In 1927, Mahatma Gandhi wrote a rejoinder to a book by American historian Katherine Mayo, known for her racist views on Anglo-Saxon superiority, contempt for all other races, and her belief that ‘negroes’ must not be released from slavery nor Indians from British imperialism. Mayo’s Mother India , wrote Gandhi, was the report of a ‘drain inspector’ sent out to ‘give a graphic description of the stench exuded by open drains,’ as he protested against her portrayal of Indian poverty, treatment of women and the caste system.
As she quotes the incident in her book Our Time Has Come: How India is Making its Place in the World , former diplomat Alyssa Ayres is acutely aware of Indian sensitivities to criticism from Western writers, and as the title of her book suggests, sets out to be the opposite of Mayo’s work. It is, instead, a celebration of India’s rise, especially in the eyes of the American foreign policy establishment.
The book threads through the author’s experience of India since the 1990s, when she first visited as a student, and then through her work at the Asia Society, at the U.S. Embassy in India, and as Deputy Assistant Secretary for South Asia at the State department during U.S. President Obama’s administration. Her thesis is organised as a three-part volume: Indian foreign policy history until the 1990s, transition over two decades, and India’s changing global ambitions.
In her praise of India’s dynamism, however, Ayres does at times make the common error of making the facts fit her thesis. Her assertion that it is only now Indian foreign policy practitioners are ‘mining’ India’s ancient texts, from Chanakya’s Arthashastra to the Mahabharata , or that the resurgence in the popularity of these works is recent, is contradicted in her own quotes from Jawaharlal Nehru to P.V. Narasimha Rao’s tenures, and those of other Indian leaders who have relied on them for decades. Indian foreign policy is also portrayed in the book in the more American terms of Republican v/s Democrat or in the Indian case, BJP v/s Congress regimes instead of the more widespread understanding of a policy flow that has run a course from one Indian government to the next.
At times, Ayres’ spotlight is too focussed on the present. For example, while Ayres studies the U.N.’s adoption of the International Day of Yoga in 2014 as an indicator of India’s recent rise, she ignores the fact that the U.N. International Day of Non-Violence marked on Gandhi’s birthday, was successfully lobbied for by India in 2007. Or while commending the Narendra Modi government’s evacuation operations from Yemen, Ayres fails to mention the equally impressive Indian evacuation operations from Iraq, Lebanon, and Libya in the past.
Ayres refers to the fact that prominent television anchors now ‘keep track of everything from the U.S. presidential election to Thomas Piketty’s views on inequality’ as a ‘transformation’, but the fact is that Indian journalists have always had a rather strong interest in world affairs.
Ayre’s expertise, then, is much more on display as she essays Indo-U.S. relations, explaining India’s resistance to an alliance with the United States, its history of being an abstentionist force at the United Nations, and its ‘cautious playbook’ vis-à-vis great powers.
Like most U.S. diplomats, the author is not convinced of India’s stand of non-alignment, but writes a comprehensive explanation of the reasons for the policy, which she says has now been discarded. The book ends with an excellent chapter on ‘How the United States should work with a Rising India’. Ayres’ recommendations that the U.S. government must ‘approach India like a joint venture partner, not an ally-in-waiting’, or to ‘bring India inside the economic tent’ rather than pushing ‘America First’, and to re-evaluate its on-again, off-again ties with Pakistan in order to play the ‘long game’ with India, will hopefully find resonance with many in Washington.
For New Delhi, the book recommends a less ‘prickly’ approach, as it describes the damage that the government’s Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act strictures on Greenpeace, the Ford Foundation, Public Health Foundation of I ndia and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will have.
The book has its unconventional moments as well. While listing India’s changing role at global nuclear regimes, climate change, BRICS, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), forays in the Indian Ocean Region, and SAARC, it casts an eye on a place where India really ‘commands dominance’ — cricket, and the power India commands after the restructuring of the International Cricket Council in 2014. It all comes together for an absorbing read as Ayres blends her unique perspective of affection and deep faith in India’s success with an analytical outsider’s lens on where India is headed.
Our Time Has Come: How India is Making Its place in The World ; Alyssa Ayres, Oxford University Press, ₹695.