Review: Pax Indica by Shashi Tharoor

Pax Indica

I somehow have been slightly more active than the average person in keeping myself abreast with developments in politics - both national and international and this dates back to my primary school days when I used to make my own notes in a diary. That diary predominantly consisted of wonderful facts from around the world which used to feature in the kids Saturday special in the Times of India back then. That was in the 1990's. That's what probably got me initiated into the habit of collecting and ever since have been aware of the name Shashi Tharoor as he may have been mentioned in an article in the same newspaper. He was making it to the headlines in India almost every other day when the Government of India nominated him for the post of UN Secretary General. His name 'Shashi' used to remind of the suave actor Shashi Kapoor, and Tharoor anyways rhymed with the actor's surname. By the way, the diplomat Shashi is no less suave.

The title Pax Indica holds connotations of the wrong kind, and Tharoor clarifies what he means: "...not global or regional domination along the lines of a Pax Romana or a Pax Britannica", but "a peace system...". He starts with the first chapter titled 'Revisiting the Tryst with Destiny' and how Nehru was always committed to India's stand in world politics, which was covered in vivid detail in the book I read before this - the first volume of Nehru's biography by Sarvepalli Gopal. He explains in plain words why international relations are important - they are not just outward focused, but more inward focused and how India needs to make sure it pulls out its poor by giving them a level playing field in the world economy. This book "deals much less with the history of India's foreign policy" and more with the "contemporary trends and future prospects" and he reasons this with by saying "history has not always been a reliable guide to the present". I couldn't help but disagree with this view of history - for if that were the case a student of the contemporary Indian international relations can well correlate them with young Nehru's outlook during his youth and his participation in the anti-imperial conference held in Europe decades before India's independence (of course the benefit of hindsight has to be discounted here). He gives the example of India's nuclear tests of 1998 and the ensuing sanctions and how the Indo-US nuclear deal of 2008 could never have been predicted by focusing on the former. But he is missing out on a very important conclusion drawn and proven umpteen times from the annals of history: that all nations necessarily act out and devise policies for their own benefits. For the U.S to sign and enable India to have access to nuclear technology despite of opposition was a signal of the economic benefits it's suppliers could reap in (of course this is too simplistic a view, but holds good). That's essentially a characteristic trait of humans - they can justify anything and everything given it is in favor of them and so was the Indo-US deal which definitely wasn't realized just on India's non-proliferation credentials.

The second chapter is Brother Enemy (does it foretell that Tharoor considers Pakistan brother first and then an enemy?). This chapter shows the author's side as a seasoned diplomat. He reasons compellingly why India should not stop talking to Pakistan, which would be falling into the hands of the extremists on the other side of the boundary. This being a very recent book it also covers latest developments in the diplomatic relations of India. After 26/11 Mumbai attack, "some loud Indian voices on the country's ubiquitously shrill 24/7 news channels pointed enviously to Israel's decisive action against neighbouring territories that have provided sanctuary for those conducting terrorist attacks upon it. They clamorously asked why India could not do the same." Those were calls of agitated men who couldn't come to the terms that India is doing 'nothing' against such barbaric acts. Tharoor writes, rightly so, in favor of the restraint the Indian government showed during those testing times because "Hamas is in no condition to resist Israel's air and ground attacks in kind, whereas an Indian attack on Pakistani territory, even one targeting terrorist bases and training camps, would invite swift retaliation from the Pakistani Army" and "the country that foments, and at the very least condones, the terror attacks on India is a nuclear power". In Pakistan, the "military has ruled directly for a majority of the years of its existence" and the Pakistani Army enjoys privileges like "army-controlled shopping malls, petrol stations, real-estate ventures, import-export enterprises and even universities and think tanks". Though, "the fear in India remains that the government has run out of ideas in dealing with Pakistan". But the author lists down the numerous options India has, from resolution 1267 (proscribing Jamaat-ud-Dawa) and 1373 (imposing binding requirements on all member states to take a whole range of actions against suspected terror organizations) of the Security Council, pressure on Pakistan through the United Nations, engage in talks with China to explain to them how Pakistan's fomenting of terror is harmful for its own state and pushing United States for a more balanced view of the region. A suggestion of the author which I disagree with is the opening up of the visa regime for businessmen from Pakistan. We shouldn't be doing that as we definitely don't want rich men, in the garb of doing business, funding Indian Muslim extremists. One of the interesting moments in this chapter is when the author personally witnesses an "extraordinary degree of comradeship between Indian and Pakistani officers serving in the Peacekeeping Department headquarters in New York; perhaps being among foreigners served as a constant reminder of how much more they had in common with each other".

