India's place in a 'post-superpower age'

Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century, by Shashi Tharoor, Penguin India/Allen Lane, RRPRs799/£19.99


After two days of rolling power cuts at the end of last month left more than 600m Indians without electricity, the front page of one of the country’s newspapers carried a damning but simple message: “India Superpower, RIP.” It was only the most high-profile example of how life in the world’s largest democracy is often jarringly different from what one might expect of a rising global player.


Shashi Tharoor tries to avoid getting caught in this game: his India is “not the incipient ‘superpower’ that over enthusiastic supporters have described”, he insists. The country may overtake the US as the world’s second-largest economy around the middle of this century, but it will be just one participant in a complex “post-superpower age”, where many countries shape the world’s future, but none dominate.


That India matters increasingly in global affairs is also no great insight. The world’s most worrying nuclear flashpoint lies along its border with Pakistan. It could have a big role to play as the US pulls back from Afghanistan. And its role as a potential swing state between America and China will be one of the defining geopolitical issues of the coming age.


For all this, Tharoor admits that his book’s title, Pax Indica, is misleading. His is not an account of how the world must adapt to his country’s rise. Rather it is an attempt, with a general audience in mind, to map out some of the choices India faces.


Tharoor is both politician and polymath: a serving Congress party MP; a former minister in India’s foreign office; a one-time UN diplomat, who narrowly missed out on becoming secretary-general in 2010; and a prolific producer of novels, pamphlets and commentary of all types elsewhere.


He writes beautifully too, and these gifts of style are best employed when he probes the weaknesses of India’s diplomatic establishment, which he characterises as small and disorganised. India has only 900 foreign service officers to staff its 120 missions around the world: “a diplomatic corps roughly equally to Singapore”, and a fraction the size of most countries of comparable economic weight. Tharoor thinks this apparatus must be completely revamped, if his country is to prosper on its newly enlarged global stage. Yet while Pax Indica is admirably frank on these bureaucratic weakness, it is sadly less so on the policies that these institutions produce.


True, the book is broadly critical of India’s failure to lay out a vision to replace its cold war policy of non-alignment between east and west. Instead, Tharoor argues for a strategy he dubs multi-alignment, in which India develops a mishmash of alliances on an issue-by-issue basis, all with the aim of improving the country’s domestic, economic and social development.


But constrained by his role as an MP with higher political ambitions at home, Tharoor spends too much of his time explaining and defending India’s existing positions abroad. The reader is left to ponder exactly how a foreign policy establishment so unfit for purpose manages so rarely to put a foot wrong.

These explanations are engaging despite the undeniable feeling of punches being pulled, and also instructive given frequent confusion in the west over India’s motives. The country has developed a surly reputation of late, by seeming to stick a spanner in the works at Kyoto, for instance, or stalling the Doha trade negotiations. America, meanwhile, has been more than disappointed at the tepid response to its courtship, following the breakthrough civil nuclear deal signed between the two countries in 2005.

More interesting, however, are his views on immediate foreign policy dilemmas. India is undergoing a tentative rapprochement with Pakistan, with the r