Friday, 9 June 2017

Choices (Inside the Making of India's Foreign Policy ) - Shivshankar Menon


s book presents  five specific scenarios, in which India had to make choices with regards to  decisions, during Menon's long illustrious career as a diplomat. In each of these situations Menon shows that deciding factor was the minmax strategy - minimising the damage and maximising the advantage, a concept borrowed from game theory, since there are no right or wrong answers at the time of taking decisions in matters of  International politics, and the advantages and disadvantages of  the decisions become more visible years later. 

There is a certain part in the introduction, upon which no non-partisan reader cannot help but  congratulate India, given their vast development over the last twenty five years or so, not with standing their poverty issues.
"India itself was very different from the India that had gained independence in 1947, when the average life expectancy was twenty-six years, only about one-seventh of the population was literate, and there had been half a century of near zero growth in the economy under empire." Menon attributes India's success to three of their prime-ministers, P.V. Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, who implemented strong policies which resulted in the country's growth and stuck to them, irrespective of which side of the political divide they were from. Here's a good lesson to our politicians, which essentially means that a country can be turned back around within two decades if the political will so desires it.


The First chapter in this book, is on the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement in 1993, with China. The decision here was the willingness of India to settle for "both Chinese and Indian purposes to try to impose peace along the border while leaving to the future the more politically difficult task of settling the boundary." The challenge was that Ind
ia still carried the scars of the 1962 conflict, in which the victor was China.It was a question of permitting bilateral relations in other areas while the boundary question remained unsettled.
"The process of LAC clarification has effectively has effectively stalled since 2002. India therefore does not have an agreed-upon delineation of the LAC with China."
"Bilateral trade between expanded sixty-seven times between 1998 and 2012, and China is India's largest trading partner in goods... And there are more than 11,000 Indian students in China." 
"Finding the balance between rivalry and incentives for good behaviour, between competition and cooperation, is among the hardest tasks in strategy."
Menon credits Indian PMs Narasimha Rao and A.B. Vajpayee of the hard work they put in, and their actions for the "greater good than immediate party political advantage."
Since then, with China's aim of becoming the number one in the world the situation is changing, says Menon, and more nationalistic inclination is hinted as the reason for the current situation in flux.
"..a leadership that increasingly relies on nationalism for its legitimacy find it easy to make the compromises necessary for a boundary settlement ( This is equally true of India)." To me it appears that Menon hints at Narendra Modi too, here.

The Second chapter titled Natural Partners, is how the Civil Nuclear Initiative with the United States materialised. India advanced in Nuclear and Space technology, while they were under sanctions from the U.S. after their first experiment in 1974. The gist of the Indian argument is presented at the start.
"That India was still making progress in nuclear and space technology and was moving toward becoming a player in this arena internationally had only strengthened the voices of those in India who thought that anything worthwhile in the Indian economy had to be done autonomously and indigenously, and further, that the world would only with India, as an equal once the country had developed its capacities on its own."
Seven years after India declared itself a NWS (Nuclear Weapons State), she was ready to work with the United States to get the NSG (Nuclear Supplies Groups ) to permit civil Nuclear commerce with India, given that she was afflicted by an energy crisis. This chapter explains why it was a race against time as India was working with president Bush, whose term was drawing to a close. Besides this PM Manmohan Singh's advisors were cautioning about how the U.S. has been an unreliable partner in the past. All the necessary international legal framework, including the consensus of the NSG and IAEA board was needed before the end of Bush' second term. To aggravate matters the Left has withdrawn support for the government and a vote of no confidence was scheduled in the Lok Sabha on July 22nd, 2008.Manmohan Singh's resolve in seeing all through  to success is commended.
"..it was Singh's dogged but quite persistence that sustained the initiative at every stage and ultimately made all the difference. Personalities matter."( page 78)
While Menon has succeeded in showing the challenges and how they were overcome, he sometimes tends to go out on a limb to give character certificates, to people of whom the public opinion is not so glowering. George W. Bush is one such individual. Here's what Menon says of him.
"In all our meetings with Bush I found him focused, clear on the issues, well prepared, and willing to listen. I can only speculate that this son of privilege, born to the blue-blooded in the US establishment, went to great pains to appear ordinary, and succeeded. But the image concealed a sharp mind and a genuine ability to connect with other people, as shown by his close and productive relationships with Manmohan Singh ...When Bush and Singh were together, they were relaxed to the point of laughing and joking with each other. On the US side as well, personalities mattered."

The most troubling chapter in this volume has to be the third which deals with cross border terrorism from Pakistan and the Mumbai Attack. While it is a pleasure to read  about the calculated diplomacy which made India not to retaliate for the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai ( Menon differed with this decision at the time, he admits ), Menon concedes in a veiled threat that it is unlikely that India would tolerate any further such attacks as not only the circumstances has changed but even decision makers. Menon goes on to say that where Pakistan is concerned there are multiple centers of power and the Army is one such, with their nuclear arsenal under the military, the only NWS to have it so. While personally I am not sympathetic towards India given their overly Big-brother attitude in the region, they cannot be envied for their prospects of prolonged intractable conflict with nonstate actors. Thus Menon finds the method that of the Israelists, described as "mowing the grass" is useful for India too. Menon concedes that their relations with Pakistan is an utter failure and the best that can be done is managing the problem. One important sentence needs highlighting here before I move to the next chapter. To Quote:
"The Saudis and Qataris had successfully used this tactic for years, exporting their radicals to the rest of the Middle East and Afghanistan and Pakistan" (page 105), "this" being a design to move Jihadi violence from domestic soil to another country,  from Pakistan to India as is being speculated here by Menon, as he discusses motives for this attack. 

