. Credit: Reuters/Shailesh Andrade

Put plainly, the strategic community cannot afford to be agnostic about four disturbing trends that adversely affect India’s capacity to cope with the future.

The first is plotting the persisting impact of demonetisation, the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and agrarian distress (that have together wreaked havoc in the economy) and what that means for India’s hard power.

Second, the continuing precipitous decline of India’s educational system, marked by abysmal standards in schools that funnel poorly prepared students into colleges and universities where they are, in turn, taught largely by teachers who themselves are products of weak institutions. IR analysts must also reckon with the consequences of the BJP’s anti-intellectualism, the concerted attempt to marginalise India’s social science talent expressed in the government’s barely disguised animus towards JNU and other academics of liberal persuasion. The BJP seems to operate with the assumption that science, math and engineering students alone can ferry India into its desired future, not realising that the country’s scientific cupboard is not only uneven and inadequate but that the digital age we live in has more use for the humanities – not less (to proffer purely instrumental reasons). Add to this the fact that BJP governments in the country are doing very little to enhance the spread of English and are in many cases actively discouraging it – which seriously undercuts the advantage India had so far to benefit from globalisation, as compared to other developing countries.

Third, the foreign policy community also cannot be unmindful of the progressive breakdown of public order and the decline of public institutions, which are together serving to reshape the country’s political culture. There is clearly a pronounced extremist turn in India’s political life. A climate of intimidation is being constantly created to police and discipline women, artists, writers, journalists and civil society actors. Muslims are subject to hate speech, often by BJP politicians who either imitate abusive trolls or follow them; there are various forms of vigilante violence, hacking, lynching and broadcasting of macabre acts and so on. All of this is central to issues of state capacity and stability which is very much in the province of what strategic affairs experts are interested in.

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Fourth. state effectiveness is defined in terms of the ability of regimes to provide a range of political goods to citizens. Human security and the rule of law rank highly among them – and those very goods are in some doubt in India. If the ruling party takes it upon itself to turn against its own citizens and pointedly marginalise a community of 172 million and unravel longstanding cultural and economic links with the majority, how can a country’s future and productive capacity not be affected? Can a society consumed with cultural conflicts (stoked by ruling party politicians) have the energies to shape a better future?

There are other pressing domestic issues relevant to India’s hard power. If citizens have to first cope with demonetisation and are then preoccupied with the drill of complying with Aadhaar, who is to compute the loss of working hours and assess its social effects? If India is to deploy facial recognition technology via Aadhaar as part of its progression to a surveillance state, why is it that strategic experts are barely interested in this fundamental transformation of India’s democracy?

The foreign affairs community is detached from domestic affairs for a couple of reasons. One is arguably the lack of competence on internal politics as many are out of their depth in this sphere. This may have to do with the way international relations scholars are trained in the country. Many come to the discipline, say, in leading institutions like JNU and elsewhere after an indifferent grounding in political science and history because of the paucity of (good) honours courses in regional institutions. And at institutions like JNU’s School of International Studies, students go on to specialise in IR without having a chance to develop deep expertise on India (notwithstanding a few fine courses).

Important courses (and research) on colonialism, political development, social structure etc. are, for instance, on offer in other departments like history, sociology and political science and over time the knowledge gap only widens as IR students consolidate their intellectual identity along skewed lines. IR students may have the confidence to pronounce on Pakistan and China but are oddly shy about commenting on India. Scholars then move on to a variety of institutions, including think-tanks, and find that the latter are risk averse and avoid commissioning work on difficult but necessary topics because they are in the access business – facilitating ties between diplomats, businesses, international organisations etc. Think-tanks monetise their convening power and are, hence, naturally wary of alienating bureaucrats who seek to arrange a positive spin for their political masters.

The net result is a discipline that is avoiding the big questions that determine India’s future – and a policy community that is content for others to do the heavy lifting on issues such as protecting democratic freedoms and public institutions. This is all in marked contrast to how the American foreign policy world has reacted to the presidency of Donald Trump. More than 50 senior Republican national security officials opposed his candidacy – and many analysts continue to be outspoken on a daily basis on what they see as a degradation of America as a democracy. The writings and views on social media of analysts like David Rothkopf, Daniel Drezner, Susan Hennessey, Bill Kristol, Richard Haass, to name a few, provide ample proof of levels of their concern and the linkage they make between a coarsening political culture, rising illiberalism, the decline of domestic institutions and America’s future as a nation and world leader.

India’s strategic and foreign policy thinkers likewise need to take a sterner view on what the BJP’s mode of governance means for India’s present and future. The country’s national interest would be better served if analysts think of their vocation more broadly than merely paying attention to the nuances of diplomatic ties. Their assessments of India can be a lot more candid than they have been.

Sushil Aaron is an independent journalist. Twitter: @SushilAaron

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  • ashok759

    Our foreign policy experts are only fixated on when India will become a permanent member of the UNSC, with the all important veto. People who talk of the Indo – Pacific and India becoming a net security provider have zero interest in the daily, existential struggles of ordinary Indians, living either in rural areas or urban slums.

  • Narahari Javaji

    There will be no meaning to the title “global power India” if its minorities,marginalized castes are suppressed in the name of Hindu nationalism,its dissent voices are called anti nationals,its citizens fundamental rights are taken away by cow vigilantism,cultural majoritarianism,cultural homogenization.There will be no super power India if the ruling govt imposes the rigid, narrow,and culturally regressive backward hindutwa ideology on modern progressive India.

