The new Oxford Handbook dissects India’s engagement with the world

  • Prashant Jha, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Feb 14, 2016 16:13 IST
PM Narendra Modi with Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces on his arrival at AFS Palam in New Delhi in this file photo from February 10. (Photo by Mohd Zakir/ Hindustan Times)

When Narendra Modi took over as Prime Minister, few had anticipated he would invest such political capital and energy in the realm of foreign policy. But perhaps, it should not have come as a surprise – for most Indian Prime Ministers have devoted considerable attention to India’s place in the world, its relations with the great powers, and struggled with how to navigate the maze with its immediate neighbours.

They all left their stamp, witnessed highs and suffered setbacks – Jawaharlal Nehru conceived of non-alignment, thought of the Himalayas as underpinning India’s security, pushed Afro-Asian unity and saw his dreams of partnership with China shattered with the 1962 war. Indira Gandhi won the Bangladesh war, tilted India towards the Soviets, and acquired the reputation of being tough in the neighbourhood. Rajiv Gandhi deepened engagement with the US and made a historic visit to China, but he also had to deal with an experiment gone wrong in Sri Lanka which ultimately cost him his life. PV Narasimha Rao helped India deal with a post Cold World War, pioneered the Look East Policy and initiated economic reforms which had a strong strategic subtext. IK Gujral was around for a short time but with his emphasis on non-reciprocity with neighbours, he left a lasting impression in the region. Atal Bihari Vajpayee took India nuclear and elevated the relationship with the US Manmohan Singh took it forward and through a historic deal, ended India’s nuclear isolation and deepened the strategic partnership with the US. And, of course, all of them had to deal with the intricate question of Pakistan through their terms.

Each leader built on what the others had left behind. What Modi has brought to the table is extraordinary energy, high-profile visits, personalized diplomacy, and a penchant for surprise as was evident in the invitation to Barack Obama to be the Republic Day guest and in the Lahore stopover.

The multiple variables
But even as contemporary media attention is understandably focused on the big leaders and events that surround diplomacy – a visit, a joint statement, a misunderstanding, a diplomatic mishap – there is a lot more to Indian foreign policy.

There is history – the legacy of the Raj and the national movement, of political ideologies, of individuals. There are institutions – from the Parliament to the Cabinet and, of course, the Ministry of External Affairs and the security apparatus – which lie at the heart of foreign policy formulation. There are those outside the system who now play a role – the private sector, the media, universities and think-tanks, and the diaspora. There are different variables which impinge on policy – from national security to economy to public opinion. There are different relationships to be managed – from the immediate neighbourhood in South Asia to the extended neighbourhood in West Asia, Africa and East Asia. There are partnerships to be nourished with the great powers and with emerging economies. And there are multilateral governance structures to navigate on themes as varied as trade and climate change to cyber governance.

For anyone interested in India’s external engagement, it would be rare to find all of this in one place. Yet that is the almost impossible feat the The Oxford Handbook on Indian Foreign Policy has achieved.

With 50 chapters, spanning 746 pages, it is no easy read. Priced at Rs 2,500, government institutions and policymakers, think-tanks, universities and libraries, embassies and diplomats will be its primary customers. But as a reference book about how India thinks of the world, and how India’s engagement with the world has evolved, this is an indispensable volume. It is wide in its scope, diverse in its orientation, rich in its narrative of history and relationships, deep in its analytical insights, and has some of the biggest names working on India as contributors – Sunil Khilnani, Stephen Cohen, Sumit Ganguly, Kanti Bajpai, Ashley Tellis, Devesh Kapur, SD Muni, and Amitabh Mattoo – along with a host of younger scholars already involved in path-breaking research.

And behind it are three men, who all have already made significant contributions to scholarship around foreign policy in their own right. Their collaboration, and the process through which a book of this nature was produced, makes for an interesting tale.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj in Jerusalem (REUTERS)

Knitting it together
When David Malone was appointed as Canada’s high commissioner to India almost a decade ago, he thought he would live in the country for four to five years. He travelled extensively, but in the middle of his assignment, he got an offer to head the International Research Development Centre (IDRC) back in Canada. Malone had to choose between the country and region he had so come to admire with a job he wanted. He took up the job – but as a ‘consolation prize’, he accelerated work on his book on Indian foreign policy and published a widely-acclaimed book, Does the Elephant Dance: Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy.

