The elephant has become an obvious, even if cliched, symbol of modern India but the imagery of the dancing elephant has been used in other contexts as well. Thus Louis V. Gerstner in his Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? recounts the dramatic turnround in the fortunes of IBM that was once considered too big and not nimble enough to survive. If that work was the confident—bordering on brash—assertion of a management icon, David Malone’s work offers the tentative conclusions of a sensitive social scientist. The title of his work is revealing: rather than cast a doubt on the elephant’s ability to dance—which would have been the case if the title had been ‘Can the Elephant Dance?’—he focuses on the current state of Indian foreign policy and how effective it has been. David Malone is an accomplished scholar-diplomat and the author of several books on the United Nations system and multilateral diplomacy. He was Canada’s High Commissioner in New Delhi between 2006 and 2008 and is currently the President of the International Development Research Centre, Canada.
He brings to bear in his latest book his insightful analysis enriched by his interactions with a wide range of Indian scholars, diplomats, foreign policy and security analysts during his time in New Delhi. He found New Delhi a place of intense debates, with the life of the mind engaging as in Washington, London and Paris. He also notes that there is a great deal of similarity in the debates within the United States and India, with both being characterized by optimism, openness and self-absorption and with occasional hubris on display.
Some well known figures who came to New Delhi as ambassadors—among them Chester Bowles, John Kenneth Galbraith and one of Malone’s early predecessors, Escott Reid—have written memoirs that offer fascinating insights into the formulation of foreign policy in the Nehru era. Nehru’s personal interest in the making of foreign policy, his frequent interactions, articulation of ideas and frank discussions with ambassadors in New Delhi turned such memoirs into valuable historical records. Malone notes, however, that in the modern period with more of foreign visits and more frequent meetings among foreign ministers and heads of governments, the role of the resident ambassadors has somewhat diminished. That does not deter him though, and based on his keen observation and intellectual exchanges with an amazingly wide range of people, he has come out with a work that is breathtakingly ambitious in its scope and covers the entire gamut of Indiais foreign policy. The work, he notes, is not based on a theoretical framework but is historical and empirical in its roots and enquiring in its aims. In it we don’t find the hectoring certainty of a security analyst but the tentative analysis and the gentle counsel of a sympathetic social scientist. Where the diplomat in him comes out is that even while displaying an awareness of the faults of the system, he pulls his punches and prefers instead to point to some of the sharp criticism voiced by other observers, both Indian and foreign.
Malone notes the three distinct periods of Indian foreign policy: the first characterized by the idealism of Nehru, the second by the realpolitik of Indira Gandhi and the subsequent period when foreign policy was driven by pragmatic economic interests. With Sonia Gandhi focused largely on domestic economic and political issues, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has had a relatively free hand in the conduct of foreign policy. His determined and successful push for the India-US nuclear deal has won him many admirers outside while his knowledge of international economic issues has made world leaders sit up and listen when he speaks. As for the other players involved in the making of foreign policy, the Indian Foreign Service comes in for praise for the high calibre of its members who have made a mark in the international arena though some have still not got over the rhetoric of an earlier period.
While the book deals with specific issues of foreign policy, two themes run through the entire analysis. The first is that India’s influence outside would depend largely on its own internal economic strength and development. Malone cautions against blind optimism on economic growth and over facile projections based on sustaining the current high growth rate indefinitely into the future. There are uncertainties that spring from the global scene into which India is more closely integrated now, the availability of energy, the issues of the environment and poverty. He notes that Indian leaders down from the Prime Minister are aware of the reality that they must overcome the country’s massive poverty, low agricultural productivity, the poor state of public education and health care and grossly inadequate infrastructure if the country is to aspire for great power status.
The second broad theme is that there is no grand design behind foreign policy formulation. Indian foreign policy ‘has tended to be reactive and formulated incrementally, case-by-case rather than through high-minded in-depth policy frameworks,’ Malone notes. Foreign policy has not been bold and adventurous and on most major issues there have not been any radical departures from the past. This he notes is not necessarily a disadvantage and India’s prudent policy of measured engagement with all the major powers is more likely to pay off than bold but risky moves.
