When interests and principles collide

Pax Indica— India and the World of the 21st Century: Shashi Tharoor; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 799.

Pax Indica— India and the World of the 21st Century: Shashi Tharoor; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 799.  


For the student based abroad, independent research on India’s foreign policy involves a seasonal pilgrimage to New Delhi’s temples of intelligentsia. The pursuit of reticent bureaucrats, both serving and retired, to the far-corners of the city in sub-Saharan weather can be a near-religious experience. Few emerge from this ritual unaffected — the cost of “field” research is usually sunstroke, dehydration, and if you are lucky, weight-loss. In need of inspiration, therefore, I reached out to a venerable alumnus who had not only survived this ordeal, but in the process also churned out a magisterial dissertation that still tops the list of required readings on post-Nehruvian foreign policy.

Shashi Tharoor responded graciously (and promptly, it must be said) to my request for an interview, but upon one condition: that I read the relevant chapter of Pax Indica first, for it “might answer most of my questions.” I am evaluating India’s current tenure in the United Nations Security Council, and in particular, how some decisions made by New Delhi in this period reflect upon its status as a superpower-in-waiting. Pax Indica, from a veteran commentator, seemed a timely publication that could outline contemporary India’s rules of engagement as a model for the world at large. The book itself was so accessible that I read it cover-to-cover in the course of a train journey. Yet, sadly, it seems I may have to schedule that interview with Mr. Tharoor after all.

Pax Indica can be divided, physically and ideationally, into two halves — the first written by Shashi Tharoor the politician, and the latter by Shashi Tharoor the analyst. The initial half is an uncritical view of India’s foreign policy to date and offers a rosy picture of most decisions made during the UPA I and II regimes. (To be sure, Pax Indica does not go any length to justify UPA actions. It comes down heavily on India’s visa regime post-26/11 and even ventures ever so slightly to reprimand UPA-II’s unstated policy of online censorship.) This is no gripe, as the author himself suggests Pax to be a work of “reflection, not scholarship.” But it does lead him to romanticise Nehruvian policy, and write, rather incredulously, that non-alignment positioned India favourably when its economy merged with that of the world in the 1990s. By Mr. Tharoor’s own admission, foreign policy has never gained traction in India’s popular discourse, but he insists non-alignment “reflected a broad national consensus.” In the same breath, he refers to non-alignment as a matter of compulsion, but extols Jawaharlal Nehru’s decision to march to the “tune of our own drummer.”

Regional hegemon

Pax Indica’s valuable contribution to the debate on India’s foreign policy is that it charts the growth of the country as a regional hegemon. Princeton’s G. John Ikenberry has identified the “hub-and-spoke” multilateral network that the United States created after World War II, which allowed it to guide the liberal, international order and reap its benefits simultaneously. Mr. Tharoor advocates a similar approach to India’s neighbourhood — India’s prosperity is intrinsically linked to the well-being of those nations with whom we share borders. But there is hardly a mention of the massive blunders that India’s foreign policy establishment walked into in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives and Afghanistan. In Mr. Tharoor’s relentless forward march, there is no room to acknowledge India’s intrusive manipulations in Nepal, partisan realpolitik in Afghanistan and the covert and overt support provided to the LTTE during Indira Gandhi’s tenure. Sans admission, the first step to recovery, Mr. Tharoor’s strong policy prescriptions on India’s reinvigorating the sub-continent become less potent.

Pax Indica’s defence of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s determination to continue talks with Pakistan is eloquent and correct, but needlessly couched in a populist narrative. Take aside a few gratuitous cheers for Pakistan’s liberals, and the tone is largely patronising. As a nation “full of desperate young men without hope or prospects, led by a malicious [...] military”, Mr. Tharoor writes elsewhere, “insisting on parity with Pakistan is to bring ourselves down to their level.” In the guise of pragmatism, therefore, his emphasis is on talks not on principle, but since there are few other alternatives.

Just as dedicated to the gallery is his treatment of India’s equations with China and the United States. To counter Chinese needling on Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet, Mr. Tharoor ponders aloud the possibility of holding up Taiwan as a similar trump card. While fully aware of the strategic implications of greater engagement with Taiwan as a separate (but not sovereign) entity, he justifies the same as being driven out of “self-interest.” As for Washington, it must reconcile with some ‘autonomous’ decisions made by India and strive instead for a concrete strategic partnership — one that would “give ammunition to the United States’ friends in New Delhi” against “reflexive” claims of imperialism. On India’s part, Mr. Tharoor suggests, strategic autonomy must not give way to “complacency.”

This faux-realism would be well-received if they did not clash so fundamentally with Mr. Tharoor’s desire to project an ethically grounded foreign policy for India, based on cooperation and coexistence. The second half of the book, which is just as pithy and lucidly narrated as the first, concerns itself with the most important themes surrounding Indian foreign policy today: those of soft power, bureaucratic reform, multilateralism and strategic autonomy. India’s democratic resume is brandished more than once, and there are repeated persuasions for a freer society which can then be exhibited as the Beacon on the Hill. But these ruminations are not free from the clutches of the “principles versus interests” debate.

India’s interests

Mr. Tharoor candidly admits that our interests must supersede issues of pure principle. According to him, promoting liberal democracy is in India’s interests, as is ensuring the country’s economic prosperity. Equally important is the protection of our territorial integrity. One wonders then, where Mr. Tharoor would draw the line between supporting armed intervention in a country (ostensibly for democratic purposes) and respecting its sovereignty. Or between condemning human rights abuses in Guantanamo Bay prison or due process violations by military tribunals and the price of a strategic partnership. Or for that matter, between respecting international legal obligations to open up sections of the Indian economy, and the well-being of marginalised domestic constituents.

From the soaring heights of grand strategy, these are issues to be settled in the dust and dirt of international politics. Mr. Tharoor’s answer, what he terms ‘multi-alignment’, is basically a fanciful elucidation of the phrase “playing it by the ear.” His conclusions are no different from the course that Indian foreign policy follows today, be it in the area of foreign aid, liberalised trade or nuclear deterrence. One former high-ranking diplomat told this grateful researcher recently that India has sought always to comply with international rules and norms, but would not hesitate to “tweak” the system where its interests suit thus. Mr. Tharoor’s “multi-alignment” attempts to cast away India’s “old obsession” with strategic autonomy and instead operate along an interest-based calculus without any sweeping assumptions. Like some quips and anecdotes in Pax Indica, these are merely old words in a new book jacket.

“The wisdom of these latter times,” Francis Bacon wrote on the idea of empire, “is rather fine deliveries than solid and grounded courses.” Indian diplomacy’s emphasis on principles, which Pax Indica acknowledges, reflects this wisdom. But if India were to emerge as a regional or even global power, it would have to deal, much like Bacon’s royalty, with the ‘petty’ concerns of “neighbours, their wives, their children, their merchants [...] and their men of war.” The flourish of rhetoric, offered abundantly in Mr. Tharoor’s discourse, cannot ignore the tension between India’s role hitherto as a silent beneficiary of the international order and its aspirations to share responsibility for the system. Shashi Tharoor, conscious of this reality, offers a cogently argued analysis to bridge this divide — one, however, that does not illustrate a peace system modelled by India for the world, but one that seeks peace for India in the world. Indica’s Pax, in other words, not Pax Indica.

Related Topics Books
Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor