There’s An Indic Way Of Thinking About Foreign Policy But We Are Doing It The Wrong Way

There’s An Indic Way Of Thinking About Foreign Policy But We Are Doing It The Wrong Way

by Jaideep A Prabhu - Jan 14, 2017 05:04 PM +05:30 IST
There’s An Indic Way Of Thinking About Foreign Policy But We Are Doing It The Wrong WayPhoto by A. Savin (Wikimedia Commons)
  • Datta Ray’s book provides some fascinating insights into the workings of India’s Ministry of External Affairs.

    Datta-Ray, Deep. The Making of Indian Diplomacy: A Critique of Eurocentrism. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2015. 380 pp.

Indian diplomacy has long vexed its observers, occidental and oriental alike. Lacking in a culture of periodical declassification and easy access to past and present practitioners, the workings of South Block remain impervious to methodical scholarship. In this environment, a book that promises to reveal not only how Indian diplomacy is conducted but also why it is such an enigma is a welcome arrival. As the title avers, The Making of Indian Diplomacy: A Critique of Eurocentrism seeks to properly establish the functioning of the members of the Indian Foreign Service in the culture and traditions of their homeland rather than in Christendom's theories of statecraft.

Several things are of note in this project: first, Deep Datta-Ray, the author, is making a cultural approach to the study of diplomacy and foreign policy. While this may seem perfectly normal to most, it is a method that has had few takers in the historical profession. Though it has become more popular over the last decade, international relations remains firmly in the grip of abstract theories such as realism, constructivism, or Marxism. And yet, diplomats and their political masters do not leave their values and biases at home each day as they come in for work; they are enmeshed in a cultural web which cannot but inform their policies.

Second, Datta-Ray criticises scholars who complain that Indian foreign policy makes little sense for judging it by Western customs of politics, governance, and power. Despite nearly two centuries of British rule - between Crown and Company - over India, cultural transfer from metropole to periphery remained superficial at best. In other words, Thomas Macaulay failed to create brown Englishmen; Indians remain rooted in their traditions and understanding of the world.

Macaulay's failure would not be a startling revelation in itself but Datta-Ray goes on to argue that the entire modern project in Europe is deeply rooted in its Christian heritage and incompatible to the Indian ethos. The binarism of exclusivist monotheistic cults transcends mere theology and permeates all aspects of culture, resulting in a fundamentally different understanding of the cosmos and man's place in it. Islam, being an Abrahamic offspring, literally, meshes better with European notions of power relations and the state than dharmic religions do. Again, this is not a new argument: originally put forward in academic circles in the mid-1970s, it has percolated into the awareness of ordinary Indians perhaps a decade ago. However, Datta-Ray's systematic application of this idea to foreign policy is a first and deserves careful consideration.

Unfortunately, The Making of Indian Diplomacy is filled with turgid prose that could impress only dissertation committees. Such jargon-laden, impenetrable language, the hallmark of cultural studies, is one of the reasons the humanities has lost respect in society. Datta-Ray commits such perversions upon the English language - the Queen was never meant to sound like this - that it would make Guillaume Apollinaire proud! Yet those who brave the presentation are rewarded with some fascinating insights into the workings of India's Ministry of External Affairs.

Indian history remains, disappointingly, strongly entangled to privileged access and Datta-Ray, son of Sunanda K Datta-Ray, seems to have it. This project needed the personal intervention of then prime minister Manmohan Singh, such was the resistance of the bureaucracy against an interloper. Even then, one MEA mandarin asked the author, "What do you want with our documents? They only reveal process, not intent." This gives an insight into Indian bureaucratic thinking that marks it different from Western practice.

Fortunately, Datta-Ray has used his opportunity well - embedded with the Indian Foreign Service allowed him to observe, talk informally, and interview officially dozens of young aspirants, serving officials, and retired civil servants. The resulting monograph can be understood as discussing the structural and intellectual differences between Western and Indic diplomacy.

The Body of the Beast

Before looking at policies and attitudes, Datta-Ray asks who populates the service. He finds that many of the applicants come from modest backgrounds in the hinterland, some not even aware of the IFS until they had cleared the Union Public Service Commission examination! Many come to government service as a means to mediate between it and their village, or enlist its assistance to protect their region from the state. There is less suspicion of the state compared to Western countries, for one primary reason - it is present in the villages, where private corporations find it unprofitable to venture. Ironically, the failure of the state to adequately provide basic necessities for its citizens is also its greatest strength.