The main focus of the book is on ‘three major preoccupations and an important partner. ‘ The preoccupations are the South Asian neighbourhood, China and quest for great power status, and the partnership is with the United States. These indeed can be said to be the principal focus of the foreign policy pursued by successive prime ministers, but with one rider. Pakistan, rather than the South Asian neighbourhood as a whole, has been the major factor in Indian foreign policy. India’s relationship with Pakistan is a challenging area for western scholars but also one where they are ever willing to enter in search of the magic bullet. It is somewhat of a surprise therefore that Malone should be content to deal with India-Pakistan relations in all of seven pages as part of the chapter on relations with the South Asian neighbours. This is the weakest part of the book, which is a pity as readers would have benefited from his detailed and clear-headed analysis of the contentious issues in India-Pakistan relations. Malone notes Stephen Cohen’s remark that in India-Pakistan relations, terrorism is the main concern for India, Kashmir for Pakistan and nuclear proliferation for the rest of the world. As for conflict, there is the real danger of any government in India appearing weak if it does not respond to another terrorist attack with a clear link to the government of Pakistan. There may be agreements on specific issues such as trade and nuclear confidence building but he does not see a fundamental improvement in relations in the near future. As the stronger power, India needs to go the extra mile in engaging in talks. As for Pakistan, it needs to focus on internal terrorism rather than treat it as an India-oriented issue.
“Malone cautions against blind optimism on economic growth and over facile projections based on sustaining the current high growth rate indefinitely into the future. There are uncertainties that spring from the global scene into which India is more closely integrated now, the availability of energy, the issues of the environment and poverty.”
The second major preoccupation—relations with China—is dealt with somewhat more extensively. He notes that while China would need to factor in a rising India in its global strategic calculations, with China becoming increasingly active in South Asia, India would need to factor China into its regional strategy. In the near future, ‘the likelihood is a mix of security-related tension and economic cooperation. ‘ Given the obvious rivalry between the two powers, he leaves open the question posed by the Financial Times whether two tigers can share the same mountain. In an interesting aside, he notes that while China would continue to maintain close strategic ties with Pakistan, its own security, separatism and terrorism related concerns in its Uighur province would deter it from providing blind support to Pakistan.
As for the quest for great power status—the third major preoccupation—his view is that focusing on strengthening the domestic economy and fixing relations with neighbours without the intervention of outside powers would help even more than diplomatic moves. The quest for a permanent UN Security Council seat in the company of Japan and Germany is problematical as China would resist the induction of Japan while in the case of Germany, Europe is already seen to be over-represented. All this is true, but Malone makes just a passing mention of the basic inequity in the UN system that preserves the power balance of a bygone era. The reluctance of the major powers to admit new members into what is an exclusive club of permanent members of the Security Council and their tendency to play one candidate against another also need to be noted in this context. Malone regards India’s entry and growing role in the G20 group as a major development but feels it should engage more actively and constructively in multilateral forums on all fronts and in all regions. He sees IBSA (India, Brazil and South Africa) as a valuable forum in which the three nations with their shared democratic form of government stand in marked contrast to China. The focus, above all, needs to be on resolving domestic problems: ‘It may well be that India’s rise will occur in relative isolation, as did China’s while it tended to its economic priorities, rather than in close partnership with one or several allies among the existing great powers.’
As for the partnership with the United States, Malone notes that half a century had to pass from Nehru’s declaration in his address to the US Congress that friendship between India and the United States was ‘natural’ before Prime Minister Vajpayee could assert in 2000 that the two were ‘natural allies’. He sees the two countries emerging as strategic partners in the decades ahead but the path is not expected to be smooth as their interests do not coincide in several areas as, for instance, in dealing with the Islamic world, notably Iran. In his view, what will emerge will be not so much an alliance as a ‘selective partnership’ based on specific shared interests in some areas.
The book does not purport to offer a grand solution to all the problems but provides a host of valuable insights. It is extremely well written and engaging and is a must read for all those interested in Indian foreign policy making.