C Raja Mohan: India’s position in the international system has changed, its relative weight in the international system has grown, but in the day-to-day conduct of diplomacy, how do you break away from old dogmas and deal with the world as it is?
S Jaishankar: I think there are a number of factors and you can see them at play.
The first is to understand the world, and to understand the world it’s important to understand the key players. If you have a foreign policy, which is inactive in terms of engagements… I just came from Serbia, and I was honestly embarrassed to learn that I was the first foreign minister who had ever visited Serbia after it broke away from Yugoslavia. I hear this story over and over again and it’s just not at the foreign minister’s level, it can go higher, it can go lower. The first is to be visible, to be active, to engage, to be able to hear, smell, touch the world for yourself. If you don’t do that your instincts are not going to be good, they are not going to be sound.
The second is an issue of confidence, grounded obviously on realism. In the earlier phases, we were relatively defensive. Because the whole idea was, “Don’t get run over by the big guy”. And if you’ve got something valuable, make sure he doesn’t take it away from you. I think we have moved beyond that era, we are able to step out, look at opportunities, look at the big negotiations, say “This is in my interest, I get that outcome”. Frankly at the end of the day it is a mindset issue.
There’s a general sense that the foreign policy apparatus tends to be slow, hesitant; it’s not easy to pull this vehicle.
The reality is track one in India has, at least in the recent past, always been ahead of track two. If you look at the big opportunities of change, whatever has come our way, it is actually the officialdom, which has identified it, grasped it, exploited it, and often got criticism from the press for doing all that. As someone who has spent 40 years in bureaucracy and is seeing today the Ministry, I am very, very confident about how the human resources and the mindset of diplomats is shaping up. When presented with any situation, for example, in New York when there was the Security Council consultation on [Article] 370, you had our ambassadors speaking up and contesting what was said very confidently…
You have this ability to take very decisive steps and risktaking that you talked about. But how would you address the criticism that too much risktaking has put you in a more difficult situation vis-à-vis 370 or how you are dealing with the Pakistan question today?
In a lot of regions today, because the overarching big-power discipline has been diluted, you have many more regional contradictions. Look at the Gulf, for example. If you are not prepared to take risks, you’ll end up actually doing nothing — which is not going to win you friends or improve your influence. Look at the Indian character — I would rarely fault Indians for taking risks, I would mostly fault them for timidity. A [Virender] Sehwag is an exception, he’s not the rule. In today’s world, when you are the fifth or sixth-largest economy and you have 32-34 million Indians and people of Indian origin outside, you have to defend your interests in a variety of ways. You can’t sit at home and say, “somebody else will do that”, because that somebody is less and less visible today. So, I think the state of the world itself is going to pull you out of the crease in many ways.
As regards the example you mentioned, Article 370, I would caution you on two points. One, please differentiate between the reaction of governments and the chatter of media, social media, or print media. The second is, to some extent, our debate within the country often gets linked with other people’s debates outside, and what you often see are not policy assessments but frankly, polemics. I would take polemics with more than a grain of salt.
The international narrative about India seems to be changing. Are we losing some of India’s brand [value] both on the economic front as a rising economy and how Indian democracy is perceived?
I would try to be objective about that. I think just because you’ve had two quarters of slower growth…, I mean we’ve been through slower growth periods before. I was in the East Asia Summit, and essentially what I was hearing from people, institutions which had studied our growth was, they seemed to be fairly confident that you are going to see a recovery and improvement fairly soon. We shouldn’t be that faint-hearted that two quarters of slow down, you suddenly start thinking that the world is coming to an end.
Regarding the other issues you mentioned, 370 or NRC, look, again, I think a lot of it is ideological debate within this country. I mean there is a liberal fundamentalism at work. If you look at some of the media coverage, you can see that… I have seen really topline publications suggesting that the NRC issue started with this government, which actually shows you how strongly prejudice can override diligence. So when people omit facts of history, even with 370, the point I keep making… 370 was temporary, but how many people say that? They don’t say that not because they don’t know that, they don’t say that because it doesn’t suit them to say that…
You are confident that some of the opposition you are hearing from liberal voices internationally, is something you can overcome?
You and I went through the nuclear test, did you get overwhelming approval from the rest of the world? Look, if you do things that change the status quo… You’ve had 70 years of problem in Kashmir; now you’ve started a major policy of change which promises a very different future. While we are looking at it from the point of view of what it means to Kashmir development, integration, etc., from a very cold power politics, a lot of people are looking at the possibility that a vulnerability, which has been exploited by the world for 70 years may no longer be available for exploitation. Obviously, they are going to keep it alive till the extent they can.
At the operational level, for example with China, is it cooperation, is it competition, how do you deal with the imbalance that has emerged? Because compared to the 90s when we were roughly equal, today Chinese GDP is almost five times ours.
I think a lot of our relationships are going to see both competition and cooperation because that is today the nature of the world. We are going to have competition from powers with whom we have very good relations and we are going to find common ground with powers with whom we may have differences, so the world is going to be shades of grey. You are not going to get clean, neat lines and solutions. I think the issue with China is particularly complex because, as you say, there’s been a shift in the power balance… that’s why I said we need a performance review of ourselves. But the fact is that in international relations, people are not going to do you the favour of coming to your size or capability — you’ll have to deal with countries smaller than you, you’ll have to deal with people much bigger than you. A lot of that is going to call for diplomatic skills. I have to see where international relations, the larger landscape, gives me possibilities.
