Book Review

Choices by Shivshankar Menon

As an Indian citizen, often I wonder whether successive Indian Governments from Nehru to Modi have a strategic foreign policy to engage with the world at large, secure our interests from adverse neighbours around and do more. Post independence for many decades India championed Non-Alignment. As (then) a poor country, it would’ve been logical for it to place itself under the security umbrella of either of the superpower – the Soviet Union and the United States of America, and benefit from the relationship. Instead, by staying mostly equidistant, subscribing to (in my view) an ill-fated socialistic ideology it lost opportunities when our neighbours gained economically and militarily during the period. Being the largest democracy in the world, it will be expected that major foreign policies undertaken by Government of India would be debated extensively in parliament and put before the people and voted on. Instead, foreign policy decisions are taken by the executive covertly and often apologetically.

Let us look at few examples of these, taken post-liberation (1991):

  1. For the generation which fought and got freedom from the imperial Britain, China was a friend, a fellow victim, which they truly believed, they even taught their kids the slogan of Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai (Indians and Chinese are brothers). For them, it was a body blow when China attacked in 1962 and decimated the young republics defences. In India for next 30 years, China was a thorn of concern. India didn’t have the military or economic might to revenge the Chinese and claim back every lost inch as Parliament had vowed during the way, nor was it ready to reconcile to reality and patch up for the larger good. Yet in 1993, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao announced the signing of Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement with China, which effectively recognised the prevailing Line of Actual Control (LAC) which in many portions were not even defined and vowing not to use force to settle the boundary.
  2. During the Parliament elections of 2009, when Sri Lanka was waging the final phase of a 25-year war with LTTE (Tamil Tigers), it was discussed on stage only in the state of Tamil Nadu, never becoming a national issue. During the war, the 60 million Tamils in India were worried about the safety of 2.2 million Tamils of Sri Lanka, yet Indian Government conspicuously stay away on the issue.
  3. This was also the period when the wounds were fresh from the 26/11 Mumbai attack waged by LeT with the backing of Pakistan Army & ISI. The attack damaging the pride and prestige of Indian Armed forces and its political leadership dramatically, yet the opposition got no visible gain at the polling booths. Immediately after the attack, India didn’t try to go after the actors of the crime in Pakistan by using its superior military might as many around the world expected it would.
  4. India’s Nuclear tests in 1974 and in 1998 was a show of strength by respective Governments nationalist agenda, aimed at a domestic audience than for any visible international gains. For twenty-five years after acquiring Nuclear capabilities India remained silent. Yet it never signed to Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, opting to retain its rights for further development. Then in 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced India-U.S. Civil Nuclear Initiative. Later in 2007, India agreed to the standards of NSG, the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Wassenaar Arrangement (which limits conventional weapons exports), and the Australia Group (which regulates trade in dual-use chemicals) and to international nuclear safeguards. It is unclear what it gained for its impeccable record on non-proliferation compared with Pakistan & China.

To understand what went through the minds of policy makers of India while making the above four choices & more, you should read this book “Choices” – Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy by Shivshankar Menon. A veteran diplomat, Shivshankar was India’s foreign secretary from 2006 to 2009, served as India’s envoy to Israel, Sri Lanka, China & Pakistan and lastly as National Security Adviser to the Prime Minister of India from 2010 to 2014. Though there was nothing unknown told in its pages, the book serves as a guide on why India behaves the way it does on the world stage. The author puts forward the reasoning behind India’s actions and inactions.

In the fifth chapter, he goes into detail to explain Why India Pledges No First Use of Nuclear Weapons. He puts a good argument on why this became the official position of India. What could be seen by many to be counter-initiative proved advantageous to India in its efforts to manage the threat from Pakistan – a fellow NWS (Nuclear Weapons State) which operates with different motivations & acts through non-state actors. Pakistan is the only NSW which has put it’s nuclear arsenal under the control of its army and is fast turning its nuclear weapons for tactical advantage and military usage, here the author shares his worry of a rogue Pakistan Air Force pilot deciding to take the law into his own hands armed with deployable nuclear weapons. Shivshankar Menon feels the Pakistan Army learned wrong lessons from Kargil war, which was that Pakistan’s nuclear shield permits it to undertake terrorist attacks on India without fear of retaliation. He feels this may well have figured in the Pakistan Army’s calculations behind the audacious Mumbai attack of November 26, 2008.

The book gives you glimpses of the operational style of individual Prime Ministers of India. For example in 1992 during the negotiations with Chinese on the border agreement, PM Rao had asked the author to keep the opposition leaders constantly informed, that’s when Shivshankar Menon was asked by A.B.Vajpayee who was the opposition leader “Do you think this is good for India?”

One clue Shivshankar leaves for the reader to figure out how India will react in future is:

The policy decisions discussed were strategically bold but tactically cautious. There are some who argue that there is a “unique Indian strategic culture of restraint”. ..This caution in practice may owe to systemic factors: since foreign policy decision making is so centralised in the prime minister, and the Ministry of External Affairs lacks capability in India, no single actor or hierarchy in India is sufficiently empowered or has the time to ensure that policy is implemented satisfactorily. The corollary to the central role of the prime minister in decision making is the weak institutionalisation of foreign policy implementation in India. India has serious capacity issues in the implementation of foreign policy and lacks the institutional depth to see policy through.

Most of the book has been about the retelling of what happened, but the book has served its purpose in my view with the above paragraph. This and many other insights makes the book a must-read for any student or actor handling India’s foreign policies.

Reading the book, you understand why the following quote is very true when it comes to foreign policies:

Men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all the other alternatives – Abba Eban


Also published on Medium.