Tepid Formulations, Tame Conclusions
7 September 2012
Shashi Tharoor’s book on foreign policy treads old ground.
Foreign policy has not been a popular subject in India – even among the intelligentsia – till recently. Even those engaged with the strategic and diplomatic aspects of foreign policy – economic aspects are largely ignored – are unsure about what India ought to be doing or saying. Many of them consider themselves to be realists in the realpolitik sense and think that India should adopt whatever policy benefits the country. There was a time in the early part of this century when experts argued against the United Nations, saying policy should be pursued outside its inane ambit. At the same time others argued for UN reforms and permanent membership of the UN Security Council for India. There are some who advocate a conciliatory attitude towards Pakistan and a tough stance against China, arguing this would position India better with the still- influential First World of Europe and the United States. Others think the opposite. The state of foreign policy debate in India is deliriously confusing.
This confusion however does not prevent members of the intelligentsia from talking with remarkable confidence about issues on which the facts are not fully known. An example is the talk on how Jawarharlal Nehru failed on the Chinese front and bungled his Kashmir policy. Nehru is blamed for allowing thousands of miles of territory to be occupied by the sharp Communist rulers in Beijing and for a part of Jammu and Kashmir falling into Pakistani occupation Azad Kashmir / Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) / Pakistan-administered-Kashmir (PAK) following the first India-Pakistan war of 1948. Nehru is also squarely blamed for losing the 1962 war with China. This is a view popular at street-corners and in coffee houses, in drawing rooms as well as with right-wing political circles. Informed academic debates do not allow for this kind of a popular view because of the complexity of the situation and the fact that the full facts are still-to-be unearthed from archives in New Delhi, Islamabad, London, Washington and Moscow.
There is also the rosy view that India under Nehru was a world leader because of its idealistic and moralist non-aligned approach that was looked up to. This view argues that the lofty stance was sacrificed at the altar of economic reforms which were ushered in 1991, consequently making India a pygmy on the international stage despite impressive economic performance. There is also the pungent criticism – especially from the Left, (including the Indian Communist parties) – that says India is now a meek camp follower of the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and that in diplomatic, strategic and economic spheres New Delhi is toeing the Washington line.
There have been book-length arguments in the last 20 years, quite a few of them from Indians working in the American universities and think-tanks. But they focus largely on specific aspects of India’s relations. There have been a couple of books on India-US relations, books on India’s nuclear policy and its strategic implications, books with contributions from Indian and Pakistani scholars and policy-makers about bilateral relations, sometimes focused on a specific topic like the Shimla Agreement of 1972. There have been a quite a few from Indian and foreign journalists about India and China as emerging economic powerhouses but not much has been written on the foreign policies of the two countries which should make a fascinating study in itself. Despite considerable publishing in this sphere, there have been no book-length discussions about Indian foreign policy in its entirety.
The Americans have a lively tradition of arguing and agonising over United States’ role in the world, a subject that excites a limited group of scholars and policymakers. Hundreds of big and small books have been written about America’s foreign policy. Shashi Tharoor’s book Pax Indica is written in the American tradition on Indian foreign policy.
Tharoor is qualified to write on the subject having been an international relations scholar. His doctoral dissertation from the well-known Fletcher School of Diplomacy was on Indian foreign policy structures in the 1970s. The book that emerged from this, Tharoor’s first, was Reasons of State and like a good PhD student, Tharoor employed the dominant theoretical presumptions of behaviouralism and structuralism of the time. But he moved away from academics, joined the United Nations, nursed his literary flair and wrote interesting novels. More recently he entered politics, joined the Congress party, was elected a member of the Parliament and had a short-lived appointment as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. It is after 30 years that he returns to writing about international relations.
Tharoor still retains the critical eye of the scholar for detail but Pax Indica is a book written from the perspective of an active politician, though in the acknowledgements he asserts that “the opinions expressed in this book are strictly personal and engage neither Government of India, nor the political party of which I am a member…” In fact it is interesting that he uses ‘opinions’ instead of ‘views’ to describe his own contribution considering he is someone who knows more than a little about issues of diplomacy. This suggests a tentativeness that is not borne out in the book which is quite forceful and even persuasive.
