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Book review: Pax Indica by Shashi Tharoor

by Daaman Thandi
Wednesday, November 14, 2012 at 16 : 32

The title Pax Indica, which literally translates into 'Indian peace,' borrows its title from the ancient Pax Romana and the more recent concept of Pax Americana and Pax Britannica. The book stipulates a similar grand strategy of relative peace and glory for India. Despite the grand title, this is not an attempt by Tharoor to write his magnum opus on India's Foreign Policy. Instead, as Tharoor puts it himself, "This book is a work of reflection, not scholarship." The title nonetheless is a misnomer and reflects Tharoor's overtly optimistic beliefs in India. The book at best provides a perfunctory overview of India's foreign relations and interactions without being overly critical of the government and bypasses analyzing diplomatic failures such as the IPKF in Sri Lanka.

The key limitation of the book is that Tharoor, former Minister of State for External Affairs of India and former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, gives very much an Indian perspective and builds on the 'Mera Bharat Mahaan' (my India is great) ethos rather than trying to give a more objective view that would have attempted to explore the dynamics and thinking process of the other side.

Formulating an effective foreign policy requires a coherent understanding of the other perspective and not a one-sided moralistic stand which refutes any shortcomings. The book seeks to present the Indian foreign policy, but instead builds the ego of a parsimonious foreign ministry that he himself criticizes in the book.

India's relations with Pakistan addressed under a chapter titled "brother enemy," presents hackneyed arguments; regurgitating one-sided textbook history. A more thorough understanding that at least attempts to present the insecurity of Pakistan and why it acts the way it does isn't even mildly attempted. Topics such as the role of the US support of Muhajideen and Taliban are evaded. Instead, Tharoor adopts a condescending tone that makes assertions such as "lasting peace would leave Pakistan without its reason d'etre," calls out the nation for having "a smooth president, a bluff prime minister" and "a glamorous president" and goes on to state that "insisting on parity with Pakistan is to bring ourselves down to their level."

Tharoor makes up for his patronizing treatment of the matter by identifying opportunities and laying out strategies for improving foreign relations which he insists are "less negative than many, even within India, assume." He recognizes the emergence of a new mood in Pakistan, as it becomes victim to the terrorists it once sponsored.

This, he asserts, has put the Kashmir issue on the backburner and created an urgency in Pakistan in saving itself. Tharoor calls for "India to seize the moment to build a lasting peace" not only because it's the right thing to do, but also because by helping Pakistan, "it will be helping itself, as well."

Tharoor extends this argument of "helping itself, as well" to India's broader neighborhood, with which we share a mired past. He stresses the need for a more robust SAARC alliance, over the involvement in the Non-Aligned Movement, and dwells on the salience of a water treaty with Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan with a caveat that this evolvement in relationship should have "no hint of hegemonism." Tharoor suggests that India adopt regional ties over bilateral ties, which are the preferred option in the region.

The underlying thesis of the book is the suggestion that India move beyond non-alignment to a more "promiscuous" strategy of multi- alignment that "exempts no country from its embrace." A mutli-aligned India would essentially serve "as one of the principled fulcrums of a networked globe." Multi-alignment in simple terms is a 'pick and choose' approach, in accordance with India's national interest, as opposed to a blanket approach that is limiting in nature. Tharoor's grand strategy of multi-alignment and a continued emphasis on promoting domestic transformation presents the same story with a new title.

Pax Indica is lucidly written and covers major topics related to India's foreign policy: from China, Palestine, the global commons to soft power; albeit in an inchoate manner. It is non-academic and does not take a realpolitik position but instead dwells on the aspirational role India can and should play in an increasingly multipolar world with a looming China on the rise. The book is of heuristic value and a good read for Indian Foreign Policy novices, an elusive subject that has not gained much traction within the country.


More about Daaman Thandi

Daaman Thandi is an international relations student at Jindal Institute/American University, and will keep an eye on America for ibnlive.
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