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How the elephant dances

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PMs from on have made India’s foreign policy less idealistic and more flexible. This is a good thing, says Sunanda K Datta-Ray, even if, as a Canadian diplomat observes in this book, it doesn’t always suit the .

New foreign service entrants are surprised to discover that policy is made in the Prime Minister’s Office and not their ministry. says in his formidably researched treatise that a similar shift is discernible in Brasilia, London and Paris. In India it’s not a shift but a tradition. follows, albeit not openly, in the footsteps of who appropriated the external affairs portfolio in Lord Wavell’s interim government, dismissing everything else as only local government.

There the resemblance ends. Nehru articulated a grand if idealistic and ultimately unfruitful vision of nonalignment as a gently mediating force that would in the long term dissolve differences between the Cold War contestants. His foreign policy can be compared with what Henry Kissinger calls America’s missionary exceptionalism, holding that “the United States has an obligation to spread its values to every part of the world”. But as Malone recognises, Singh’s foreign policy is issue-based, as befits a distinguished economist. His “Incredible India” is not hamstrung by any straitjacket of ideology or strategic planning. It can as easily engage the US as China in naval manoeuvres. It can be both firm and flexible with Pakistan. It is able to improvise a response to new developments in Iran or West Asia instead of being forced to stick to predetermined positions. Far from projecting values, foreign policy reflects domestic needs. Success is measured in terms of the FDI India attracts.

What Malone doesn’t acknowledge sufficiently (like many others, Indian and foreign) is that the process began with Indira Gandhi’s second coming in 1980. The meeting with Ronald Reagan at Cancun and ’s elevation were the markers of her economic programme just as the Bangladesh war had nine years earlier exposed the hard-nosed realpolitik underlying her diplomacy. Rajiv Gandhi tried but failed to develop this pragmatism. Chandra Shekhar’s brief tenure turned round Indian policy on cooperating with the US militarily, as Barbara Crossette acknowledged in the New York Times in December 1990.

Though generally regarded as the father of realism, P V Narasimha Rao was astute enough to make a virtue of necessity. With the World Bank and IMF breathing down his neck, Rao brilliantly justified the initiatives that were blazing a new trail without seeming to in a conversation with this reviewer by arguing that Manu the Law-giver gave the Law but it was up to each Brahmin to interpret it. Atal Behari Vajpayee’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition continued his policies but with less dissimulation except when it came to placating swarajist fanatics in his own camp. But Singh has made an ideology of pragmatism and pushed it to new heights through the importance attached to the development of nuclear energy and relations with the US without being constrained by the limitations inherent in Vajpayee’s “natural ally” thesis.

Paradoxically, Nehru’s heirs have gradually eroded his concept of the primacy of foreign policy as an art that projects the nation’s personality on the international stage. India and Pakistan are both nuclear states but India’s nuclear status has been globally legitimised and India’s voice commands greater attention not because of any moral superiority but because of its high growth rate. Barack Obama’s flattering description of the US-India relationship as one of the “defining partnerships of the 21st century” made sense in the context of his predecessor’s Asia Society speech on the unlimited scope for selling washing machines and pizza to India’s burgeoning middle class. Obama developed that by outlining how Indian enterprise could create jobs for Americans.

Malone describes all this and much else in a book that is as much analysis as advice. Perhaps the advice is intended to make India more acceptable to the US but in the process India might also increase its own global consequence. Indian readers may disagree with Malone on some points. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation was hardly “a forum created largely by India” since the initial proposal was made by Bangladeshi General Ziaur Rahman’s at the 1976 nonaligned summit in Colombo and coldly received by India which was always wary of anything that looked like ganging up by the region’s smaller countries. Nor is it logical to bracket Israel with India and China as the generator of “a significant global Diaspora” for Israel is the effect, not cause, of dispersion.

Finally, a sentence like “India’s diplomacy often has been understandably focussed on issues of status” cannot go unchallenged. In conference after conference, as I discovered when researching my own book, Waiting for America: India and the US in the New Millennium, their American hosts paired visiting Indian diplomats and military men with officers who were below them in rank, then put Indian protests down to a former colony’s inferiority complex. The point is petty, the tactic even more so. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s amusing grouse about Kissinger’s one-upmanship showed how important rank is to Americans.

However, much can be forgiven a writer who finds Indians “brilliant, hard-working, loquacious, fluent and creative” even if he is over-generous in showering compliments on his interlocutors. Though professing to be “acutely aware of the costs of politeness”, he hardly ever mentions an Indian name without a flattering adjective. As Canadian high commissioner to India, Malone must have quickly realised what an American colleague at the East-West Center in Honolulu who had represented his country in New Delhi told me — “Indians like to be stroked”.

This is an informative and incisive book that hits the nail on the head when it says India is not locked into any foreign policy or national security framework. That this reactive approach makes India less useful as an instrument of Western strategy is also an advantage. The book’s welcome — and novel — feature is the personal correspondence the author draws on, not private letters but answers to pointed questions he probably sent to a wide circle of informed acquaintances. They buttress his arguments with refreshing evidence that would not otherwise have been available. It’s a pity Malone didn’t seek more non-Indian views.


DOES THE ELEPHANT DANCE?

Author: David M Malone
Publisher: OUP
Pages: 432
Price: Rs 695

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