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‘The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World’ review: Preparing for a multipolar world

The global order is undergoing changes. If it was largely bipolar during the Cold War and then briefly unipolar after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, there are signs of emerging multipolarity. China is already the world’s second largest economy and a major military power. Russia has come out of its self-imposed strategic retreat. From Germany to Japan and India to Brazil, middle powers are also expected to play key roles in the new order. What should be the direction of India’s foreign policy in such changing times? S. Jaishankar, India’s External Affairs Minister, seeks to address this question in his book, The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World.

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When a sitting foreign minister writes a book on the country’s foreign policy, the reader would naturally expect some insights into New Delhi’s policy thinking. In that sense, Jaishankar lays out the broad framework of India’s policymaking. He emphasises a realistic approach free of dogmas, willing to take risks and ready to engage different powers at the same time. In the book, culled from the speeches he gave over the past two years, Jaishankar offers an overview of the evolution of India’s foreign policy through the pitfalls and the opportunities ahead. “This is a time to engage America, manage China, cultivate Europe, reassure Russia, bring Japan into play,” writes Jaishankar, who was India’s Ambassador in both Washington and Beijing before becoming the Foreign Secretary and then the External Affairs Minister in the BJP-led government.

Call for action

From what he writes, it’s evident that he doesn’t favour India joining any alliance system. But he doesn’t support the old school non-alignment either. He gives the example of Balarama and Rukmi of Vidarbha from the Mahabharata to make his point. Both stayed out of the war but they had to face the consequences anyway. “Where we have remained uninvolved, we are nevertheless left to face consequences. On some questions, we run the danger of displeasing all parties. Where we have aligned on larger contradictions, our reluctance in doing so fully has not been without costs,” writes Jaishankar. It’s a call for action. And the action, according to him, is defined by “Krishna's choice”— “follow the dharma of the state”, that is asserting national interest and securing strategic goals through various means. In other words, his bet is on “multiple engagements” for a multipolar world. “It appears more energetic and participative as compared to an earlier posture of abstention or non-involvement.”

In India’s engagement with the West, Jaishankar emphasises the shared values as well as the changes underway. The West, he argues, should accept that India’s growth “is a strategic development in the larger western interest”. With regard to Pakistan, he talks about the Uri and Balakot models, arguing that India established a new normal that terrorist actions won’t go unpunished. When it comes to China, his mantra is realism. He commends the “strategic maturity” that’s at work between the two countries. “That realisation led to the Wuhan and Chennai summits... both occasions were exercises in pure realism.”

Future role

It’s well argued, and few will disagree that India has to multi-engage with a changing world, without compromising on its strategic autonomy. The problem, however, is that beyond this framework, Jaishankar, perhaps constrained by his role in the government, doesn’t offer finer details. India Way reads more like a diplomat’s handbook — which is important in understanding the functioning of diplomacy — rather than a strategic analyst’s assessment of history and prescriptions for the future. It’s not free of contradictions either. Jaishankar stresses on India’s pluralism, values of multi-faith society and its democratic framework. Yet the government he’s part of has been under attack, both domestically and internationally, for endangering India’s plural values. When he writes the West should accept that “an elite created in western mould has now outlived its relevance” in India, he sounds more like a politician than a seasoned diplomat.

What drives diplomacy?

Jaishankar clearly states the “economy drives diplomacy, not the other way around.” Unfortunately, he has to drive India’s diplomacy at a time when the country is facing a severe economic contraction — one of the worst among major economies — which would, according to his own arguments, limit India’s options. He lauds India’s realism in reaching out to China in Wuhan and Chennai (the book was written before the Galwan clashes). Now, there could be new questions about the whole China policy of the Narendra Modi government. Was its China policy driven by realism or hubris?

While he rightly blames legacy issues for the China problem, one can’t ignore the revolt in India’s neighbourhood against New Delhi under his government, whether they are short-term irritants or evolving strategic challenges. So, while the foreign policy framework India Way offers is an authoritative account of New Delhi’s worldview, its efficacy will be known only when tested on the altar of history.

The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World; S. Jaishankar, HarperCollins, ₹699.

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