Many of the incoming civil service cadre seem to hold an organic view of society in which the state remains a place people can come together and lift themselves up through the opportunities it provides. While the cosmopolitan disenchanted may scoff at such idealism, Datta-Ray has revealed an interesting undercurrent that will last as long as a government job is seen as a guarantor of upward mobility. However, is it necessarily different from the West? One would assume that governments world over attract service-minded people, some more fortunate than others, however cynical it may leave them at the end. A quick comparison to a small sampling of other countries would have helped the argument along much better.

The Making of Indian Diplomacy praises how several IFS officers left lucrative careers in the corporate world to enter into government service. Some officers, ironically, do not want to leave home; others see a civil service job as a badge of status despite working conditions that are less than adequate. For example, at one point during the negotiations over the civil nuclear cooperation with the United States, the Indian delegation consisting of a Joint Secretary from the MEA and two lawyers found itself matched by an American official and his team of 55 lawyers! The Joint Secretary in question, S Jaishankar, when quizzed by his astounded counterpart, simply shrugged and replied that Indians make do. Jugaad, the popular term nowadays for making do, seems romantic only to those who never had to resort to it. MK Narayanan, the national security advisor from 2005 to 2011, glibly dismisses this as Indians not being a litigious society. However, the truth might simply be insufficient resources, poor recruiting power, and a deterring application process. Western foreign service departments are a lot more casual about lateral entry hires from industry, ensuring adequate manpower and expertise available to their ministers and senior bureaucrats at all times. These are certainly factors that make the IFS stand out from Western services but perhaps not in a way to be desired!

Datta-Ray reveals an interesting tidbit about promotions in the civil services: everyone gets positive reviews. As a result, personnel files are useless when it comes time to raise one above his peers. One officer confided in the author that this was because seniors were afraid that they would be accused of casteism if they marked anyone down. Datta-Ray uses this state of affairs to argue for a peculiarly Indian "total evaluation" process that goes beyond words on paper to assess the suitability of an officer for a higher position. It is this system that allowed Shivshankar Menon, former national security advisor to Manmohan Singh and successor to Narayanan, to supercede 16 positions to become the foreign secretary in October 2006. Of course, a less charitable view might be that "total evaluation" is making a virtue out of necessity and that it merely conceals an egregious problem in Indian institutions, namely, using caste victimisation as a weapon to conceal incompetence.

Intellectual Weltanshauung

Datta-Ray recounts when Menon explains the role of a diplomat to the incoming batch of IFS recruits as that played by Krishna in the udyoga parva of the Mahabharata. Rather than launch into a scholarly evolution of diplomacy a la Harold Nicolson, Keith Hamilton, Richard Langhorne, Martin Wight, or Ernest Satow, the former NSA latched onto a text most Indians are intimately familiar with. The great epic remains the backbone of Indian political thinking, Datta-Ray argues, because it avoids the pitfalls of viewing the world in false dichotomies just as Indian foreign policy has shown a tendency to avoid.

This is a limited reading of the Mahabharata, and indeed, Indic thought. There are several incidents in the great epic that run counter to Menon's portrayal that can be recounted: one, Krishna's urging Yudhishtira to perform the Rajasuya yaga; two, his advocacy of war within 13 days of the Pandavas' exile; three, when Krishna intercepted the elephant goad thrown by the king of Pragjyotisha, Bhagadatta, at Arjuna despite a promise not to participate in the war in any way except as charioteer/advisor to the third son of Pandu; or four, the infamous manner in which Drona was made to lay down his weapons. These roles do not, strictly speaking, fit our modern imagination of a diplomat's task. Yet to restrict foreign policy strictly to conference room machinations and champagne is too narrow an understanding of the profession. A diplomat must also provide wise counsel to his political masters, something Krishna unfailingly did for the Pandavas. If the IFS is indeed inspired by the Mahabharata, one wonders if any of them have ever truly engaged with the text. Similarly, the breathtakingly amoral Arthashastra does not shy away from advocating the use of kutayuddha if the national interest required it.

The Making of Indian Diplomacy gets to the crux of the matter when it asks why India should become a Great Power. Datta-Ray asks this in the context of Menon's meteoric elevation and an internal memorandum by Rajiv Sikri, one of the bypassed officers. Sikri, he finds, has fallen into the trap of Western modernity and advocates Great Power status for India for its own sake. This does not satisfy Datta-Ray, who declares such a quest as un-Indian. In support, he quotes former external affairs minister, Natwar Singh's response - that India's goal is to remove poverty, not become a Great Power - when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared that the United States intended to help India become a major power in the 21st century.

