Aparna Pande. From Chanakya to Modi: The Evolution of India’s Foreign Policy. HarperCollins India.
Soon after Narendra Modi’s election in 2014, a plethora of books appeared in the Indian market that purported to present his worldview and governance priorities to the public. The texts among the lot that sought to present how Modi would engage with the wider world have been of uneven quality, ranging from prescient analyses to downright hagiography.
Sifting through the pile of tomes on Modi’s statecraft, a certain trend became clear. Most of these books portrayed Modi’s foreign policy as sui generis, a signal departure from the past. This proliferation of superlatives reinforced the newist mood in Indian politics that spin-masters, in turn, have exploited to the government’s advantage. Every tactical gain of the Modi government is heralded as a strategic victory; every diplomatic engagement is sold to a mostly pliable public as harbinger of a new era for Indian foreign policy; every foreign visit of the Prime Minister is sold as a step closer to India’s strategic Valhalla.
The problem with this convenient narrative is that it ignores the subterranean currents that have shaped how India engages with the world: the core unchanging assumptions of the strategic elite, the plodding caution of key institutions and their gatekeepers, and the unspoken consensus inside the political class on India’s national interests. Aparna Pande’s new book From Chanakya to Modi: The Evolution of India’s Foreign Policy seeks to lay bare these currents. In doing so, her book serves as a welcome antidote to a fawning public discourse that imagines (as an owner of a leading media group put it in a public event in 2015) Indian foreign policy starting with Narendra Modi’s occupation of the South Block.
Pande takes as her intellectual guide the American scholar Walter Russell Mead whose typology of American strategic thought forms the basis of her own for Indian foreign policy. In this typology, Indian thinking on foreign policy is categorised into four schools: the imperial/Curzonian, the idealist, the realist and the isolationist. Pande rightly avers that Indian foreign policy since independence has been a combination of all four, the difference between governments being in their relative emphasis of one over the other three. In her telling, Nehru occupies a singular position among leaders who have sought to navigate India’s world. She accurately writes: “[m]ost of Nehru’s successors held on to his tradition, with minor changes, as a guarantee of India’s stability in dealing with the rest of the world.”
While it has become fashionable in certain quarters to advance a revisionist view of Nehru as a misguided idealist, the fact of the matter is that his foreign policy was a complex mix of idealism (drawing on Indian exceptionalism) and realpolitik. The historian Srinath Raghavan, in his classic study of foreign policy of the Nehru years, describes him as a “liberal realist”, deeply influenced by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, patron-saint of classical realists. (Niebuhr continues to exercise tremendous influence over American politicians: Barack Obama once called him one of his favourite philosophers.)
Nehru’s liberal realism lives on. How else would one characterise the formulation of “enlightened national interest”, the stated guiding principle of Modi’s foreign policy?
From India’s nascent nuclear programme to how it sought to exert primacy in the subcontinent, Nehru’s realism shaped as much of Indian foreign policy as his high idealism around Afro-Asian solidarity and global disarmament. For example, when contemporary India seeks to shape Nepal’s foreign-policy preferences, there is a shade of Nehru who once famously said: “[M]uch as we appreciate the independence of Nepal, we cannot risk our own security by any happenings in Nepal which permit that barrier being crossed or which otherwise weaken our frontiers.”
Indeed the pursuit of national interest without sacrificing autonomy of action is what led Nehru to the grand strategy of non-alignment, on the one hand, and the pursuit of economic autarky on the other. It is hard to overestimate how efficacious the former was, as India leveraged Cold War schisms for its own benefit. Pande quotes the late eminent strategist K Subhramanyam on non-alignment: “[I]t was a sound strategy in realpolitik sense and in terms of balance of power.” One can argue that India’s continued quest for a multipolar world also follows from its preference for a balance-of-power system, which – as classical realists like Kissinger would argue – is one way to keep revisionist powers in check.
Realism has also continued to shape India’s stance in multilateral institutions. Critics argue that it is indeed not a surfeit of idealism that drives India’s position in such institutions; it has been the Indian state’s innately Hobbesian view of the world that posits the ever-present possibility of these institutions becoming vehicles of great-power play. As Pande writes, “Indians […] would argue that India fully supports multilateralism but seeks to keep in check the prospect of global institutions becoming instruments of renewed dominance of major powers.” India’s conflicted view of international institutions such as the United Nations Security Council comes in sharp focus, for example, in former Indian diplomat (and now a minister in the central government) Hardeep Singh Puri’s recent book on the geopolitics of humanitarian interventions.
It is with India’s integration with the global economy and the end of autarky at home, following the reforms of 1991, that the Indian establishment’s realism began to be tempered with faith in interdependence as a strategic instrument. The reforms of 1991 saw Indian foreign policy starting to place a premium on economic and trade diplomacy. New stakeholders such as business houses interested in transacting abroad started asserting themselves in Indian foreign-policy discourses – until then an exclusive preserve of trained diplomats and a few non-governmental experts. Resolution of the border dispute with China was put on the back burner as it emerged as a valuable economic partner of India’s. In other words, the key conditions for complex interdependence (a theory advanced by American academics Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye as a rival to realism) were put in place.
Twenty-five years later, interdependence as a strategy looks woefully inadequate in dealing with a resurgent China aspiring for hegemony in Asia. Realism as the guiding principle of Indian foreign policy is poised to make a comeback with vehemence; we only have to thank Xi Jinping for it.
Pande’s book is an excellent primer on how India has engaged with the world and will continue to do so – through realism with imperial hues, tempered by its civilisational responsibilities and grace. As such, it will be widely read by those who want to understand the neural roots of contemporary India’s strategic intent.
Abhijnan Rej is a Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. A strategic analyst and commentator, he focuses on developments in China, Pakistan, and United States, relevant to India’s national security and foreign policy.
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