The India Way
What should be the objectives of the foreign policy of a country? Dr. Jaishankar, in his recently published book The India Way: Strategies for an uncertain world, outlines them as ensuring greater prosperity at home, peace on the borders, protection of people and enhancing influence abroad. In India’s specific case, he said in another part of this book, this would involve engaging America, managing China, reassuring Russia, bringing Japan into play, extending neighbourhood and expanding traditional constituencies of support! This is certainly tall order for any administration and serves to explain at one go the challenges faced by the mandarins in South Block.
It is only rarely that an erudite career diplomat, who is also one of the foremost thinkers on the subject, is appointed as Minister for External Affairs of the largest democracy of the world. It is even more rare that a sitting Foreign Minister pens down his thoughts on the prevailing global situation and offers insights into the working of the minds of the practitioners of the art of diplomacy. Hence, it is only natural that the book has attracted plenty of attraction and figured in the list of bestsellers from the date of its release. The fact that the author expresses his thoughts in a cogent and lucid manner adds to its attraction and worth.
The main strand that runs through the book is that after seven decades of bipolarity and unipolarity, world is presently going through a multipolar phase, which warrants adoption of new strategies. The author has explained the options available before India in the new situation, the measures taken so far in this regard and also offered a peep into the future. He has put forward the case that finding areas of convergence with multiple partners, including those with who there might be differences on other issues, offers the best way forward. He has postulated that “frenemies” will dominate a new world order that will have no place for alliances based on dogmas and multilateralism.
The book is divided into eight chapters, each dealing with a separate facet of global politics and India’s response to it. The book begins by warning about the dangers of strategic complacency and the tendency to hail timidity as strategy and indecision as wisdom. Then the author proceeds to explain the disruptions that took place in 2016 to the prevailing world order of unipolarity and global supply chains and their impact. These are followed by sections focusing on lessons on pluralism and multipolarity that can be learnt from The Mahabharata, the dogmas that have dogged Indian decision making in the past, turbulent relationship with China, the growing proximity with the east and the efforts taken to capitalise on the maritime strengths in Indian and Pacific oceans. The book ends with an brief epilogue that discusses the changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and its likely repercussions on international affairs.
Dilemmas of Statecraft
Arguably, the most interesting chapter in the book is Krishna’s Choice, where the author identifies The Mahabharata as the “most vivid distillation of Indian thoughts on statecraft”. He has positioned this epic as a masterpiece that focuses not only on sense of duty and obligations but also covers human frailties while touching upon all the dilemmas of statecraft involving taking risk, placing trust and most importantly, the courage required for implementing tough decisions, without fear of collateral damage. Citing specific examples in the epic involving the Pandavas, he underlines the importance of being seen as ethically correct and morally upright on most situations, as it gives the practitioner the latitude to indulge in occasional acts of deviation from this norm. On similar lines, the ability of a country to indulge in strategic deception and getting away with it depends to a large extent on its history of conformity with rules and conventions, as proved by the British who could even justify their oppressive colonial rule as one intended to improve the lot of the natives!
But what makes this chapter captivating for the reader is the comparisons of Indian positions to developments in international arena with specific instances from the epic. The comparison of Pakistan to Kauravas, who have scant regard for scruples and rules, while expecting Pandavas, read India, to abide by them, is a brilliant one. The significance of the action of India through the strikes at Uri and Balakot, which sent home the message that they could act differently from the conditioned responses that Pakistan was used to, has to be viewed from this perspective. Similarly, the capacity of smaller players, who may possess the stubborn determination to cause damages on their larger adversary, even at the risk of suffering mortal wounds on themselves have been highlighted, with the examples Trigarta warriors and Jayadratha. The path taken by Lord Krishna, who reconciles the ethical dilemma of Pandavas with the pursuit and discharge of power, is portrayed as the one worthy of emulation when India is forced to make its choices while playing a greater role in international affairs.
The chapter on Sino Indian relations titled Nimzo Indian Defence would hold the maximum interest to the reader on account of the recent developments, highlighted by tension along the border in Ladakh region. At the outset itself, the author states categorically that placing the relations with China in correct perspective is critical to India’s prospects. After outlining the civilizational linkages, he has argued that confrontation of 1962 was caused by the politics of the period and Chinese evaluation of Nehru. He has lamented the fact that the impact of the humiliation on the battlefield in 1962, which remains etched in the Indian psyche, has been such that the real loser was the relationship between the two countries. The strong bond that developed between China and Pakistan, which saw the former help the latter to become a nuclear power, is pointed out as the answer to the debate regarding where India stands in the eyes of Beijing. He argues convincingly that this, along with the stubborn refusal to sanctioning of terrorists, stand out as accurate reflections of Chinese intention to keep India confined to the South Asia box. Interestingly, he has been bold enough to admit candidly that despite the populist rhetoric, India lags behind China in comprehensive national power. While underscoring that China was able to achieve rapid economic growth in a global milieu that was largely favourable, he has observed that India would find the going much more difficult, given the prevailing global circumstances.
How does India tackle this more powerful neighbour, while plotting its own rise? The author has asserted that India should stand their ground when tested while not allowing China to have monopoly on strategic calculations. He has presciently observed that equilibrium between the two countries would not be arrived bilaterally but would be shaped across a larger landscape. Here, he has pointed out that in areas outside immediate bilateral interests, the two countries have come together, particularly in efforts to create a more balanced world. The meeting at Astana in 2017 and the summits at Wuhan and Chennai are held out as examples where strategic maturity and realism were displayed, holding the hope that the two nations would find methods for emerging beyond the present limitations. He has concluded this chapter by reiterating that India’s bottomline for a strong and sustained relationship is peace and tranquility along the border.
If at all one is required to pick out an area for criticism in this book, it would be the importance paid to the India- US civil nuclear deal of 2005, which is hailed as one that helped not only to remove the constraints that dogged bilateral ties but also helped to improve the stature of India in global community. It could be the author’s personal involvement with the agreement in all its stages that warranted this degree of attention in this work. It is unlikely that other independent observers would bestow this accord with a similar significance.
Before concluding, I must confess that I had the good fortune of working with Dr Jaishankar when he was High Commissioner at Singapore. One of the gains from a career in civil services is the opportunity for working with officers of diverse calibre and expertise, which by itself is an enriching experience. I would rate the period that I worked with Dr Jaishankar at the very top of the list not only for his formidable intellect but for his leadership abilities, capacity to see the big picture while not losing track if the details, clarity of thought and last, but not the least, infinite patience that he used to display while dealing with his lesser gifted colleagues.
While he stands head and shoulders above his compatriots in the field of bureaucracy and diplomacy, he is also blessed with warmth and sensitivity that makes him a good human being as well. I never heard him raise his voice even once, whether in anger of frustration, even though there would have been plenty of occasions that merited an outburst. A cricket aficionado, he followed the game closely and I would treasure the discussions about the intricate details of the game that I had with him.
This book would add lustre and prestige to the collection of all individuals interested in matters relating to global affairs, while adding significantly to the knowledge and understanding of the reader. Dr Jaishankar can take credit for penning one of the most significant works in the domain of contemporary global affairs.