Christophe Jaffrelot reviews “The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World” by Dr S. Jaishankar

India’s External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar is an unusual combination of diplomat, politician, and public intellectual. “The India Way” articulates his vision of India’s strategic choices. That he presently serves as India’s foreign minister makes the book an important primary document through which to understand the thinking of an influential architect of the country’s foreign policy. Renowned political scientist Professor Christophe Jaffrelot reviews “The India Way” for SouthAsiaSource.

S. Jaishankar is today one of Narendra Modi’s most influential ministers. In a government team where the number of ‘experts’ is very limited, he has a firm grasp on his subject: a career diplomat, he climbed all the ranks of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, up to the supreme stage of Foreign Secretary – after having been ambassador in countries as important as China and the United States. In his second act, following his distinguished career as a professional diplomat, Jaishankar has emerged as a politician in his own right, close to Narendra Modi in ideology, as his tweets testify.1Like the tweet in which he pays tribute to the former Hindu nationalist leader, Deendayal Upadhyaya. While the latter’s name hardly appears in the book, Jaishankar emerges as not simply a spokesperson for Modi’s worldview but a believer – this is made explicit in the book – that Modi’s ascension to power in 2014 ushered India into a new era of expansion.

The eight thematic chapters in the book tackle different facets of the same problem: what strategies should India follow in a world undergoing profound transformations, particularly because of the rise of China? The reader will not find any recipe in terms of public policy, but a general philosophy – and a discourse – that is now dominant in the spheres of Indian power.

Jaishankar’s book is very revealing of the discourse that Indian leaders have today on world affairs. – Jaffrelot

 REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

A changing world favours a realpolitik metamorphosis in Indian diplomacy

For Jaishankar, the world is changing, and he has no strong enough superlative to describe these upheavals: “change is upon us as never before” (p. 72). This rupture is due to several factors. Firstly, the criteria for power are no longer the same. Access to technology, connectivity, and trade are now paramount. Secondly, all the regions of the world – and in particular the large countries have entered into unbridled competition: the planet is thus governed by an unprecedented multipolar logic.

The fluidity of this new situation forms the backdrop to Jaishankar’s approach, which argues, in this disruptive context, for a rupture of Indian diplomacy with its past. He recommends exploiting the new circumstances in a realpolitik mode that is the polar opposite of what he describes as the “political romanticism” (p. 4) of yesteryear, a phrase implicitly associated with Jawaharlal Nehru and his sense of moralpolitik. For Jaishankar, it is necessary to break free of a past hampered by India’s “soft state” (p. 50), “fatalism” (p. 51), and “missed chances” (p. 74). The call for disruption is echoed on almost every page, and the Indian bureaucracy, of which the author is arguably a stellar product, is criticized for its conservatism, although it is not clear what exactly it is being criticized for: “the real obstacle to the rise of India is not any more the barriers of the world, but the dogmas of Delhi” (p. 73).

What does Jaishankar recommend doing that India was not already doing? In a nutshell, the answer is to apply a purely transactional logic in its relations with a world that everyone is already doing, where there are no allies or friends, but only “frenemies” (p. 39): “In a world of more naked self-interest, nations will do what they have to do with less pretense” (p. 26) and “even partners will always strive for better terms of transactions” (p. 27). So, the key words are not only “realism” (p. 12), “realpolitik” (p. 5), “hard security” (p. 74), but also “management of differences” (in order to exploit tensions between countries) and “pragmatic settlement” (p. 27). In fact, the code of conduct recommended here goes beyond pragmatism: it borders on opportunism. In the “transactional bazaar” (p. 39) that the concert of nations has become, India must maximize its interests, guided unashamedly by the mantra of “advancing [its] national interests by identifying and exploiting opportunities created by global contradictions” (p. 11).

