At the start of 2022, it is already clear that the year will be filled with foreign policy challenges for India.
For the third consecutive year, the coronavirus pandemic has meant the cancellation of bilateral and multilateral visits, beginning with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s planned trip to the UAE and those of five Central Asian leaders due to travel to Delhi to be the chief guests at the Republic Day parade.
Indian diplomats have their hands full drafting ripostes to statements of concern issued by other countries on India’s domestic troubles: from Jammu & Kashmir to the hijab ban, non-renewal of foreign NGO licences and the handling of protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.
The troubles from Afghanistan and Pakistan continue on the western horizon, and on the eastern front, China’s refusal to budge on positions it has occupied since April 2020 along the Line of Actual Control led to another unfruitful round of talks in January, with no assurances that the People’s Liberation Army would ever return to status quo ante. And while the U.S.-India relationship is filled with promise, and a Quad Summit is due to take place in Tokyo in the next few months, much hinges on President Biden’s determination on giving India a sanctions waiver under the CAATSA law on the S-400 systems procured from Russia, which becomes a more awkward task given the present tensions over Ukraine — the list continues.
Amid complex diplomatic interpolations comes a compendium of essays authored by more than 30 of India’s most senior diplomats.
India’s Foreign Policy in the Post-COVID Times: Through the Eyes of Indian Diplomats, edited by former ambassador Surendra Kumar, presents an up-to-date analysis of the present situation, and the challenges faced in 30 different areas, each according to their expertise: from overviews of India’s challenges on security and several economic issues (by Shyam Saran, Shivshankar Menon and Rahul Chhabra), to essays on COVID and climate change, the specifics of India’s relations with the U.S., Russia, China, the EU, West Asia, Central Asia, Africa, Japan, Brazil and Mexico, primers on India’s ‘Act East’, Indo-Pacific, diaspora and soft power policies (the last of which, Mr. Kumar notes, predate Joseph Nye’s thesis).
Each essay is a handy masterclass. Of particular note is the editor’s decision to include separate chapters on each of India’s neighbours, written by envoys to those countries, including T.C.A. Raghavan on Pakistan, Jayant Prasad on Afghanistan, K.C. Singh on Iran, Deb Mukherji on Bangladesh, Ranjit Rae on Nepal, Ranjan Mathai on Sri Lanka and V.P. Haran on Bhutan. Insights on the current Ukraine crisis and the difficulty of prising the Russia-China relationship loose (P.S. Raghavan), the larger objective behind Chinese aggression in times of COVID (Neelam Sabharwal), the importance of focusing on UN Security Council reform for India (Asoke Kumar Mukerji) make for a thoughtful reading on current events. The real charm of the essays is the freedom with which skilled practitioners have shared their analysis without hesitations about protocol or political pressure.
Barring a few exceptions, where authors have expressed unblushing praise of the government they served under, the essays contain both examples of success and critiques of failure of various policies of the past 75 years, and how they pertain to the world post-COVID. Above all, the essays portray events by grounding them in a historical perspective. If a common thread is to be discerned it is the vision of an India who stands independently in a world of competing poles, is an exemplar of pluralistic, inclusive and humanistic thought not one that rejects its past, but grows from it, with a foreign policy that is a force multiplier for the nation’s ambitions for itself. Written simply, and shorn of complex “diplomatese”, the book should be read as a “message from the elders”, one which both students of Indian foreign policy, and its practitioners in South Block would be wise to study.
India’s Foreign Policy in the Post-COVID World: Through the Eyes of Indian Diplomats; Edited by Amb Surendra Kumar (Retd), Wisdom Tree, ₹1,495.