The title is exciting. Does Pax Indica, taking off from Pax Romana, Pax Britannica and Pax Americana, mean India will also stride the world one day like an imperial colossus? Did George W Bush hit the mark when he referred to India’s global aspirations? Shashi Tharoor’s conclusion is even more exciting. No, India won’t be another conventional hegemon. But its effort and example will enable India to “serv[e] as one of the principal fulcrums of a networked globe” committed to democracy and pluralism. You and I may not know it, even the author sounds a trifle sceptical, but, apparently, the grand strategy to achieve that Elysium of peace and plenitude is already under way.
No one will quarrel with anything Mr Tharoor says. The impressive array of facts – erudite references reaching back thousands of years, contemporary scientific and political postulations, a wealth of neatly dispersed statistical data – he marshals is incontestable. His arguments are impeccable and conclusions appealing. It’s that kind of book, a read for all seasons. Even cynics who experience a qualm or two about his vision of a blissful new world order (an unfashionable phrase nowadays, and not one the author actually uses) with India as its chief inspiration and mentor will feel justified in suppressing heretical doubts.
Mr Tharoor’s felicitous turn of phrase helps them do so more easily. I found “problems without passports”, “blueprints without borders” and making the world safe not only for democracy but for diversity particularly appealing. Also, the notion of strategic autonomy as a springboard and not a straitjacket. Palmerston rang distantly in my ears when I read that “principles are usually immutable while interests can be negotiable.” I also wondered if the great Deng Xiaoping (“To be rich is glorious”) had peeked into the fourth-century BC Arthashastra since Mr Tharoor quotes Kautilya saying “Material well-being is supreme.”
The comparison is inevitable: if the prophet of China’s economic regeneration plagiarised from ancient Hindu thought, why could the Hindus themselves not have benefited from their own hallowed precept? But they did, the answer springs at once to mind, they did in the oceanic empire of what was once Suvarnabhumi. Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew overlooked the abiding evidence of Southeast Asia’s Hindu and Buddhist temples, Sanskritic names and Brahmanic institutions when he sought an explanation in the different national characters of the Indian and Chinese peoples. It would be more accurate to say that while the Chinese nation has retained its national characteristics despite the turmoil of the ages, continuity snapped somewhere along the high road of India’s history.
Such analyses lie outside Mr Tharoor’s remit. But he discerns the beginnings of a return to the past roots of glory in many modern trends. If India’s aid to neighbouring and African countries gives free play to recipients to use it as they will for beneficial ends, it’s because the great king Harsha spread his wealth “in alms upon the field of happiness”. Though he gently chides his old ministry for bombastically hailing India as “the world’s fifth most powerful country”, he, too, hearkens to the siren call of destiny, albeit one that coos in more sophisticated tones.
There’s a nagging feeling, however, that either Mr Tharoor isn’t saying all he believes, or else he is suppressing some of what he knows. Hence the impression of advancing three steps and retreating one. His conflicting comments on India’s military prowess and success in handling internal challenges are two examples. Freedom from didacticism may be the hallmark of an honest conscience; “a work of reflection, not scholarship” must also yield a bouquet of not always consistent stray thoughts. But flexibility may also be a practising politician’s way of keeping all options open.
That can lead to giveaway slips. He tells us on Page 410 that India has never been a belligerent or expansionist power. Most people, save perhaps a few malcontents in Kashmir, Junagadh, Hyderabad and Goa, would heartily endorse that boast. Hardly anyone would remember Mr Tharoor’s reference on Page 286 to “the annexation of Sikkim in 1975”. The point is not whether India annexed Sikkim or was reluctantly forced to respond (Delhi’s official version) to the Sikkimese public’s irresistible demand to be liberated from a repressive monarch who was moreover playing footsy with China and endangering our security. The point is: which version does the author believe? If the latter (as is expected of all patriotic Congressmen), why malign his masters by accusing them of “annexing” Sikkim?
There’s also his devastating indictment of the integrity of Indian politicians and civil servants as opportunists. After Indira Gandhi’s defeat in 1977, Mr Tharoor found “every one of her key advisers and foreign ministers was available and willing to talk freely, never expecting her to come back to power [emphasis added]”. Observers of the Indian scene won’t find it at all surprising that politicians and bureaucrats were anxious to run down a leader they thought had been cast on the dung heap of history for ever. But everyone will find the observation extremely surprising coming from a Congress MP who held ministerial rank and clearly hasn’t burnt his political boats.
Or has he now with that sweeping condemnation?
India and the World of the 21st Century
Penguin Allen Lane; 456 pages; Rs 799