How? India must first establish a favorable balance of power. This requires a rise in economic power and genuine international activism. Economic growth is a categorical imperative, especially since, in Jaishankar’s eyes, India has already “emerged among the major economies of the world…” (p. 78). But the pursuit of all-out diplomacy occupies a more important place in the book. Early on, Jaishankar outlines his diplomatic agenda: “It is time for us to engage America, manage China, cultivate Europe, reassure Russia, bring Japan into play, draw neighbours in, extend the neighbourhood and expand traditional constituencies of support” (p. 10).

The three principles shaping the ‘new’ Indian diplomacy

Three principles shape the Jaishankar doctrine: avoid alliances, exploit conflicts inherent in the multipolar world, and accept the contradictions that result.

Nationalism trumps alliances

First, reject all alliances in the name of national interest. Jaishankar refuses to tie his hands by becoming part of alliances and instead advocates “plurilateralism” (p. 35): “If India drove the revived Quad arrangement, it also took membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. A longstanding trilateral with Russia and China now coexists with one involving the US and Japan” (p. 14). While many Westerners think that India has come closer to their side, especially because it ostensibly shares their democratic values, Jaishankar shatters their illusions in a few well-written sentences: if the West does not understand that India does not see it as an ally, but only as a partner – and even then not on all issues -, “much of that arises from an ignorance of its thought processes. That is hardly surprising when much of the West was historically so dismissive of our society. It is revealing that the standard American introduction to Indian strategic thought does not even refer to the Mahabharata, though that epic so deeply influences the average Indian mind” (p. 47).

For Jaishankar, it is India’s rediscovered nationalism that mandates the preference for multilateralism over alliances. This is not the nationalism of yesteryear that went hand in hand with a non-alignment based on Gandhian values of non-violence, but an ethnic nationalism based on Hindu culture of which the Mahabharata is one of the flagships: “As an epic, [the Mahabharata] dwarfs its counterparts in other civilisations, not just in length but in its richness and complexity” (pp. 48-49). Ethnic nationalism is the driving force behind the Indian strategy that Jaishankar outlines: Indians “must rely on their own traditions to equip them in facing a tumultuous world. That is certainly possible in an India that is now more Bharat [the name of India in Hindu antiquity]” (p. 67). And if India is more nationalistic, and therefore stronger because it is more integrated and more ready to defend its interests at all costs, it is thanks to Narendra Modi, whose electoral victory in 2014 was a turning point for the country (p. 77). It was from this point on, according to Jaishankar, that “India set out to deliberately raise its global profile, consciously influence international gatherings and negotiations, purposefully increase high-level contacts and ambitiously invest in building linkages and connectivity” (p. 93). Such nationalism is the foundation of India’s success: “In emotional terms, nationalism obviously contributes to a stronger sense of unity. In political terms, it signifies a greater determination to combat sub-national and supra-national challenges to it. In policy terms, it focuses on how to maximize national capabilities and influence” (p. 114).2Nationalism is for Jaishankar “a very durable basis for organizing societies” which has two virtues: it is “synonymous with asserting independence’ and it overcomes ‘sub-national dissension” (p. 111), especially when it is ethnic in nature.

Jaishankar’s style here is reminiscent of Modi’s, especially since his discourse is akin to true national-populism, as evidenced by his jabs at the Indian establishment, and not just the bureaucrats in his own ministry. He says he trusts “the Indian street” more than “Lutyens Delhi” (a term referring to the elite of the Indian capital housed in the neighbourhoods of which Lutyens was the architect in colonial times) (p. 109); this brings him back to his favourite target, the Indian senior civil service, because, for him, “Mandarins can no longer be impervious to the masses” (p. 110). The populist national rejection of yesterday’s cosmopolitan establishment is also explicit, as for Jaishankar “an elite created in a Western mould has now outlived its relevance” (p. 129).

For the moment, India refuses to choose sides and for its Western partners, one of the main lessons of Jaishankar’s book is precisely the low esteem in which he holds the West, the hegemon of yesterday that Asia will be called upon to replace.

