Monday, 13 July 2020

The Book Review
July edition

TP Sreenivasan, Modiplomacy: Through a Shakespearean Prism, New Delhi: Konark Publishers, 2020; pp. 242; Rs. 800; ISBN 978-8193555446.

The book’s title intrigues. The author early on in the book explains it, thus, “I began to see the pattern of a Shakespearean play, consisting of early successes, some complications, a climax, the emergence of a major event or character which changes the course of events, leaving the hero to disentangle the situation and emerge victorious as in this case , or fall victim to forces at work (p. xviii).” At the end of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first term, the author – an English postgraduate – neatly organized his foreign policy into five acts of a play, on which is based the layout of book.

The book enjoyed a good reception, with diplomats of the author’s generation cheering it not only in advance praise of the book carried on its dust jacket but also in reviews elsewhere. They noted that while the author is appreciative of the prime minister’s foreign policy pitch, it is not over enthusiastic – as have been many similar works that the cottage industry of publications on the net and in print brought out by the self-confessed troll brigade and closet Hindutva keyboard warriors.

As with most Indians and voters, the author believes that Modi is in “the mould of a Shakespearean hero, who overcomes his problems by sheer dint of his wisdom and courage and emerges victorious in the end (p. xviii).” Since the book closes at the start of Modi 2.0, it is not an unreasonable conclusion in light of Modi’s election victory. Even so, the author notices ‘tragic flaws’ (p. xviii) in the first term that potentially bring suspense into how the rest of Modi’s tenure at the foreign policy helm turns out. The book does not explicate what Modi’s Achilles heel is, but inadvertently the author does provide a clue.

To the author, Modi’s air dashing around the globe in his initial years “had the flavour of the ‘Aswasmedha Yagna’ of yore (p. xvii).” While the author credits Modi with “being his own playwright, choreographer, scriptwriter, director and actor (p. 3),” instead, this is indeed how the choreographers of the prime minister’s projections on the national media might have visualized it. The information management exercise that accompanies the prime minister’s activity is by now self-evident. The extensive perception manipulation surrounding Modi, amounting to an intelligence-led information warfare operation, obscures both reality and intention. In effect, be it foreign or security policy, the reins are with the quintessential intelligence man, Ajit Doval, in his capacity as national security adviser, overseeing the domains of foreign, external and internal national security policies. That Doval does not figure in the book at all is the fatal drawback of the book.

The backseat foreign policy has taken in the Hindu nationalist defined national security agenda is the principle facet of the Modi government and has not been captured by the author in his book. The author prefers to skim the surface rather than diving deep into the wellsprings of Modi’s foreign policy. The book therefore covers the usual ground, without breaking the crust for the core. A diplomat of 37 years standing, he expectedly dwells on moves on the foreign policy front. It covers the visits and the about turns, characterized elsewhere more forthrightly by a fellow traveler on the diplomatic circuit as foreign policy ‘pirouettes’ by the Modi regime. The author is rather careful in his analysis, drawing back from calling a spade a spade. This is unexceptionable since there has been a noticeable degree of self-censorship in India’s intellectual circles in the Modi era.

The author fails to record the body blow dealt by the centralizing tendencies in the Modi government to institutional health. The tenure of late Sushma Swaraj during Modi’s first term, who was sick for most part through it, was eminently forgettable. As with the rest of the cabinet system, a one-time prime ministerial contender against Modi, she was reduced to acting in response to tweets by Indians stranded across the globe. The foreign secretary, who presumably had the prime minister’s ear then, is now foreign minister. Usurpation of foreign policy by the prime minister’s office, a significant feature of Modiplomacy, does not figure in the book. An old foreign policy hand could have been expected to throw light on this and lament it, but the author passes up the opportunity in favour of merely an insubstantial recording the happenings in the years.  

The book has been put together in part from opinion pieces of the author at various places in print and on the web. It is a catalogue of the times, with little depth. It carries summaries prepared by an intern from the publishing house of analytical pieces published in the mainstream media in the period by several intellectual lights, who also appear to have been too careful to spill the beans on the manner foreign policy was being stewarded. It appears that the book is yet another one to hit the stands in anticipation last elections, in this instance at the publisher’s behest who the author informs was putting out a four-book series on the Modi’s showing in his first term. This is another clue of the manipulation of the discourse, obscuring what should otherwise stare the strategic community in the face.

The author restricts himself to the theatrics onstage, rather than digging for the roots of Modiplomacy. Take for instance Modi’s blitz across some fifty capitals in his initial years. It was to make the new turn to India, of authoritarian majoritarianism, acceptable. With India’s market serving as incentive to buy the silence of other nations, Modi could launch India down a new path. The driver of India’s foreign policy is therefore not out there in the constellation of external factors reviewed by the author but is internal. The myth in international politics is that there is such a thing as international politics. All politics is internally driven. India’s case it is the creation of a Hindu India. Foreign policy in Modi’s first term has been to shroud this in a curtain. He has eminently succeeded in this, with pundits unable and unwilling to call it out.