Polaris | Recommendations for Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi

What Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi should read and watch on international affairs and security.

A recent panel discussion in Washington on Indian politics inevitably resulted in a discussion on the relative strengths and weaknesses of two personalities: Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi. It reflected the growing consensus that one or the other will be prime minister—or, just as likely, kingmaker—following the general elections next year. Although both individuals have expressed an interest in international affairs and national security, neither has yet had an opportunity to showcase their abilities in this realm. (Narasimha Rao, A.B. Vajpayee, I.K. Gujral, and Manmohan Singh, by contrast, had all served in senior cabinet positions prior to their ascensions to the top post.)

Appreciating the fact that neither Mr. Gandhi nor Mr. Modi will have a lot of time for extracurricular reading in the run up to next year’s elections, I tried to think of ten books, five articles, and five movies that I would recommend most to someone in their position (or their advisors), with an emphasis on accessibility, clarity, and brevity. Here’s a starting list, and I would be eager to hear suggestions from others [e-mail address under “Contact”] , which—if interesting—could make for a good follow-on post.


1. Srinath Raghavan, War and Peace in Modern India. Both Mr. Modi and Mr. Gandhi will find a lot to disagree with in this book, since it provides a mixed view of Nehru’s legacy. Nonetheless, it is far and away the best study of the origins of India’s continuing disputes with China and Pakistan, and provides a nuanced yet detailed picture of India’s diplomatic performance and decision to employ force between 1947 and 1962.

2. Eliot Cohen, Supreme Command. Not only is this a very accessible book for newcomers to military affairs, it is perhaps the best-articulated study of why political leaders can—indeed, should—on occasion overrule their top military advisers on matters of security. It is particularly applicable to the Indian context, because it relies on prominent examples from four democracies: the United States, Britain, France, and Israel. Most Indian politicians receive little guidance on how to work with the services prior to their elections to national office. This is as good a start as any.

3. The Kargil Review Committee, From Surprise to Reckoning. Remarkable for being one of the few official Indian government reports on national security to be widely circulated upon publication, it provides a good introduction to the continuing problems of intelligence collection and analysis, as well as recommendations for improving India’s readiness—most of which have yet to be implemented.

4. George Perkovich, India’s Nuclear Bomb. Perhaps just a skim is necessary of this massive tome, which remains the authoritative narrative of India’s nuclear development until 1999. Much has, of course, happened since the book’s publication, but it dissects key decisions made by successive Indian governments on a particularly sensitive matter of national security.

5. C. Raja Mohan, Impossible Allies. The book seems a bit dated now, having been written in headier days of India-U.S. engagement in the mid-2000s, but it represents a solid narrative of relations at a particularly crucial juncture. In that sense, it may be the closest thing to a blueprint for proactive Indian engagement of a major power—something both Mr. Modi and Mr. Gandhi should aspire to.

6. Strobe Talbott, Engaging India. What is it like to sit across from Indian negotiators? For an insider look of how India negotiated itself out of an incredibly tight spot following the 1998 nuclear tests, look no farther than this book. The fact that, at the time, India’s institutions were weaker, its resources fewer, and the international environment more hostile ought to be comforting.

7. Raja Menon and Rajiv Kumar, The Long View from Delhi. Short, chart-filled overview of India’s important relationships and future scenarios that may compromise Indian interests. A good guide to what may be the most important strategic trends for India.

8. David Malone, Does the Elephant Dance? Written by a former Canadian ambassador to New Delhi, this is probably the best-researched book on Indian foreign policy. It is heavy on India’s multilateral engagement—in which the country comes off rather worse than in bilateral contexts—but provides a good broad overview for non-specialists.

9 & 10. Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall & Bring Up the Bodies. These two books may appear rather unusual inclusions to this list, as works of historical fiction. But Mantel’s two prize-winning novels are grounded in reality, and taken together offer a couple of important lessons for modern political leaders. Most importantly, they constitute one of the best literary treatments of the complex relationship between ideology, diplomacy, rule of law, factional politics, and personal relationships, with which both Mr. Gandhi and Mr. Modi will have to contend. Tudor England also bears some uncanny similarities to contemporary India, as a state being made, one confronting the challenges of modernity, and wrestling with its identity. India—like England in a Europe dominated by France and the Holy Roman Empire—will also be the key swing state in the international system. And much like Henry VIII, Mr. Modi and Mr. Gandhi arrive with high expectations, represent important generational changes to their country’s leadership, and will still need to consolidate their domestic and international authority in the face of much scepticism.


1. K. Subrahmanyam, “India’s Grand Strategy/India’s Strategic ChallengesIndian Express, February 3-4, 2012.

2. Shashi Tharoor, “In the Ministry of Eternal Affairs,” Caravan, July 1, 2012.

3. Shyam Saran, “Geo-political Consequences of Current Financial and Economic Crisis: Implications for India,” Speech at the India Habitat Centre, February 28, 2009.

4. Ashok Malik and Rory Medcalf, “India’s New World: Civil Society in the Making of Foreign Policy,” Lowy Institute, May 2, 2011.

5. Saran, “Deciphering Pakistani Adventurism,” The Business Standard, January 16, 2013.


Mainstream Indian films’ treatment of foreign settings and relations are rather mixed (e.g. Veer Zaara, Tere Bin Laden, Namastey London). And the security side—even the better, more serious fare (e.g. Rang De Basanti, Kahaani)—remains far too fantastic. In order also to increase international exposure, here are a few films that are both enjoyable and thought-provoking:

1. The Lives of Others (2006). Indians still tend to be agnostic—if not somewhat nostalgic—about the Cold War. Watching this German film should put a stop to it. All governments are not equal: some are inherently more immoral than others. With an eye on the future, it makes you think about the kind of regimes you really want to be friends with.

2. Dr. Strangelove (1964). Having your finger on the nuclear button is no laughing matter. What better way to be reminded of that than to watch this classic comedy.

3. The Debt (2011). This remake of an Israeli film, about the dark secrets behind a celebrated Mossad intelligence operation, explores the morality of unilateral action and the room for its abuse by operatives intent on personal survival.

4. The Last Emperor (1987). Apart from being a gorgeous film about an important country for Indian interests, there are few better cinematic treatments of a powerful figure’s fall from grace, of power’s use and abuse, and of the employment of political figures as symbols. Within lie many cautionary tales.

5. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965). An antidote of sorts to the first film on this list. When it comes to tactics, the bad guys can be your friends, and the good guys are often dispensible.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.