Christophe Jaffrelot

Exploiting power rivalries by playing the China balancing card

Second, if the rise of nationalism has a disadvantage, coming as it does at the expense of multilateralism and respect for its norms (p. 32), it also has an advantage in allowing India to play the great powers against each other to keep the upper hand and exploit their rivalries. The objective is to “engage competing powers like the US, China, the EU or Russia at the same time” (p. 15). For Jaishankar, India must do this to regain the initiative: “Will the world continue to define India, or will India now define itself?” (p. 17), he asks. Plurilateralism is thus seen as a power politics, a way of asserting itself on the world stage: “the world is today required to come to terms with this changing India” (p. 17).

But what trump cards does India have to play? Jaishankar could have mentioned Indian ‘soft power’, but he does not believe in it. Instead, he attributes India’s bargaining power to its geopolitical position. India’s main asset today is to appear as a key element in the efforts of the West, Japan, Australia, and other Asian countries to counterbalance China – a country that Jaishankar is careful not to name here: “The American interest in working with India has been evident for two decades and has now further accelerated (…) After Brexit, a more uncertain Europe has also developed a growing interest in India as a force of stability and growth in Asia (…) Countries of Asia, especially in the ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific, visualize merits in India’s ability to shape a more multipolar Asia” (p. 40). For Jaishankar, the great powers see only advantages in India’s rise, which must in turn take full measure of this reliance: “If the world has developed stakes in India’s prominence, the latter, in turn, can utilize that sentiment to the fullest” (p. 41). For India, it is a question of offering a point of support to the great powers in the Indo-Pacific which “undeniably is a priority for all of them” (p. 182).3The definition of the Indo-Pacific that Jaishankar offers in his book is naturally centered on the Indian Ocean. The strategy he advocates in this area is based on three “concentric circles”. The first is to equip India’s coasts with port infrastructure that guarantees better connectivity and goes hand in hand with more effective naval defense forces. Second, the inclusion of Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Mauritius and the Seychelles in a second concentric circle seems to be a foregone conclusion – despite the reservations mentioned above. For Jaishankar, the real challenge is the third concentric circle that would allow “the revival of the Indian Ocean as a community that builds on its historical and cultural foundations” (p. 186). Projects to meet such a challenge are mentioned only in passing, such as the regional integration of the Bay of Bengal. “By maintaining a strong posture there, India’s value rises…” (p. 185), writes Jaishankar. The main target, in this respect, is none other than the West because, for him, “A stronger partnership with the West will lead to considerable political benefits and economic gains…” (p. 123). 

Accepting contradictions

Third, anticipating smartly the questions of his readers who might wonder about the proliferation of ideas and the multiplicity of tactics that do not naturally go hand in hand, Jaishankar tells them that he accepts the contradictions that may result from his plurilateralism. It is thus defined from the outset as “a parallel pursuit of multiple priorities, some of whom could be contradictory” (p. 16). Jaishankar even ridicules those who do not understand that Indian initiatives that seem unnatural are the hallmark of the new ‘Indian way’:

“To the uninitiated or the anachronistic, the pursuit of apparently contradictory approaches may seem baffling. How does one reconcile a Howdy Modi gathering [the Houston rally where Modi campaigned for Trump in 2019] with a Mamallapuram [named after the small town where Modi met with Xi Jinping also in 2019] or a Vladivostok Summit? Or the RIC (Russia-India-China) with JAI (Japan-America-India)? Or the Quad and the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization)? An Iran with the Saudis, or Israel with Palestine? The answer is in the willingness to look beyond dogma and enter the real world of convergences. Think of it as calculus, not just as arithmetic.” (p. 100)

A critical assumption here is that India has become so indispensable on an international scene marked by extreme fluidity that its partners will not be offended if it also deals with some of their adversaries. This is a gamble to which we will return in conclusion.

