Modern India’s history is counted from 1947, but the making of India’s current foreign policy goes back to 1990 or there abouts. A number of factors, both global and domestic, that crystallized in the late 1980s-early 1990s mark a clear change in course at the time. In India, there was political turmoil, and two short-lived governments (led by PMs V.P. Singh and Chandrashekhar) followed by the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, had left India shaken both economically, and in terms of leadership. Externally, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War alliances, and the start of the Gulf War coupled with these developments had ‘left India in the position of a voyager who has lost his compass at sea’, according to German scholar Dietmar Rothermund (India: The Rise Of An Asian Giant. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). This period saw other shifts in Indian thinking: from a controlled market to economic liberalization, from anti-colonial to pro-West underpinnings, from nonalignment ambition to those of multipolarity and world leadership.
It is in this crucible of time that former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon sets his book Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy where he tells the story of how India’s policy on China, US, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and nuclear nonproliferation were made, from this period to the present. In the introduction, Menon explains that the method for choosing these areas was simply because of his association with each of them, and not in order of salience.
Each of Menon’s assignments post 1992 then, serves as the basis for Choices. After completing a stint as Deputy Chief of Mission in Tokyo from 1989 to 1992, Menon was tasked with the North East Division at the MEA in Delhi, a period that saw India and China sign the historic Agreement on Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control in 1993. He served as Ambassador to Israel in 1995–97, as India opened up further to Tel Aviv, losing its NAM inhibitions. He was sent next as Ambassador to Sri Lanka from 1997–2000, to China (2000–2003) and then served as High Commissioner to Pakistan (2003–2006), before he was appointed Foreign Secretary (2006–2009).
Choices is not an autobiography, and is entirely devoid of any personal details about the author or the key decision makers of his time. In an interview to The Hindu, (http://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/%E2%80%98Force-is-useful-but-it-has-limited-utility%E2%80%99/article16707495.ece) Menon was clearly dismissive of the ‘what the butler saw’ style of memoirs, but said that he thought it ‘important in a democracy’ to ‘put out the considerations and argue about the substance of policy’. ‘I don’t think it’s necessary to do the tell-all type of book and say, “oh, this person was so foolish”, or “so right” or “wrong”. As a policy discussion, this (Choices) is much-needed (instead),’ he adds in defence of his book.
As a result, some may accuse Menon of saying too little: he hardly dwells on any part of his time as National Security Advisor, and instead of referring to specific governments, officials or leaders, often falls back on the generic ‘India felt’, or ‘Pakistan denied’ or ‘China’s options’. This gives the book the feel of being ‘once removed’ from the scene, when in fact Menon’s account is that of an eyewitness, an official who was always inside the room when decisions were made.
Equally, Menon is cautious of those who would accuse him of saying too much. ‘If you go further back to the 1950s, people were much more open about how the government worked,’ Menon recounts, quoting former Foreign Secretary Y.D. Gundevia’s memoir, Outside the Archives. ‘It[was] much more open about the process of government, but it was also personal, in the first person with many details. I think after that we became more closed, more insecure about such writing. Some of it was this idea of a civil servant betraying the tribe if you spoke outside of the room. I think I’ve tried to steer clear of that,’ he said in the interview.
There is plenty of information in Choices for a student of Indian foreign policy rationale to be absorbed by. There is the now widely discussed scene between Menon, former NSA Narayanan and PM Manmohan Singh in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, where then FS—Menon and NSA—Narayanan advocated an immediate ‘revenge hit’ reaction, but were overruled. Or Menon’s mission in 2006 to speak to Congress Chief Sonia Gandhi as also to editors, academics and opinion makers to soften the opposition to the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal. In another chapter, Menon gives the most comprehensive current version of all the strategic considerations behind India’s ‘No First Use’ policy for nuclear weapons, with all the possible redlines for India. And there is a rivetting account of the government’s actions at the end of the war with the LTTE, where between Menon as FS, Narayanan and then External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, they engaged the Rajapaksa ‘troika’ (President Mahinda and his brothers Basil and Gothabaya) to try and save civilians from the path of advancing SL forces.
However, while relations with Pakistan and Sri Lanka are discussed threadbare, Menon fails to impart to them the extra layer of being in the South Asian neighbourhood, and little importance is given to the SAARC process in the book. There is also little discussion on the tough ‘choices’ he would have had to walk as High Commissioner in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, as Foreign Secretary and NSA, on the tightrope walk between being a good neighbour and being big brother in the neighbourhood.
One such omission is the decision for PM Manmohan Singh to boycott the Commonwealth summit in Colombo in 2013, when India chose its domestic coalition compulsions in Tamil Nadu over its obligations to Sri Lanka and the Commonwealth. An explanation of the rationale that made India appear hypocritical at the time would have been useful: after all, if India had so actively assisted Rajapaksa with the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, how could it hold out for accountability of his actions four years later? The period from 2012–2014 saw India lose much capital in its neighbourhood, from Nepal and the constitution to Bhutan and subsidies to Bangladesh and Teesta, and it may have benefitted the reader had Menon dwelt at least in passing to them. Equally, the relationship with Russia, which must have intersected India’s dealings with the US, could have easily benefitted from the cold analytical light that Menon otherwise delights his readers with throughout his book.
Menon is modest when it comes to his role in guiding the most troubled relations India has, with China and Pakistan. The truth is, the period from when Menon was envoy to Islamabad and Beijing to his term as FS saw some of the greatest strides towards normalization with both countries. Whether it was the India China Joint statement of 2003 and the outline of ‘goals and guiding principles’ for the resolution of bilateral issues signed during PM Vajpayee’s visit to Beijing, or the announcement of the India-Pakistan ceasefire at the LoC, the talks towards the ‘4-Step formula’ for Kashmir, or the flagging off of the cross LoC bus, each of these foreign policy initiatives were carried out on Menon’s watch. Unfortunately, some of the important work of the time, like Menon’s efforts at deftly handling China so that it gave India, not Pakistan its support on the issue of terrorism has been lost in the last few years. Menon himself explains in his book the important changes in ‘rising China’ that India has failed to factor in. With Pakistan, the current impasse is a far cry of the early days of UPA-1, when action through engagement was preferred over the current radio silence between New Delhi and Islamabad.
Choices is as much a description of the making of Indian foreign policy in the past few decades, as it is a description of the making of Menon as NSA. Most heartwarming are Menon’s reminiscences of relations with leaders like Narasimha Rao, IK Gujral, Atal Behari Vajpayee (both as leader of opposition and PM) and Dr. Manmohan Singh. The flexibility, democracy and pragmatism of these negotiations within the Indian foreign policy structure is quite as intriguing as those of India’s relations with the world itself.
Suhasini Haidar is Diplomatic Editor,The Hindu.