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Business News/ Opinion / The hard-earned wisdom of a good diplomat

The hard-earned wisdom of a good diplomat

Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran is at his best when talking of India's neighbourhood

Shyam Saran’s book ‘How India Sees The World: Kautilya To The 21st Century’ is a work of erudition and highly recommended. Photo: MintPremium
Shyam Saran’s book ‘How India Sees The World: Kautilya To The 21st Century’ is a work of erudition and highly recommended. Photo: Mint

According to the late British diplomat David Kelly, the essential qualities of a good diplomat are common sense, good manners, understanding of foreign mentalities and precision of expression. In India, one need not look beyond Shyam Saran, the former foreign secretary and the prime minister’s special envoy on nuclear affairs and climate change, for Kelly’s good diplomat. Saran, in fact, may be a notch higher. It is for this reason that Saran’s book How India Sees The World: Kautilya To The 21st Century was highly anticipated. The “part memoir and part thesis on India’s international relations since independence" also revisits the strategic wisdom encapsulated in ancient texts such as Kautilya’s Arthashastra and Kamandaki’s Nitisara.

At the outset, Saran shares his own understanding of India’s foreign policy since independence. The search for strategic autonomy, he finds, has been a consistent theme of India’s external engagements since 1947. Saran argues that this has been a wise course for the country to adopt. For instance, Saran defends the much maligned policy of non-alignment as one “based on a realistic assessment of Cold War geopolitics" even though it was packaged in ethical and moral terms.

Saran is at his best when talking of India’s neighbourhood. After all, he has served in important neighbouring countries like China, Nepal and Myanmar. The central dilemma of India’s neighbourhood policy, as Saran captures brilliantly, is that its security interests span the entire Subcontinent but the political control lasts only till the edge of its own borders. Therefore, India has to sometimes play the role of a domestic actor in its neighbouring countries. This helps India tide over the immediate crisis but creates long-term resentment among the stakeholders at whose expense New Delhi exercised its clout. But Saran also provides a way out: building deep and extensive economic interlinkages with neighbours will help India to modulate the more extreme ends of political opinion in those countries.

Saran does not overstretch himself by limiting himself to countries and events that he has had direct exposure to. His personal accounts are masterfully interwoven into a deeper history of each subject he talks about. And the narration is peppered with delightful anecdotes. My favourite story is the one where Saran tells us how far he and A.P. Venkateswaran, then ambassador to China, had reached in India-China boundary negotiations with Zhao Weiwen, senior India hand in Beijing, and a certain “Professor Ma" who had direct access to the Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang. In fact, both the chapters on China make for wonderful reading.

The chapters on the negotiation of the India-US nuclear deal are also skilfully narrated, but those stories are relatively better known. The chapter on climate negotiations in Copenhagen (2009) should especially be read for how it exposes former US president Barack Obama’s leadership on climate change as nothing more than a public relations exercise.

Saran makes sure his approach is not scholarly and he reveals some background conversions and internal differences in the Indian establishment. The former national security adviser (NSA) M.K. Narayanan makes repeated appearances trying to protect his turf as Saran is awarded the most important responsibilities by then prime minister Manmohan Singh. Of course, Narayanan’s story will be different. We know from Sanjaya Baru’s book The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making And Unmaking Of Manmohan Singh that the Indian Foreign Service, which had come to see the office of NSA as its own fiefdom, had attempted to thwart Narayanan’s appointment in the first place.

Towards the end, Saran ponders over the nature of future challenges for the global community. In his solutions, Saran comes across as a great champion of multilateralism. It is of course a big question whether his optimism on multilateralism is borne out by historical record. Saran also argues that a multipolar world and a multipolar Asia would be the best bet for India. This has been the Indian establishment’s well-known position for a long time. But it is also true that India’s best years—after the economic liberalization of 1991—have coincided with the period of US hegemony after the end of Cold War. I would have liked Saran to focus more on this difficult puzzle.

Even when talking of strategic autonomy, one is not sure whether it is a means to an end or the end in itself. According to me, strategic autonomy should be useful to the extent that it helps further India’s economic prosperity. Is there no tension between a single-minded pursuit of strategic autonomy and using international collaboration to contribute to India’s economic development? If there is, what are the contours of such contradictions and how can India resolve them? Again, I would have liked Saran to delve deeper into such dilemmas.

Saran warns that lessons from ancient texts like Arthashastra, Nitisara and Mahabharat should not be applied mechanistically to contemporary situations. At the same time—and this will end my nitpicking—one struggles to find a framework through which these ancient texts may be used to examine India’s contemporary foreign policy decisions and negotiations strategies. On this count, the title is slightly misleading: the book could have made far greater use of Kautilya to study the challenges of the 21st century. These minor issues aside, this book is definitely a work of erudition and highly recommended.

Kunal Singh is staff writer (views) at Mint.Comments are welcome at

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Published: 27 Sep 2017, 12:21 AM IST
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