Come September, external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s book The India Way will be out.
His intention, stated on record, is to encourage “an honest conversation among Indians, without discouraging the world from eavesdropping”.
An excerpt published recently from the book’s introduction outlines his worldview. It also raises a number of interesting points.
First, serving foreign ministers generally avoid treatises on challenges and policy options of a government, constrained by the need for secrecy over real thought processes within a government.
Henry Kissinger penned his four, experience-based, books — White House Years (1979), Diplomacy (1994), On China (2011) and World Order (2014) — after he left office. Similarly, other US secretaries of state like Madeline Albright, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton have penned their thoughts only after retirement.
Thus, unable to write with candour about the diplomatic choices before the Narendra Modi government, Jaishankar has chosen to provide broad perspective on the evolving geopolitics. In any case, he realises that in the current politically surcharged atmosphere, when the public wants answers on how the government proposes to counter the Chinese intrusions, it is best to play professor.
He expounds that the bipolar world is now gone and we are headed towards “multipolarity and less multilateralism”. He ignores 50 years of Indian foreign policy after Independence when the non-aligned movement was born to defy the bipolar world and did provide, however fitfully, a third leg.
India’s alliance of convenience with the Soviet Union in 1971 enabled it to stymie America’s support for Pakistan, its treaty ally. France under then President Charles de Gaulle pulled French forces out of Nato in 1966 to pursue more independent policies, reversed finally in 2009 as benefit was seen in coordinating action with European allies.
So, the bipolar world of the Cold War era also had middle powers creating space for independent action. The world is now headed towards two looser alliances, as China extends its reach through the Belt and Road Initiative continentally and via maritime domain.
The proposed 25-year agreement between China and Iran and the Myanmar-China re-engagement after President Xi Jinping’s January 2020 visit to that country will extensively extend China’s reach, through ports and overland via Central Asia.
Likewise, India has no option but to work with its Quad partners – United States, Japan and Australia –and other Asean members willing to join hands to balance the Chinese assertiveness. Rather than multiple poles, multiple groupings of the willing are emerging to create a new balance and put China back on the guard rails.
Critical to the shape the future will take will be the outcome of America’s November election, but Jaishankar understandably dodges that issue, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already moved too deeply into the Donald Trump corner.
Prime Minister Modi handpicked Jaishankar, first as foreign secretary, days after he handled President Barack Obama’s visit to India in January 2015, by displacing an incumbent. Then he plucked him from retirement to make him external affairs minister.
So, the book is meant to provide intellectual clothing to global convergence between right-wing populist leaders.
Jaishankar notes three seminal events constraining India’s strategic options.
One is Partition, which diminished India territorially and demographically, enabling China to manipulate Pakistan and others in the Indian periphery. Two, delayed economic reforms. Three, the reluctance to espouse nuclear weapons, leaving India stranded between the signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the five nuclear weapon powers, with differential powers and obligations.
Jaishankar is right about the last point as India did have the knowhow and fissile material for a possible nuclear test before the 1967 cut-off date, which would have enabled India to sign the NPT as a nuclear weapon power, with or without a nuclear weapons programme.
It has been speculated that after 1965 India-Pakistan war, PM Lal Bahadur Shastri may have authorised such a test had not he and Dr Homi Bhabha, the custodian of India’s nuclear programme, died tragically within days of each other in January 1966.
However, it must be contextualised that India was then in a defensive mode after the demoralising defeat in 1962 at Chinese hands and Jawaharlal Nehru’s death in 1964.
Jaishankar, in an article published recently, traces contemporary global dilemmas to differences over the “relationship between the State, politics, society, business, faith and the markets”. This omnibus conclusion and his remark on Partition as India’s strategic burden deserve a riposte.
Ironically, the minister’s own party would be the first to contradict him on Partition. Were roughly 400 million Muslims of Pakistan and Bangladesh to join India’s Muslims in an imagined undivided India, the demographics would be the BJP’s electoral nightmare.
After attaining a dominant position in South Asia, following the 1971 victory, India’s gains were frittered away as the nation went into a decade of internal strife, the Emergency, the rise of the Congress family heir, etc. Pakistan, on the other hand, got a lucky break with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, rekindling their US alliance and gaining protection for their clandestine nuclear weapons programme. Ignoring Pakistan’s weapons programme was a strategic mistake. Thus, Partition didn’t stymie India.
It was a historical inevitability due to irreversible communal polarisation, exacerbated by Muslims’ fear of marginalisation in a democracy.
Jaishankar’s party is today proving those fears correct by their majoritarian agenda. The malaise afflicting India today is this uninhibited pursuit of the BJP’s core agenda, in line with similar democratic regression towards illiberalism in many democracies like the United States, Brazil and others.
Foreign policy thus can’t be conducted in isolation from domestic politics. Jaishankar is in receipt of a bipartisan letter from the US Congress on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir.
If the November election produces a Joe Biden victory, and particularly if the Democrats capture both Houses, the Modi government’s domestic politics will come under more scrutiny. President Barack Obama too had engaged the Modi government cautiously.
He ended his 2015 state visit with a Sri Fort speech reminding India of its constitutional pledge to uphold the “dignity of the individual”, respect for religious diversity and freedom of faith.
The Modi government’s second term has mainstreamed majoritarian politics, ranging from Ayodhya, the Ram Mandir to the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act and the abolition of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status.
The lesson from the past is that a united India is a stronger India. An India distracted by partisan politics loses its edge, regionally and globally. Intellectual hair-splitting and bandying with geopolitical terms cannot change that.