20 July 2015

The Doval doctrine — in high definition

Harish Khare
Jul 17 2015

IF there is not much talk of a “Doval doctrine” it is perhaps because it has had a kind of a soft launch. It can be reasonably suggested that the doctrine was first articulated by the newly appointed National Security Adviser during his Beijing visit in September 2014. In a chat with the China-based Indian media, Ajit Doval saw the possibility of the Sino-India relationship undergoing “an orbital jump” because both President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Modi are “two powerful and very popular, very decisive leaders.” By way of elaboration he added that both were “serious” leaders and both had “the mandate in the party and parliament, besides sufficient time ahead of them.” 

Though Doval was careful to suggest that the relationship was not necessarily “only dependent on [a] single factor”, he did betray the new collective thinking in New Delhi. In the new in-house working wisdom it is understood that India’s strategic autonomy and options stand maximised overnight just because we have a maximum leader. Many of the diplomatic tantrums of the past one year can be easily traced to this new internal operational maxim. 

The new accent on a decisive role for the “leader” fits in well with the overall political theology of the Sangh Parivar. A leader’s deshbhakti alone is deemed to be more than sufficient to overcome strategic structural limitations. Since the early Jan Sangh days, this worldview has favoured a leader(s) who would be nationalistic enough to take an aggressive, confrontational attitude towards one and all, especially our neighbours, China and Pakistan; the Parivar is prone to prefer someone who would not be afflicted with “Hindu cowardice”, an expression once used by a Sangh affiliate for Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The quest for such a leader has suggested itself in the last two decades as the Indian middle class became more and more nationalistic. During the last Lok Sabha campaign, Narendra Modi presented himself as just the man who would look world leaders “in the eye” (Aankh me aankh daal ke baat karenge).

Not much is known of the Doval-Modi relationship. Till the 2009 Lok Sabha elections when LK Advani and the BJP got worsted by a “weak Prime Minister,” Doval was very much a part of the “Advani crowd.” It is difficult to say when he switched allegiance. However, among knowledgeable circles in New Delhi it is understood that by the time Modi won a third term in Gujarat in 2012, “Doval Sahib” had become a valued counsellor. His familiarity with the secretive world of “non-state actors” and the shadowy business of intelligence agencies fitted rather well with Narendra Modi’s own preference for taking a dark view of men and matters. Doval is known to have been mentoring Modi in acquiring an appreciation of the difficult and intricate world of diplomacy. Not surprisingly, the two got along like a house on fire. 

The Doval doctrine of “a strong leader” became attractive because it dovetailed itself to the Prime Minister’s immense faith in his own popularity, wisdom and capability. Much of the ruddy vigour that is deemed to have been injected into our foreign policy can easily be attributed to Modi’s penchant for event management. The Doval-Modi duo has provided wonderful photo-ops, satisfying the Indian middle class’ newly aroused need for global status and “respect”. And, India’s corporate classes are only too happy to go along with Modi and play the 21st century version of comprador bourgeoisie. 

A year later, the Doval doctrine’s limits are all too evident, especially in our neighbourhood. And it is just as well. The world out there is far too complex to bend to our current accent on the “leader” as the game-changer. Because of this preoccupation we have failed to notice that the China-Pakistan jugalbandi has acquired a sophisticated but deadly edge. There was, for example, no need to make the Prime Minister take up with Chinese President Xi Jinping Beijing’s vote on Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi; and, then going global with this sophomoric spin — primarily for domestic consumption — of a “direct” message to the Chinese leader from a no-nonsense Prime Minister. The next day, there was an open rebuff — though dressed up in high-sounding invocation of principles — for Beijing. A Prime Minister’s willingness to be blunt does not — and cannot — go very far unless backed by the hardwired realpolitik. 

A year down the line, the others, too, have read Modi. Just as bowling coaches read and spot weaknesses among new batsmen, strategic analysts have figured out the Prime Minister, his strengths as also his weaknesses. The Chinese and the Pakistanis are already exploring, in tandem, his vulnerabilities. 

The rest of the world has noted — and, the outsiders are much more brutal in making such assessments — that the Prime Minister has taken pride in dismantling the national consensus, however tenuous and however fragile it was. And no new consensus has been forged; nor has a need been felt for such a consensus. The Chinese, who every scholar tells us, take a long-term view, must be wondering how a nation of India’s size and ambition can sustain a sensible foreign policy without an elite consensus behind it. 

What is more, previous prime ministers’ respect for personal courtesy and diplomatic protocol is mocked at as a sign of weakness. A willingness to be rude and rough on the global stage may impress the domestic audience or the NRI crowd but it does not create a lasting impression in any chancellery. As a seasoned strategic observer put it bluntly, no one will give India a Security Council seat just because the Prime Minister himself led the mega yoga event at Rajpath. 

The problem with the Doval doctrine is that it puts a disproportionate pressure on the “leader” to compensate for the strategic weaknesses. As Henry Kissinger once remarked, “Accepting the limits of one’s capacities is one of the tests of statesmanship.” Additionally, the Doval doctrine tends to induce a kind of a lazy approach that unthinkingly neglects the traditional tools of diplomacy and instruments of statecraft. There is even an apprehension that the “leader-centric” approach may encourage a dilution of our national defence assets, assiduously built over the last fifteen years. 

And, no leader is immune from unfavourable political winds. Narendra Modi too will hit a rough patch, sooner than later. That will be the time when we would need to firewall our lasting national interests from getting entangled with personal foibles and political frailties of the leader.

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