Book Review: Pax Indica

Pax Indica- India and the World of the 21st Century is authored by Shashi Tharoor. He is an elected member of parliament, former minister of state for external affairs and under secretary general of the UN with a 29-year career in refugee and peace work. He was India’s candidate in 2006 to succeed UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. His fame extends beyond the confines of global diplomacy. Tharoor is also a prize-winning author of 12 previous books, a widely published critic, commentator and columnist and a popular twitterati. No wonder the book witnessed a high-profile launch attended by the who’s who of Delhi, and interviews and reviews followed.

Presenting an account of Indian diplomacy and how India is poised vis-à-vis the global community, Pax Indica argues that the basic task for India in international affairs is to follow a foreign policy that could facilitate domestic transformation.

In support of his thesis, he cites “how a fisherwoman in Thiruvananthapuram may not have the slightest idea who the foreign minister of India is or care about the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, but she will know if the price of diesel of her husband’s boat or kerosene for her kitchen stove has become more affordable; she understands international economics when a foreign trawler catches fish in waters her husband and his ancestors have fished in for generations; her livelihood is affected when fear of terrorism imposes restrictions on the movement of her community’s boats, or when fear of piracy leads a foreign vessel to shoot at one carrying her brothers. Foreign policy might seem an abstraction to people like her but it is relevant to her life just as much as to the diplomat in the pin-striped suit who speaks for India in the global forums”.

Spread across eleven chapters over 429 pages, the book, in Tharoor’s own words, is structured like an onion. It begins with a chapter on Pakistan titled Brother Enemy and peels outwards from China to Afghanistan and to other players in South Asia and the neighbourhood to the broader world beyond. Much of the detailing is anchored in 2012 peppered with a little historical background from the ancient and the medieval world, personal anecdotes and developments of the recent past.

Pax Indica may help students of India’s foreign policy to make better tutorials, South Block mandarins to add Tharoor’s latest book to their personal and official collections and give some fodder for thought to retired IFS officers.
But given the persona and long career in international diplomacy of the author, the book fails to provide an insider’s view in terms of personalities and or interesting anecdotes, decisions or events that made or marred India’s foreign policy.

After you have skipped and skimmed through for any possible revelation, Tharoor on the last page breaks down the hype, if any, surrounding the book and warns that it is a work of reflection, not scholarship... He says he consciously cast this work as an extended analytical essay, devoid of footnotes or reference materials.

Usually known for his acerbic comments, Tharoor,  a ruling party MP, has conveniently avoided diplomatic nightmares (like IPKF in Sri Lanka, the Kandahar hijacking or the drubbing by the Chinese in 1962 which continues to haunt policy makers) as it might embarrass the UPA government already facing a ‘policy paralysis’.

On the other hand, Tharoor claims India has achieved ‘appreciable results’ in putting Pakistan under pressure on 26/11. He builds romantic beliefs of good neighbourly relations with Pakistan and China and says it is a must for the Indian growth story.

Recalling his doctoral thesis, which became his first book, Reasons of State, which dwelt on foreign policy during Indira Gandhi’s first stint as Prime Minister, the chapter titled External Affairs, Tharoor found the problems of understaffing of diplomatic corps, structure, coordination, personnel planning and absence of informed public debates still relevant as he found it 30 years ago.

He reveals that India’s 120 missions and 49 consulates are run by 900 IFS officers against 20,000 deployed by US, 6,000 by UK, 6,550 by Germany and 6,250 by France. Asia’s largest foreign service is maintained by Japan with 5,500 officers and China with 4,200. He also avers that IFS suffers from lack of a well structured mid-career training programme.

As in many other spheres of life, India has managed its foreign affairs from one crisis to the other, lacking in long-term vision and short-term strategies. So Pax Indica will be a distant dream for now. We have to wait for another book on foreign policy from Tharoor when he is free of politics and can reveal all that  is wrong