The frightfully talented Shashi Tharoor, the Congress Party MP from Thiruvananthapuram, cannot be accused of lacking in ambition or drive. From chief public relations officer, United Nations, to seeking the Secretary-Generalship of this body, to winning a Lok Sabha seat secured for him as compensation by the UPA-I government for embarrassing him by not pushing his candidature for the top job at the UN very hard, or even at all, to appearing on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS show on CNN where he was introduced as the “Indian Foreign Minister” (which mislabelling by the host he didn’t flinch from), to being appointed a junior minister in MEA tasked, by his own admission, with minor responsibilities, to finally getting embroiled in the get-rich-quick scheme of T-20 cricket team ownership in partnership with the sprightly Sunanda, his third wife – lucky devil (most of us barely survive the one marriage we tripped into). Had the trajectory ended there, it would have resembled, in its title, Hemingway’s “Short, Happy, Life of Francis Macomber”.
Except Tharoor is no mean writer. His literary ambition saw him produce ‘The Great Indian Novel’ – something no doubt the literary world had waited for with bated breath, although whether his book with this moniker was the genuine article, I cannot say. Now he has penned ‘Pax Indica’. I suspect the market-savvy Tharoor thinks up intriguing titles for his books first – such as ‘The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell-phone’, another non-fiction work, before wrapping seemingly appropriate ideas and material seamlessly around them. There’s an object lesson here for other authors and would-be novelists. I mean, would you plonk down Rs 800 for a book mind-numbingly called ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security’?
If you pick up ‘Pax Indica’ expecting, as I did, to be revealed a thoughtful game-plan for the country to achieve great power and attendant state of grace, rest assured, you have made the wrong buy. What Tharoor means by this title is not a system of extended regional or world peace imposed by India on Indian terms but rather, as he explains it only in the last two pages, it is building and sustaining “the principles and norms that India holds dear”, namely, pluralism (which he prefers to secularism) and a democratic world order. Ah, so!
It is a tour d’horizon light of Indian foreign policy, replete with repeated invocations of the ruling party’s holy trinity — Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajiv Gandhi, and Indira Gandhi. The book, in fact, reads like a decadel version of what, Tharoor claims, the policy planning department produces by way of the Annual Report of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), albeit livelier, with a sprinkling of personal anecdotes, ministerial experiences, and historical tid-bits.
But suddenly he changes gears for the one chapter dealing with the “domestic underpinnings of foreign policy”. Writing crisply, purposefully, and with genuine insight into how and why Indian diplomacy is handicapped by the relatively small cadre of mostly generalist foreign service (IFS) officers who prevent both the bulking up of the service by lateral entry from other services and the military, and the injection of domain specialists from outside at the Joint Secretary-level to provide vital expert technical inputs into the making of foreign policy, and why a separate examination to recruit young adults for the IFS schooled in International Relations and Diplomatic History, may be a good idea.
He reverts to flummery about the UN and the global commons, and rounds off with views on “multialignment”, except aligning India with too many powers will have the effect of leaving India unaligned on the same principle that when everything is classified, nothing’s secret! Of course, prima facie, Tharoor’s notions of a Pax are passing strange. Other than a few cursory references to defence, there is no hint anywhere of the hard power requirement of a state aspiring to big things, illustrating precisely the vast knowledge gap of the average “generalist” civil servant and politician, who knows little about national security, even less about military matters, and does not care to learn beyond the odd newspaper op/ed piece on offer and is, therefore, unaware of the huge hard power deficit, leave alone analyze its relevance to India’s rise in the 21st century.
The author’s touching belief in the soft power of the state imaginatively deployed doing the trick, reveals the delusional thinking of the Indian policy elite, such as it is. It will absolutely ensure that India, even though whale-sized, will continue to wallow in the shallows among the minnows of the international system.
[Published in an altered form as "Small Shiny Picture of the Big India" in the 'Sunday New Indian Express', Aug 5, 2012 at http://newindianexpress.com/lifestyle/books/ ]