Shivshankar Menon: ‘For India, our home is Asia and not just the Subcontinent’

“Exceptionalism is dangerous thinking,” says former Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon, referring to a broader trend in India of fracturing relationships with neighbouring nations. “This idea that we are or can be a world unto ourselves and that we have enough demand at home is crazy thinking. We have been there in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s the common people who suffer the outcomes of such decisions the most, and not those who take these decisions. That’s the real tragedy,” says Menon, whose new book India And Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present (Penguin/India Allen Lane, Rs 699) documents the changes in India’s foreign policy from Independence to the Modi era.

Speaking at a recent online meeting organised by the Indian Women’s Press Corps, the former national security adviser to then prime minister Manmohan Singh says that India must make its foreign policy based on geographical reality. As he writes in the book:

Asia is now physically tied together by infrastructure, trade, and investment. Globalisation means that the prosperity of east Asia depends and can be threatened by what happens in west Asia.

“We can’t cut ourselves off from either west Asia or east Asia. For India, our home is (all of) Asia and not just the Subcontinent,” he says, explaining why he thinks India missed a trick when it came to diplomatic ties with Bangladesh and Myanmar.

“When the Rohingya refugee crisis began to become serious – almost a million people within a year – our first reaction was to say, ‘Oh, terrorists’. Now, this is a huge humanitarian crisis, a huge burden on Bangladesh and it is trouble between two very friendly neighbours whom you need for your own security. We should have first asked, ‘What can we do to solve this problem?’ We should have been in there, not the Chinese,” says Menon, who has served as India’s ambassador to China and Israel, and high commissioner to Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

The Kerala-born diplomat, who started his career in the Indian Foreign Service in the early 1970s, adds that India’s goal should be to “create a sort of Bay of Bengal community that is interlinked and where we work together on the same side on security and prosperity issues. And for that you have to get Bangladesh and Myanmar ready to talk at the same table.”

Unfortunately, he says, the opportunity has now been lost due to India’s reaction to the Rohingya crisis and then the military takeover in Myanmar this year.

Shivshankar Menon speaking at an e-meeting organised by Indian Women’s Press Corps

India no longer a democratic role model

For Menon, who was one of the architects of the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2005, India is quickly losing its position of advantage as a role model for democracy in South Asia. He quotes instances from the past when neighbouring nations took inspiration from India’s democratic systems, such as when Nepal enlisted Indian support to draft its Constitution, and when Sri Lanka – while negotiating with Jaffna Tamils about autonomy in the 1980s – considered Indian federalism as a model for how much power to give the local governments.

“That has stopped. Why? Because we’re not clear about what kind of India we are building; we’re busy arguing amongst ourselves. And the India that the neighbours see some people arguing for, is not very attractive to them. So, the power of example no longer works,” he says.

Menon, who was a distinguished fellow at the Brookings Institution, explains that this is not the first time that domestic politics has driven foreign policy. “If you look at our China policies from 1959 to 1962, it was domestic politics that limited our options and led us on a steady path to war,” he says, adding, “But if you are clear about the kind of India you want and the kind of world you want, to enable that India, then it’s much easier to deal with the world, and the world also knows what to expect from you.”

For a long time, he says, India had a very clear view of itself: “We are a democracy and we are building a secular, modern, democratic country of our own and, therefore, we want the world to be a democratic, ordered place where laws apply, which is peaceful and therefore one that can enable the rise of India.”

He explains this idea further in the book:

In my experience of diplomacy and policymaking, most of the brilliant thoughts, concepts, and ideas that analysts and historians discuss seldom influence the politicians and policymakers who make the decisions that are the raw material of history. At the same time, the better ones are acutely aware of how their decisions will appear to their constituencies and have a clear sense of the power equations and geopolitics around them.

It was this clear self-image that allowed leaders in the past to manage domestic politics, Menon explains. He gives the example of former prime minister Narasimha Rao, who managed to get the consensus of all major opposition leaders on the Indo-China peace agreement of 1993. “But if you’re confused, that – for me – is the ultimate sin. Then your foreign policy is also confused, divided and ineffective eventually,” he says.

