A fascinating account of how eight prime ministers shaped India's foreign policy

India’s World: How Prime Ministers Shaped Foreign Policy is a fascinating historical and political narrative of how eight prime ministers of India have shaped our foreign policy


India’s World: How Prime Ministers Shaped Foreign Policy is a fascinating historical and political narrative of how eight prime ministers of India have shaped our foreign policy. Meticulously researched, it sheds light on how decisions taken by an Indian government leader in a different day and age continue to throw a long shadow today over Indian national security and its place in the comity of nations. In doing so, the author also leaves the reader to decide on the legacy left behind by these leaders and their place in the pantheon of the history of our great nation.

Diplomat, with over 37 years in the Indian Foreign Service, bestselling author, television commentator, and artist, former ambassador Rajiv Dogra is an authority on the deeply troubled India-Pakistan equation. His authoritative book Durand’s Curse is a telling expose of the genesis of the border issue between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Through this book, the author reveals how the desire for a permanent peace with Pakistan has tarnished the historical legacy of some of our prime ministers.

The prologue prepares the reader for the treat in store. Written in a lyrical, even poetic style, it asks whether the Indian leadership had a shared vision about India’s place in the world. Did the burden of foreign rule circumscribe or limit the actions of some of our leaders? Did India’s consistent faith in remaining content within its land boundaries, of its absence of aggressive militarism, lead to the myth of its passivity? As the author notes: “Along the way, India lay defeated and wounded….India emerged reborn as a young, traumatized state wounded by its partition.”

Any analysis of the leadership of our prime ministers would need to take into account, the author correctly points out, of the fact that India is not easy to govern. Why? The response is as brutally honest as it is correct. “Perhaps our collective memory is stained by a thousand years of bending low, by a history of accommodation, even subservience.”

Eight chapters follow providing a riveting account of Indian history from Independence to September 2019. It stops short of the pandemic and its effects. From a foreign policy perspective, the first chapter ‘Jawaharlal Nehru: Gandhi’s Choice’ is a must-read! Was Nehru an ‘accidental’ Prime Minister? Would India have been better off with Sardar Patel, the choice of the Pradesh Congress Committee? The author underlines: "In the iconography of Indian independence, Gandhi was the saint and Nehru the prince. He was an aristocrat who belonged to the masses, a dictatorial taskmaster who was a great democrat.” 

When the aristocrat becomes the first prime minister of a complex, impoverished, and divided country, every mistake is written into the future of that country. Nehru’s decision to appoint Lord Mountbatten as independent India’s first governor-general resulted in the deeply flawed decisions on Kashmir, the carving out of "Azad Kashmir" - or Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir -  by Pakistan, and the referral of the issue by India to the Security Council. This was followed by Nehru’s insistence that Article 370 be adopted by Parliament, despite B R Ambedkar’s refusal to draft it. He then compounded the mistake by bringing in Article 35-AIN 1954. 

India’s first prime minister also grossly misjudged China. On the basis of new archival and circumstantial evidence, Dogra concludes that India was offered a permanent seat in the Security Council by the US in 1950 and by the USSR in 1955. Instead of safeguarding India’s national interests, Nehru asserted: “We shall go on pressing for China’s admission in the UN and the Security Council.” Nehru also miscalculated and misjudged China’s intentions on Tibet and a Chinese attack on our border positions. The author notes: “India’s military defeat in 1962 was a dividing line between the post-Independence Nehruvian idealism and a man betrayed by realpolitik.” The reader is left to decide on the nature of Nehru’s legacy. 

The chapter on Indira Gandhi aptly begins with the citation from the Bhagavad Gita: “Prepare for war with peace in thy soul.” The author summarizes Indira Gandhi’s legacy as follows: “Indira is the only goddess that the Indian political constellation has had so far. She may have been flawed but she loved India and gave it its proudest possible moment.” Unfortunately, India’s finest hour with its complete military victory over Pakistan was tarnished by her diplomatic and negotiating blunders in Simla (not Shimla). Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, former Pakistan president who signed the accord, told a close political confidant on his return from Simla: “I have made a fool of that woman.” 

Domestically, the emergency marked the downfall of the "goddess" from the highest pedestal of Indian public opinion. It marked the closest India got to abandoning the cherished ideals of democracy, freedom, and rule of law. Followed later by the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar and the alienation of an entire Sikh community, the jury is out on the nature of the legacy of India’s only political "goddess".

If the reader then fast forwards to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, elegantly referred to as "Poet, Politician, Patriot", this "karma yogi" finally ensured India’s nuclear status and the reluctant respect of the West for its emerging status in the global community. However, the poet also miscalculated vis-a-vis Pakistan. The bus ride to Lahore was followed by betrayal in Kargil. Then came the famous hijack of IC 814 to Kandahar and the humiliating capitulation by the release of the terrorists in order to save 170 lives. 

In retrospect, no democratically elected Indian government could have acted differently. But it did cast a long shadow on his legacy including the failure in Agra, the attack on the Indian Parliament, and the ten-month military buildup at the border, which was finally called off. Ultimately, this great leader will also be judged for his humanism, his electrifying message in Kashmir in 2003: “Issues can be resolved if we move forward guided by the three principles of Insaniyat, Jamhooriyat and Kashmiriyat (humanity, peace, and keeping the sanctity of the people of Kashmir)".

The author’s verdict on Prime Minister Narendra Modi is clear from the citation carefully selected from the Bhagavad Gita. “It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else’s life with perfection.” It is difficult, however, to agree with his assessment that “Modi resembled Nehru, but without the latter’s idealism.” It is easier to agree that “Modi is a full-time and consummate politician.” Modi also believed that personal diplomacy could make a difference in world affairs and to a certain extent he succeeded. The author correctly notes that PM Modi opted for course correction in foreign policy and like some of his predecessors he tried to make a grand gesture to Pakistan by inviting former Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif to his first oath-taking ceremony as India’s prime minister in 2014 and then visited him in Lahore on his birthday in 2015. 

As with similar gestures by Vajpayee, the Pakistani 'deep state' did not allow any thaw to set in. The visit to Lahore was reciprocated by an "ungrateful" Pakistan through the attack on Uri and then the suicide bomber in Pulwama. Unlike his predecessors, however, Modi did not hesitate and Indian Mirage fighters crossed the Line of Control (LoC) to attack a terror training camp in Balakot, POK. India’s foreign policy had finally crossed the "Lakshman Rekha" of crossing the international border to retaliate against terror attacks by its recalcitrant neighbour. 

Dogra’s assessment of Modi’s second term is incomplete since the book was completed in early September 2019. However, he correctly predicts “Modi is likely to continue the momentum in the Indo-US relationship.” He also apprehends that this is triggering “increased Chinese bellicosity.”

The epilogue ironically quotes the French saying: “The more it changes the more it remains the same.” The neighbourhood is unchanged as are the challenges that all who govern India have faced and will confront in the future. The author counsels against a possible military alliance with the US, arguing that both the US and China regard India as a “swing power” and China would react negatively in case such an alliance was formalized.

The response to the author’s conclusion that “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” (the more things change, the more they remain the same) would be to dramatically shift India’s foreign policy, from Modi’s course correction to a formal alliance with the US. That could be the theme of the author’s next book!

Written with lucidity and passion, with background notes, this 198-page book, published by Rupa and written by an informed insider and outstanding diplomat, is a must-read.

(The writer is a retired Indian ambassador. The views expressed are personal)

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