Pax Indica..or is it?
This much publicized book by Shashi Tharoor, Pax Indica, translated “Peace India” should rightly have a question mark at its tail. The Rs 799, 440 page book is an attempt at narration and analysis of India’s relations with the world around it. As is Shashi Tharoor’s style, the book flows easily and, answers many questions regarding the status of Indian foreign policy in its current avatar. Coming close on the heels of Non Alignment 2.0, a quasi government policy document, Pax Indica has generated world-wide interest in understanding the “why” of Indian initiatives.
It is an excellent backgrounder for foreign policy practitioners and students while it laments India’s capability to unroll a holistic approach to Indian foreign policy making and, more so, its execution. The book travels through the past, present and the future of Indian diplomacy in meeting with India’s National Interests in a lucid and comprehensible language. The linkages between foreign and domestic policies are explained rather well.
The book is biased towards history in more than four of its eleven chapters – a history which Tharoor himself agrees has little place in execution of foreign policy because of forever changing global dynamics. The biggest bane is that the book largely serves to eulogize the current government and its actions rather overtly. That India today is “muddling along” in enunciation and execution of its foreign policy by not taking proactive unilateral initiatives has been totally glossed over. The Nepal fiasco, the Bangladesh volte face, the silence over Maldivian “coup” and the Sri Lankan UNSC vote merited holistic deliberations /explanations. These infirmities in Indian foreign policy need public debate as rightly put forward by Nitin Pai, “India’s neighbours know that their weakness is a source of implicit or explicit bargaining power”. Tharoor, though, rightly observes that Indian thinkers have neglected the regional players in favour of analysing India’s role in global politics.
The description of relationships with the neighbours to build a periphery of peace, though laboured, has largely been insufficient and the prescriptions are weak and emotional rather than pragmatic. It is a matter of fact that over the last decade relations with all our neighbours have headed south for various reasons. Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and now Bhutan are leaning on China where India has ceded strategic space due to lack of vision in dealing with these countries. Resultantly, they are all playing the China card in their dealings with India. Myanmar, with whom we established diplomatic relation 20 years back, suffers for want of a credible delivery model. The new “great game” in Bay of Bengal where China is speeding up to overcome the Malacca dilemma puts India at a great disadvantage in its backyard. The description and analysis of relationships by Tharoor, though commendable, leave a lot more to be desired. Maybe, when coming from a seasoned foreign affairs specialist in India, more is better.
Iran, Syria and the post 2014 Afghanistan pose great challenges to Indian diplomatic efforts. However, these have received scant attention in the book. The Indian energy security and the Connect Central Asia policies are largely dependent on the prognosis flowing out of these endeavours. The security implications of post 2014 Afghanistan have serious implications on the security scenario in the subcontinent. The “Islamist Ascendancy” as evident from the Arab Spring should be a cause of concern for a country with 150 million Muslims. A deeper analysis, therefore, was mandatory to place the landscape in perspective.
The chapters on Pakistan and China, though covered in some detail, are also built on euphemistic and romantic beliefs of ”good neighbourly relations”. Unwittingly they dwell little on “real politick” and are shallow when tested against the net assessment model. Tharoor does argue that while good relations with Pakistan and China are a must for Indian growth, India has to be militarily prepared for war to maintain peace. One would have appreciated a man of Tharoor’s experience to put forward firm recommendations based on drivers, leverages and scenarios played out maturely to charter the future course of Indian foreign policy, and therefore its military trajectory, in this diplomatic game.
The US-India-China equation results in the need for India to manage this complex reality of a possible G2 scenario with a dangerous tight rope walk. India’s tough dance between the West and SCO on one hand and its needs to meet with its strategic and economic interests in Iran, Af Pak and the Arab world needed greater scrutiny for a book of this nature. Russian interests in reaching the Persian Gulf via Pakistan should be a cause for great concern in India, something, which finds no mention in the book. As Tharoor likens Indian foreign policy to peeling layers of onions, a realistic analysis to do so without shedding undue tears misses prescription. It is here that Admiral Raja Mohan and Rajiv Kumar’s “Long View from Delhi” scores over Tharoor – pragmatic prescription and a road map.
