India has been adapting to changes in the world, but needs to do more to secure its interests, argues Muchkund Dubey
After over three decades as a diplomat who rose to be foreign secretary and subsequently as a reputed academic, Muchkund Dubey has produced another valuable work, Indiá’s Foreign Policy: Coping with the Changing World. It is presented in a language intelligible to the expert as well as the layman. Although not a complete study, the book is a potential trigger for wider debate and deserves serious consideration.
In stressing domestic politics, economy, military strength and cultural ethos as the very foundations of a country’s external policy, the author rightly adopts a realistic view of statecraft. His idealistic inclinations, however, inform his analysis as he advocates the need for inclusive government, social justice and secularism at home, besides a new world economic order and a strong UN-anchored internationalism. He seems to miss the era when India was wedded to the policy and rhetoric of non-alignment, solidarity with G-77 and a resolute struggle against the West, but he recognises that times have changed and so has the framework of India’s foreign policy. His prescriptions emanate from his assessment that India has been adapting to new transformations, but she needs to do more to secure her interests.
Against a broad historical backdrop, Dubey focuses on the post-Cold War years, recalling that uni-polarity of the first decade gave way to the decline of the U.S. starting from 2001, which made multi-polarity a reality. The study throws light on India’s relations with major powers — the U.S., Russia, China and Japan, and evaluates critically the country’s role in its neighbourhood.
He argues that non-alignment, its essence being independence of judgment and action, remains valid today; India simply cannot be ‘a camp follower’ of any power. He does not consider directly an alternative argument: if India could be a leading light of the Non-Aligned Movement while maintaining a virtual alliance with the Soviet Union, why can it not be a close partner of the U.S. while proclaiming its ‘strategic autonomy’?
A President of India was an ardent admirer of the author’s honest judgment and bluntness. ‘Dubey’, he reportedly said, ‘tells us the way it is.’ This outspokenness comes through in the author’s criticism of ‘the U.S. lobby’ in India. The lobby promotes ‘persistently and relentlessly’ the view that India's non-aligned foreign policy is ‘outdated and must be jettisoned.’ Dubey’s conclusion is that ‘a continuous erosion’ of the basic tenets of foreign policy has happened. Nevertheless, he candidly recognises the U.S. as ‘one of the most important factors’ in South Block’s calculations. He analyses the growing convergence of interests and favours ‘a vigorous and dynamic bilateral relationship.’ India’s economic strength and status as a de facto nuclear weapon power have led to improvements in relations with the U.S. in particular and the West in general.
The chapter on India-China ties explores ‘an uneasy but critically important relationship.’ Amidst growing paranoia about China that marks much of recent analysis of China’s rise, Dubey introduces a sense of perspective. Citing Kissinger’s appraisal, he shares the view that China faces an array of ‘domestic problems’ that should prevent it from ‘strategic confrontation or a quest for world domination.’ The author asserts that this appraisal should be applicable to China’s relations with India or ‘any other country’ that has ‘the capacity to inflict damage on China.’ He recommends for India a substantive augmentation of military strength and pursuit of ‘the goal of multifaceted development’ of relations with China. A key element of his strategy is that India should secure a ‘qualitative change’ in its relations with neighbours.
Three chapters deal with India’s neighbours, although two of them pertain to a single neighbour only — Bangladesh. The author concedes that an absence of detailed study of Pakistan, other neighbours and the European Union are ‘glaring omissions.’ However, his examination of ‘unique problems’ in South Asia at psychological and political levels is masterly. His policy prescriptions include the need for India to be ‘extremely sensitive’, avoid interruption of dialogue and make ‘short-term sacrifices for long-term gains.’ There is no guarantee that an enlightened approach by India alone is enough, and there is no reason to believe that our neighbours would necessarily internalise Dubey’s views, however wise they may be. Following the current passionate debate as to whether Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should visit Pakistan this year, I now have a strong conviction that the Indian PM should undertake a working visit, at the beginning of every year, to all SAARC capitals as a confidence-building measure. South Block would do well to bury the Curzonian mindset for good.
The author’s views on relations with Russia and Japan are interesting too. While pointing out that ties with Russia are of ‘vital importance’, he laments that their economic content has withered. His analysis of India-Japan relations, perceptions on nuclear issues and his advocacy of deeper mutual understanding break new ground.
Several criticisms of India's contemporary foreign policy have been put forward. In recent years, says the author, it has suffered from absence of long-term thinking, holistic approach, transparency, and pro-activism. These could be valid or debatable. But his portrayal of the essence of diplomacy — that it ‘operates on a very thin margin of practical possibilities’ — is indubitable.
My difficulty with this book is that it lacks an organic balance. The first, introductory chapter is superb, but there is no chapter on ‘Conclusions.’ The book ends rather abruptly with a chapter on the Indian Diaspora. It is to be hoped that India's ace scholar-diplomat will soon come out with a sequel covering other vital facets of foreign policy that he has promised.
An admirer observed that it was ‘tempting’ to describe Dubey as ‘India's Henry Kissinger.’ At a recent book launch event in Delhi, Dubey seemed embarrassed by this comparison. He sincerely conveyed that he was conscious of his limitations. But this book is an indicator of his incisive mind, immense knowledge and matchless articulation.