Commenting on the writing of a friend and former colleague can be a daunting task. But the recently released volume, Does the Elephant Dance? by David M. Malone, president of Canada’s International Development Research Centre and former Canadian high commissioner to India, more than justifies that risk.
The book is an impressive tour de force of India’s foreign policy since independence. Despite its hefty 425 pages, which fill an important void in scholarship on the subject, it is an effortless read thanks to the inimitable conversational style of the author. Though written by a non-Indian-albeit an astute scholar of India and its foreign policy-the book is almost entirely based on Indian sources and writings.
The book makes two significant observations: First, that since 1991, “a new era of pragmatism” became evident both domestically and internationally. At the domestic level there was the “growing pragmatism of political parties, which were compelled to engage in electoral alliances, more often ones of convenience than of ideological sympathy”. This “ideological unmooring of the domestic sphere was reflected also in the international arena” when India embarked on a pragmatic policy of multi-alignment and built myriad strategic alliances in an uncertain world. Second, since 1991, foreign policy not only “assisted India in creating higher levels of economic growth” and allowed global opportunities to benefit “domestic constituents in the hope of ameliorating poverty”; it also provided a “pathway to great power status”. Thus, the nuclear deal was not sold in Parliament as a “strategic alignment” with the US, but as essential to ensure energy security. Consequently, economic growth and economic diplomacy are likely to be the principal driver and limiter of India’s foreign policy.
In its survey of India’s bilateral, regional and multilateral relations, the most insightful conclusions relate to the US, the Middle East and multilateralism rather than any of India’s neighbours. The book justifiably argues that the most dramatic positive change has been in India’s relations with the US although there still remains concern that “Washington will not always understand India’s inability to agree with it”. The decision not to shortlist US jets for its huge order of 126 combat aircraft will pose one such challenge, while the Iran file presents another.
Perhaps India’s most unnoticed successful regional relationship has been with the Middle East, which has provided “significant dividends” ranging from huge remittances from the Indian diaspora there to crucial energy supplies. Indeed, “this traditionally inhospitable terrain for the diplomacy of non-regional actors has yielded highly successful results for India”. In this context, the recent uprisings in the Arab world provide both a challenge and an opportunity for Indian diplomacy.
In contrast, the author, a staunch multilateralist and leading authority on the UN Security Council, argues that Indian diplomacy has been least impressive in the multilateral arena-be it trade talks, climate change negotiations or deliberations on disarmament and non-proliferation. On the one hand, India has revealed a preference for “global governance by oligarchy”. While this is not unique to India, it does reflect a shift from the perception of it being a poor developing nation depending on “strength in numbers” to one with the wherewithal “to hold its own” against major powers. On the other hand, multilateralism is seen “at best as a defence against the unilateralism of others”. This defensive approach is underlined by the fact that India has not been able to effectively use multilateral instruments to further its national interests.
In answering the question posed in its title, the book concludes that the elephant does dance but with difficulty and only under the instructions of the deftest mahout. Clearly, the present mahout is not up to the task.
W Pal Sidhu is senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight
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