Recently, I happened to read Mr.Shashi Tharoor's book, the 'Pax Indica', another of his well written books. It is a collection of essays, that tries to create a coherent picture about the geopolitics of India centered around its foreign policy. As a great fan of his style of writing and the clarity with which he conveys his thoughts, I couldn't resist noting down the main points below.
I particularly love the first essay, 'Revisiting the tryst with destiny' not only because it's a well written introduction to what follows in the book, but because of the way it touches upon the evolution of India's foreign policy right from Nehru's time. It clearly outlines the background of Indian foreign policy and explains how it has evolved over the years from being an inward looking policy to a more outward focused one in the recent times. The most important aspect of this is the due importance given to India's situation that made it react in the way it did during each of the phases of its foreign policy development. To anyone trying to understand India, its geopolitics and its rise to prominence in the recent times, I would say, this book is like the biography of India. It tries to explain its apprehensions and reflections at various phases of its existence and just like any person goes through various phases like teenage, adulthood etc., India has had its own ups and downs during its time of existence and is still quite young to be able to wade through difficult situations effectively, but that doesn't stop it from trying hard.
Mr.Tharoor starts off with the right note, the India-Pak relations and its foreign policy implications in the essay, 'Brother Enemy'. Mr.Tharoor's work as a diplomat has definitely given him the expertise to analyse our relation with Pakistan from all possible angles. India's foreign policy towards Pakistan and Pakistan's efforts (either by the weak civilian government or by the all-powerful Military and the ISI) in disrupting India's attempts for peace and diplomatic ties is very well depicted. Mr.Tharoor also cites instances of media furor from Pakistan against some of the liberal comments by both Indian and Pakistani journalists on the detrimental role played by the Pakistani military and the ISI. He then goes on to point out the role played by the media and the self-proclaimed liberal journalists in shaping negative perceptions about each other in both the countries, more so in Pakistan. Special emphasis has been given to the acts of the ISI (Inter Services Intelligence), the intelligence agency of Pakistan in secretly and not-so-secretly promoting Pakistan soil as a safe haven for terrorists and their ideas to germinate and grow freely. The essay ends with the possible way forwards in handling the situation and hoping for a positive environment that's more conducive to a better cultural and trade relations with our neighbour. He points out that India's enemies may well be Pakistan's enemies too, especially when a carefully nurtured extremist group slowly but steadily goes out of control and turns against its own creators, as many have already done in Pakistan. At this stage, is mutual cooperation and support between the two countries too much to ask for? But definitely, India could use a helping hand from across the border.
In the next essay, 'A Tough Neighbourhood', Mr.Tharoor touches upon India's neighbours; needless to say, a well-written piece that articulates the state of India's relations in its neighbourhood with smaller countries like Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives. But I do have some observations about this essay. My first concern is that even though Mr.Shashi Tharoor mentions the presence of many Maldivian citizens in the capital city of Kerala, he fails to get to the root of this fact. Most of the Maldivian citizens who visit India do so to avail medical facilities from some of the renowned hospitals in Trivandrum, especially, KIMS (Kerala Institute of Medical Sciences) hospital. Medical tourism appears to be a great source of income for the hospital, with a lot of Maldivian citizens visiting the hospital every day. I think a little more focus should have been accorded to this fact and in trying to understand the history behind it and its implications so as to add more depth to the analysis of India-Maldives relationship. Another interesting fact stems from this very aspect - the fact that India has a Maldivian Consulate in Trivandrum which was established in 1995, making Maldives the first country to have a consulate in the city (as of now, even after almost 18 years, only 2 other countries have set up consulates in Trivandrum). This definitely proves the importance of Trivandrum as one of the favourite Maldivian destinations, and delving a little deeper into this relationship could have done more justice to the narrative. Another area that I found lacking is an elaboration on the cultural and trade exchanges between the two countries. I feel without these aspects, Mr.Tharoor's depiction of the India-Maldives relationship is incomplete. But one of the justifications for such a shorter narrative could be the wonderfully cordial relationship between the two countries, which could have prompted Mr.Tharoor not to focus too much in this area and to use that gap to elaborate more on some of the difficult situations that we have with some of our other neighbours like Pakistan and China. Plus, he has already had too many countries to deal with in this essay, so we can easily discount the omission.
The topic of China, just like Pakistan, is pursued with utmost ingenuity and rigour; the essay is aptly titled: 'China and India: Competition, Cooperation or Conflict?'. In this essay, Mr.Tharoor clearly contrasts the two countries, both in terms of the hardware and software of development to get at where each country stands on each of these areas. In Mr.Tharoor's own words, the two aspects analysed in this narrative include 'first, the question of commonalities, competition and complementarities between the two nations and second, the risk of conflict.' Mr.Tharoor has done a pretty good job of analysing each of these in detail, trying to identify the commonalities and point out the clear differences between the two countries. Having realized this, the next question was 'Should the two countries Compete, Cooperate or enter into a Conflict?'.