For example, of India-Pakistan Track II diplomacy, Tharoor writes: “The problem with Indo-Pak Track-II dialogues of the kind I witnessed in the capital is that they are essentially built on denial…they are a self-fulfilling exercise in self-vindication. Their success depends on denying the very disagreements that makes such dialogues necessary in the first place.” The chapter from which this has been cited is titled ‘Brother Enemy’ and it deals with India-Pakistan relations in a very interesting anecdotal manner. However despite this forcefulness of tone, Tharoor often chooses to take an easy way out rather than make a scholarly critique, stating known positions through a popular narrative. He uses the 26/11 terror attack in Mumbai, the killing of liberal Pakistan Punjab governor Salman Taseer and the newspaper articles that appeared in its wake on both sides to make his point. He ends on an inevitable platitudinous note that Pakistan has to do its bit to improve relations with India. He does not explore the Pakistan-US and Pakistan-China axes that tempt Pakistan to remain intransigent in its relations towards India. The chapter appears more of an MP’s rhetorical flourish in a parliamentary debate on India and Pakistan.
The other unsatisfactory chapter is the one on India-US relations. Tharoor, in textbook fashion, has covered the countries and regions chapter-wise – with the colourful heading, ‘Red, White, Blue and Saffron: The United States and India’. He keeps his nose close to the known details and positions and expresses hope that the ambiguities in the relationship will be overcome. He concludes the chapter by saying: “And yet the fundamental driver for long-term relations between the United States and India remains the importance of America – the nation, not just the government – as a partner in India’s own remaking.”He does not spell out what this importance is. Perhaps Tharoor has in mind American democratic traditions and values, the culture of an open, liberal society and its industrial and technological success. Part of the possible answer is to be found in another interestingly titled chapter, “The Hard Challenge of Soft Power…” where he seems to assume American modernity in economy and culture as an axiomatic model for an India of the 21st century. It is a plausible thesis that however needs to be critiqued and debated.
Tharoor does point out in his book the confusing relationship between Parliament and foreign policy. He cites the Constitution which theoretically empowers parliament to approve relations with foreign countries (Article 246) and to approve international treaties (Article 253), but points to the definitional dichotomy that parliament makes laws and not policy and foreign affairs generally is about policy. He recounts that the Nehru “government did not seek parliamentary advice on or consent to a single treaty or international agreement, including the Panchsheel declaration with China, and the agreements with Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim. Nor did Nehru’s administration tell Parliament of Chinese encroachments on India territory till 1959, after they had begun. At the same time, foreign emissaries, especially from China and the Soviet Union in the late 1950s, were given information not publicly available to the Indian people or their representatives in Parliament. The military and psychological disaster of 1962 exposed the bankruptcy of this policy.” And he draws the right conclusion immediately: “One key lesson from Nehru’s China debacle must be that taking Parliament into confidence in advance offers a vital insurance to the government in the event of a foreign policy disaster, whereas a Parliament that discovers issues from the media after the event – as happened with the Sharm el-Sheikh episode involving Pakistan in 2009 – can express enough outrage as to constitute a constraint on the government’s foreign policy options thereafter.”
What is disappointing about Tharoor’s readable tome is that he does not dare to assert the universal principles of Pax Indica. For him Pax Indica boils down to successful foreign policy which helps India’s domestic transformation. Referring to non-alignment in the Cold War context early on in the book, he says, “our first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, chose to stay free of such entanglements in the pursuit of our enlightened self-interest.” And he goes on to explain the rationale: “We were not neutral; we did not cut ourselves off from the world or abdicate our international responsibilities. But our leaders were determined that the independence we had fought so hard for should not be compromised, that our sovereignty should be safeguarded and our right to take our own decisions should be unquestioned. Underlying India’s approach from the start was a firm belief in the importance of preserving our own strategic autonomy, which we have always seen as essential if we are to have a chance to develop India as we wish to.” Of course, he mentions democracy and pluralism as values that India and the world should cherish. It is a tepid formulation at best and it does not do justice to what Pax Indica should mean to the world.
~ Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr is Editorial Consultant with DNA newspaper in New Delhi.