  • Mekala Ravishankar

    Many points stated here may be true, it will take a while for all the multitudes of issues to be redressed and Nationalism emphasized afterall what Congress rule all these decades have done is basically marginalising the Needy, creating many vote banks by appeasing the minorities and encouraging Corruption in gigantic proportions…Any turnaround from the big MESS will take a while..Offcourse the present party does have drawbacks who doesn’t have them ? relatively speaking its a huge change in different areas all together to tackle the many anomalies and deep rooted rot and may be confusing to the people in general,and that needs clarity to implement to the basics by explaining in simple manner to the Public..certain Values and guidelines to sustain uniformity have been the core criterion of implementing the new norms..There is indeed much more to be done to stabilize Growth by utilizing the tremendous Manpower and potential available in our vast nation with many challenges on the way..whatever each person can contribute meaningfully should go towards rebuilding the economy and be inclusive of all sections of Society and hopefully that happens with every step..

  • Anonymous

    This is the future. All those trained by the overlords behave this way from now on. Trump graduated from the same school. Watch for others.

  • Manjusha

    I think they are just worried over losing the small favours and comforts that they are used to getting from the establishment. Some may even be afraid of social media trolls and an ubiquitous army of ill-informed, bigoted, vociferous pseudo-intellectuals who are ready to pounce at the slightest sniff of dissent. Some are wary of being labelled as commi,conggri,libtard,aaptard,sickular,deshdrohis, tukade-gang and what not.

  • Horee

    Most of those so called strategic thinkers are fools that’s why they are unable to prove that India is declining!

  • Horee

    NO Congress never came to street…it only got involved in Anti-Sikh Riots, Emergency, Butchering Tamils in Sri Lanka, Being a silent spectator of exodus of Kashmiri Hindus, settling the Rohingyas, Demoralizing the Defense Forces, Paved the way for Naxalism …long list…..Those so called stalwarts are killed in Karnataka where Congress is in power….Only BJP can save India…..

  • zeeshan alam

    Sorry what?? Fast paced development? Can you plz more specific and name few “DEVELOPMENT”. I don’t find anything that has changed since 2014, instead things have gotten worse. Development rate is declining. If you are comparing the growth rate with UPA then, it was during the time of global crisis that India managed to maintain the same GR that modi regime is now struggling to maintain. Espionage when in general globally economy is in rise, crude oil prices are lower than ever before. In IDI ranking by WEF, India has been ranked below Pakistan. So the point is even a blind will tell you that not a single exceptional thing has been my present government, leave aside the promise made. I am pretty sure sooner or later they will also be termed as JUMLAS.

  • Rohan Choudhary

    First, the process of knowledge production/creation of IR, strategic studies, national security is concentrated only in New Delhi. But today, most of political process is occurred at regional level. So this knowledge must be decentralized at regional level, then only political process and theory will go hand in hand. You can’t have top to bottom approach in social sciences. This might be work in party structure.
    Second, Reflection of Western style thinking in the India IR discourse: There are two Characteristics of this discourse: Marginalization and Generalization. With t he intention is to serve the national interest. For example: The general narration of Rogue state (Term coined during Junior Bust era) of West Asian and North African countries and the ‘Deliberate Marginalization of the problem of the Poverty of these countries. Indian strategic thinkers are also habitual with this. They have mentally demarcated their thought process as what is domestic and what is not. They fell to create a strategic conscious among the mass of this country. Media, the important institution in this regard also not exception to this. For them Padmavati is more important than India-Israel relations. If you ask media what are the foreign policy challenges to India? The will start from Pakistan via Kashmir to China and landed up with United States of America. Now their horizon expanded up to Modi’s foreign visit.
    Third, political community including leaders, academicians, political parties and their followers are confined themselves local or narrow issues. Local means, for example, if you ask, people of Maharashtra what would be today’s important issues? They will say: Shivasena’s National Executive Meeting. If you ask them what is the implication of “The Shutdown in the USA on India, they will say this is not our cup of tea. Another example: I don’t know so far, how many voters asked their MPs about their personal opinion about Kashmir and what their contribution in Parliament regarding the same is. Answer is negative. The example of narrower thinking are more but the most recent one is the discussion over Modi’s 10 lakh rupees suit when the US president visited to India and second one is discussion over bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra’s dress when she met Modi in Germany.
    So it is the politics of convenience among strategic communities and leaders, the unaware nature of the public over prioritising debate make them silent about the issues of importance.

  • Anjan Basu

    Yes, ‘India is growing in strength’. It is even ‘ready to take its place among the most powerful nations of the world’. ( Both quotes are from your comment.) It was only yesterday that India was rated 62nd among 74 emerging world economies on the Inclusive Development Index, 15 notches behind Pakistan and 27 behind China. In fact India slid two slots (from the 60th to the 62nd) over one year while Pakistan actually IMPROVED her position from the 52nd to the 47th position over the same period. This is just one of the many indices that meaningfully capture sustainable, sensible development processes, and India – – ably led by Modi, as you so rightly point out – – has done poorly on nearly every one of them. We have failed to feed and clothe and educate vast swathes of our own citizenry. Surely, then, we must now conquer the world?

    • Khan

      And once we conquer the world, from the riches of the world, all the above gaping holes can be filled. Possible? No, our politicians will take the riches & fly away from the country & the people will be fighting in the streets in support of integrity, honesty & dedication of the politicians who have already ditched & fled the country.


    Things are so bad why people of this country electing his party again and again. Do not see India with jaundiced eye.You can repair the roof of your house when sun is shinning.Just wait for couple of years and you will see to yourself. policy decisions take sometime to yield results .