Book Title: India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present
Author: Shivshankar Menon
It is a sign of the times we live in that even a casual discussion of an insightful book on geopolitics spills over into talk about the Covid-19 pandemic. On a morning walk a few days ago with my two neighbours, both retired Grade I Indian ambassadors, one of them asked if either of us had read “Shankar’s new book”. Shivshankar Menon, author of ‘India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present’, is called Shankar by his seniors in the Indian Foreign Service (IFS).
In response, the other retired envoy said: “Shankar writes in his book that during the 1965 war, he went about Delhi with friends enforcing the blackout against Pakistani air raids. Not the man we know.” The first ambassador responded: “We are like that only. We could all have been blown to bits by Pakistani air raids, yet we wouldn’t switch off our lights! What chance is there that we will follow Covid appropriate behaviour now!”
Because the author had jobs which most IFS officers only fantasise about, it is not surprising that analysis in the book is born out of rich and varied experience. Menon was National Security Adviser to the Prime Minister for four years, Foreign Secretary for three and is the only Indian diplomat to have spent his childhood in Lhasa, where his father, PN Menon, was Consul-General.
Yet, the more revealing pages of this book are those that convey his observations, rarely disclosed before, about politicians who ultimately decide the course of India’s foreign policy. “In my experience of diplomacy and policy-making, most of the brilliant thoughts, concepts and ideas that analysts and historians discuss, seldom influence the politicians and policymakers who make the decisions that are the raw material of history,” writes the author. He is, however, generous towards the “better ones” among politicians who are “acutely aware of how their decisions will appear to their constituencies and have a clear sense of the power equations… around them.”
The contents are neatly arranged in three parts divided in chronological order, starting with India’s Independence up to the inevitability of globalisation, which make up Part I. This part is described as “The Past”, a somewhat jarring description because the period covered here is not really all that in the past, especially for the multitude of Indians who have lived through those years. Part II or “The Present” asserts that while other powers in a crowded Asia are rising, China has already risen. Coming from one of the foremost contemporary Sinologists, this assertion, although true, will not be easily digested by a majority of Indians, who refuse to accept that the balance of power between India and China has shifted over time. Or acknowledge that mutual dependencies on each other by India and China call for a modus vivendi where the two countries can prosper together as competitors in Asia instead of adversaries who simultaneously stand to lose.
Part III stands apart as a single chapter on “India’s Tasks”, the most fascinating portion of the book. It attempts to outline India’s future situated in an Asia where several states, big and small, some of them vastly more dynamic than India, are zealously guarding their interests. Globalisation has made it a field where India has to compete with them for its place in the sun.
An “Afterword” is where Menon takes off his gloves, as it were. He does not mince words in summing up what many Indians consider an existential crisis for their country. “We have lost five years. Our national confidence has been replaced by bravado and extravagant statements.” The book ends with a call to reject “prejudices masquerading as ideas” as well as fear and polarisation. It is a call from someone who knows India’s place in the world to reorder the country’s priorities with something that has universal appeal.
A large number of works on foreign policy have lately come on bookshelves. Compared to most of them, this book has been creditably fact-checked. One wishes the author had written shorter sentences. Many readers will find that sentences have to be re-read because one loses track of the thought at the start of a sentence by the time one reaches the next full stop.