India and the World Order

Shyam Saran’s new book is a stellar narration of India’s engagement with the world.

For students of Indian foreign policy, the last few months have been enriching. The reason: a number of excellent books articulating the many Indian worldviews. Historian George Tanham’s claim in his landmark essay on Indian strategic thought that “few writings offer coherent, articulated beliefs or a clear set of operating principles for Indian strategy” couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Shivshankar Menon’s Choices, released last year, was one book in this genre. That book was a memoir exploring five foreign policy choices that India made, and the reasons behind those choices. Then came Aparna Pande’s scholarly work From Chanakya to Modi that investigates the principles, interests, and institutions guiding India’s strategic conduct. And now comes a third book, one which is part-memoir and part-thesis: former foreign secretary Shyam Saran’s How India Sees the World.

The intended audience of the book is anyone with even a peripheral interest in India’s foreign policy. Saran carefully avoids unnecessary jargon that clouds discussions in India’s strategic circles. What readers will find refreshing is that the book is not merely a narration of important foreign policy events but a deep meditation that takes a root-cause-analysis approach to explain India’s strategic conduct. Such analysis is rare to find in writings on Indian foreign policy. For example, many books argue that a multipolar world is in India’s interests or that India’s interests are served better if India is on good terms with all its neighbours. But few go beyond such platitudes — why should we care about these relationships? Can we afford to follow an alternate path? Thankfully, How India Sees the World tackles such deeper questions as well.

The first section does an excellent job of outlining the key drivers of India’s foreign policy. Saran classifies these drivers into two broad categories: tradition and history. From India’s tradition, he further distills three insights. One, India is unlikely to have ‘a middle-kingdom complex’, in sharp contrast to the Chinese worldview. This is because the Indian tradition does not accord centrality or superiority to Bharatavarsha in the mandala framework. Two, the Kautilyan tradition of realpolitik provides India a template for managing inter-state relations in a multipolar world. And three, India’s strategic concerns span the entire subcontinent, a result of “an abiding sense of affinity drawn from geography.”

Modern history added more layers to the Indian worldview. The experience of colonialism meant that autonomy in decision making — both perceived and real — became a major driver of India’s foreign policy. Similarly, events immediately after independence — the 1948 war with Pakistan and China’s annexation of Tibet — set the tone for India’s long-lasting foreign policy positions. Finally, the economic reforms of 1991 marked another dramatic shift. Riding on the wave of globalisation for prosperity to Indians became a major driver of foreign policy with this change.

A mindmap on drivers of India’s foreign policy. Click on image for full size.

Readers will especially enjoy the author’s comments on Kamandaki’s Nitisara in this section. However, some other key drivers of Indian foreign policy such as institutions (including the Parliament), and domestic compulsions (including religious undertones) haven’t been discussed. For example, India’s decision to postpone the establishment of full diplomatic ties with Israel even after recognising it as early as 1950 was partly guided by the perhaps misplaced fear that closer relations with Israel will be opposed by Indian Muslims.

The second section is a memoir that explains India’s relationships with neighbours the author dealt with extensively during his service years: China, Pakistan and Nepal. Saran astutely observes that the “Indian response to subcontinental problems often departs from the Kautilyan principles. It is frequently resentful at having to compete with other suitors of neighbors affections. This leads to excessive and often misdirected generosity and accommodation, or harsh overreaction.” In his view, the small states around India are important because what happens there is certain to have spillover effects in the adjoining regions of India. He argues that the best way to manage such states then is to develop constituencies amongst its neighbours in India’s own success.

Saran suggests that India should not expect strict reciprocity from its smaller neighbours. The example he cites is illuminating. One of India’s major demands from Bangladesh is access to India’s north-eastern states through it. But India is not prepared to offer Bangladesh the same connectivity in return. Consequently, a container from Dhaka to Lahore currently takes the circuitous Dhaka – Chittagong – Karachi – Lahore route by rail and sea. If India were to offer its rail on commercial terms across India, the distance would be cut by two-thirds. Hence, his recommendation is that India must offer national treatment on its transport network to its smaller neighbours.

The third section takes a deep look at India’s relations with the wider world. This extremely interesting section gives a ball-by-ball account of two negotiations the author was involved in: the Indo—US civil nuclear deal, and the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen.

The chapters on the nuclear deal negotiations demystify the diplomatic processes that went behind it. In this reviewer’s view, this is the best narration of the events that led to the passage of the 123 agreement. The author reminds us that the biggest advantage of the deal was that it broke down several technology denial regimes put in place by US and Europe. Earlier, any technology or equipment that mainly had civilian uses but could conceivably assist our nuclear programme in any way was not sold to India. So, in the 1980s, India’s request to purchase a supercomputer for weather forecasting was rejected on the grounds that it could be used for nuclear weapons!

The conclusions from the chapter on the Copenhagen summit are not so encouraging. Saran says that “India’s stance on climate related multilateral negotiations has mostly been defensive instead of leading international opinion towards an alternative resolution.” Further, India was complicit in agreeing to a weakened resolution on climate change at Copenhagen, which will only be detrimental to India’s long-term interests. According to him, “no country was able to get out of narrow competing dynamic, each country yielded as little as possible, and what emerged was a least-common-denominator outcome.” He does not discuss under what conditions could nation-states be nudged to adopt a stance on climate change that will transcend competing nationalisms.

The last chapter concludes that a multilateral world order is best suited for India’s interests. He observes that it is unlikely that the world, or even Asia, will ever be China-centric. Even if China becomes the most powerful country in the world, the logic of strategy will cause a general realignment of substantial powers against it.

The book is a must-read for anyone interested in India’s foreign policy. It presents an authentic, realist, and confident Indian perspective for engagement with the world. Perhaps, the best place to end this review are these lines of advice from the book:

India is a rare example of a country that has been successful in managing diversity and a plural society. It has the civilisational attributes, honed over centuries, thanks to its ‘crossroads’ cosmopolitan culture, to help it deal with the polarisation of today. But it must remain true to its precious heritage of celebrating diversity. It must resist the temptation to follow the current negative, divisive trend sweeping country after country. A shrinking vision at home cannot sustain an expansive vision abroad.

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About the author

Pranay Kotasthane

Pranay Kotasthane heads the geostrategy programme at the Takshashila Institution. His research interests focus on geostrategy, geopolitics of the Indian subcontinent, public policy, economic reasoning and urban issues.