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Excerpt: Shashi Tharoor on India and the world of the 21st century

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Jul 13, 2012 at 04:37pm IST

'Indian diplomacy,' a veteran told Shashi Tharoor many years ago, "is like the love-making of an elephant: it is conducted at a very high level, accompanied by much bellowing, and the results are not known for two years." The award-winning author and parliamentarian demonstrates how Indian diplomacy has become sprightlier since then and where it needs to focus in the world of the 21st century.

Explaining why foreign policy matters to an India focused on its own domestic transformation, Tharoor surveys India's major international relationships in detail, evokes the country's soft power and its global responsibilities, analyses the workings of the Ministry of External Affairs, parliament and public opinion on the shaping of policy, and offers his thoughts on a contemporary new "grand strategy" for the nation, arguing that India must move beyond non-alignment to "multi-alignment". His book 'Pax Indica' offers a clear-eyed vision of an India now ready to assume new global responsibility in the contemporary world.

Here's an excerpt from the book:

Excerpt: Shashi Tharoor on India and the world

Shashi Tharoor surveys India's major international relationships in his book 'Pax Indica'.

Chapter 2: A Tough Neighbourhood

In 1410, near the Sri Lankan coastal town of Galle, the Chinese Admiral Zheng He erected a stone tablet with a message to the world. His inscription was in three languages-Chinese, Persian and Tamil-and his message was even more remarkable: according to Robert Kaplan's 2010 book Monsoon, it 'invoked the blessings of the Hindu deities for a peaceful world built on trade'. Six hundred years ago, a Chinese sailor-statesman called upon Indian gods as he set out to develop commercial links with the Middle East and East Africa through the Indian subcontinent. The subcontinent has long been at the centre of Asia's most vital trade routes, and India's commanding position at the heart of South Asia places it in both an enviable and a much-resented position. As an editorialist in the Indian magazine Seminar observed: 'The overwhelming presence of India creates an asymmetry that pushes other, smaller countries, into suspecting hegemony in every proposal for greater cooperation, in turn feeding into an incipient irritation within India that its neighbours are united only in their anti-India sentiment.'

No one loves a huge neighbour: one need only ask the Mexicans what they think about the United States, or the Ukrainians their views of Russia. India cannot help the fact that, whether it wants to or not, it accounts for 70 per cent of the population of the eight countries that make up the subcontinent's premier regional organization, the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC). Worse, it accounts for 80 per cent of the region's collective GDP, and is by far its most militarily powerful member. Whenever India gets together with its neighbours, it occupies more space, and displaces more weight, than the rest of them combined. Even the most adroit diplomacy would not be able to skirt the implications of this inescapable reality: India is the proverbial 298-pound gorilla on the beach, whose slightest step will immediately be seen by the skinny 98-pounders as proof of insensitivity, bullying or worse. Nonetheless, there is a widespread perception, which New Delhi would be unwise to ignore, that India's relations with the countries neighbouring it have been poorly managed. While its recent rise, unlike China's, is largely seen around the world as benign, India's neighbours hardly constitute an echo-chamber for global applause. Of the eight nations with which it shares a land or maritime border-Pakistan, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and the Maldives-there has been a history of problems, of varying degrees of difficulty, with six. (Two of these, Pakistan and China, are discussed in separate chapters and will only be tangentially referred to here.) Adding Afghanistan to the list (though technically it does not belong, after Pakistan's capture in 1948 of the strip of land in north-western Kashmir that made Afghanistan a territorial neighbour of India's), India has nine countries in its direct neighbourhood which are all, in varying degrees, vital to its national security. As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh remarked during his October 2011 visit to Bangladesh, 'India will not be able to realize its own destiny without the partnership of its South Asian neighbours.'

