In the run up to General Elections of 2014, one constant critique of Shri Narendra Modi’s opponents was that India’s foreign policy would suffer under his prime ministership since he had no experience in this field and his “divisive” personality would alienate India’s friends and allies. Instead, as Dr. Harsh Pant demonstrates in this book, the last five years under Prime Minister Modi have seen a “remarkable transformation” in India’s foreign policy, positioning India as a “leading global player”.
Dr. Pant is one of India’s leading scholars on international relations and has been writing extensively on almost every major development in world politics. The book is a compendium of articles the author has written over the last five years, tracing important developments in India’s foreign policy including visits of foreign dignitaries to India, PM’s visits to various countries and India’s engagement with various international institutions.
The author sets the tone for the book in the Introduction by summarising the key themes on which PM Modi, in his first term, has left a lasting legacy. These include becoming an ambassador for Brand India, using India’s soft power resources strategically, resetting India’s relationships in the neighbourhood and deft management of India’s relationship with P-5 countries, especially China.Several commentators over the last five years have tried to make an “all style, no substance” argument, criticising the Prime Minister for making only cosmetic changes to India’s foreign policy. Right from the first chapter, the author convincingly demolishes this narrative to make the case that Narendra Modi has fundamentally changed India’s foreign policy agenda to realign it with India’s global aspirations and the diplomatic apparatus today is showing an element of boldness, energy and risk-taking that was previously absent.
The book is divided into seven parts, each containing a selection of articles on a major theme from Prime Minister Modi’s first term. The first section focuses on the upward trajectory of India’s relationship with the United States of America in which Mr Modi’s personality has played an important role in rescuing the bilateral ties from the low point the relationship had slipped into when he took over. In resetting this relationship, Mr Modi showed remarkable graciousness to overcome the ideological trappings of a 10- year UPA government and his own treatment by US authorities who denied him a visa since 2005, when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat. This explains why, in his 2016 address to the joint session of US Congress, Mr Modi remarked that India-US ties “have overcome the hesitations of history”.
The global response to the rise of China has been the most important story in international relations over the last decade. The second part of the book deals with India’s response to the “China Challenge” and includes writings on the Indo-Pacific construct that saw a lot of discussion during Mr Modi’s first term. One of the most enjoyable parts of the book were the articles in this section which diligently trace the simultaneous expansion of India’s engagement with the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), at the time that China was deepening its presence in South Asia.
Part III critically examines India’s neighbourhood policy and predictably a lot of ink in this section is spilled on Pakistan. The surgical strikes in 2015 on India’s Eastern border and the strike in 2016 on India’s Western border, the Doklam standoff in 2017 and the Balakot airstrikes in 2019 completely changed the strategic landscape of South Asia. The articles in this section primarily analyse the region through a security lens. A notable exception is the analysis of India-Bangladesh ties which has now become a role model on relationship between neighbouring countries.
It is in consolidating India’s relationship with West Asia that Prime Minister Modi has shown extraordinary dexterity, to the surprise of several experts. India’s relationship with the Arab world is the best ever in recent history, the country having deepened its cooperation with all major countries in West Asia without getting involved in intra-regional conflicts. De-hyphenation is a running theme in all chapters of Part IV in the book dealing with West Asia, where Dr. Pant demonstrates that PM Modi has maintained India’s healthy friendship with traditional rivals by treating each relationship on its own terms. In the short section which follows on the India-Africa relationship (Part V), the author contrasts India’s approach of “developmental partnership” with the development aid provided by conventional donors and China’s aggressive investments.
The last two parts focus on India’s expanding global footprint and performance at multilateral fora. While Mr Modi’s efforts to upend the status-quo approach of traditional Indian bureaucracy and create a new foreign policy paradigm is a running theme in the entire book, it is in these two sections that the author reserves some of his strongest words (“non-alignment ayatollahs,” “ossified bureaucracy” being a few) for the foreign policy apparatus and their long-held shibboleths. Dr. Pant underscores the point made by Dr. Jaishankar (then Foreign Secretary, present External Affairs Minister) in 2015, that today’s India wants to be a leading power, not just a balancing power, and has shown the willingness to shoulder more responsibility with a proactive role in shaping global agenda through multilateral institutions.
To use a cricket metaphor, reading the book feels a bit like revisiting the highlights reel of a famous Indian victory in a 5- day test match complete with its highs and lows, prepared by an experienced commentator who had a front row seat to watch the game. Dr. Pant is one of the few IR scholars in the country who wants to engage with the larger public beyond the academia (he lectures in all parts of India and writes regularly in both English and Hindi) and his writing style suits a discerning layperson interested in the subject.
The book will serve as a useful reference point to any young scholar or student looking to understand a transformative era in India’s foreign policy. Perhaps a short head note, giving the date and context for each article would further improve the readability of this book, especially to someone who is new to the subject and has not tracked foreign policy over the last five years. In any case, this book constitutes a valuable addition to the growing literature on India’s foreign policy agenda at an epochal moment in the nation’s history.
The author is Senior Research Fellow, India Foundation.