The myopia of 20/20 hindsight

Judging history through the prism of the present can be very damaging to foreign policy formulation

June 26, 2020 12:15 am | Updated 01:12 am IST

As Indians we have the indefatigable propensity to use a contemporary and often biased prism to judge past actors and their actions affecting the nation’s interests. There is an unstated assumption that in taking certain decisions or in pursuing certain policies, these actors had the perfect astrological capacity to weigh the consequences and divine the changing context in which those actions would play out. We all have to make intelligent assessments of future trends and developments but these are mostly educated guesses at best. But we expect perfect powers of prediction in our leaders and decision-makers. When things work out differently, as they often do, because the circumstances have changed, we proceed to flay them for having let the country down. We profess perfect 20/20 vision by hindsight but are truly myopic in our perspective.

Disengagement in Siachen

Recently, I have been at the receiving end of this wisdom by hindsight. India’s relations with Pakistan are at an all time low. So everything remotely positive that may have occurred in the past becomes suspect. Those given the task of implementing the more hopeful policies during a certain phase in India’s relations with Pakistan then are turned into villains. In the specific case involving me personally, viral messages on social media accuse me of being an instrument of the Manmohan Singh government to hand over Siachen Glacier to Pakistan during negotiations with Pakistan when I was Foreign Secretary. There are selective quotes from my book and mischievous interpretations being circulated to promote this utterly false narrative.


The disengagement of Indian and Pakistan forces from Siachen had been on the agenda of India-Pakistan talks for several years under several governments. The sticking point had been Pakistan’s refusal to agree upon an Actual Ground Position Line from which forces of the two sides would withdraw to new positions, negotiated between the two sides. Pakistan finally conceded this. The disengagement would be done in phases with less risky areas in the first phase and others in subsequent phases. There would be arrangements for continuous verification and monitoring of the zone of disengagement.

Disengagement is not surrender just as I presume current disengagement between Indian and Chinese forces does not imply surrender of our territory. This proposed agreement could not be pursued because the Cabinet Committee on Security failed to approve it. It was not formulated by me alone but the government system as a whole. It was also put aside by the same system. That was the end of the matter. Whether the idea itself was wise given the unfortunate and hostile trajectory India-Pakistan relations have taken since is another matter. In the context of the then state of relations this was an initiative deemed worthwhile.

The torrent of criticism that we now witness should then apply to several other instances. Should former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee have undertaken the bus ride to Lahore in 1999, in the light of what we now know of Pakistani coincidental plans to capture the heights over Kargil? Was his “hand of friendship” speech in Srinagar in 2003 based on romantic idealism now that we are convinced of Pakistan’s perfidy? Does Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unscheduled visit to Lahore in 2015 and the image of his walking hand in hand with then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif count as unmitigated folly or as a well-considered political gamble to turn relations around? Do the Pathankot and Uri terrorist incidents thereafter show naivete on his part? Worse, should we accuse him of endangering India’s security because we were lulled into trusting Pakistani’s goodwill? How should we judge his highly publicised summits with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the light of what we have just gone through in Galwan? These decisions may still be commended even if they may have turned sour because at the time they were taken, they promised to re-orient India-Pakistan and India-China relations in a positive direction.

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A historical perspective

I am pointing this out because this tendency to be wise after the event can be very damaging to foreign policy formulation. The fear of being proved wrong may paralyse diplomacy. One should always have a historical perspective when formulating policy so that we learn from what turned out to be correct decisions and what turned out to be errors of judgement. But such success or failure can only be properly assessed in the light of then historical circumstances and the then regional and international environment. We cannot judge history through the prism of the present. For example, given western support for Pakistan on the Kashmir issue and China’s hostility, was the Indo-Soviet partnership between 1960 and 1990 a good strategic move or a bad one? Does the importance of the India-U.S. partnership today negate the earlier partnership with the Soviet Union? To my mind it does not because during the Cold War, and particularly after China and the U.S. became virtual allies after Henry Kissinger’s visit to Beijing in 1971, Indo-Soviet partnership acquired great significance and played a role in the birth of Bangladesh that year. Just as the India-U.S. partnership today makes sense for India, so did the Indo-Soviet partnership earlier.

The great strength behind India’s foreign policy has been the broad national consensus it has enjoyed, according it a certain continuity and coherence. Despite holding various leaders to account for this or that error of judgement, there has been general acknowledgement that irrespective of their ideological or political persuasion, successive governments have upheld India’s interests firmly and judiciously.

Also read | The perils of follow the leader syndrome

Limiting room for manoeuvre

It is sad to see that now foreign policy, too, has fallen victim to very narrow and cynical jousting in domestic politics. This can be very damaging to intelligent and careful foreign policy-making. If policymakers constantly have their eye on how something will play out domestically then we will not be able to uphold the nation’s larger interests. For example, Pakistan has become a domestic political issue which prevents any kind of sober and well-considered posture towards that neighbouring country. We thus limit our room for manoeuvre.

One is proud to have had the privilege of serving this great country as its representative and I do not take to heart the barbs being thrown at me. Let me also say that in my long years of service I have admired each of the Prime Ministers I have served under. Not for a moment did I ever feel that any one of them did not uphold the country’s interests with firmness and, importantly, with passion. And Dr. Manmohan Singh is no exception.

Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary and is currently Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research

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