The charge that relations with most of them have been generally unsatisfactory is not untrue. Yet it is partly because of circumstances beyond India's own control. First, most of these nations share borders only with India, so what Prof. S.D. Muni, in the title of one of his books, called 'the pangs of proximity' afflict each of them only in relation to India. Many have had to define their identity in relation to India; the sustaining historical narrative underpinning their nationalisms has often been derived from their anxiety to differentiate themselves from the Indian mega-narrative. If India is a civilizational construct embracing unity amid vast diversity, each of its neighbours has to accentuate its own particularisms; for if separateness is not established, what distinguishes each of these countries from any Indian state? This anxiety to demonstrate 'not-Indianness' and resistance to any seeming cultural assimilation is often at the root of their concerns about Indian hegemony. In many cases, India became a factor in some countries' domestic politics, with India-bashing often an easy route to cheap popularity in the hothouse politics of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal or Sri Lanka.

More tangibly, each of these neighbouring nations has had to cope with internal crises whose effects spilled over into their relations with India. Just a few years ago, the picture across South Asia was bleak: Afghanistan battling the forces of a resurgent Taliban; Pakistan in turmoil, with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and chaos in the streets; Nepal in the throes of a Maoist insurgency that toppled its monarchy; Bhutan managing a delicate transition from absolute monarchy to constitutional democracy; Bangladesh under military rule; Myanmar continuing to imprison Aung San Suu Kyi and her fellow democrats, while keeping the country an isolated tyranny; Sri Lanka convulsed by a bloody and brutal civil war that was well into its third decade; and even the Maldives facing mass disturbances in the lead-up to elections in which a formerly imprisoned dissident, Mohammed Nasheed, was seeking to defeat the long-time ruler, Abdul Gayoom. The cliché that India lives in a tough and tumultuous neighbourhood could not have seemed truer. And yet, in the last couple of years, there has been progress almost everywhere. Nepal's civil war is over and a coalition government holds the reins. Bhutan's political experiment, of a managed transition to multiparty democracy under a constitutional monarch, is going remarkably well. Bangladesh has held a free election and restored civilian democratic government. In Sri Lanka the military victory over the murderous forces of the LTTE was followed by elections and notably conciliatory language by the triumphant, but not overly triumphalist, government. The Maldives elected the former dissident as president, the autocrat gamely made way, and the new democratic leader was bravely facing his country's many challenges until being forced to resign in a bloodless transfer of power to his vice-president in 2012. Even Myanmar held a relatively free election, albeit with severe restrictions, and freed its principal dissidents. Only in Afghanistan and Pakistan do fundamental difficulties persist. The prospects for peace, security and development look promising everywhere else on the subcontinent.

Listing the problems endemic to these countries is not to imply that India has been blameless in its own conduct. In Nepal, India's notalways- positive reputation for interference in that country's domestic affairs has generally not been undeserved. The border with Bangladesh has witnessed more shooting incidents in recent years than is explicable or reasonable, and despite the overwhelming imbalance between the two countries' forces, Indian border guards did not hesitate to shoot to kill Bangladeshi infiltrators, including migrant workers and petty smugglers, caught crossing the long and poorly demarcated border between the two countries. In Myanmar, India has abandoned its earlier policy of overt support for the democratic forces, extending support to the country's dictatorial junta to the disappointment of many of New Delhi's oldest friends. Relations with Sri Lanka remain complicated both by the history of India's prior involvement-support for the Tamil militancy, then a disastrous military intervention that engaged Indian troops in battles with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and resulted in their ignominious withdrawal-and by India's legitimate desire, made more urgent by its own domestic political imperatives, to see a political accommodation on the island that respects the aspirations of the Tamils. In all cases, India's prioritization of relations with global powers like the United States and China and its disproportionate focus in the neighbourhood on Pakistan have come at the cost of due attention to its other neighbours.

Of course it would be wrong to cite these examples as a reason to place the entire onus for any subcontinental dysfunctionalities on India alone. Large parts of South Asia have made great progress-economically, socially and politically-over the last few decades. Yet, there are a number of challenges that continue to beset the region and that hold back the true potential of our countries, individually as well as collectively. These include terrorism and extremism, and the use of these as instruments of state policy; and the daily terror of hunger, unemployment, illiteracy, disease and the effects of climate change. And less obvious but equally potent, restrictions on regional trade and transit that belong to an older, more mercantilist century. That many Indian states, in India's federal polity, have serious issues with their neighbours (concerns in Bengal and Bihar about movement of goods and people from Bangladesh and Nepal, for instance, or the treatment of Tamils in Sri Lanka, and at one time Pakistani support for separatist Khalistani militancy in Punjab) injects domestic political compulsions into New Delhi's thinking, particularly in an era of coalition governance, where the views of political allies must be imperatively taken into account. A political tendency in some of the neighbouring countries to adopt 'blame India' as a default internal political strategy has in turn bedevilled perceptions. These are among the factors that drag the people of the subcontinent back from the path of sustained peace, development and prosperity.

