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External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar addresses the media during a press conference on completion of first 100 days of Ministry of External Affairs
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar addresses the media during a press conference on completion of first 100 days of Ministry of External Affairs

A front-footed approach to the world calls for a strong economy

An unhesitating pursuit of the national interest is all the more important in times of radical uncertainties such as these

The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World is an interesting book because it is written by four authors: a scholar of international relations, a career diplomat, a serving foreign minister, and a member of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. It so happens that they are all named S. Jaishankar. Almost every paragraph in the book is an exercise in balance between four perspectives: of the scholar reading the past and the present in realist terms, the long-serving diplomat totalling up the successes and failings of India’s foreign policy over the past four decades, the cabinet minister outlining the incumbent government’s policy positions, and the BJP member connecting the book’s narrative with his party’s. The tension between the four Jaishankars is not always apparent, and I suspect is visible only to keener students of international relations who in any case tend to connect dots into shapes they wish to see.

The book will become an important text for anyone interested in India’s engagement of the world because it is written by a serving foreign minister, who is not only in the innermost circle of New Delhi’s strategic establishment, but also enjoys the Prime Minister’s confidence. That takes it away from being of historical and academic interest, and into the domain of strategic communication. It will rightly be parsed in the world’s chancelleries and think-tanks to assess how much is explanation, how much pontification, and how much an outline of India’s foreign policy agenda over the medium-term. After all, the subtitle of the book states that it is recommending strategies in an uncertain world. So what is Jaishankar—or rather what are the four Jaishankars—telling India’s partners, competitors, antagonists, neighbours and the world at large? How might they read this book?

Foreign readers will definitely note an argument for change in India’s foreign policy posture, although the specifics of that change are often wrapped in high diplomatese. He argues against “obsessing about consistency, because it makes little sense in such changing circumstances". Further: “There is certainly a place for constants, but not to the extent of elevating them to immutable concepts." As a Bengaluru-based person who has argued that “distance from Delhi" is very useful for clear thinking about India’s foreign policy, I cannot agree more when he points out that “the real obstacle to the rise of India is not any more the barriers of the world, but the dogmas of Delhi".

The most important change that the book advocates is a greater sensitivity to balances of power and convergences of interest. The second change is in terms of overall attitude—a readiness to engage the world, especially on security issues, on the front foot.

Again, I cannot but agree that both these changes are not only called for, but have been overdue for at least a decade. What troubles me—and as foreign analysts are likely to figure out—is to what extent economic and socio-political changes inside the country permit New Delhi to adopt them. It is one thing to face the world with the economy growing at 8% and quite another if it is growing at 3%. As I wrote in this column even before the covid-19 pandemic, economic growth and the opportunities it creates for the rest of the world are the foundation of our national power and international relevance. As much as Jaishankar offers a qualified criticism of globalization and rejects autarky, without open borders, free trade and markets, India will find it hard to sustain a front-footed approach in defence and foreign affairs. Self-reliance, prosperity and controls form a trilemma: You cannot have all three. Regaining the path of high growth requires us to jettison the economic dogmas of Delhi and swim against the gathering international tide of counter-globalization.

Many foreign readers would likely dispute the book’s assertion that “multipolarity is upon us" if the term should imply a stable order with multiple global and regional powers. Indeed, as the author argues elsewhere in the book, “The really uncharted territory that US-China frictions will take us into is that of coping with parallel universes." The world order is more accurately in a state of flux, and multipolarity is the outcome that India desires.

It is the desire for a multipolar balance that leads Jaishankar to hint that New Delhi will not hesitate to take sides in the US-China contest despite its membership of both US-led and China-led groupings. This is the key part: “It surely does not call for a response as drastic as 1971 [when India signed a treaty with the Soviet Union], but definitely encourages a widening of India’s options and understandings. The objective is to create a better balance and working closely with converging interests." Between the time the book was written and published, Chinese transgressions had added greater solidity to the Quad of India, Australia, Japan and the US. It is perhaps as a pre-emptive response to critics of closer alignment with the US that Jaishankar writes, in the very next sentence, that “Only those who lack self-confidence will doubt the wisdom of doing so."

There is an entire book hiding in Jaishankar’s highly original chapter on the Mahabharata as a guide for contemporary policy. Ultimately, those crafting India’s strategy as well as those interpreting it in an uncertain world will do well to look for answers in the right places in that great epic.

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