After this, Mr. Tharoor goes on to analyse the Indo-Arab relations, its historic and cultural background and its current stature. As a region with one of the biggest Indian diaspora, the Arab region has a special place in Indian external affairs. This essay is aptly titled, 'India's near abroad' and also includes analysis on India's diplomatic ties with Israel, other South Asian and South East Asian countries etc. and looks at some of the regional blocs that India forms a part of, like ASEAN, IBSA, BRICS, IOR-ARC etc. The narrative ends with one of my favourite lines, where Mr.Tharoor emphasises the significance of the IOR-ARC (Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation). Even when he accepts that the IOR-ARC has not yet achieved it potential, Mr.Tharoor ends the essay with this beautiful line:
The Brotherhood of man is a tired cliche; the neighbourhood of an ocean is a refreshing new idea. The world as a whole stands to benefit if eighteen littoral states can find common grounds in the churning waters of a mighty ocean
After this, Mr.Tharoor doesn't forget to consider one of the most important player in the global scene, the United States. The Indo-US relations have gone through many crests and troughs in the recent times, but a critical analysis goes on to point out a largely give and take relationship. The point is that they both need each other, not only as a way to displace a heavier counter weight against the emerging global dominance of China, but also as a mechanism to complement each other by sharing of technology, human resources etc., that may well prove to be beneficial to both. But both the countries are increasingly wary of each other, and not always on the same page when it comes to international issues like reactions to the Arab Spring, Pakistan's improved relations with the US, collective but differentiated responsibility for climate change etc. This essay titled, 'Red, White, Blue and Saffron' tries to identify the possible areas of collaboration between the two nations and highlights the significance of doing so, especially, since the two countries can find common grounds in a lot of issues.
In his next essay, 'Familiar Lands and Unchartered Territories: Europe, Africa and Latin America', India's relations with each of these regions are analysed in great detail. Mr.Tharoor brings out the potential of immense opportunities in these regions in addition to the currently pursued ones. More often than not, this ends up in a comparison with China. The Chinese have made better inroads than India in most of the areas like the quest for natural resources, energy, food security, infrastructure development etc., despite the fact that India is seen with more adulation and admiration than China in most of these regions, primarily owing to its moral stature and non-authoritative mannerisms. It's high time that India upgraded the priority of these regions in its foreign policy from just being moderate to something of a strategic level to better utilise some of the opportunities available to it. As a matter of fact, Indian private sector has also made huge inroads through FDIs in these regions apart from the government funded activities like, financial aids, student grants, loans at meagre interest rates (but aimed at the purchase of Indian goods), facilitating an effective transition to democracy, development of infrastructure, in an attempt to revive and develop the countries in these regions.
With this, Mr.Tharoor closes the geo-political treatment of the Indian foreign policy and moves to some of the internal realities facing India. He starts off with the hard challenge of India's soft power in the next essay. He cites examples of US and China to emphasise the effort that goes in to the effective propagation of soft power. But he is quick to point out that, though soft power in itself is a powerful instrument, soft power without enough hard power to back it up and complement it is just futile. In his own words,
The outpouring of goodwill for Washington in the wake of 9/11 and its squandering by America's over-reliance on hard power in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the related 'global war on terror', are instructive. The existing soft power assets of the United States clearly proved inadequate to compensate for the deficiencies of its hard power approach.(...).The misuse of hard power can undermine your soft power around the world.
The fact that Mr.Tharoor has given an interesting TED talk on India's soft power and how it can be effectively used to tell a better story than the rest of the world, which is worth remembering at this juncture. Mr.Tharoor's point is that India definitely has some soft power that it can wield, but it has to balance it with the right tinge of hard power to make its power look credible and genuine in the global scene. And for that, India needs to start the reform from within.
In his next essay, 'External Affairs', Mr.Tharoor speaks at length about India's mechanisms for handling its external affairs. The author's own experience in the MEA (Ministry of External Affairs), once as a young student of history who published his first book in the context of India's external affairs, and then quite recently as a Minister of State for External Affairs gives him the ability and authority to comment on the same. He mentions some of the basic but significant issues like the bureaucratic red-tapism that still paralyses the ministry, the lack of coordination between the various departments, the tendency of the PMO to handle matters of foreign policy single-handedly, lack of political will in strategising foreign policy which often leads to India's reactionary approach to foreign pressures than the better suited anticipatory approach etc. The plight of the overloaded and thin pool of officers within the MEA is also clearly pointed out, and possible ways of improvements are looked at. Comparison with other countries (even the smaller ones) that are better at handling external affairs adds more depth to the analysis. At a time when the prospects of international engagement are soaring sky-high, Mr.Tharoor aptly points out that India definitely needs an overhaul of its domestic structures that lay the foundation for its international posture.
