As India stands on the cusp of a series of attack at Uri, Nagrota, India’s response with a “surgical strike” has been universally hailed as an act of decisive politics. Shivshankar Menon’s just published book “Choices-Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy” thus could not have been timely; Menon was posted in China & Pakistan; and was India’s Foreign Secretary (2006-09) & National Security Advisor (NSA) (2010-2014). It’s, a slim yet fascinating book; and brings out well known tautology in diplomacy that “personalities matter”. In the Indian context, he pays hosannas to Narasimha Rao’s diplomatic foresight in signing the “Border Peace and Transquil Agreement” with China in 1993, and Manmohan Singh’s dogged persistence in signing of the Civil Nuclear Agreement (2009). If the 123 agreement raised expectation of Indo-US relations to an impossibly high pitch, the 26/11 attack on Mumbai dropped expectations on Pakistan so low, as to limit our future policy options. Menon responds to George Tanham of RAND Corporation’s observation that “India lacks a strategic culture” by saying that we have the Indian way of conducting Foreign Policy.
Post liberalization India has shifted its strategic focus from Pakistan to China, fully operationalised its nuclear
weapon program, created new national security structures. It has also achieved unmatched GDP growth during the last decades; as a “Breakout Nations” through an unwritten political consensus between political parties; to abdicate command structure economy.
However, 26/11 Mumbai attack remains a huge blot on India’s diplomacy and military preparedness and also displayed our inadequacy to respond with overt military force against a marauding Pakistan. Menon makes an interesting observation that “future government are unlikely to respond similarly”. He could not have been more prescient, as India’s surgical strike after the Uri attack is emblematic of a determined clearheaded leadership, which has eschewed prevarication of the past.
India’s future choices will be far more complex, with the rise of China, the ineffectiveness of existing institutions of global governance like IMF to countenance economic crisis of 2008 and the pervasive scourge of Islamic terrorism that engulf the world. He underscores the importance of weight, influence and power. While power is the ability to create and sustain outcomes, Menon firms believe that such power should be first used for our domestic transformation. He echoes the sentiments of a neoliberal market friendly diplomat; rather than of a hardnosed hawkish hyperrealist. Raymond Aron wrote; “Diplomats do not combine means with a view to ends; like engineers; they take risks, like gamblers”. Mr. Modi seems to fit into this interesting sobriquet of a diplomat, as he seems to be more direct in addressing adversaries and asserting India’s place in the comity of global economy through his “Make-In-India” initiatives. Bharat Karnad, believes that the Indian leaders in the past confused small achievements with India becoming a great power. For him a low threshold of national self esteem has resulted in sustained under achievement for India, to stamp the world with its presence in a big way. Menon seems to disagree with this assessment; particularly in respect of our realistic approach towards China with a “Line of Actual Control” and a provision for “mutual and equal security” in 1993. It is indeed true that the intrusions from China have been few and far behind, since then, except for Chinese references to Twang in Arunachal Pradesh intermittently. Menon is a Chinaphile and believes that there is more to India and China than the boundary disputes. And brings out how bilaterally China is now India’s biggest trading partner in goods. On several global issues in multilateral forums like the WTO, Climate change Negotiation, both countries have worked together. There is much to be done and addressed bilaterally and by working together on the world stage.
There is, however, one major disappointment of this otherwise engaging reading viz. its scant reference to the Indo Soviet Strategic Treaty of 1971 which buttressed India’s military might as never before and ensured key technology transfers for in critical systems/platforms like tanks, submarines, missiles and aircrafts.The complete “U” turn in our diplomatic engagement by paying lip service in defence cooperation with the Russian and a marked predilection towards the Americans, overlooking its embargo after our nuclear blast in 1998 should have engaged Menon’s attention to provide a balanced perspective of this diplomatic face off
China’s response to Russia after American embargo on Russia, post its Ukrainian engagement (2015), was to strike a long term $700 billion energy deal. It clearly reflects their maturity and far sightedness. As Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s liberalization had said “Observe calmly, bide your time, maintain a low profile and never claim leadership”. Diplomacy is not about tweeting and sabre rattling. Energetic projection without an overarching conceptual framework can be like gambling in a diplomatic casino. Diplomacy and politics can be uneasy bedmates.
The author was a former Joint Secretary to Govt. of India