The art and craft of diplomacy

How India Sees the World: Kautilya to the 21st Century Shyam Saran Juggernaut Books ₹599  

A welcome addition to reminiscences by former diplomats, How India Sees the World reinforces several persistent insinuations and inferences and reveals interesting anecdotes about major episodes of Indian foreign policy using Kautilya’s Arthashastra as a constant reference point. Writing in an easy story-telling style, former foreign secretary Shyam Saran shows how “search for strategic autonomy” marks the running thread that binds India’s diplomatic initiatives. While he commends India’s foreign policy for being firmly grounded in the Kautilyan paradigm, he feels its diplomacy needs greater finesse and skill.

Saran sees the Indian subcontinent as a single geopolitical and ecological space with a shared history and economic interdependencies and its eventual integration, transcending national boundaries, as the ultimate objective of India’s foreign policy.

This explains India’s proposals for South Asia Customs Union, Common Currency and even South Asian Parliament though the hangover of colonialism also makes us see borders as walls to protect us against hostile neighbours. Besides, the deep rooted asymmetry of South Asian politics holds India prisoner from playing any larger role keeping it at odds with its immediate periphery. Saran sees hope in India becoming a powerful engine of growth for all its neighbours, as an opportunity and not an adversary.

With Pakistan, Saran sees a pattern — of each major terrorist attack resulting in the suspension of dialogue, and then, after an interval, the resumption of dialogue, mostly on India’s initiatives. Pakistan therefore has no reason to abandon this low-cost yet “successful strategy” while India has no credible option between extremes of military retaliation and appeasement; and, the latter appears to be India’s destiny.

The writer talks of successive leaders’ reluctance in raising issues like Balochistan which, he says, should be part of India’s “counter-constraint” strategy, for the objective is to manage this adversarial relationship and not any grand reconciliation or friendship.

Friends, not foes: Should integration, transcending national boundaries, be the ultimate objective of India’s foreign policy in the subcontinent?

Friends, not foes: Should integration, transcending national boundaries, be the ultimate objective of India’s foreign policy in the subcontinent?  


Do we understand China?

Poor understanding of China, where he was posted in two stints, has cost India dearly, writes Saran. India enters the consciousness of the contemporary Chinese as a source of opium, which the British insisted on dumping in China, he says. The use of Indian soldiers in the British assaults may have led to a negative attitude among the Chinese towards India. The British empire was seen as a threat to Chinese control over Xinjiang and its “suzerainty in Tibet.”

Later, the government of independent India was suspected of inheriting similar motives. He speaks of how he retrieved from junked documents, during his posting in Yangon, an old letter from Jawaharlal Nehru to Burmese premier U Nu which mentions that Chinese premier Zhou Enlai repeatedly, though only orally, “accepted the McMahon Line between India and China.” This was substantiated later in the writings of well-known South Asia expert Wang Hongwei.

Right up to 1985, explains Saran, China suggested the border dispute be settled on the “package proposal” put forward by Zhou Enlai in 1960: that China would accept the alignment as defined by the McMahon Line in the east, while India should accept the Chinese alignment in the west.

Saran recalls how China’s “package proposal” disappeared from the mid-1980s when then Ambassador to China A.P. Venkateswaran rejected it saying “it would legitimise the territorial gains achieved by China through force of arms.” Saran’s efforts to see Indira Gandhi visit Beijing were rejected by former ambassador to China G. Parthasarathi saying she “still nursed bitter memories” of “Chinese hostility towards Nehru.” By 1985, the Chinese position hardened, and it began to seek the handing over of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. Relations normalised only in the early 1990s under P.V. Narasimha Rao who, for Saran, best represented the Kautilyan mind. Since then, China has galloped ahead and is least interested in resolving issues with New Delhi, according to him.

Inroads in Nepal

Saran also talks of China’s inroads in Nepal where he was posted during 2002-04 when Indian agencies had facilitated dialogue between a seven-party alliance and Maoists laying the ground for them to join the mainstream and the fall of monarchy. In the face of China’s expanding economic engagement leading to its increased involvement in Nepal’s domestic politics, Saran sees India’s Nepal policy continuing to be “episodic and crisis-driven” and weak.

The Indo-U.S. nuclear deal

As his greatest contribution to expanding India’s foreign policy choices, Saran outlines his role in negotiating the Indo-U.S. deal: first as India’s foreign secretary anointed to be the “secure and confidential channel between the U.S. president and our prime minister” and later as the prime minister’s special envoy for nuclear diplomacy. He shares several tense and intense parleys, surprise hurdles and ego clashes.

On the flip side, he was not able to stop India from agreeing to a weak climate Paris Agreement of 2015 that shrunk our policy choices. The Rio Convention of 1992 recognised the historical responsibility of industrialised countries for bulk of emissions expecting only them to take on reduction targets while helping developing nations with finance and technologies. This norm of common but differentiated responsibilities, he says, was “hallowed out in favour of a ‘pledge and review’ mechanism applicable to all countries.”

In the end, he sees India’s historical evolution at the intersection of major caravan and maritime routes providing it a certain innate cosmopolitan outlook. In our world today, where networking and not hegemony provides the power to influence global trends he shows how this outlook holds promise. A must read for those interested in an authentic yet quick reference on contemporary trends in India’s foreign policy.

How India Sees the World: Kautilya to the 21st Century; Shyam Saran, Juggernaut Books, ₹599.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2022 12:06:24 PM |

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