India’s diplomats defend their turf from encroachment by academics. They’re not entirely wrong to do so, says Shashi Tharoor in this book excerpt, but the result is that they remain insulated from new ideas
I have no doubt,” Mrs Gandhi acknowledged early in her rule, “that our present administrative system uses the expert inadequately and indifferently.” As it proved, there was little she could do about it; the anti-intellectualism of the entrenched bureaucracy was too intractable. The concept of the non-governmental expert as a legitimate addition to established channels of policy was not a popular one among either politicians or bureaucrats. [...]
Intellectuals formed a segment of the educated class from which sprang the country’s rulers, but they did not constitute members of the “ruling class”. This, many intellectuals came to regret. In independent India they sat in judgement all too frequently on those whose seats they would gladly have occupied, if they could. Far from constituting a jury of peers in a people’s court on governmental performance, intellectuals are — as the subjects of their prescriptions realised — by and large passing verdicts on their betters. Sentenced to a lower social status, his livelihood subsidised by government grants, the Indian intellectual is a poor relative of the Indian bureaucrat, and he knows it.
The result is, as the sociologist Edward Shils noted, that government officials “do not learn to benefit from criticism emanating from the universities; instead, they maintain a secretiveness and touchiness which is injurious to efficiency in economic life and to political democracy.” K Subrahmanyam, who, as a government official appointed to head the scholarly Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, operated in the twilight zone between bureaucracy and academics, found to his dismay that even government-sponsored academic institutions were disregarded by the MEA in policy formulation. Subrahmanyam attributed this to the MEA’s insecurity about its own competence, and fear that ministers would soon bypass officialdom altogether. [...]
Policy-planners and MEA diplomatists are privately scathing in their contempt for intellectuals. Academicians, the bureaucrats argue, were inadequately informed about contemporary problems, and had no idea of empirical reality or the mechanics of policy-implementation; their involvement in policy-making would only introduce impracticalities and impair stability and continuity. Devoid of an independent socioeconomic base, unable (unlike journalists) to express their views in influential publications on a regular basis, and often anxious to please the government of the day, India’s intellectuals are not seen by policymakers as a respectable community of minds but as irrelevances not worth treating seriously. [T]he techniques by which the MEA keeps abreast of non-official opinion were few and far from searching, and the foreign policy bureaucracy remains insulated from most advances in thought outside the ministry.
To a great extent, however, the failure of the Indian intellectual goes beyond the imperviousness of officialdom. Standards, rarely high, have been further diluted under populist pressures for the expansion of higher education. In the upper reaches of academe, style rather than substance tends to prevail — when the Indian intellectual is not seduced by plausible theories, since ideology in Indian academia proves too often a facile substitute for original thought. [...] These traits particularly manifested themselves in foreign policy critiques. “With a very few exceptions,” one commentator noted, “the Indian intellectual has been incompetent when he has not been unctuous, and afraid of embarking on a rational inquiry when he has not been afraid of the establishment.” Since independence “there has not appeared a single significant work by an Indian writer discussing these fundamentals [national interests, options, means] with any depth or originality... To expect a good essay on the theoretical aspects of foreign policy is to expect the impossible.” Accordingly, an “air of unreality” prevailed in most analysis of foreign affairs, which suffered from what former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson had termed “the clichés, the moralism, the emotionalism, the bad history, faulty analysis and just plain ignorance” of much American foreign policy criticism in the post–Second World War years.
The Indian intellectual’s lack of interest in developing specialised knowledge in foreign policy led to an undue focus on marginalia, rather than on the conceptual basis of foreign policy. Foreign policy seminars tend, as one analyst put it, “to make major comments on external political issues, rather than to come to grips with India’s policies towards these issues”. The study of international affairs also lacks a solid academic infrastructure in the universities. Frequently conformism emerges, possibly because it was natural for the intelligentsia of a newly emergent nation to identify itself with that nation’s posture in world affairs, though this is fortunately waning six and a half decades after independence. This attitude extended even to attempts to acquire specialisation. Till the 1990s, the Soviet studies programmes at Jawaharlal Nehru University and similar institutions were more concerned with promoting Indo-Soviet friendship than with disinterested academics. It was, therefore, not very surprising that officialdom preferred to disregard intellectuals as lacking in critical integrity. Their anxiety not to offend the government only invited the scorn of those they wished to please. [...]
The only departure from this norm is when intellectuals turned to the daily newspapers, the proliferation of media outlets offering them multiple avenues for the expression of opinion. But despite exceptions, these had at best a limited impact on both the public and the MEA. Outside the academic community and some sections of the press, there is little interest or competence in foreign policy analysis. This is not true of the final category of intellectual who writes on foreign policy, the retired diplomat, though too many evade responsibility for conceptual soulsearching by devoting themselves to repetitive reminiscences, such as K P S Menon’s syndicated variations in the 1960s and 1970s on the theme of Indo-Soviet friendship. In more recent times, former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal has become a prolific commentator on foreign policy issues from a distinctly hard-nosed realpolitik perspective. But with honourable exceptions like Salman Haidar and T P Sreenivasan, there has been little attempt to put practical experience in the field, so lacking in other intellectuals, at the service of institutional re-examination.
There are also limitations on the Indian intellectual that run deep in the political ethos. There are few Indian equivalents of the contextual documents and White Papers issued by the British or Australian Parliaments (and earlier by Nehru). As for the annual report of the MEA, an inscrutable collection of banalities and itineraries, one critic bitingly observed that “the only explanation for this consistently dull, drab and un-illuminating document is the assumption at the political level that the conduct of foreign policy is an esoteric subject best known to its practitioners”.
Excerpted with permission from Penguin India
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