03 December 2006

"India's foreign policy 1947-2003" by J N Dixit

We don’t have in India “transparent” debates on public policy by “vested interests” (with opposing views) as they happen in more evolved democracies like the US. Our politicians are yet to appreciate that public policy should contribute to and draw from public opinion. There is very little information available in public forum on the thought processes that lead to evolution and management of public policy. Foreign policy is no exception.

J N Dixit, an erstwhile Foreign Secretary (and later political advisor) with several decades of experience in civil service provides a rare opportunity to get an insight into the evolution of India's foreign policy in this book. The reader is rewarded with informed anlaysis from someone with erudition and a ringside view.

Dixit’s book is enjoyably high on anlaysis and enjoyably low on episodes and anecdotes.

In a democracy any public policy is formed by a judicious mixture of brain (the right move), heart (the right feeling and the right principle) and lips (the right thing to say). Foreign policy, again, is no exception.

The infant India, initially tended to prefer the heart and the lips. Principles were considered more important than interests. We tended to pontificate and made a few mistakes:

(1) In 1947, it was India, not Pakistan, that took Kashmir to the UN in the expectation that the UN would uphold India’s claims on merits. Lt General Kulwant Singh pleaded with Nehru to give him “just a few more days” to free the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir from Pakistani presence. Nehru did not listen. US and Britain used procedural gimmicks to transform invasion by one member state against territories of another state as a territorial dispute between two member states. India ended up converting Kashmir as a dispute while Tibet, Falklands and Grenada were not.

(2) In the 1950s India promoted “non alignment” as a guiding principle. In truth, India did not practice this principle. India was quick to criticize invasion of Suez Canal but hesitant to criticize invasion of Hungary. India’s credibility was challenged. Indira Gandhi modified this approach by aligning with Soviet Union to protect India’s defense interests cutting across ideology differences.

(3) In the 1950s India missed an opportunity to get the border resolved with China as a quid pro quo for recognizing Tibet as a province of China. Several mistakes were made: Chinese annexation of Tibet was recognized without a quid pro quo; the protests against border intrusions were not firm enough; the military action was silly and adventurous; choosing to open all fronts with China was a tactical error; not using the air force was a tactical error. The military defeat by China was total. It was US intervention that saved India.

(4) In mid 1950s US wanted India to replace China as a permanent member of the Security Council. India declined this offer in view of its friendship with China.

(5) In 1963 US advised India to develop nuclear weapons (as a strategic counter to Soviet and Chinese designs). India declined the offer on grounds of principle.

This tendency to project principles ahead of strategic interests did affect India. However, as the country’s leadership gained a mature understanding of why societies work together or against each other, the precedence to interests prevailed.

Thankfully several of our foreign policy decisions were guided by realpolitik interests and not by “lofty principles” and “moral high ground”:

(1) India got the princely states, especially Hyderabad, to accede to India to form a wholesome territorial entity instead of letting India look like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle of a five year old (only the British could think of such a solution!).

(2) India annexed Goa (after wasting 13 years in negotiating with Portugal’s Salazar) and Sikkim.

(3) India won the support of Kashmir’s ruler Hari Singh and its popular leader Sheikh Abdullah to support accession of Kashmir to India

(4) India’s escalated its response to the 1965 attack by Pakistan by opening all fronts and reaching Sialkot and Lahore unmindful of international opinion against disproportionate response.

(5) India engaged with Pakistan to liberate the eastern wing of Pakistan, unmindful of discouragement from the US, when 9 million refugees poured into India when Pakistan’s army unleashed a reign of terror on its own citizens.

(6) India aligned with the Soviet Union to protect its interests in an “unrepresentative” UN and to protect its defence interests cutting across ideological differences.

(7) India firmly refused to sign multi-national treaties (on nuclear weapons, fissile materials and missile technology) that attempted to prevent proliferation while enshrining a state of permanent competitive advantage for the “early birds”

(8) India exploded nuclear devices in 1974 and 1998, unmindful of international opinion, to firmly establish India as a nuclear weapons state to prevent a few “early birds”, using loftier principles, attempting to enshrine their advantages on a permanent basis.

(9) India dealt with Pakistan in Kargil, unmindful of its nuclear weapons potential, to again send a message that the territorial integrity of India cannot be compromised.

Dixit is substantially pleased with the way Indian foreign policy has been managed.

In a democracy where political leadership changes quite frequently, it is only to be expected that there would be some faux pas. There are a few contenders for the “ugly” moments: Gujral’s embrace with Saddam Hussain in 1989, George Fernandez’s proclamation that India’s nuclear testing was driven by potential threats from China in 1998, Rajesh Pilot and General Krishna Rao pursuing self defined paths instead of working with a larger team while handling Kashmir in 1990s are a few.

In the end the foreign policy establishment seems to have understood one essential tactic. Every country acts in its own interest. Ensuring a friendship with India is in the strategic interest of those who matter is the best way to manage international relationships.

If that can be done without compromising with principles that would be lovely.

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