According to Datta-Ray, Indian diplomacy avoids the anarchic and binary world of power politics by understanding the international community and India's place within it as a unified cosmos. All states are interlinked and, therefore, foreign relations is not a zero-sum game. This explains why India continues to deal with Pakistan despite the constant terrorist attacks Islamabad supports against India, or why Delhi de-links its territorial dispute with China from other facets of its relationship. In essence, the view that vasudhaiva kutumbakam, or, the world is one family, guides Indian diplomacy.

This, continues, Datta-Ray, is seen even in India's nuclear weapons policy - Nehru and Indira Gandhi both rejected Western rationality even at the risk of appearing irrational to pursue their own reasoning. In this, they did not even trust their senior-most bureaucrats for fear that they would push India into the same anarchic-binary world Nehru had avoided through his non-alignment. Finally pushed into crossing the nuclear rubicon, India refrained from weaponisation until 1998 when circumstances forced it to take the next step. Even then, Indian diplomacy maintained its traditional roots. K Subrahmanyam, one of the architects of India's nuclear doctrine, echoed Nehru and his daughter when he reasoned that in the nuclear age, the main purpose of foreign policy should be to prevent wars; humanity must unite and cooperate to survive.

There are a host of problems with this interpretation of Indian foreign policy. The first is to use Nehru as the yardstick of Indianness. The first prime minister, influenced on the one hand by Mohandas Gandhi's asceticism and on the other by British notions of progress, can hardly be an example of the traditional Indian values Datta-Ray has deployed throughout his argument. Nehru certainly did not view himself the way Datta-Ray seems to. As he himself wrote in The Discovery of India that he came to India as a foreigner; Nehru had also remarked to John Galbraith, the US ambassador to India, that he was the last Englishman to rule in India. In fact, the question arises that if the IFS really is imbued with the Nehruvian spirit, is it relying on the corpus of Indic works and experiences or on a Leftist, perhaps Christian socialist version of Western thinking?

It is unfortunate that public perception of India has been captured by Gandhi's misinterpretation of dharmic values. Vasudhaiva kutumbakam was not, as Sarvesh Tiwari has ably shown, a recommendation but an admonition. Ashoka, the great renouncer became so only after he had conquered his enemies. Ahimsa, fashionably misappropriated by Gandhi against the British, was described in a very different context by Buddha and Mahavira. In fact, Indic ethics, which are carried more in the works of literature than philosophy, speak very much in a language of realism - about proportion, balance, alliances, caution, and strength.

If anything, the examples Datta-Ray gives shows the Indian diplomatic establishment in its worst light: not trusted even by prime ministers, animated by the values of an ingabanga leader, wracked by the low quality of its recruits, unable to attract fresh talent, and riven by its own politics and demons, it mirrors much of what is wrong with Indian institutions and its polity. With decision-making centred around the prime minister's office, foreign policy resembles more a fiefdom and India a flailing state rather than a robust and rising democracy. Did the Mahabharata, the text that informs so many IFS officers, not have counsel on governance, the limits of authority, and power?

Despite his questionable choice of examples, Datta-Ray does convince, with just his anecdote about Menon and the Mahabharata, that there is indeed an Indic way of thinking about foreign policy, even if the wrong lessons seem to have been drawn here. However, he must be cautious in making the jump from the IFS knowing about the epic, to actually following its precepts. Indeed, there is much folk wisdom and rhetoric on how Indians view themselves as part of a bigger cosmic whole; Man does not stand above nature but is a part of it. Yet it is unclear how much this thinking dictates everyday function. Despite such concerns about the environment, for example, the Ganga has turned into toxic sludge, tree cover is receding, and the air in urban centres is unbreathable. To know or to have read Aristotle is not to do as he advises.

In places, it seems Datta-Ray has created a straw man out of Western civilisation; the notion of acting with purpose rather than for its own sake that the author sees in Indic ethics sounds similar to the value Niall Ferguson sees in his very Western, Kantian Henry Kissinger. There are, indeed, differences between how Indic and Abrahamic traditions view the world but as most critics of the West are prone to do, Datta-Ray exaggerates the divergences and homogenises the West in a manner he finds problematic for India or the East.

A book must be judged not only on its argument but also the questions it tickles in the readers’ minds; in the latter, Datta-Ray has succeeded spectacularly. He is among the first to try and apply Indic frameworks to modern challenges, ambitiously threatening to subvert the normative understanding of modernity. It is perhaps too much to expect perfect coherence in the first attempt.

Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.
Get Swarajya in your inbox everyday. Subscribe here.

An Appeal...

Dear Reader,

As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.

Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.

We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.

Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.

Become A Patron
Become A Subscriber
Comments ↓
Get Swarajya in your inbox everyday. Subscribe here.

Latest Articles

    Artboard 4Created with Sketch.