The Telegraph
Friday , September 7 , 2012
Since 1st March, 1999
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- In the interest of the nation

India’s foreign policy: Coping with the changing world By Muchkund Dubey, Pearson, Rs 699

With friends calling him “wide-eyed”, Muchkund Dubey doesn’t need enemies. Actually, no strategic thinker and practitioner of diplomacy could be less wide-eyed than the astute Bihari who so competently represented India in Dhaka, New York and Geneva, and who invokes Robert D. Kaplan’s view of China as “an ‘uber-realist’ power” in this tour d’horizon of the global situation and India’s place in it.

Yet, one of the three dust-jacket blurbs speaks of his “wide-eyed look at the challenges facing India”. Either the writer doesn’t know that wide-eyed means naïve in idiomatic English, or this is another instance of the lingo of the Punjabi ‘bradree’ which, sadly, is becoming more and more India’s lingua franca. It’s possible the bradree uses “wide-eyed” for eyes that being wide apart enjoy a panoramic vision. Irrespective of whether the blurb is a rude put-down masquerading as a compliment or only another innocent Indian malapropism, English-speaking readers must deplore it as much as “hallow of respectability” on page 279.

Setting aside such infelicities, this is a sound analysis that errs on the side of staidness. Dubey doesn’t lay down any overarching policy framework, but he never loses sight of foreign policy’s primary purpose of promoting India’s national interest. Each situation is treated, therefore, with a pragmatism that allows of no lofty Nehruvian principles of peace and justice or sentiment like the famous claim of India and the United States of America being “natural allies”. It’s only in the case of Bangladesh that the author seems prepared to concede that strict profit-and-loss auditing techniques may not be able to fully sum up the relationship. The appendix on page 71 reproducing a speech he gave to the Rotary Club of Dhaka as long ago as January 1980 when he was India’s high commissioner is a masterly summing up of the complexities of a relationship that “cannot remain stagnant for long without getting worse”.

Dubey’s appreciation of Bangladesh’s importance as one of India’s most important neighbours has not always been shared by his superiors in New Delhi. This incisive book should remind them that conditions in Bangladesh may change at the next election, and that now is the time to secure ties that can have a profound long-term bearing on India’s position in the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean communities as well as with Southeast Asia. Dubey’s stoutly patriotic rejection of the charge of hegemony is not very realistic in this context. What matters is not how Indian policymakers interpret their actions in Nepal, Sri Lanka or the Maldives but how the Nepalese, Sri Lankans or Maldivians see them. Blanket denials without the backing of credible explanations will be dismissed as a function of the diplomat’s sense of duty.

Otherwise, Dubey rises above the bonds of conventional thinking. He handles relations with the US with caution and is not blind to the realpolitik issues underlying fashionable current concerns like globalization and human rights. India’s far-flung diaspora provides another example of sturdy commonsense. There are useful suggestions here for improving non-resident Indian cooperation based on a realistic understanding of historical limitations. It may cause some anguish in prabasi Bharatiya circles to be reminded that “not a dollar was transferred” by NRI businessmen in India’s hour of need in the early 1990s. “In fact, NRIs contributed to the aggravation of the crisis by withdrawing in an indecent hurry their short-term deposits in Indian banks.”

In some respects, Dubey might even be said to be too kind to expatriate Indians. If one is to speak of migration “as being motivated by self-interest”, why hold that against only Gujarati shopkeepers in Kenya? It applies just as much to globally renowned scholars, to Indians who become US governors and congressmen, international steel magnates or British peers. The motivation is the same. Secondly, if Indian workers in the Gulf make a bigger, or proportionately higher, contribution to the motherland, it’s largely because they have nowhere else to park their savings. Unlike the US or Britain, West Asian countries do not encourage Indians to settle down. They have to leave when the contract period ends. They do so with reluctance because the sad truth is that few of those who can make a decent living abroad are anxious to spend their lives in India. This is something no foreign policy text can afford to overlook. India cannot be separated from Indians who are willing — even anxious — to put up with enormous discomfort and humiliation in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Singapore, Malaysia and elsewhere because whatever they earn there is a fortune in rupees.

Standing up to China is not, in the circumstances, only a matter of bombs and ballistic missiles. Dubey rightly warns that “India should proceed on the assumption that China’s moves abroad will be propelled by a desire to attain supremacy in Asia and a dominant position in the world”. He calls for air power to be deployed along the frontier and exposure of China’s human rights violations to counter this, arguing that India will not succeed in forging durable relations with China until it emerges as an equal, if not stronger, military and economic nation with a nuclear deterrent.

None of this is disputed. But it’s no less important to go beyond populist schemes to alleviate the grinding poverty of more than 300 million Indians. If the primary purpose of foreign policy is to promote national interest, the primary purpose of any policy should be to promote national welfare. Foreign policy, like charity, begins at home.