Mr.Tharoor is also a strong proponent of disseminating knowledge related to India's foreign policies among the public and emphasises the role of media in doing this. He notes that the media is ill-equipped to analyse or propose strategies in matters of foreign policy. Stressing the dismal performance of media in this respect, Mr.Tharoor notes that news on foreign policies often relegated to a smaller column in the back pages while the front pages are occupied with controversial or even made-up stories by the TRP loving media. Similar is the case with television. According to Mr.Tharoor, the involvement of the academics in the formulation of India's foreign policy is also of not up to the mark. Academics often tend to stay aloof from the formulation and implementation aspects and give undue importance to just critiquing once the policies are formulated. But they cannot be blamed; the lack of impetus from the government in bridging the gap between the external affairs Ministries and the academia, the second class treatment given to the academia by the bureaucracy-driven foreign policy committees and the MEA etc. are issues that need to be resolved. In short, there is a lot of work to be done in this area but none seems more important than the governments really accepting the issues and striving for bettering the system.
The next essay is titled, 'India, the UN and the 'Global Commons'' starts with Mr.Tharoor's viewpoint as to why it is difficult for India to get a permanent membership in the UN Security Council. But towards the end, he puts forth an argument to emphasise the role of US in lobbying for India to be offered a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. His argument goes,
As with most of the global issues, the key to breaking the logjam lies in Washington. Most of the naysayers are US allies who have been given a free hand by Washington's lack of enthusiasm for reform. If a new (or re-elected) US administration could be persuaded that it is in America's self interest to maintain a revitalised United Nations, credible enough for its support to be valuable to the United States and legitimate enough to be a bulwark of world order in the imminent future when the United States is no longer the world's only super power, Washington could bring enough countries in its wake to transform the debate.
Towards the latter part, Mr.Tharoor also puts forth the reasons why he thinks reforming the United Nations is quite important at this stage. The UN was formed in 1945, and it has not changed with the times. There's a lot to be changed to make it relevant to modern times. Mr.Tharoor argues that as more nations start emerging out of their shells blossoming into multilateral powers, a seemingly irrelevant UN (which is still held by the developed nations), would lead these emerging countries to look else where to get their voices heard which might mean the end of UN as we know it. Other trade/regional blocks of emerging countries might evolve and the significance of the UN might run down the drains. Mr.Tharoor is right in suggesting that the nations should do something to reform it while the UN still remains significant. The UN must evolve to embrace pluralism and diversity and as a nation that has functioned along these lines for over 6 decades, Mr.Tharoor feels India should be front-runner in shaping this attitude within the UN and its member countries. Mr.Tharoor also focuses on India's responsibility to partner with other countries to improve the Global Commons, be it promoting a more sustainable use of world's ecological resources or the urgent task of human development, and emphasises India's role in helping craft the right policy framework to this end. Mr.Tharoor ends by focusing on the Indian diaspora and argues compellingly why India needs them more that probably they need India.
Mr.Tharoor saves 'Multi-Alignment: Towards a Grand Strategy for India in the Twenty-first Century' to be the last topic covered in this book. It's an interesting concept, as the world now moves away from the Cold War days of 2 or 3 countries becoming all powerful to a model where many smaller countries are increasingly becoming powerful in their respective regions. These countries may not rise to the level of global dominance, but at the same time, they would have a mind of their own and would not be subservient to the global majors. Is such a system going to be more stable than a bipolar system is the first area of concern. And secondly, would multi-alignment be better suited to India's stature than non-alignment that it wielded rather unsuccessfully during the Cold War days. Over the years, India has shifted its stance from being a major recipient of grants and foreign aids to being a source of foreign aids and grants. India is also a part of some of the important blocs like the G20, ASEAN, BRICS, IBSA, RIC, BRIC and BASIC, with India being the only country that's common to all. This suggests a networked economy which is more fluidic in nature, the result being that two countries could be on the same side on an issue in one of the blocs while they could be on the opposing poles on another issue in another bloc. The networked economy comes with such opportunities and flexibilities and in such a world, India would have to move beyond non-alignment to what could be called multi-alignment to stay relevant and genuine.
It's notable that Mr.Tharoor has ended all his discussions on a positive note; his optimism is palpable. I just want to end by quoting the below line:
As Minister, I would say to my young audiences: 'You should want your government to seize the opportunities that the 21st century world provides, while managing the risks and protecting you from the threats that this world has opened you up to'.
A timely advice from Mr.Tharoor, this could very well prove to an inspiration and the guiding star for the youth of today, especially when demographic dividend is going to be one of the major strengths of India in the years to come.