Between BRICS and Indo-Pacific: The paradoxes of the relationship with China

It is not only in relation to India’s relations with its Western partners that India must face up to its contradictions. The challenge arises also with regard to China. In Jaishankar’s worldview, China could undeniably pose a threat to India in the future, but in the present moment it is more a model that India must imitate in order to follow in its footsteps on the road to power: “There is much that India can learn from China. One important lesson is demonstrating global relevance as the surest way of earning the world’s respect” (p. 8). But China shows India the way from another point of view: “China, as the first non-Western power to seriously rise in the post-1945 era, has drawn on its cultural heritage to project its responsibility and shape the narrative. It is but logical that India too should follow suit” (p. 47).

It is in his analysis of China, where he served as India’s longest-serving ambassador (1 June 2009 – 1 December 2013), that Jaishankar offers arguably his most provocative ideas. Jaishankar argues that China is not in fact hostile to India because it “sees India as inherent to the rise of Asia and the larger rebalancing of the power distribution” (p. 40). Firstly, Jaishankar sees China and India as concerted stakeholders in Asia’s rise to power: “The ability of India and China to work together could determine the Asian century” (p. 133). Thus, when he praises nationalism, Jaishankar adds that it is “represented by the rise of nations like China and India, of a continent like Asia and the consequent rebalancing of the global order” (p. 112). The key is his firm belief that these two countries – and Asia in general – are meant to act as a counterweight to the West: “China is the great disrupter here since unlike Japan, South Korea or the ASEAN, its emergence cannot be accommodated in the old framework. The rise of India will only reinforce this pressure for change” (p. 113). Here we find themes that have long dominated the BRICS summits and have, for example, resulted in the demand for greater weight for “emerging countries” at the IMF or the World Bank. Although the notion of “emerging countries” has faded, the logic remains the same, now at the service of Asia: “At least in Asia, we can talk of an economic rise with attendant cultural confidence (…) as Asia makes its influence felt more in the global arena…” (p. 116). And the West then appears as the real Other, the one against which the BRICS had aligned themselves and which it is still necessary to fight because – a phrase worth its weight in gold – “India should not underestimate the influence that the West still retains” (p. 121). Dismantling Western dominance must occur by attacking the architecture of the international system:

“The key of Western durability till now is the set of institutions and practices that it progressively but firmly established in the period of its dominance. There is virtually no sector of human activity that in some form or the other is not shaped or regulated by it. Rules are set for the entire world, as well as for the global commons. These are supported by narratives that serve the West well, while diminishing its competitors. The mix of institutions, regimes, regulations and understandings is such a complex web that creating alternatives is truly a formidable challenge. However, as global power redistribution progresses, this will inevitably happen.” (p. 121)

These attacks on the United Nations system put into perspective New Delhi’s taste for multilateralism. According to Jaishankar, India can count on many supporters to counter the Western agenda at the international level. These form “a powerful constituency in the global South that it [India] must cultivate even as it rises” (p. 120). And what are the policies that are the targets of such organizing? Jaishankar tells us: “trade, climate change and intellectual property positions” (p. 120). While the first and last points mentioned here were expected, the fact that the fight against climate change is a bone of contention between India and Western countries has rarely been articulated so clearly by an Indian minister.

In the end, Jaishankar is reduced to two apparently contradictory propositions. First, India expects China to show better feelings towards it regarding its membership of the Security Council and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Second, he promises that India will counter China’s rise in India’s border countries (such as Nepal and Sri Lanka) by pushing its hand in Southeast Asia (p. 150). The notion that India will be able to compete with China in this kind of rivalry is surprising and predicated on a resolute confidence in India’s economic progress. The humbling of India’s economy and society by the COVID-19 pandemic, which does not even merit a discussion in “The India Way”, would suggest that perhaps a second edition of the book will require a new conclusion.


Jaishankar’s book is very revealing of the discourse that Indian leaders have today on world affairs. In particular, there are three distinctive features: the uncompromising defense of Indian interests in a realpolitik mode, underpinned and legitimized by a strong ethnic nationalism; the certainty of attaining a form of power, fueled by the fact that many major countries are courting India; and the corresponding refusal to choose sides in order to maximize one’s transactional advantage. This triptych is generally perceived as a rupture with the past brought about by Narendra Modi, which Jaishankar also affirms.

