Kanti P Bajpai and Harsh V Pant have edited a new book on India’s foreign policy in the form of a reader. It has several well-crafted contributions by renowned scholars on different aspects of India’s foreign policy behaviour. The scope of the book is, however, fairly circumscribed. India’s relations with Russia and Japan and the country’s multilateral diplomacy at the United Nations are pretty large and significant chunks to put aside in any volume that seeks to explore the various facets of India’s foreign policy. A better description of the book would have been “Selected Readings”, rather than the suggestion that it is a reader that could serve as a pedagogic guide for students of the subject.
Having said that, the editors should be complimented on their Introduction, which provides an excellent summary of ideas presented by the different contributors. There is a useful discussion of that perennial question: does India have a strategic culture, and what are the wellsprings of its strategic thinking? The editors point out that India does, in some fashion, strategise its external choices and that these are influenced by both institutions and individuals.
The takeaway from the contributions of both Professor Bajpai and Steve Cohen is that there have always been competing and coexistent strands in India’s world view. The apparent salience of one compared to another is the result of a complex dynamic. In most cases, India made sensible and pragmatic choices in its external relations. After all, it was a non-aligned India under Jawaharlal Nehru that entered a strategic partnership with the Soviet Union. This lasted 30 years, from 1960 to 1990; it gave India the much-needed room for manoeuvre vis-a-vis its key adversaries, China and Pakistan, and helped it deal with its own considerable vulnerabilities. Mr Cohen argues that India somehow lost the bet it made on Moscow since the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of the Cold War. But in the regional and global security environment that confronted India during the Cold War years, its choice of the Soviet Union as a strategic partner was rational and perhaps inevitable. When change came at the end of the Cold War, India showed considerable nimble-footedness in adapting to a transformed geopolitical environment.
I read with interest Manjari Chatterjee Miller’s chapter, “Recollecting Empire: Victimhood and the 1962 Sino-Indian War”. That the behaviour of India and China has been deeply influenced by the experience of colonialism and semi-colonialism is obvious. But her concept of “post-imperial ideology” misses out the critical role played by the Tibet issue in precipitating the Chinese military assault on Indian forces. India-China relations began deteriorating in 1959 after the revolt in Tibet and the sanctuary provided to the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan refugees in India. What until then had been a largely peaceful – though contested – border became a strategic preoccupation for China. India’s so-called “forward policy” began to be seen as decidedly more sinister, aimed at undermining Chinese control over Tibet, rather than as tactical manoeuvres.
On another point, Nehru’s behaviour at the Bandung conference in 1955 may have been seen as condescending towards China, but until 1959 relations between the two countries were witnessing their best period in recent history. The carping came later. Nehru viewed the resurgence of Asia as a joint project of its two great civilisations. He had no illusions that China would accept being a junior partner any more than India would.
Would Nehru have declined a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council in favour of China, as Professor Chatterjee Miller suggests? Was this offered to India in 1945 when the United Nations was set up, over the claims of the Republic of China (ROC), ruled by Chiang Kai-shek? There was no reason to choose India over the ROC, which was one of the victorious Allied powers. If the offer was made after the People’s Republic of China was born in 1949, there was no question of the permanent seat occupied by the ROC – which was allied to the US at the time – being offered to a non-aligned India. If a seat was being offered to India in addition to that occupied by the ROC, then what would India gain by refusing it?
Professor Pant’s piece on the Indo-US nuclear deal provides a good narrative of how a particularly toxic legacy in Indo-US relations was removed, clearing the decks for a closer and productive partnership. The domestic political controversy in India is covered well. Much of the credit goes to Pranab Mukherjee, the then foreign minister, for the successful political horse-trading that saw the exit of the Left parties from the government and the garnering of the Samajwadi Party’s support, which made it possible to take the deal through the last mile.
This volume is a good compilation, which will hopefully generate further debate and commentary on India’s foreign policy. We look forward to the promised companion volume on India’s security.
INDIA’S FOREIGN POLICY – A READER
(Eds) Kanti P Bajpai and Harsh V Pant
Oxford University Press
496 pages; Rs 1,095