5 December 2016

An astute and diplomatic chooser

Abhijit Bhattacharyya

In his story of "the making of India's foreign policy", Shivshankar Menon presents a "practioner's view, not a theorist's". He focuses on five specific diplomatic issues from India's recent history with which he was directly involved as a government official. Being a player in the apex echelon of State machinery, Menon needs to weigh seriously each and every word.

'Choice' is the crux of governance, and foreign policy decisions of every government revolve around multiple 'choices' wherefrom to choose. The border dispute with China took an enormously tortuous course that to this day remains unresolved, initiatives and experiments with several choices notwithstanding. For both China and India, there is still 'a prisoner of the past' scenario pertaining to territorial adjustment in which leaders of both sides may be flexible only at the peril of losing their power and position owing to domestic compulsions. After all, it was apparent that there were serious differences between China and India about the line of actual control in several areas.

Nevertheless, it was the practical prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, whose Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Sino-Indian LAC reduced the tension that had persisted since the 1962 war. The agreement also led the two competing Asian nations to renounce the use of force in their settlement of the issue.

Why did China agree to Rao's proposal of 'peace and tranquility'? Menon's take is that three pressing issues made Beijing's response to India positive: the Tiananmen Square massacre of its own people in 1989, the demise in 1991 of the mighty Soviet Union and the possibility of the United States of America targeting China to go the way of the USSR. The 1993 agreement seems to have succeeded in creating "one of the most peaceful" borders in India, the occasional pinpricks from the People's Liberation Army and the recent advent of an "assertive Chinese policy" notwithstanding. Trade, technology and tourism have taken precedence. Border conflicts can wait!

China aside, the US was India's "natural ally" felt Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. His successor, Manmohan Singh, enacted the unprecedented Indo-US civil nuclear deal in 2005, giving shape to his predecessor's words and ending the 30-year US-led international nuclear and technology sanctions on New Delhi. There were hurdles galore, both internal and external, as politics reigned supreme. There emerged sharply divided opinion in Singh's team even on the eve of the announcement of the accords in his suite at Blair House, the official guest house of the US president.

However, Manmohan Singh, with his "steely resolve", pulled it through. India did it. "While unspoken by both partners", Menon explains, "China's rise was a factor that had created contiguous interests for both India and the United States." At the end, though, a foreign policy issue had shaken the government of India in Parliament, as the domestic politics of a no-confidence motion had to be overcome.

Opponents may still suggest that this apparent 'issue' is not an isolated one, but a question of the overall self-interest of the State and the future of the country. This dilemma is narrated in the book: "On September 25, 2008, President Bush hosted a small private dinner for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh" (incidentally September 26 was Singh's birthday) "in the White House for about ten persons, when the 123 Agreement was awaiting approval by the U.S. Senate. Secretary of State [Condoleeza] Rice leaned over and asked Singh when India would be ordering reactors from Westinghouse. Bush cut her off immediately and said that this was not about reactor sales but about much bigger things. Singh did not have to reply." The importance of this anecdote stands stark when seen in the light of Menon's assessment of US policy towards India: "to expect the U.S. government to behave differently would be unreasonable, in my estimation, as it has to follow its own calculus of U.S. interests rather than satisfy Indian desires." True. No doubt. But then the same logic applies to India's calculus too, and in retrospect it is clear that "The Civil Nuclear Initiative removed the detritus of the past from the bilateral relationship, opening the way for the transfer of dual-use technology and enhanced cooperation on defense."

In the South Asian context, the brutal confession that "India-Pakistan relations are one of the few major failures of Indian foreign policy" could, however, lead to divided opinion. Why? Because in the words of the author himself: "Pakistan has consistently used terrorists and infiltrators against India since 1947... sent 'tribal raiders' to try to take Kashmir in 1947, infiltrators into Jammu and Kashmir in 1965, soldiers posing as mujahideen into Kargil in 1999 to occupy the heights, Khalistani terrorists into the Indian Punjab in 1980s, and the LeT and others into Jammu and Kashmir right through this period."

As if the 20th century were not enough, the ultimate happening was the 26/11 Mumbai attack and "the incompetence that India's police and security agencies displayed in the glare of the world's television lights for full three days". A 10-man Pakistan-based terror group massacred scores of innocent people.

How can India tackle the cross-border menace from Pakistan, notwithstanding that it does not pose an "existential threat"? Through "dialogue". Why? Because "an Indian policymaker must deal with several Pakistans-with civil society, the Pakistani business community, civilian politicians, the army and the ISI, and the religious right (which extends from political parties to jihadi tanzeems)." Not all of them share similar attitudes towards India! Menon's view is sure to be controversial. Nevertheless, a central problem emanates from failure of the United Nation's proposed Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism to define a terrorist.

On the southern front, these candid confessional words too are unlikely to be well received in certain quarters: "It is hard to see the Indian intervention in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s as anything but an inexorable tragedy. India had very few choices, and no good ones, in 1987." But Menon's detractors should ask themselves a few questions: how did India get from the "non-interference" of Panchsheel to intervention in Sri Lanka? Had India changed? If so, why? Did it help, or harm, national interest? At the end, the sheer force of the Sri Lankan State eliminated a terror outfit, though not the ideas it espoused.

Regarding Menon's fifth and final foreign policy issue, the "no first use" doctrine regarding nuclear weapons, it appears, he writes, "fundamentally realistic and sober" based on a security calculus that is unique to India. India's decisions certainly can be both "strategically bold" and "tactically cautious".

As many of the issues discussed in Choices have not been resolved, surely the last word is yet to be written. Nevertheless, the insight and analysis displayed by Menon are superb. Whether one agrees with the contents of his book matters little. It is a must for friends and foes alike. 

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