Monday, July 23, 2012

Pox Indica

Kanwal Sibal
Member Advisory Board, VIF

A word of caution: Shashi Tharoor’s new book, “Pax Indica”, is not about India dominating the 21st century world; it is about the less imperial exercise of India helping to write the rules, defining the norms of the new networked world of tomorrow and having a voice in their application. But then rising India should attain such influence normally in time because of its large landmass, population, economy, technological base and armed forces.

The book covers India’s foreign policy widely: relations with Pakistan, other neighbours, China, the Arab world, various Asian countries, the US, Europe, Africa and Latin America. Given his UN passage, de rigueur chapters on Soft Power and Public Diplomacy and India and the UN find place.

The impressive breadth of coverage should enhance an ordinary reader’s understanding of India’s foreign policy, but not in any depth, as several aspects are skimpily treated. Tharoor says the book is a work of reflection, not scholarship. Many specialists will find several of his reflections jarring.

The author’s “extended analytical essay” leaves many vital issues unanalysed, whether the India-US nuclear deal, the nuclear liability law, the Maoist take-over in Nepal, the coup in the Maldives, China’s threat to India, the salience of the border issue in forging relations with China, the strategic aspects of maritime security in the Indian Ocean, etc.

While he does analyse with perspicacity the wellsprings of Pakistan’s endemic hostility towards India, he also endorses liberally the usual facile arguments in favour of engaging that country. Curiously, he scoffs at Track 2 diplomacy with Pakistan, but resorts to the same hope-inspired verbiage to advocate an approach of “accommodativeness, sensitivity and pragmatic generosity”. He seriously believes India has an effective option of dragging Pakistan to the UN to force compliance with Security Council resolutions on terrorism if bilateral dialogue fails!

As part of our neighbourhood policies, he recommends, despite ground realities, connecting China’s military infrastructure up to the Indian border with infrastructure on our side. He believes, in a surge of unwarranted optimism, that a single SAARC currency is no longer a completely unrealistic prospect.

Tharoor’s view that we have a genuine strategic partnership and economic complementarities with China is highly debatable. The assertion that both have a common interest in keeping sea lanes open overlooks our strategic concerns about China’s increased Indian Ocean presence as well as the South China Sea imbroglio. Contrary to the author’s belief, our presence at the Aini base in Tajikstan is not linked to China.

The importance of India’s relations with the Arab world cannot be overstated, but the claim that “our geopolitical aspirations are entirely compatible” overlooks the issues of Iran, the looming Shia-Sunni conflict and the role of some Gulf countries in Libya and Syria. That Iran has been a “kindred spirit of India” on Pakistan is as questionable as the author’s view that Turkey, a NATO member and lurching towards Islamism, should become a BRICS member is novel.

The book disproportionately emphasizes the importance of BIMSTEC (that groups Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand), East-Timor and the lyrically described Indian Ocean Rim Association for regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC). In contrast, the author is dismissive of the EU, calling it irrelevant to India’s strategic interests. Russia gets less than three and a half pages of superficial treatment in the chapter on “Familiar Lands and Uncharted Territories”. The overview of Africa and Latin America is informative, but India’s sentiments towards Africa are expressed in needlessly grandiloquent terms.

An author who thinks that “Hollywood and MTV have done more to promote the idea of America as a desirable and admirable society than any US governmental endeavour” will evidently believe that India’s climb to world leadership will be through “soft power”, which he thinks India already has in plenty in its democracy, pluralism, Bollywood and the triumph of “Slumdog Millionaire”. How can India be the “land of the better story” with unresolved problems of abysmal poverty and poor governance? He quotes Nehru elsewhere to, unwittingly, disprove his own thesis: “So long as we have not solved most of our own problems, our voice cannot carry the weight that it normally will and should”.

The chapter on the US mixes sharp insights and questionable assumptions. To say there is no real clash between India and the US on “geopolitical fundamentals” exaggerates the degree of convergence. That India is going to be as important to American security as Europe once was is debatable. He seems to prefer US dominance to multi-polarity. He wants India to be in the US-led camp of liberal democracies besieged by Islamist terrorism and Chinese authoritarianism, forgetting the US role in propping up Islamism and China in the first place. His analysis of the issues involved in expanding the Security Council is excellent.

The author rightly lists MEA’s well known shortcomings in numbers, training, specialization etc, but calling it the “Ministry of Eternal Affairs” is an outdated jibe The issue of mid-level lateral entry to make up for deficiencies needs more informed debate, especially with Tharoor’s withering opinion of our intellectuals and international relations researchers. Why should successful specialists in areas where the Ministry is weak discard their own careers to enter government service at levels where their rise would be precarious because of age and other handicaps as outsiders?

In wanting India to “be true to its soul in the multilateral arena”, the author wants it to make common cause with the West on issues of democracy and human rights and discard its image as “the leading trade unionist of Third Worldism’. He obviously believes that western credentials on these issues are irreproachable enough to morally compel India to join ranks against specific countries.

With his marked distaste for nonalignment, Tharoor rues that our “old obsession with strategic autonomy remains”. He thinks partnerships with “major allies” (since when?) like the US should take precedence over our specific needs- for Iranian energy supplies, for example. India has “more in common with the countries of the North than the global South”, he says, contradicting his own panegyrics in his 428 page book to BIMST-EC, IOR-ARC, East Timor, Africa and others.

Tharoor presents in stylish prose the fashionable views of “globalized” Indians. To take the book seriously actually requires refutation of many of the author’s viewpoints.

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