The fourth chapter is obviously the main reason for me to purchase this book, since it is about our efforts to eradicate the LTTE terrorism, and I wanted to hear the account from a third party, yet involved sufficiently to qualify commenting with minimum prejudice. First thing I noted was that India's uninvited forceful intervention is mentioned in typical diplomatic language.
"The population of jaffna was under siege and without supplies and food. on June 5 (1987), the Indian Air Force air-dropped 25 tons of medicine and food in Jaffna, informing the Sri Lankan government only just before the action. The situation was deteriorating rapidly, and India's relations with this strategically located neighbor were at considerable risk" (Page 130)

I quote below a few notable sentences which need to be heard from him, as he writes it here. 

* "It could be argued that India's action in 2009, which made Prabhakaran's end inevitable and inspired the hands-off attitude of the international community were a direct result of that one act by Prabhakaran, whose involvement in the assassination was conclusively proved." (Page 132)
* "Norway came closest to success in 2001, when the LTTE for the first time suggested it might be willing to settle for less than a fully independent Eelam. Cynics attribute this development to the success of the long-range reconnaissance patrols of the SLA, which took down several LTTE commanders in 2000-2001. Optimists attribute it to fatigue with the war and a strong civil cociety peace movement. Both are right. (page 136)
*"Particularly memorable were midnight visits to Colombo with Pranab Mukherjee when we flew into Colombo at 8 p.m., went straight to the Presidential Palace for a military briefing by Fonseka and a political one by President Rajapakse, and had a long conversation exploring options..." (page 140)
*"To their credit, while the Rajapaksas negotiated hard to avoid limitations on their ability to wage war against their mortal enemy, they did agree to allow safe passage corridors and o create safe zones for civilians in January and February (2009). Later in March they also agreed not to use heavy-caliber weapons when the LTTE had trapped a large number of civilians with them in a tiny area along the coast in the final stages of the war. More significantly, the Rajapaksas implemented these commitments in practice"( page 140 )
   True that this statements suggest that these measures on behalf of the civilians were taken only at the behest of the Indians. This has to be taken with due consideration for the fact the Indian career diplomat would need to highlight what he would like to portray as his achievements. I am more inclined to believe that the Sri Lankan government didn't have designs to inflict untoward damages on the civilians, bu not adopting whatever safety mechanisms possible, but would've held a high bar to negotiate, given that a low bar or a wavering one would be detrimental to their military goals.  Negotiating with the Rajapaksa's wouldn't have been an easy affair. When reading this essay I felt that while their was no love lost between the Indians and President Rajapakse, there is plenty of  backhand compliments to suggest that,  from a Sri Lankan perspective that him being in India's good books was not what was most important to us.
*"...Norway and the United States were attempting to secure a cease-fire, to negotiate exile for Prabhakaran, and to explore other exit strategies that would effectively keep the LTTE alive to fight another day, Politically or Militarily. For politicians and leaders in India, whether in Tamilnadu or in Delhi, this was not an acceptable stance or outcome." (page 141)
The biggest criticism against President Rajapake is this:
*"While he facilitated India's reconstruction and relief work, Rajapaksa could not bring himself to be politically magnanimous in victory. To some extent he was correct in telling us that there was no one he could work with on the Tamil side. Such Tamil politicians as had survived the war in the Tamil National Alliance were either complicit with or indebted to the LTTE and the most radical elements in the diaspora. But Rajapaksa did not use his effective and overwhelming power to promote a moderate Tami leadership" (page 149)
   While this allegation is difficult quantify, personally the more pertinent question would be whether a majority of this State believes that a political solution is needed. This is visible every time that this matters gains currency, and such a solution to date can only be forced upon the majority of the population. Whether it will change in time to come is another matter. I am afraid that India is not sensitive to this aspect of the issue.

To conclude I cite the following quotes:
*"The Sri Lankan civil war is one of the few instances I can think of where terrorism ( but not separatism ) was successfully eradicated by purely military means." ( Page 151)
  And I couldn't help but recalling the ridiculing  our self styled think tank Nalin de Silva had to undergo when he said this is his own inimitable way.

*"I found that as defense secretary, Gothabaya had a clear view of the Sri Lanka's interests, one that was compatible with ours.....At no stage was exclusivity sought or promised. And realistically speaking, it would be unreasonable to expect exclusivity. For  Sri Lanka, as for India's other smaller neighbors, using China to get India's attention and invest in the relationship and using India to get Chinese investment and support is a productive  strategy, empirically proven in the past. For India not to recognize and deal with this fact of international life would be foolish." ( pages 150--151)

"Why India pledges No First Use of Nuclear Weapons" is the fifth chapter is in this book. It elaborates the doctrine that National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government adopted, upon testing nuclear weapons publicly in 1998.
"[T]he fundamental purpose of Indian nuclear weapons is to deter the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons by any State or entity against India and its forces. India will not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike, but will respond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail;
.       .. India will not resort to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against States which do not possess nuclear weapons, or are not aligned with nuclear weapon powers."
This is a position that is hard to disagree in my honest opinion, especially given that it has to contain a country in constant turmoil such as Pakistan  as its neighour. There is a section titled "India-Pakistan Deterrence" which clearly elaborates the unenviable position that India finds itself with regards to Pakistan.

This excellent book with a few pages dedicated to "a final word" in which he hopes that "If these extended essay have left readers with some sense of the complexity and joys of foreign policy decision making, of the balancing interests that it requires, and of minimizing harm and maximizing gain, in situations where not all considerations are entirely synchronized, then this book has served its purpose". To me it has, in its entirety.


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