Students of history might carp that there are many constants at work here. Arguably, for instance, the plurilateralism being discussed today is the heir to Nehruvian non-alignment, which was rebranded as ‘strategic autonomy’ or ‘non-alignment 2.0’ by Nehru’s successors. In fact, one might argue that the Modi era even marks a clear return to the Nehruvian model through its objective of self-sufficiency (Atmanirbhar Bharat), an objective that is accompanied by a revival of a protectionism that the old import-substitution-industrialization planners would have appreciated.

More concerning, India’s ambitions in terms of power are not often backed up by the mobilization of the resources needed to achieve them. One of the weaknesses of Jaishankar’s book is precisely the indifference with which the author holds the means of the strategy he is building. Over and over, he evades the problems of stewardship. Yet competent stewardship is lacking, growth is at half-mast, and India does not have the means to accomplish its foreign policy, which is a harsh reality that cannot be covered up by pronouncements that “the world is today required to come to terms with this changing India” (p. 17).

The disconnect between discourse and reality is particularly evident when Jaishankar portrays India’s relations with its regional neighbors. Advocating “positive regionalism” (p. 94), he recalls the priority of South Asia – reflected in the motto ‘Neighbourhood First’ – and presents India as the country that can “rebuild a fractured region” through the “wisdom of treating its prosperity as a lifting tide for the entire region” (p. 115). Such paternalism seems rather incongruent at a time when Bangladesh has just overtaken India in terms of per capita income. Also confusing is that Jaishankar makes no mention of China’s growing influence in Sri Lanka and Nepal, nor of the difficulties India faces in its relations with Iran. Elsewhere, he assumes that the Chabahar port will serve its purpose in providing New Delhi with access to Afghanistan, although there is still uncertainty about this. 

The idea that India can dispense with alliances may itself be based on an illusion of power that the economic impact of the COVID-19 epidemic is now revealing to the world.4During the second wave of COVID-19 that began to devastate India in April 2021, one state in the Indian Union, Jharkhand, even suggested turning to Bangladesh to deal with the shortage of vaccines, which is an understatement considering that India is known as the ‘pharmacy of the world. India also risks being pulled out of this dream by Chinese ambitions, not only in the Indian Ocean, but also in the Himalayas, where tensions between the two countries have not abated quickly since the skirmishes of spring 2020. Indeed, some analysts, such as C. Raja Mohan5C. Rajah Mohan, “Why India must not say ‘no’ to NATO”, The Indian Express, April 6, 2021. argue that India will have to integrate into certain alliances and advocate a dialogue with NATO.

For the moment, India refuses to choose sides and for its Western partners, one of the main lessons of Jaishankar’s book is precisely the low esteem in which he holds the West, the hegemon of yesterday that Asia will be called upon to replace. His approach is reminiscent of that of the Pakistani leaders who made themselves indispensable to the West against the USSR, China, and then Al Qaeda by pursuing a double game. Here again, Chinese strategy is the decisive variable: India will have to give up its Asian dream and move closer to the West if China threatens its interests more directly in the future. As a result, contrary to the appearances of the book – and the very confident tone of its author – India is perhaps not in control of its diplomatic strategy, at least not any more so than before.

Professor Christophe Jaffrelot is a nonresident scholar in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a senior research fellow at the Center for International Studies and Research (CERI) at Sciences Po in Paris, and the Avantha Chair Professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s College (London). He has just authored Modi’s India. Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Nationalism, Princeton University Press, 2021.

The South Asia Center is the hub for the Atlantic Council’s analysis of the political, social, geographical, and cultural diversity of the region. ​At the intersection of South Asia and its geopolitics, SAC cultivates dialogue to shape policy and forge ties between the region and the global community.

Image: S. Jaishankar at the Atlantic Council in October 2019.