As I have already argued, the principal thrust of India's foreign policy ought to be to promote the domestic transformation, development and growth of India. The neighbourhood remains vital in this regard. Whereas more distant areas of the globe-the investment-generating countries of the Americas and Europe, and the energy-supplying countries in the Gulf, Africa and Central Asia-offer obvious opportunities for India, problems in the immediate neighbourhood generate both threats and opportunities-and the threats risk undermining India's efforts fundamentally. Weak and failing states, as scholars have noted, are able to subvert the larger ambitions of the more dominant countries neighbouring them. The Indian analyst Nitin Pai has gone so far as to argue that 'India's neighbours know that their own weakness is a source of implicit and explicit bargaining power'. Be that as it may, a rising India has an obvious interest in the success of its neighbours, since a stable neighbourhood contributes to an enabling environment for India's own domestic objectives, while disturbances on India's borders can act as a constraint on India's continued rise.

India's geopolitical strategists, both inside and outside government, have tended to see India's interests globally (witness the attention paid to relations with the United States, or India's role at the UN and the Non-Aligned Movement); in the neighbourhood, they have focused mainly on the threats to the nation's rise from the Pakistani military and its terrorist proxies, and to a somewhat lesser degree from the emergence of China and its impact on India's stature in the region. The result has been that the rest of the neighbourhood has sometimes been treated with neglect rather than close attention, and occasionally with a condescension that some have seen as arrogance. Whereas China is generally viewed as having managed its relationship with its neighbours well-though this image is fraying now with reports of Beijing's increasing belligerence in the South China Sea-India is widely considered not to have done enough to transform its neighbourhood from a liability into an asset.

Seventeen Indian states share land or maritime borders with foreign countries. The need to work for a peaceful periphery, devoid of the threat of extremism, is self-evident; less obvious but even more necessary is the need to embrace the neighbouring countries in a narrative of shared opportunity and mutually beneficial development. This has worldwide implications for India. As the authors of a March 2012 report on India's external relations, 'Nonalignment 2.0', point out: 'India's ability to command respect is considerably diminished by the resistance it meets in the region. South Asia also places fetters on India's global ambitions. Our approaches to international law [and] international norms are overly inhibited by anxieties about the potential implications that our commitment to certain global norms may have for our options in the neighbourhood.'

For the Indian foreign policy-maker, there is no getting away from the fundamental verities underpinning our relationships on the subcontinent. The question that all of us who belong to this ancient land need to ask ourselves is whether we desire peaceful coexistence and cooperation or are reconciled to being irretrievably mired in conflict and confrontation. A subcontinent at peace benefits all who live in it; one troubled by hostility, destructive rivalry, conflict and terror pulls us all down.

India must refuse to be dragged down by such forces. We need to look to the future, to an interrelated South Asian future where geography becomes an instrument of opportunity in our mutual growth story, where history binds rather than divides, where trade and cross-border links flourish and bring prosperity to all our peoples. Some will say these are merely dreams; yet there are few worthwhile achievements in the world that have not been preceded by ambitious aspirations. But dreams will only turn into reality if we take action to accomplish this brighter future together. Only work on the ground will help us overcome prejudiced mindsets, dogmatic doctrines and self-perpetuating myths. One thing is however clear. Our destinies are inextricably linked and we have to work together to lift our lives out of underdevelopment and conflict to peace and prosperity.

Book: Pax Indica; Author: Shashi Tharoor; Published by: Penguin Books India; Published 15 July 2012; Imprint: Allen Lane; Book Format Royal; Extent 456 pages; Genre: Non-Fiction, Current Affairs, Politics; Language: English; Price Rs 799

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