Since India's independence in 1947, several of its diplomats have written diplomatic memoirs, sometimes of great quality. Those familiar with this genre will refer to the report by K.P.S. Menon, one of the Indian ambassadors in Moscow, or K.M. Panikkar or Sisir Gupta, both well-known scholar-diplomats. But few Indian foreign affairs officials have written a book on New Delhi's relations with the world while in office.
Consequently, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar's new book, The India Way, marks an important departure from the past. Jaishankar, currently India's foreign minister, has had a remarkable diplomatic career: as a former ambassador to the US and China, he was appointed foreign minister in 2015, the highest official in the Indian foreign service. After a brief stint in the corporate world following his retirement in 2018, he was inducted into his cabinet by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May 2019.
Why write a book now? Jaishankar tries to outline how India should forge a foreign policy in a world where China's rise and assertiveness are changing the contours of global politics. It also outlines a way in which India can deal with significant and novel forces in international politics – especially with resurgent nationalism and the rejection of globalization. But while Jaishankar addresses these issues, his book suffers from too many abstractions and generalities.
After all, writing a book on a country's foreign policy as foreign minister is fraught with pitfalls. One of them, of course, is the critical question of openness. How does Jaishankar's book fare in this regard? The writer deserves credit for frankly saying that three events and decisions hampered India's rise on the global stage: the partition of British India at the time of independence in 1947, the delay in implementing economic reforms until 1991, and the Postponing the decision to cross the nuclear Rubicon until 1998.
The first, of course, cannot entirely be attributed to the nationalist leadership of India. British colonial policy contributed significantly to a tragic outcome that killed at least 1 million people during the partition of 1947 and transferred more than 10 million people across borders within a few months. However, there is no question that both the postponement of economic reforms and India's nuclear ambivalence hampered its rise until 1998.
While Jaishankar openly addresses these issues, he also reiterates some long-cherished shibboleths that continue to invigorate the beliefs of India's foreign policy establishment that it neglects the country's vital national security interests, does not take sufficient account of economic capabilities, and has followed a risk-averse course in the country World arena.
The Modi government has shown no enthusiasm for India's one-time commitment to the doctrine of non-alignment. Still, Jaishankar suggests that for much of the Cold War years politics served India's interests well. Aside from its leaning towards the Soviet Union from the early 1970s to the end of the Cold War, the misalignment had long survived whatever its use. It is unfortunate that someone who is as smart a practitioner of Indian foreign policy as Jaishankar cannot directly dismiss the anachronistic doctrine of misdirection. At best, the only novel guidance he offers is that India should clearly define its national interests and pursue them vigorously.
Jaishankar, however, shows openness on other issues, which makes his book somewhat useful for readers in the foreign policy community. Interestingly, this includes India's ambivalence about the use of force in international politics. That hesitation, Jaishankar rightly argues, has left the country vulnerable to external threats. One of the main examples he cites was India's failure to adequately assess the security threats China faced prior to the catastrophic Sino-Indian border war of 1962. Even so, its rules for India to ensure it can cope with China's current assertiveness are surprisingly unusual. He suggests that India needs to strengthen its domestic capabilities, particularly in the human development area where it lags well behind China. Of course, that could take decades at the earliest.
Jaishankar discusses the transformation of the global order through the emergence of a number of social forces. The first is the growth of resurgent nationalism: he sees this as the return of a permanent phenomenon and argues that efforts to overcome it are unlikely. Jaishankar believes that nationalism calls into question the status quo in the world order, which is evident in India and China's demands for better representation in multilateral institutions like the International Monetary Fund and in their strengthened negotiating muscles in global forums like the Parisian Climate protection agreement.
This has led to a backlash in economically privileged countries, which has contributed to the rise of protectionism and xenophobia. After all, he claims that there is an emerging competition between globalist and nationalist forces that will make the world more turbulent. To that end, he highlights the growth of reactionary, xenophobic nationalism in various parts of Europe that is confronting refugees from war-torn societies in the Middle East. Oddly enough, he doesn't mention the rise in vicious anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States, which President Donald Trump has done a lot for fans.
Closer to India's neighborhood and on issues of New Delhi's immediate safety concerns, Jaishankar displays an odd mix of naivety and sophistication. This ingenuity is evident in his discussion of the importance of Modi's personal diplomacy in attempting to create a thaw in Sino-Indian relations. Admittedly, written before the current border dispute with China, it nonetheless shows a remarkable and ill-positioned trust in dealing with a state that has clear revisionist ambitions. On the other hand, despite New Delhi's checkered past with Washington, his discussion of relations with the United States is free from insults and accusations. Instead, it provides a nuanced account of the importance of the United States in India's current strategic calculation. In this context, it should be emphasized that the Modi administration does not bear the burden of India's past hostility towards the United States. Indeed, it has tried to deal with Washington with a remarkable level of pragmatism.
What is the end of the India Way? Reading Jaishankar's attitude could confuse a reader who knows how India is represented in newspapers around the world today. Jaishankar repeatedly praised India's commitment to pluralism and democracy and how its values have helped secure New Delhi's prestige in the world. There is no question that the emergence and maintenance of Indian democracy against immense adversity is a story worth highlighting. Whether or not Jaishankar wishes to acknowledge this, India's traditions of pluralism and its democratic institutions are under heavy pressure today. His government has shown downright hostility to significant disagreements, intimidated a previously buoyant Indian press, and made the Indian judiciary into a largely smooth institution. If these trends are not included, India's democratic experiment is at great risk: it will run counter to the India Way envisaged by the country's founders.