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The elephant won't dance

M. K. Bhadrakumar
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The author concludes that India has quite a long way to go before it could become a world power

DOES THE ELEPHANT DANCE? — Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy: David M. Malone; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 695.
DOES THE ELEPHANT DANCE? — Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy: David M. Malone; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 695.

M. K. Bhadrakumar

David Malone's tenure as Canadian High Commissioner in New Delhi (2006-08) coincided with the huge upswing in the strategic partnership between the United States and India. From the Canadian chancery in Chanakyapuri, he could have a ringside view of the U.S. diplomacy insistently pledging to make India a first-class world power.

Those were halcyon days. The celebrated Malabar Exercises were held in September 2007. Malone saw the stunning pictures of naval ships from India, Australia, Japan, Singapore and the U.S. steaming in formation in the Bay of Bengal, which included USS Kitty Hawk, USS Nimitz, INS Viraat, JS Yuudachi, JS Ohnami, RSS Formidable, HMAS Adelaide, INS Brahmaputra, INS Ranjit, USS Chicago and USS Higgins.

Long way to go

Yet, Malone's masterly work on contemporary Indian foreign policy concludes that India has quite a long way to go before it could become a world power, its growing economy and nuclear assets and demography notwithstanding. Nor is he inclined to promote India's heft as an emerging rival to China. In fact, the most absorbing section of Does the Elephant Dance? concerns the Sino-Indian relationship.

Malone is critical that China is a “neuralgic subject” in Indian national debates, which are largely reactive — and often adrift — and less defined by India's own actions and policies than by China's interaction with extraneous actors such as Pakistan.

He sees a conflict between China and India only as a remote possibility — despite their geo-strategic competition — since both will remain focussed on their highly problematic internal challenges of development for a long time to come, and neither is expansionist.

The author sees the burgeoning India-China economic ties as a stabilising factor. Also, there has been a “marked change” toward a “more even-handed stance” in China's position on the Kashmir issue and India-Pakistan tensions. The Indian and Chinese interests have “converged” on terrorism, “particularly in the sensitive regions of Kashmir and Xinjiang.”

He appreciates the Indian policymaker's caution and circumspection vis-à-vis the unpredictable Sino-U.S. relationship, given the oscillation between the “containment and engagement enthusiasts” within the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

Malone makes a brilliant case that India cannot aspire to be a truly convincing great power “until it achieves a better handle on its region”; put plainly, “unless its region becomes more cooperative (and prosperous), India is unlikely to develop into more than a regional power.” India is yet to convince its distrustful neighbours that it is “an opportunity … not a threat” and its diplomacy has not done enough to make greater regional economic integration politically attractive. Except for Bhutan and Maldives, the neighbours have not accepted India's “economic logic.” Evidently, what it adds up to is that the ‘elephant' won't be dancing in the foreseeable future on the world stage.

Ties with Pakistan

Alas, Malone devotes hardly six pages to India's troubled relationship with Pakistan. For the benefit of the Indian ‘hawk', he should have explained the basis of his optimism that the two countries are unlikely to fight another war. Interestingly, he ticks off the Indian government for not pursuing the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, which could have created a “significant economic link” with Pakistan, “which in turn might discourage radicalism,” aside from its economic spin-off for development that is self-evident. He blames the U.S. pressure only partly for India's disinterest in the project.

A major weakness of the book lies in the intellectual construct that Malone puts on the trajectory of post-Independence India's foreign policy as a transition from ‘idealism' under Jawaharlal Nehru to ‘hard realism' under Indira Gandhi and to ‘economically driven pragmatism' in the post-cold war era. It is a simplistic construct for the impressive and deeply insightful analysis he otherwise presents.

As Malone himself recounts, in the run-up to the 1959 watershed in Sino-Indian relationship, the CIA and Chiang Kai-shek's agents were training and funding Tibetan rebels in Kalimpong to launch subversive acts on China. Does it show up Nehru's ‘idealism'? Again, he assumes that India was a mere Soviet satellite, whereas in reality, the relationship between the two was complex, where the protagonists often negotiated hard the terms of friendship.

Nehru's strong preference for friendship and cooperation with the Soviet Union had to do less with ideology than with economic compulsions and strategic necessity, with the U.S's regional policies playing a part in it. Malone's analysis of the U.S.-India relationship is incomplete. In spite of his being very well placed to dissect the U.S. geo-strategies and put Indian policies in historical perspective, he has chosen just to skim the surface.

Take, for instance, this observation: “In the absence of cooperation from India, and with a communist government in China, Pakistan became an essential element in the containment of the Soviet Union in Asia.” What a facile narrative on the tortuous U.S.-Pakistan alliance! The ‘elephant' apparently intrigued Malone at times, despite his manifest affection for the animal since the time he first came to India as a young boy.


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