The bouquets come in the form of Tharoor providing a foreign relations primer to the students of India’s foreign relations. It also exposes the vast difficulties that India would encounter in future in dealing with a tough neighbourhood, a dangerous and volatile extended neighbourhood in the West and a weak Look East Policy as evident from a poor delivery model.
The most sterling contribution of the book is in flagging the intriguing deficiencies in a structured mechanisms to formulate a pragmatic policy and shortfall of the diplomatic corps in executing the foreign policy. The current mechanism lacks depth and discounts inputs based on reasonable debate and discussion in the very few think tanks and academia. Our foreign policy formulation mechanism thus warrants much more professional approach to peel the onions. Unfortunately, as Tharoor points out, our domain hungry bureaucracy, is averse to cede its hold to widen the scope of Indian public policy initiatives.
Non alignment of Nehruvian model had outlived its utility fairly early as we had willy nilly aligned with Russia during the cold war. The multi polarity of the information age world demands interdependence to meet with various demands of national interests. It calls for, in Tharoor’s words, Multi alignment. It needs to be remembered here that multi alignment requires a strong India to be able to formulate its foreign and domestic policies in tune with its regional and global aspirations. This means shouldering greater responsibility in dealing with international situations arising due to power pulls and pressures of alliances being formed with or against US – the sole super power. That is the biggest challenge of India’s foreign policy today. Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iran, Af Pak and the ongoing “cold war” in Asia-Pacific as a result of US “rebalancing” are such tests of our times or may be this decade. How Indian diplomacy delivers here would dictate the level of its standing in the new world order. Tharoor rightly prescribes a dynamic foreign policy evolution mechanism to deal with these challenges. Quote:
“Indian diplomacy, a veteran told Shashi Tharoor many years ago, is like the love-making of an elephant: it is conducted at a very high level, accompanied by much bellowing, and the results are not known for two years”.
This is where the Indian policy making and conduct of a vibrant foreign policy takes a big hit. Our diplomatic corps is understaffed, the policy making mechanism is rarely a function of informed debate and the functioning of parliament and public opinion do not produce coherence. More than prescriptions for foreign policy, we need a structured and dynamic mechanism to formulate our long and short-term strategy options, refine the debate process and strengthen the delivery model. We agree that Indian diplomatic corps can not be increased by inducting 40 more cadres every year. The need of the hour is to inject fresh blood, thought and energy into the IFS. Lateral induction from academia, military and journalism need to augment this scarce resource to contribute towards meeting with the challenges of the future.
The book has not credited the deep impact our military diplomacy has had in shaping the world around us. This strength needs to be built transcending petty cadre loyalties. We have disregarded military diplomacy and the contribution the vast resource of trained and educated cadre available within the military, who can fill this crucial gap. With Indian cadre at mere 700 as against China’s over 4000, we need to inject “strength” in the diplomatic corps. Every year more than 2000 officers are sidelined from a command oriented military. This resource with 16-17 years military service can be effectively inducted, based on merit, to reinforce our diplomatic corps. But that is a subject of an altogether different discourse.
Despite its dense narration, the book is a “unputdownable” narration of the strengths and weaknesses of Indian foreign policy. It must be on every book shelf that aspires to understand the enigma called India in an interdependent world. The book also underscores the need for a much wider debate to shape India’s policies, both domestic and foreign, in times to come.
Policies are always “work in progress” as long as national interests are well-defined and not a result of knee jerk responses to events around us. Currently we seem to be managing our foreign policy in a crisis mode. We lack long-term vision and short-term execution strategies.
Hence it may not be Pax Indica…not as yet!