Menon had earlier criticised the Modi government for its controversial amendment to India’s citizenship law, which he said had led to the country’s rapid isolation on the international diplomatic scene. He had said that the government’s actions had “hyphenated our image with Pakistan in a fundamental way, as religious driven and intolerant”.

He is now equally unimpressed with India’s “vaccine diplomacy” endeavours in the wake of the pandemic. “Let’s be real. Gratitude is not a long-lasting commodity in foreign policy. This is what happens when foreign policy is based on getting headlines in the papers and making your own people feel good,” says Menon, who has also authored the book Choices: Inside the Making of Indian Foreign Policy (Penguin/India Allen Lane, 2016).

A walk down Indian foreign policy

Riding Amazon’s charts soon after its release, Menon’s new book India and Asian Geopolitics is divided into three chapters: ‘The Past’, which looks at the major trends just after Independence such as the reshaping of the borders and the Cold War; ‘The Present’, which brings in the role of China and of India’s place in a globalised world; and, finally, one chapter is dedicated to ‘India’s Tasks’ or looking forward, “as diplomats are wont to do”, explains Menon in the introduction.

The book gives an overview of India’s interdependence on the outside world, which has grown along with India’s evolution and power in the international system. It especially looks at India’s position given the rise of China in the world order. Free of jargon and supported with incidents from his own career of almost half a century, the book presents a larger, pragmatic picture of the challenges facing Indian foreign policy in a fast-moving fluid global landscape and the rise of authoritarianism.

He writes:

Of the over 40 megacities in the world (with populations over 10 million), only two are not in what used to be called the Third World. What this does to politics and military affairs is nothing short of revolutionary, for it makes crowd psychology the driving force of politics and enables the mass media, and now social media, to work on autonomous and alienated individuals outside their traditional social and familial structures. New ideologies, whether good or bad, can proliferate in this atmosphere. Urban crowds or mobs demand maximalist foreign policies, as we see in the viewership of the most rabid television stations in India, as, what Robert Kaplan calls “a resentful hot-blooded nationalism” spreads.

He believes that we are now in the midst of yet another transition and face both intellectual and practical challenges – from understanding India’s position in the present-day interconnected world to devising policies that will enable India’s transformation now and in the future.

Globalisation and the rise of authoritarianism 

Menon highlights the link between globalisation and the rise of authoritarianism, with Trumpism being the latest symptom. “People see globalisation as a threat to their identity and traditional culture. Internal politics thus becomes more emotional, much more about identity and displacement from traditional lifestyle,” he explains.

While the agenda has become transnational and needs cooperative solutions – after all, he says, issues like cyber security, maritime security and climate change cannot be solved by one country alone – domestic politics is increasingly “driven by authoritarians who can’t compromise and make deals”, not just in India but worldwide.

He connects this trend with the advances in technology and connectivity, which have exacerbated inequality and made it that much more visible. Further, he says, the most significant contributor to the rise of authoritarian regimes has been the global financial crisis, which has slowed down economic growth since 2008.

“Governments’ capacity to deliver better and better futures suddenly came into doubt. And leaders began promising more and more, even though they knew it was jumla (false narratives),” he says, clarifying that has been happening not just in India but worldwide.

As he writes in the book:

The life of most people on earth is better than it ever has been in history, and yet the sense of uncertainty, dissatisfaction, and anger has never seemed higher. By historical standards, the world today is much less inequitable, unfair, capriciously oppressive, murderous, and imperial than before. Paradoxically, deep racial, cultural, and ethnic panics are evident in all societies, including the most advanced. The tension and the dynamic continue between cosmopolitanism versus nostalgic reaction, between regimentation versus an open society.

“Each of these trends has now been accelerated by Covid,” he says.

Referring to the double whammy of the economic slowdown and the pandemic, the career diplomat believes India is in a very dangerous situation. “Everything will be blamed on Covid,” he predicts, but the fact is that the inequality that has been created due to globalisation, connectivity and economic slowdown – compounded by frustrated aspirations and the identity crises that many are going through – will have political consequences.

“It makes a peaceful world much less likely,” he regrets.

First published in Money Control

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