Malone moved on head the United Nations University in Tokyo, but has remain engaged with India – mentoring younger scholars, supporting academic work like a recent volume on the India-Japan partnership, hosting a range of Indian thinkers at the UNU, closely following the Indian media which Malone thinks is uneven and sometimes sensationalist in its news coverage but rather ‘brilliant in terms of the quantity and quality of its commentary’.

In 2012, OUP approached Malone and told him about its flagship Handbook series – this is the first handbook on foreign policy that OUP has published on any country, signaling the importance of India’s role in the world. But it is a part of a series of handbooks that OUP is doing on India. A Handbook on the Indian Constitution will be out later this year.

Malone was clear the project must have a high degree of Indian involvement. Among the first people he had met while in Delhi was C Raja Mohan, the distinguished strategic analyst. Malone had instantly liked his ability ‘to argue agreeably, rather than aggressively’. Raja Mohan has been closely engaged with the world of think-tanks. He has just been appointed the director of Carnegie’s India centre. But he is fundamentally a scholar and saw the utility of such a project immediately. During his teaching stints at both JNU and Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, he had felt the absence of a comprehensive resource providing history and context for students and researchers. This could fill in the gap.

Malone had also tracked the career trajectory of the young historian, Srinath Raghavan who has authored two books, War and Peace in Modern India-A Strategic History of the Nehru Years and 1971- A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh. Raghavan has also been a part of India’s National Security Advisory Board, and co-authored Non Alignment – 2.0. Raghavan says, “We were keen on having a volume that encapsulates the state of knowledge that exists on Indian foreign policy at this moment. It was important not to have just the here and now, but chapters with longer shelf life.”

The three got together. The editors wanted to get primarily Indian writers, and among them, younger writers and women. Malone says, “We were extremely pleased at the number of women writers, who are not sufficiently represented in the field of international relations.” Scholars, and a few practitioners who have engaged with the scholarly work in their area, were approached. Another priority was to ensure that while the essays were meaningful, they were easily accessible and not too ‘pedantic’. “We did not want it as a narrow academic book, but aimed to make it accessible to a range of people,” says Raja Mohan.

The major challenge was in getting the structure and unifying thread, says Malone. The editors narrowed down on history, geography, capabilities, and key partnerships both in the region and beyond as the big themes. The process was rigorous. Authors first submitted a 2000 word outline of their chapters; they then convened for a workshop in January 2014 in New Delhi and based on feedback, went back to complete their essays. There was a careful editing process both in terms of content and structure of chapters.

For a book like this, an important challenge is maintaining the editorial collective. With three editors – each with strong views on elements on Indian foreign policy – how did they manage to navigate through differences? Raghavan told HT that there was no particular ‘editorial line’ and the idea was to give a sense of the multiple viewpoints, the ongoing conversations in the field. “Its strength is that it is not pegged to any one point of view.” Raja Mohan said. “The book’s purpose is to capture the debates rather than decide who is right and who is wrong and advocate a particular point of view.”

Future questions
Raja Mohan also highlights potential research questions for the future. He points to the lack of scholarship in tracing the ‘pre-independence sources’ of Indian foreign policy. While a lot has been written of Nehru’s seminal role in shaping foreign policy, there isn’t enough empirical work, using the archives, to historicise India’s engagement with the world in that period, he feels. “There is also excessive focus on the state’s engagement, but not enough on the engagement of the business community and the diaspora. How did Indian capital deal with the world? What was the role of Indian communities abroad?” While the Partition has been studied extensively, how it ended up affecting India’s relationship with both Pakistan and Bangladesh remains an object of further enquiry. The place of sub-regions in India’s engagement with the neighbourhood, how China’s entry into Tibet has determined the Himalayan region and closed down many historic spaces are other themes that need to be explored, says Raja Mohan.

The editors are the first to concede that most people would not read the Handbook cover-to-cover. But it has enormous value in providing context to why India behaves the way it does – in its vicinity, and in the wider world. It provides insights into the objectives, at various stages, of elements of foreign policy. It tells us about the decision making processes within the country. It tells us of the shifting priorities of the state as well as the changing nature of diplomacy, and the specialized knowledge it now requires. It tells us about the contribution of some of India’s top leaders to thinking about India’s global engagement.

And, in a fundamental way, the Handbook tells us the story of India and its journey from being on the margins of the global power structure – yet with ambitions of shaping it – to arriving at a stage where it can exercise influence. Whether this enhanced role can help enable its internal economic transformation and make it more secure in a difficult region remains the fundamental question.

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