In "The India Way", published by Harper Collins, India's External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar catalogues India's journey in the arena of its external relations over a period spanning more than seven decades. Having been a career diplomat for more than four decades, Jaishankar has had a ringside view of the evolution of India's foreign policy as it moved and adapted to the various twists and turns on the global stage, both near and far, since the country's independence in 1947. His representation of India as an ambassador in key missions like Beijing and Washington, DC—both of which form an integral part in India's foreign policy—and his assignments in Moscow and Japan, among others, have served to enrich his first-hand knowledge and his experience as a diplomat. All this culminated with his appointment as India's foreign secretary in 2015, an assignment that put him in the position of a kingpin in the execution of its foreign policy. This coincided with a period when regional and global geo-politics continued to shift at breakneck speed and, more often than not, followed an unpredictable pattern, while India's relevance continued to gain currency in all these theatres and through all these stages. Now as its External Affairs Minister, Jaishankar has graduated from being a foreign policy practitioner to a maker of foreign policy. This ensures a continuity of his pivotal role in the domain of the management of India's external relations. The book is pre-Galwan, and so the part of it that relates to India-China relations needs to be seen in that context.
The richness of the book derives from the fact that the author has dwelled not so much on his own experiences as a diplomat, as many tend to do, but on India and the choices it made in the realm of foreign policy over a considerably long period of time. Jaishankar has been most objective and candid in his assessment of where it did right and where it did not. As an example, he mentions, on more than one occasion, the positive impact that India's role in Bangladesh's Liberation War in 1971 had on India's stature as a player not just in the immediate and peripheral region but also on the global stage, with an emphasis on the manner in which it was executed diplomatically and militarily. In the same breath, he describes India's Sri Lanka exercise as a "misadventure", one that failed to take into account the ground realities of local political and social sensitivities and the adverse military realities on the ground.
In the early part of the book, Jaishankar prescribes, from his vantage position, that the current time is one when India must engage America, manage China, cultivate Europe, reassure Russia, bring Japan into play, draw neighbours in, extend the neighbourhood and expand the traditional constituencies of support. He then goes on to elaborate on these goals in greater detail in the subsequent chapters.
Such a broad tapestry, needless to say, presents a major challenge for the policymakers, more so when some of the goals appear to be paradoxical, if not contradictory. However, the author strongly feels that if India were to continue to emerge as a consequential player in a multi-polar Asia, and in a shifting global order, it must be able to multi-task its foreign policy operations in a manner that will enable it to achieve its objectives and meet its own national interests in the short, mid and long terms. He says that such a bold approach may call for "plunging into the unknown", which requires both judgement and courage. In a nuanced assessment of the past, he says that while the past may be an influence, it can no longer be a determinant of the future. In the same vein, he states that timidity cannot be passed off as a strategy nor indecision as wisdom.
Jaishankar expands on this by referring to a failed opportunity to settle the boundary and territorial issues with China in the early 1950s when the People's Republic was globally more isolated, or for delaying India's arrival on the nuclear platform until 1998 and not shortly after 1974. On the positive side, he describes the nuclear deal with the United States following long and hard bargaining as a major feather in India's cap. On the latter, India demonstrated its determination to keep its options open while not being seen as a threat or a source of further nuclear proliferation. He also advocates that when it comes to matters of security, the country's idealistic commitments, like the one to non-alignment, must not act as an impediment to India adopting a robust, proactive stance. He appropriately cites India's position and its firmness to act, as it did in 1971 on the Bangladesh issue, as a case in point.
In chapter 4 of the book, titled "Dogmas of Delhi", Jaishankar spells out the evolution of India's foreign policy making in six phases, starting with the time of independence in 1947 and reaching up to the present. This is basically a collage of its successes and failures. His description of failures includes the military defeat to China in 1962, and the inconclusive war with Pakistan in 1965. The triumphs include the victory in 1971 leading to the birth of an independent Bangladesh, the 1998 nuclear empowerment, and the 2002 nuclear deal with the US. This particular chapter, at least to me, represents the soul of the book, especially because of its prescriptive form. He suggests that a power that is serious about self-improvement should not shrink from undertaking an honest introspection regarding missed chances and shortcomings. Only through such an exercise, he believes, can the future courses of action be better planned and executed. He explains the seeming dichotomies in India's multiple trilateral or multilateral arrangements as a willingness to look beyond dogmas and enter "the real world of convergences".
As is to be expected, a complete chapter of the book talks of India's long and most troublesome relationship with China, its neighbour to the north. He traces the history of the passage of this critical relationship, one whose ramifications do not remain limited to the two players only but spread deeply into the neighbourhood and far beyond, both on the land and in the sea. While covering the undulating nature and the difficult bilateral trajectory of this relationship in the current complicated global context, Jaishankar states that the challenge for India is to manage a more powerful neighbour while ensuring its own rise. The Galwan skirmishes in May this year, leading to military casualties on both sides for the first time in many decades, have thrown in a very different element into an already difficult equation. In the face of hardening nationalist sentiments on both sides following Galwan, policymakers may need to go back to the drawing board to face the future.
In the book, Jaishankar describes the multifaceted nature of India's relations with the United States and the challenges and opportunities therein. India's difficult ties with Pakistan, both bilaterally and in the context of China's place in it, find due mention.
The author argues strongly for a sustained and vibrant engagement with Japan by India that will augment the existing diplomatic ties with security arrangements. For an India that is moving forward in the Indo-Pacific region, this makes perfect sense. Importantly, the book balances well the importance of its relations with the bigger global players as much as it should with its immediate and smaller neighbours. He emphasises that an India growing in strength needs a friendly neighbourhood.
The book is aptly rounded up with a summary of the imponderables that the coronavirus has thrown up globally. Jaishankar argues that the pandemic that still shows no sign of letting up has made it abundantly imperative for all to find common ground on the very questions that are today sources of contention.
"The India Way" is a well-choreographed compilation of taking stock of past events and actions, placing them in the present context, and helping them shape the future course of India's foreign policy. Given the richness of its contents, its objective form and candid expressions, it's a must read as much for the current and future generations of India's foreign policy practitioners as it is for the policymakers. Diplomatic and global political analysts outside the country will also find it a very useful book to study.
Dr. S. Jaishankar does not hesitate to admit that while India may be a rising power, it clearly has a long distance to go. It is this sense of pragmatic realism that makes the book a product of high quality scholarly work.
Shamsher M Chowdhury, BB, is a former foreign secretary of Bangladesh.