India’s prominence vs shrinking vision

Shyam Saran’s How India Sees the World is a readable book, which does not live up to the expectations raised by the title. However, Saran is right when he expresses alarm at the narrowing of political discourse

Juggernaut Books
Juggernaut Books

Shashi Tharoor

Internationalism has always been a vital part of our national DNA. Even at that midnight hour when, in Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s memorable words, India awoke to life and freedom, our country was deeply conscious of its international obligations. In his historic speech about India’s “tryst with destiny”, Nehruji, speaking of his country’s dreams, said: “Those dreams are for India, but they are also for the world, for all the nations and peoples are too closely knit together today for any one of them to imagine that it can live apart Peace has been said to be indivisible; so is freedom, so is prosperity now, and so also is disaster in this One World that can no longer be split into isolated fragments.” It was typical of that great nationalist that a time when the fires of Partition were blazing across the land, he thought not only of India, but of the world. Typical, too, that his words, uttered 70 years ago, were not only profoundly right, but could be spoken today without the change of a comma.

In those seven decades, the world has become even more closely knit together than Nehru so presciently foresaw. One of the reasons that foreign policy matters today is that foreign policy is no longer merely foreign: it affects us right here where we live. That is what makes a book like this so important today.

The basic task for India in international affairs is to wield a foreign policy that enables and facilitates the domestic transformation of India. We must make possible the transformation of India’s economy and society through our engagement with the world, while promoting our security and our own national values (of pluralism, democracy, social justice and secularism) within our society.

What I expect from my national leaders is that they work for a global environment that is supportive of these internal priorities, an environment that would permit us to concentrate on our domestic tasks. India is engaged in the great adventure of bringing progress and prosperity to a billion people through a major economic transformation. At the broadest level, our foreign policy must seek to protect that process of transformation – to ensure security and bring in global support for our efforts to build and change our country for the better.

Indians therefore have a growing stake in international developments. To put it another way, the food we grow and we eat, the air we breathe, and our health, security, prosperity and quality of life are increasingly affected by what happens beyond our borders. And that means we can simply no longer afford to be indifferent about the rest of the world, however distant some international problems may appear.

But the external situation has been changing considerably. Politically, we are entering a period of transition from dominance by a single power to a more balanced distribution of power in the international system, though this still falls short of true multi-polarity. New powers are rising, old alliances are crumbling (take Brexit as a prime example), new partnerships are forming (Russia and China perhaps), a widespread backlash against globalisation is spreading across the West, and we are witnessing the rise of a new global power next door to us. Challenges in our immediate neighbourhood, particularly in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but also in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal, have made us conscious that our development is vulnerable to the impact of forces and events beyond our borders.

Shyam Saran, one of our foremost diplomats, has had a ringside seat at the emergence of this new global order for the last 25 years, at the MEA, in the Prime Minister’s Office and as Foreign Secretary. His new book, part-memoir, part survey of India’s foreign policy challenges, offers an instructive view of the world from the vantage point of a pillar of the establishment. He does so in a simple and accessible style and focuses principally on those issues with which he dealt personally in his long and distinguished career, especially China, the US and Pakistan, but also Nepal and Myanmar.

The book has interesting accounts of the progress of nuclear diplomacy, of the state of the border negotiations with China, of environmental negotiations at Copenhagen, the Pakistani strategy of low-cost sponsorship of terrorism against India, and of our “episodic and crisis-driven” Nepal policy, all of which are lucid and unexceptionable. What is missing from a book with this promising title, however, is a comprehensive view of how India sees today’s changing world.

Basing himself on Kautilya’sArthasastra, the classic primer of Indian statecraft, and its foreign policy prescriptions of sama-dana-danda-bheda, Saran shows how underlying India’s foreign policy approach from the start was a firm belief in the importance of preserving our own strategic autonomy. This was understandable in a country subject for so long to foreign rule, but he does not sufficiently emphasise how much has changed. Today we can take our sovereignty for granted; we know no one would dare threaten it. Our strategic autonomy is a fact of life and no longer something that has to be fought for. We are now in a position to graduate from a focus on our own sovereign autonomy to exercising a vision of responsibility on the world stage, from a post-colonial concern with self-protection to a new role participating in the making of global rules and even playing a role in imposing them. Here Saran, like most of his colleagues, is more modest and reticent than he needs to be.

For India is coming of international prominence at a time when the world is moving, slowly but inexorably, into a post-superpower age. The days of the Cold War, when two hegemonic behemoths developed the capacity to destroy the word several times over, and flexed their muscles against each other by changing regimes in client states and fighting wars half a world away from their own borders, are now truly behind us. Instead we are witnessing a world of many rising (and some risen) powers, of various sizes and strengths but each with some significant capacity in its own region, each strong enough not to be pushed around by a hegemon, but not strong enough to become a hegemon itself. They co-exist and co-operate with each other in a series of networked relationships, including bilateral and plurilateral strategic partnerships that often overlap with each other, rather than in fixed alliances or binary either/or antagonisms. The same is true of the great economic divide between developed and developing countries, a divide which is gradually dissolving; on many issues, India has more in common with countries of the North than of the global South for which it has so long been a spokesman. Neither in geopolitics nor in economics is the world locked into the kinds of permanent and immutable coalitions of interest that characterised the Cold War.

India must therefore play its due part in the stewardship of the global commons (including everything from the management of the internet to the rules governing the exploitation of outer space). India is turning increasingly outward as a result of our new economic profile on the global stage, our more dispersed interests around the world, and the reality that other countries, in our neighbourhood as well as in Africa, are looking to us for support and security. Of all this, Shyam Saran has little to say until his excellent Epilogue, which offers a masterful summary of the challenges facing the global system but does not see enough of the opportunity this presents for an assertive India.

As a major power, India can and must play a role in helping shape the global order. The international system of the 21st century, with its networked partnerships, will need to renegotiate its rules of the road; India is well qualified, along with others, to help write those rules and define the norms that will guide tomorrow’s world. Rather than confining itself to being a subject of others’ rule-making, or even a resister of others’ attempts, it is in India’s interests (and within India’s current and future capacity) to take the initiative to shape the evolution of these norms as well as to have a voice in the situations within which they are applied.

There are hints of some of this in the Epilogue. But when a man of Shyam Saran’s eminence tackles a topic like How India Sees the World, we are entitled to expect a little more than a discursive account of the author’s diplomatic dealings. This is a readable book that does not live up to the expectations raised by its title.

One thing on which Saran is emphatically right, however, is in the alarm he expresses at the narrowing of political discourse in our country under the present dispensation. “We need to be careful,” he warns, “not to devalue the very strengths we possess as a confident and accommodative culture…. If we are to engage other cultures in productive dialogue we must reaffirm confidence in our own, accepting and celebrating the diversity that lies at the heart of our democracy”.

As he says, “A shrinking vision at home cannot sustain an expansive vision abroad.” The latter requires a return to the values so ably embodied in the Congress party’s leadership of the country. In keeping with Nehru’s original vision, an Indian view of the world should reflect India’s sense of responsibility to the world of which it is such a crucial part—and whose destiny it has earned the right to help shape. Maybe the time will come, in 2019, when that could be what Shyam Saran could write about next.

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