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'The art of practical possibilities'

Kishan S Rana 

This first major book on foreign policy by former foreign secretary Muchkund Dubey – apart from a study on the World Trade Organisation and several edited works – commands attention. While setting out the key lines of his world view in broad brushstrokes, the book concentrates on selected countries and themes: relations with Bangladesh, the United States, Russia, China, Japan; the civilian nuclear deal; the United Nations; disarmament and security; and ties with neighbours. The final chapter, which is on the Indian diaspora, is welcome since few have given this subject the attention it deserves. The author explains his omission to cover in detail relations with Pakistan, besides Africa, much of Asia, Europe and Latin America, and other themes, in terms of his future book plans.

For Mr Dubey, globalisation and the end of the Cold War are the key drivers of changes in the international affairs environment, with which India has had to cope. Curiously, I could not find the phrase “economic reforms” in the book, nor in the index. Most of us would view reforms as another big driver – of course domestic and not external – guiding Indian foreign policy adaptation.

Mr Dubey’s survey of foreign policy is insightful, unalloyed with personal reminisces or narratives of the “I-me” variety of the role he played not just in high office, but also in the early phase of his career. This is a pity. Few today will recall, for instance, his exceptional contribution in framing the first UN “Decade of Development” agenda in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is another matter that the high hopes of those days were not realised. But that effort represented a unique Indian contribution to multilateral diplomacy. Perhaps a personal narrative of his rich experiences could be captured in an “Oral History Record”, as part of a project that is now gathering momentum with the support of the Indian Council of World Affairs.

One of the strong points of the book is a fine chapter on dealing with neighbours, premised on Mr Dubey’s dictum that they should receive the highest priority and his perception that “a country is judged by the prism of its neighbours”. We only have to look at the record of bilateral visits by our highest dignitaries to see that this has simply not been the case. Mr Dubey’s prescription: greater sensitivity to psychological factors; no interruption of dialogue; not permitting stagnation in bilateral relations; making short-term sacrifices for long-term gains; non-reciprocity; people-to-people contacts; safeguarding basic interests; and factoring neighbours’ interests into policy making. Each needs close examination by scholars and think tanks. We also find support for this in the published archival collections on relations with Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, produced by A S Bhasin; these give chapter-and-verse proof of our weak record on these points.

The root of our failure is lack of a considered, consistent, coherent and transparently articulated policy. Mr Dubey makes this point in criticising “the absence of long-term thinking and a holistic approach”. In my view, we lack both a public statement of the principal axes of foreign policy and an internal document that sets out more detailed objectives. The result? In dealing with neighbours, we lack clear purpose or a master plan. Take Australia. It has just announced a plan to strengthen ties with Asian states, setting out 25 objectives. When did we do anything comparable in relation to any region?

Mr Dubey covers democracy and governance in Bangladesh and our economic relations in two comprehensive chapters; these will surely be a fine resource for scholars. Yet, despite his intimate knowledge of this oft-neglected bilateral relationship, the author has little to say about the ups and downs of India’s political relations with Bangladesh.

On China, examined from different perspectives in three chapters, he recommends continuing engagement and expects that the large trade imbalance will be rectified with an improvement in India’s competitive strength. He rightly calls “highly exaggerated, if not totally misplaced” the security and market flooding arguments that have blocked sub-regional co-operation between China and north-east India. These would also connect with Bangladesh and Myanmar — for example, the “Kunming initiative”, now called BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar). On Russia, he urges stronger economic content to match our strategic goals.

The author observes: “Diplomacy operates on very thin margins of practical possibilities.” Very true, but it is a function of any foreign ministry and its embassies to work on expanding these margins, using all opportunities available. Why does this not happen sufficiently in India? Mr Dubey might have expanded on this theme to give actionable recommendations, beyond urging that we need to be proactive.

All in all, this is a fine work focused on selected themes. One hopes the next book, a companion volume, will provide a full panoramic analysis.

The reviewer is Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi

Muchkund Dubey

Pearson, New Delhi, 2012
306+xiv pages; Rs 699

First Published: Fri, November 02 2012. 00:54 IST