Small, shiny picture of the big India

The frightfully talented Shashi Tharoor, the Congress Party MP from Thiruvananthapuram, cannot be accused of lacking in ambition or drive. He can dabble with a lot.

Published: 05th August 2012 12:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 03rd August 2012 03:59 PM   |  A+A-

shashi tharoor AP photo

The frightfully talented Shashi Tharoor, the Congress Party MP from Thiruvananthapuram, cannot be accused of lacking in ambition or drive. He can dabble with a lot. From chief public relations officer, United Nations, to seeking the post of the UN Secretary-General; from winning a Lok Sabha seat secured for him by the UPA-I government (a compensation for not pushing his candidature for the top job at the UN), to appearing on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS show on CNN where he was introduced as the “Indian Foreign Minister” (a mistaken labelling from the host he didn’t flinch from) to being appointed a junior minister in MEA tasked, by his own admission, with minor responsibilities; from getting embroiled in the get-rich-quick scheme of T-20 cricket team ownership in partnership with the sprightly Sunanda, his third wife. Had the trajectory ended there, it would have resembled, in its title, Hemingway’s Short, Happy, Life of FrancisMacomber.

Except Tharoor is no mean writer. His literary ambition saw him produce The Great Indian Novel — something the literary world had waited for with bated breath. Now he has penned Pax Indica. I suspect the market-savvy Tharoor thinks up intriguing titles for his books — like The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell-phone (another non-fiction work) before wrapping seemingly appropriate ideas and material seamlessly around them. There’s a lesson here for other authors and would-be novelists. I mean, you wouldn’t plonk down `800 for a book mind-numbingly titled 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. 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 of Indian foreign policy, replete with 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.

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 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. He explains 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 “multi alignment” — except that aligning India with too many powers will leave India unaligned—on the lines of the principle that when everything is classified, nothing is secret! Of course, prima facie, Tharoor’s notions of a ‘pax’ are strange. Other than a few cursory references to defence, there is no hint of a state aspiring to be big. He illustrates precisely the vast knowledge gap — that in the average “generalist” civil servant and the politician who knows little about national security, even less about military matters and does not care to learn beyond the odd newspaper oped piece — unaware, as a result, of the huge hard power deficit (leave alone its relevance to India’s rise in the 21st century).

The author’s touching belief in the soft power of the state imaginatively deployed, reveals the delusional thinking of the Indian policy elite. It will absolutely ensure that India, even though whale-size, will continue to wallow in the shallows among the minnows of the international system.


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