In the meetings that we’ve had at Chennai and Wuhan, actually we are now engaging China on the state of the world. And you know, the last time we did that was in the 1950s. The transformation of the relationship with the US has been one of the significant achievements, but are we beginning to run into problems with the US as well, given what we’ve seen in the last two years with the Trump administration on trade issues, in Afghanistan?
I think if we were to run into more challenges vis-à-vis the US, we wouldn’t be alone. I think most of the world would be in a similar situation, but frankly, in our case, that is vastly overstated. I think in a whole range of areas, we have today much stronger convergence and cooperation. And we have put hesitations of history behind us. But people don’t understand that the Trump administration has also done so. What I have seen with Trump in the last two or three years, you know, was not at all the traditional American system at work. You actually got big, bold, decisive steps in a range of areas.
Normal trading countries have trade frictions with everybody, the Americans have it with the Japanese, the Europeans have it with the Americans, the Americans have it with the Koreans; that’s the nature of trade. I think in this country there’s almost a sort of desire to see a problem and exaggerate it beyond belief, as a way of saying well, you know, things are going badly. My sense is yes, we have trade issues, but that has not prevented the rest of our relationship from moving.
On Afghanistan, we have to understand that the US has been fighting there for 18 years, and that is a long time. For us to expect a continuation of the American posture, I think that would be unrealistic of our reading of the US or, frankly, of any other power.
During your US visit, you said India needs a new compact with the West. What did you mean?
In many ways we have very strong convergences with the West, we are market economies, we are political democracies, we are pluralistic societies, a lot of our institutions are shaped by our interaction with the West in the past. Now, a lot of our problems also arose from the West, especially our security problems. Having said that, in the last 15-20 years, certainly after the nuclear tests, there have been diplomatic initiatives, which have aimed at creating a new, more positive basis for the relationship. But the West has to accept that today life is not what it was even 20 years ago. That with every decade, the equations, the power balance between India and individual and collective Western countries will change. Frankly, we need each other for sure, but we have to find a way of making it work for both of us.
Also during your US visit, you said India is a southwestern power.
You often get asked whether you are a Western power or an Eastern power because they think of their bipolarity as the only criteria in the world to differentiate between countries. The fact is, there may be an east-west criteria, but there is a north-south criteria as well. When you look today at the big international negotiations, you realise whether it is trade, whether it is climate change, whether sometimes it is just sheer politics, a lot of countries in the south actually look to India. They look to India because we were the first of the decolonised nations, we were politically active, there is a whole continuous history over 70-odd years. I think today that’s a very powerful constituency we have, and it’s important that we nurture that constituency… If I were to, for example, have a stronger relationship with Africa, I would like to cultivate the southern constituency. I would like to be responsive to their needs. If you look today at our Africa initiative, in the last four years, we have trained 40,000 people, we have a soft loan commitment of $10 billion, of which we have met about 70 per cent. We have a grant commitment of maybe $700 million…
On Pakistan, yes, you are trying to confront the problem of terrorism, but we have to live with Pakistan, whatever you say. Is there something beyond the question of terrorism?
The fact is, every government has grappled with the Pakistan problem since the beginning. Everyone has tried to find a way forward. Even today, the conundrum is not fundamentally different. And the fact is, this government, this Prime Minister, has done probably much bolder things even in trying to find a way forward. His visit to Lahore for example, was extraordinarily risky, both politically and physically. Who doesn’t want a good neighbour? But, at the end of the day, the reality is that this neighbour has built an industry of terror to pressurise you. There is no point living in denial because if you live in denial he will only increase it. He thinks that has then got normalised.
There’s been a strong criticism, that at least in the last two years, India has been friendless in the neighbourhood…
I don’t think that’s true. Look back at the last few years. We’ve just had an election this year in Bangladesh, we were not an issue. In the election in Sri Lanka, we were not an issue. There was an election last year in Maldives… You have a maybe very complicated power arrangement in Myanmar, but all the parties in a sense are okay with us. So I think this idea that somewhere we are failing in the neighbourhood is not true.
The investments we are making has changed, or is changing, the economy of the neighbourhood. We’ve just inaugurated a pipeline in Nepal, we are working on some important railway projects in Nepal, which would be coming onstream very, very quickly. With Sri Lanka, we’ve been probably the largest development assistance partner and we’ve done both infrastructure restoration and post-conflict rehabilitation.
In the neighbourhood or more broadly the Indian Ocean region, is there need for some structural change in the way we deliver on project implementation?
What you do abroad cannot be that different from what you do in the country. Second, this was a new area for us, so we’ve had lessons learnt on it. But today, I can tell you that actually our delivery on projects is phenomenal. Next time we go to Mauritius, ask them how quickly we built their metro. Or, you look today at Afghanistan. Under the most challenging conditions, conditions in which European countries were not willing to work, we built the first dam anybody built in 70 years in that country. We brought power to Kabul, we built the parliament building, we built the Zaranj-Delaram road. In Nepal, in the Amlekhgunj pipeline, we were actually ahead of schedule. I grant that there is scope for improvement, but working abroad and working as per rules, we can’t do things which some competitors can do.
Many countries are looking to India to do more on security. Are we ready to respond or are we still risk averse?
I would be careful in this domain. I speak with the experience of someone who has spent two years with the IPKF, so — and this is me personally, I am not speaking government policy — I learned the hard way the dangers of having boots on the ground abroad, and my personal inclination is to be conservative. Having said that, you know that the Navy has been deployed in the Gulf since there were problems of tankers being attacked. So it’s not that we haven’t responded where we’ve had to.
(Edited excerpts, transcribed by Mehr Gill)