Book Review: The Oxford Handbook of Indian Foreign Policy

A comprehensive overview of independent India’s experiments in foreign policy.

Written by Rakesh Sood | Updated: October 3, 2015 12:00:34 am
There is a growing interest in the subject and the OUP Handbook does a creditable job of providing a comprehensive survey. There is a growing interest in the subject and the OUP Handbook does a creditable job of providing a comprehensive survey.

Title: The Oxford Handbook of Indian Foreign Policy
Edited by David M Malone, C Raja Mohan and Srinath Raghavan
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Pages: 768
Price: Rs 2,495

Indian foreign policy has been a relatively under-researched subject, due, in some measure, to the lack of authentic source material. However, there is a growing interest in the subject and the OUP Handbook does a creditable job of providing a comprehensive survey, spread over 50 chapters, of examining the origins and development of independent India’s engagement with the world. The five part structure examines the historical legacy of the Raj and the freedom movement, the role of the newly emerging institutions of parliament, civil service, media and the private sector, the compulsions of history and the dictates of geography, the neighbourhood policy and other key partnerships, both historical and emerging, and multilateral diplomatic engagement. Wrapping up this wide sweep is a short but perceptive introduction and an even shorter and brutally sharp concluding section.

There is a broad consensual narrative that divides Indian foreign policy into three phases — 1947-62 or the Nehruvian period; 1962– 1991 when the Cold War came to India’s doorstep with the Bangladesh crisis and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan; and post 1991, described as the post Cold War period, when India began to open up its economy and its foreign policy, with the 1998 nuclear tests marking a definitive milestone. Within this broad narrative, however, there are numerous points of inflection where conscious choices were made just as there have been certain global turning points which made certain choices inevitable. In both instances, leadership and decision making processes, both formal and informal played a key role. Some of the chapters that focus on these key periods are more interesting because these make use of recently declassified materials.

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The rather simplistic notions of Nehru being an idealist, Mrs Gandhi a realist and Narasimha Rao a reformer, are subjected to analysis in different sections through different prisms. Expectedly, the reality turns out be more complex. Nehru’s idealism stands tempered by the sub-imperial role (Sneh Mahajan) that was part of the Raj legacy and also the institutional infrastructure that independent India inherited. This was reflected in India’s dealings with her neighbours, particularly Nepal (SD Muni).

Mrs Gandhi certainly earned the label of a hard realist in 1971, but before that, in the late 1960s, she had unsuccessfully sought (nuclear) security guarantees and after the 1974 PNE (Pokhran Nuclear Explosion), was unable to pursue the nuclear programme towards the logical next step. Domestic politics took over till a new set of international developments, like the indefinite and unconditional extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1995 and the coming into being of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996, changed the international environment to the point where the “nuclear option” that India had retained since 1974 would have ossified had it not been exercised. 1998 became the decisive event with its attendant foreign policy consequences, particularly with the US, leading to the bilateral agreement in 2008 (Raja Mohan).

Narasimha Rao’s economic reforms and the foreign policy opening up (relations with Israel and the Look East policy) were driven as much by domestic compulsions as by the dictates of the post-Cold War world. However, the effort was to present the changes not as dramatic shifts but as incremental adjustments. A widely circulated non-official foreign policy document in 2012 was cautiously titled Nonalignment 2.0 (Rajesh Basrur) though it did attempt to redefine it in terms of “strategic autonomy”. Whether this was on account of coalition compulsions or absence of an open debate in parliament or inadequate outreach to opinion makers, remains a matter of speculation.

The last chapter (Sridharan) highlights constraints about India emerging as a regional power, and as a corollary, a global power. Future practitioners will have to tackle these challenges — energy and defence dependencies, weak manufacturing and technological bases, internal security threats of LWE and instability in the Northeast and hesitation in making choices, if India has to move beyond being a “middle power” to achieve the destiny that Nehru visualised.

Finally, the handbook needed better proof reading: “Mahendra” Modi, business “magnets” are just two of the dozen or more errors that should be corrected in a second edition. Also, the handbook contributions are tilted towards academics with very few contributions from practitioners. The IR theory chapter (Mallavarapu) is too brief to do justice to the questions it poses. However, the three editors have done a commendable job of providing a framework to what could easily have become an unwieldy collection.

Rakesh Sood is a former Indian diplomat.

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