Since India’s independence in 1947, several of its diplomats have produced diplomatic memoirs, sometimes of great quality. Those familiar with this genre will recall the account of K.P.S. Menon, one of India’s ambassadors to Moscow, or K.M. Panikkar or Sisir Gupta, both noted scholar-diplomats. But few Indian foreign-policy officials have written a book on New Delhi’s relations with the world while still in office.
Consequently, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s new book, The India Way, marks an important departure from the past. Jaishankar, currently India’s minister of external affairs, has enjoyed a distinguished diplomatic career: A former ambassador to the United States and to China, he was appointed foreign secretary in 2015, the highest civil service post in the Indian foreign service. After a brief stint in the corporate world following his retirement in 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inducted him into his cabinet in May 2019.
Why write a book now? Jaishankar attempts to sketch out 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 sketches out a pathway for India to deal with significant and novel forces in international politics—especially resurgent nationalism and a rejection of globalization. But while Jaishankar touches on these subjects, his book suffers from too many abstractions and generalities.
After all, writing a book about a country’s foreign policy while serving as its foreign minister is laden with pitfalls. One of them, of course, is the critical question of candor. How does Jaishankar’s book fare on this score? The writer deserves credit for bluntly stating that three events and choices have hobbled India’s emergence on the global stage: the partition of British India at the time of independence in 1947, the delay in undertaking economic reforms until 1991, and deferring the decision to cross the nuclear Rubicon until 1998.
The first, of course, cannot be wholly blamed on India’s nationalist leadership. British colonial policies, in considerable measure, contributed to a tragic outcome that cost the lives of at least 1 million people during the 1947 partition and resulted in the transfer of more than 10 million across borders in a matter of months. There is little question, however, that both the deferral of economic reforms and India’s nuclear ambivalence until 1998 constrained its rise.
But while Jaishankar forthrightly addresses these issues, he also repeats some long-held shibboleths that continue to animate the beliefs of India’s foreign-policy establishment, namely that it has neglected the country’s vital national security interests, paid inadequate attention to economic prowess, and pursued a risk-averse course in the world arena.
The Modi administration has not evinced any enthusiasm for India’s erstwhile attachment to the doctrine of nonalignment. Nevertheless, Jaishankar suggests that the policy served India’s interests well during much of the Cold War years. Apart from its tilt toward the Soviet Union from the early 1970s to the Cold War’s end, nonalignment had long outlived whatever might have been its utility. It is unfortunate that someone as astute a practitioner of Indian foreign policy as Jaishankar is cannot forthrightly bid goodbye to the anachronistic doctrine of nonalignment. At best, the only novel guidance he offers up is that India should clearly define its national interests and pursue them with vigor.
Jaishankar does, however, display flashes of candor on other issues, which makes his book somewhat useful to readers in the foreign-policy community. Most interestingly, this includes India’s ambivalence toward the use of force in international politics. This hesitancy, Jaishankar correctly argues, has left the country vulnerable to external threats. One of the principal examples he cites was India’s failure to adequately appreciate the security threat that it confronted from China prior to the disastrous 1962 Sino-Indian border war. That said, his prescriptions for India to ensure that it can cope with China’s present assertiveness are surprisingly anodyne. To wit, he suggests that India needs to boost its domestic capabilities especially in the arena of human development, where it significantly lags behind China. That, of course, 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 an enduring phenomenon and argues that efforts to transcend it are unlikely. More to the point, Jaishankar believes that nationalism is challenging the status quo in the global order, as seen through India and China’s demands for better representation in multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and in their increased negotiating muscle at global forums like that for the Paris climate change accord.
This, he argues, has led to a backlash in economically privileged countries, which has contributed to the rise of protectionism and xenophobia. Finally, he contends that there is an emerging contest between globalist and nationalist forces, a competition that will make the world more turbulent. To that end, he highlights the growth of reactionary, xenophobic nationalism in various parts of Europe as it confronts refugees from war-torn societies in the Middle East. Oddly enough, he does not mention the rise of vicious anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States, which President Donald Trump has done much to fan.
Closer to India’s own neighborhood and on matters dealing with New Delhi’s immediate security concerns, Jaishankar displays a curious amalgam of naivete and sophistication. This ingenuousness is evident in his discussion of the significance of Modi’s personal diplomacy in attempting to generate a thaw in Sino-Indian relations. Admittedly written before the current border standoff with China, it nevertheless reveals a remarkable and ill-placed faith in dealing with a state that has clear revisionist ambitions. On the other hand, his discussion of relations with the United States despite New Delhi’s checkered past history with Washington is free of cant and recriminations. Instead, it provides a nuanced account of the significance of the United States in India’s present strategic calculus. In this regard, it should be highlighted that the Modi government does not carry the burden of India’s previous hostility toward the United States. Indeed, it has sought to deal with Washington with a remarkable degree of pragmatism.
What, in the end, is the India Way? Reading Jaishankar’s take could confuse a reader familiar with how India is depicted in newspapers around the world today. Jaishankar repeatedly extolls India’s commitment to pluralism and democracy and how its values have helped secure New Delhi’s standing in the world. There is little question that the genesis and sustenance of India’s democracy against immense odds is a story worth highlighting. Yet whether Jaishankar wishes to acknowledge it or not, India’s traditions of pluralism and its democratic institutions are today under severe duress. His government has displayed outright hostility toward any significant dissent, cowed a previously feisty Indian press, and rendered India’s judiciary into a mostly pliant institution. Unless those trends are contained, India’s democratic experiment will be at grave risk: It will be at odds with the India Way envisioned by the country’s founders.