Sunday, February 8, 2004

Incisive study of India’s external ties
Parshotam Mehra

India’s Foreign Policy 1947-2003
by J.N. Dixit. Picus, 2003. Pages xii+527. Rs 595.

A SURVEY of India’s foreign policy over the past half a century and more does not come easy calling as it does for a familiarity with its historical background and its evolution. In addition, the complexities of the international order in which New Delhi had to fashion its responses also have to be considered. There is no doubt that mistakes have been made but at the same time many successes have also been notched up.

The broad pattern of Dixit’s study is easy to comprehend. The first part sums up major events chronologically; the second, presents an analysis of specific issues, the third, a critical analysis of our strengths, weaknesses and the challenges we are up against in the new century. The postscript deals with the post-Pokhran II years.

Initially New Delhi demonstrated a singular capacity to represent the emerging political aspirations of the developing world. Those who criticise Nehru for his idealistic approach to China should remember that as early as in 1955 when he visited China he noted his hosts "Sino-centric assertive mindset." All the same, he was convinced that a friendly relationship with China was essential for peace and solidarity in Asia.

Despite his lifelong disdain for India and its politics, Churchill wrote Nehru a warm letter (February 1955) reminding him of the phrase "The Light of Asia". He also suggested that Nehru might be able to do "what no other human being could", in giving India the lead at least in the realm of thought throughout Asia, "with freedom and dignity of the individual as the ideal rather than the Communist Party drill book." A well-deserved tribute to the man who mapped out the contours of our foreign policy.

While "validly" criticised for being acerbic, confrontationist and cut-and-dried in his attitudes and methods of interaction, Krishna Menon was an "architect" of India’s foreign and defence policies that gave the country "a sense of identity, confidence and clarity". His role, Dixit insists, must be "acknowledged" and "not forgotten."

It is important to bear in mind the fact that few anticipated China’s evil intentions in 1962, not even our then ambassador in Beijing G. Parthasarthy. China "reciprocating" Indian gestures — according diplomatic recognition to Mao’s regime and going to town for its cause in the UN — should have had no relevance in a logical and realistic foreign policy. Beijing was "hard-nosed" and focused on its territorial aspirations and strategic interests while New Delhi let go quite a few opportunities. For one, in 1954 in return for accepting the resumption of China’s authority in Tibet, India should have demanded Beijing’s ratification of the boundary which had been delineated by the British. Again, a "firmer stance" when clear signs were discovered about our neighbour’s territorial ambitions (1956-8) would have paid dividends. Sadly, our threat perceptions were focused on Pakistan. For the record, Chinese "historical claims were (and are) exaggerated"; their political stance "rigid and unimaginative." Not that New Delhi’s is any the better. For positive results, a "practical and flexible" approach is called for; in its absence, "complete normalisation" of relations with Beijing would be "difficult".

New Delhi’s foreign policy success lay in its "structuring" a working relationship with all the major powers of the world on a continuous basis over the past 50 odd years especially because this was done within the framework of democratic system. Our future challenges lie in dealing with macro level problems such as population control, environment management and economic development and above all in creating a strong Indian economy without a confrontation with the US. Moreover, a national consensus based on enlightened public opinion will have to be evolved and our nuclear weapons status will have to be managed both politically and diplomatically. These are challenging tasks, more so in that the certainties of the Cold War have been replaced by new impulses and new global power equations in a world that has become ever more complex.

The success or failure of our foreign policy would depend upon evolving a general national consensus and meeting national objectives. Sadly, the ground realities, especially the rise of communalism and casteist as well as ethno-linguistic centrifugal forces leave one concerned. In the final count our success would be won or lost more on the domestic than the diplomatic front.

A part of the foreign policy establishment for over three decades, Dixit had excellent opportunities to learn his craft. His narrative has the clear imprint of a thorough grasp of men and events, and a sharp analytical mind. A large impressive tome, his study originally published as Across the Borders: Fifty Years of India’ Foreign Policy (1998) now reappears in an "updated" incarnation. Sadly, it suffers from avoidable verbiage with sententious remarks coming up time and again; the "imposition of repetition" to use the author’s own words. Surely, a thinner, more sharply focused if critical appraisal, would be a better deal.