When Shivshankar Menon was appointed foreign secretary in 2006 by the Manmohan Singh government, 15 officers senior to him were overlooked. Supersessions are controversial in nature: Those apprehensive of the politicization of senior appointments argue that the objectivity of seniority criterion is better than the subjectivities of merit. What extra merit, they ask, does the second or third in queue offer to justify incentivizing wrong traits in the army or the bureaucracy?

Menon was not the second or third in queue, but the 16th. Ergo, merit had a serious role to play in his case. And it is hardly surprising that such a meritorious diplomat played a key role during several important foreign policy decisions the Indian government took in the last three decades. Menon documents five of those “choices" in his maiden book Choices: Inside The Making Of India’s Foreign Policy (Penguin 2016). Three of them—the Indo-US civil nuclear deal, responding to the Mumbai (26/11) terror attacks, and India’s role during the final stages of elimination of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)—correspond with Singh’s tenure. The other two—the 1993 Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement with China, and the decision to adopt a “no first use" policy with respect to India’s nuclear weapons—belong to the prime ministerial tenures of P.V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, respectively.

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While Menon does not attempt to weave a theory of India’s international behaviour, a fair deal of that comes through anyway. While Menon’s “choices" were for a practitioner to make, his gaze is almost scholarly—especially when he narrates the history leading up to the circumstances in which the “choices" present themselves. For instance, as someone who has tried to piece together the puzzle of India-China boundary negotiations from different sources, I can now fall back upon Menon’s first chapter for a broad sweep. The historiography is sometimes so engaging that Menon the practitioner takes a back seat. In fact, the choice maze and the final selection appear a bit theoretical since the conversations around the practitioner are peculiarly missing.

The book, however, has its share of problems. Many of them have to do with the chapter where Menon deliberates on the possible ways in which India could have responded to the 26/11 attacks. He ties himself in knots trying to defend the Singh government’s decision not to retaliate. Military retaliation, Menon argues, would have obscured the gravity of 26/11 by shifting the global attention to a quarrelling India and Pakistan. To support his argument, Menon cites the reaction of the UN security council to Pakistan’s invasion of Kashmir in 1947. Such a comparison is specious. The contrast between the world of 1947 and the post-9/11 world cannot be overstated, especially with regard to terrorism. In fact, Menon himself, in another chapter, talks about how the post-9/11 world closed the door for the LTTE.

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Most of the other reasons which Menon marshals for not retaliating are also quite weak. They range from a concern about the civil-military balance of power in Pakistan to the possible costs to the Indian economy at a time when the 2008 financial crisis was playing itself out. At one point, Menon goes on to claim that no institution in Pakistan, including its army, can deliver outcomes favourable to India. While the fatalism embedded here is in itself a problem, he fails to reconcile this depressing thought with the hope that he pinned on the Satinder Lambah-Tariq Aziz back-channel talks.

I am in agreement with Menon on the “no first use" principle enshrined in India’s nuclear doctrine. But his cavalier treatment of the doctrine’s promise of “massive" retaliation is disconcerting. I have argued previously (goo.gl/VCK63a and goo.gl/82St0Y) that India should shift to either “proportionate" or “proportionate-plus" retaliation. In contrast, Menon says: “…what is a proportionate response to weapons of mass destruction except other weapons of mass destruction? So it is not clear what the advocates of proportionate response are really asking for. These are weapons of mass destruction whether one chooses to call them tactical or strategic." Well, calling them tactical or strategic does make a huge difference when there are 50 Indian casualties on Pakistan’s soil in one case and 50,000 in an Indian metropolis in the other.

Menon seems to argue that massive retaliation will be the best option because otherwise Pakistan will inevitably escalate. One, that is not certain and two, what he is hinting at—India depleting Pakistan’s second strike capability through massive retaliation—is not logically borne out, especially in a Pakistan which is seeking, as Menon himself points out, ballistic missile nuclear submarines. But all this stems from a more fundamental oversight. Menon says: “The clearer and simpler the task of our nuclear weapons, the more credible they are." He misses that credibility is also a factor of political will. And India’s will to retaliate massively cannot be high with 50 soldiers dead on Pakistan’s soil. Fortunately, neither Menon nor I have any historical data to argue from.

Notwithstanding my disagreements with him, I would highly recommend this book. By shunning the background conversations, it gives us a reassuring feeling that the government deliberating on important foreign policy choices bases its decisions on coherent and rational arguments made by meritorious diplomats. Whether this really is the case is for Menon to clarify.

Kunal Singh is a staff writer (views) at Mint.

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