The vast majority of diplomats write books for other diplomats. With a felicity acquired from writing cipher telegrams in their careers, they make it appear that sharing their experiences in awe-inspiring chancelleries is an act of generosity towards the larger strategic community.
After Henry Kissinger, the current External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar is the only diplomat in my recollection to have written a book for the people. In The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World, the author admits as much, probably without realising that such an exercise is a rare milestone in writing on international affairs. “This is an effort to contribute to that endeavour, encouraging an honest conversation among Indians, without discouraging the world from eavesdropping.” In doing so, Jaishankar dramatically recalls a scene from the Satyajit Ray film, Shatranj ke Khilari (1977), where two aristocrats are playing chess, blissfully unconcerned that their kingdom in Awadh is being steadily overrun by forces of the British East India Company.
“What we require is a dispassionate debate that rises above competitive politics.” The book’s value for the aam aadmi, who has no interest in how laboriously a comma that would have arguably damaged India’s vital interests was changed in a United Nations document, is this: “I put aside the temptation of bringing in any aspects of a memoir, believing that they are better written by those who are no longer operational,” writes Jaishankar. This book came about from the author’s fellowship at Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies after retiring as foreign secretary in 2018. Because Jaishankar was elevated 16 months later, from chief implementor of India’s foreign policy to conceptualiser of that policy as external affairs minister, answers to many vexing questions about the Narendra Modi government’s worldview can be found in
As the longest-serving Indian ambassador in Beijing, Jaishankar puts his finger precisely on why China is behaving the way it does with the rest of the world. Since The India Way was written and readied to be sent for printing before the ongoing tensions between New Delhi and Beijing in Ladakh, such analysis has enduring value. It is not any expanded soundbyte on the Line of Actual Control. Of equal value is the author’s hard-nosed recounting of why India cannot match China’s actions.
“The one society that has elevated dissimulation to the highest level of statecraft…is China. Unlike in India, there is neither guilt nor doubt in dissembling; in fact, it is glorified as an art…China’s extraordinary rise has drawn heavily on its cultural attributes.” From a practitioner of diplomacy for 43 years, one senses nostalgia in the book for a time when there was consensus in India on foreign policy. “Competitive politics is so visceral that perhaps the only continuity is that those in opposition can be counted on to oppose. This makes it very much harder to reconcile the gaps between narratives and intent.”
From the horse’s mouth, as it were, it is clear from the book that there will be no rapprochement with Pakistan in the foreseeable future. “Pakistan can only be treated as a normal neighbour when its behaviour corresponds to one. Till then, India will have to show a mix of fortitude, creativity and perseverance of a degree that would impress even Arjuna.” The book’s big surprise is the author’s laudatory references to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) because the presumption has been that Jaishankar is not a NAM fan. Writing about the circumstances that gave birth to NAM, the book reads: “This allowed India the leadership opportunity to build its own constituency and brand through the 1950s.”
In the present context, it adds: “Hedging is a delicate exercise, whether it is the non-alignment and strategic autonomy…or multiple engagements of the future. But there is no getting away from it in a multipolar world.”
A critical external affairs risk in a resurgent India is that of overreach. Even in the bad old days, it manifested in an ill-starred ‘peace-keeping’ operation in Sri Lanka, a military intervention in the Maldives and the well-thought-out militarisation of the Siachen glacier.
A book which can correlate the past to the present and point to the future can be a useful tool for policymakers and analysts. The risk of overreach was evident when India seriously considered a White House request in 2002 to send troops to Iraq. From time to time, such temptations resurface as in the options for Afghanistan. It is comforting to read Jaishankar cautioning against misadventures. “As these memories recede and calls for deployment abroad recur from time to time, it is imperative that India carefully weighs the compulsions with its costs.” A serving external affairs minister cannot be more explicit on record, but it is as good as a foreign-policy doctrine.
The book is dedicated to two persons. Jaishankar’s father, K Subrahmanyam, whose legacy as the guru of Indian strategic thought, will last many generations. The other is retired diplomat Arvind R Deo. For this reviewer, the dedication to Deo has a personal aside. Thirty years ago, when diplomats faded into obscurity after retirement and did not write articles as they do now, I persuaded Deo to write for a newspaper I was then editing. He was probably the first retired diplomat to regularly appear in print in a mainstream Indian newspaper. JN Dixit followed some years later.
Deo disappointed readers as a columnist because of his firm belief that it was his sacred duty to take India’s diplomatic secrets to the grave. As my neighbour to this day, his accounts of Indian diplomacy have been thrilling and insightful. In private conversations, he was Indian diplomacy’s version of Hindu sage Narada, as Deo was nicknamed in South Block in his time. The book’s two dedicatees deserve the honour for their contribution to foreign policy in the Indian way.
The reviewer is a strategic analyst who specialises in foreign policy
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