How India Sees the World: Kautilya to the 21st Century
By Shyam Saran
Juggernaut Books, 2017
Followers of writing on Indian foreign policy have had a bonanza year. First, at the end of 2016, came Shivshankar Menon’s thought provoking book “Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy”. That was followed by Aparna Pande’s “From Chanakya to Modi: The Evolution of India’s Foreign Policy”, an eminently readable scholar’s account. Now we have a cherry atop the icing on the cake, with Shyam Saran’s “How India Sees the World: Kautilya to the 21st Century”.
Interestingly, all three authors adopted different analytical tools. Mr Menon focused on five strategic turning points in the last two decades, which forced New Delhi to choose between two divergent courses; and then analysed why India made the choice it did in each case. Ms Pande’s more chronologically ordered recounting illustrated an underlying civilizational continuity even amidst geopolitical change. Mr Saran’s book, like Mr Menon’s, is a practitioner’s account not an academic’s, but differs from the latter’s in its broader focus on issues and geographies that Saran himself dealt with as a career diplomat and, later, as a political points-man.
These include the pitfalls in dealing with smaller neighbours, especially Nepal, the thorny challenges posed by Pakistan and China, the Sino-Indian border dispute, the negotiation of the US-India nuclear agreement and, finally, climate change.
Mr Saran, who is a superb raconteur in real life, brings the same gift of storytelling to his book. He eschews strategic and diplomatic jargon, explaining complex issues and incidents in language that the lay reader can enjoy. Mr Saran has a wicked sense of the ridiculous, which he does not hesitate to deploy, making the book even more enjoyable (Hint: turn to page 114, where he describes the process of inviting his Chinese language teacher home for tea).
Mr Saran’s insights come from a 36-year career as a diplomat, which culminated at the highest rung of the foreign service, followed by his appointment as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s special envoy on the US-India civil nuclear negotiations; and then on climate change negotiations. This provides much of the book a satisfying personal flavour and a reassuring authenticity.
Where this personal touch is missing is in the (thankfully) brief section at the start where the author wastes ten-odd pages in trying to justify the book’s sub-title: “From Chanakya to the 21st Century”. Fortunately, after a few laudatory references to Chanakya/Kautilya and a two-page hop-and-skip through the millennia, Saran reaches the 20th century and the contemporary diplomatic playground where he more convincingly wields his masterful touch.
Mr Saran brings to light several issues that have remained undisclosed so far. For example, it was known that, in 1992, under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, India and Pakistan had almost agreed for both sides to simultaneously withdraw troops from the Siachen Glacier. This was first described in detail by Lieutenant General VR Raghavan in his seminal book “Siachen: Conflict Without End”. Now Mr Saran describes his little known initiative in 2006, in coordination with his Pakistani counterpart Riaz Mohammad Khan, to demilitarise Siachen.
All the key stakeholders including the army chief, General JJ Singh, had cleared the proposal and its detailed withdrawal procedures and safeguards. However, when this came up for the cabinet’s clearance, Mr Saran recounts that the National Security Advisor, MK Narayanan “launched into a bitter offensive against the proposal…” and the army chief quickly jumped ship. Home Minister Shivraj Patil and Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee decided to play it safe and the prime minister remained silent. “My defence of the deal became a voice in the wilderness”, laments Saran.
The friction between Mr Saran and MK Narayanan that this incident highlights was clearly a running sore under the United Progressive Alliance government. In a similar remarkable clash of views, Saran recounts how Narayanan backed Nepali monarch, King Gyanendra, even as the foreign ministry was squeezing him into granting concessions to the democratic parties in Nepal.
Saran, however, does not convincingly explain why a Siachen demilitarisation would benefit India. In one part of the book he perceptively notes: “There was no doubt in my mind that any understanding on Kashmir had to be part and parcel of a larger peace process between India and Pakistan”. But he does not explain why Siachen should be pursued in isolation.
The most delightful parts of the book, where Mr Saran truly comes into his own, are on relations with China. He displays his phenomenal grasp of the border dispute, an area in which he has walked large sections, unlike many other experts. Although many scholars assume that China has a stronger case than India over the Aksai Chin and other areas occupied by China along the Ladakh border, Mr Saran makes a succinct and convincing case for pursuing the return of at least some of this territory – the parts China occupied after 1960. He also provides a fascinating, blow-by-blow account of the border negotiations in the early 1980s, when he was posted in the Indian embassy in Beijing and the two sides came tantalisingly close to an border settlement that would recognise Arunachal Pradesh as a part of India, and possibly some 3,000 square kilometres of Chinese-controlled territory in Ladakh as well. When this proposal was put up to Indira Gandhi, she wanted to wait until after the general elections in 1985. However, she was assassinated on October 1984 and, the next year, the Chinese offer was off the table.
The author provides similarly riveting accounts of the negotiation of the US-India civil nuclear agreement, the Copenhagen climate change talks, and relations with Nepal where he was India’s ambassador at a crucial stage of that country’s evolution from a constitutional monarchy. Mr Saran is nothing, if not the quintessential realist. Five years ago, he recommended a modern version of non-alignment, in which India would build relations with every major power, each relationship being leveraged with the combined weight of the others. Today, he describes China as “the main adversary”. This is not inconsistency, but a measure of how far China has come, and how unambiguously it has signalled its intentions vis-à-vis India. We will have to navigate this changing world and there is no better place to start than Mr Saran’s excellent book.