Chapters three and four are titled A Tough Neighbourhood and China and India: Competition, Cooperation or Conflict respectively. Hence, the first four chapters essentially cover India's relations with all of it's geographical neighbours, and make for an interesting read for even a marginally informed citizen and more so for the uninformed. In chapters three and four, India's positives and negatives with Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Maldives and China are analyzed along with Afghanistan, though technically not a neighbour after "Pakistan's capture in 1948 of the strip of land in north-western Kashmir that made Afghanistan a territorial neighbour of India's". Tharoor's observations are cemented by his own experience in the United Nations and his views are progressive. He advocates the use the international relations' for driving our own domestic development - of course anyone might agree to that, but India hasn't put much of it to practice yet. How a moral stand might come in the way of developmental economics and co-operation is exemplified by how India's support of democratic frameworks in Myanmar and ignorance of relationship building resulted in China gaining favors "when large deposits of natural gas were found" and by support for Tibetans resulting in the ongoing friction along the border, especially in Arunachal Pradesh, in which lies "the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama and a major monastery of Tibetan Buddism". Afghanistan has been simmering for Pakistan's want of a 'strategic depth' as it lies at the heart of any logistics plan for NATO/US forces and increases its own importance and hence it's so-called 'desire' to find a solution in the war-torn country. A Maoist government in Nepal is a concern but these fears got allayed when reassurances were "conveyed to New Delhi that a Maoist-run Nepal would not allow itself to be used against Indian interests". Despite this, the porous border between Indian and Nepal is used by anti-India elements, especially from Pakistan to enter our country. Bilateral trade has increased sevenfold in a decade. With Bhutan, relations are near excellent with India being the largest development partner of Bhutan and financing "three-fifths of Bhutan's budget" and its exports to India forming 99 per cent of its total exports. With Bangladesh, the road has been dotted with potholes, but strides have been taken to overcome them - though from time to time regional politics do affect them like they did when chief minister of West Bengal, Mamta Banerjee, "vetoed a proposed agreement in 2011 to share the waters of the river Teesta, claiming it would deprive her farmers of adequate water". The relationship with Sri Lanka being more than 2500 years old has demonstrated significant negativity in recent times owing to the LTTE militancy; China is gaining inroads here as well. With Maldives, India shares "a 'special relationship'" with active co-operation in maritime and coastal security and "developing mutually identified infrastructure facilities in the Maldives using economic and technical assistance provided by India". Chinese efforts at gaining influence with India's neighbours is a well thought move - to limit India's influence in Asia. China has been the only member of the Security Council to oppose inclusion of India and Japan in it. Based on economic data, the author argues that India and China cannot be treated in the same league: China is much ahead! (even in Olympics). But India's soft power and democratic credentials stand out and are in favor with lot of south east Asian nations. India still has got lot of catching up to do before it can be compared with China's success. The author gives the argument that China attacking India may not be a reality for the fact that China's exports to India were of $50 billion in 2011. But this pales in relative terms. Data on CIA website clearly suggests that for China, India accounted for only 2.6% of its total exports in 2011 while for India, China accounted for 7.6% of its total exports. So India has to be more willing than China in avoiding a conflict. The author says there is room for both - I hope for the same!

The next few chapters deal with relations with the Arab World, South East Asia, United States, Europe, Africa and Latin America. For each of the section, the highlight is that India needs to be more adept and aggressive in creating a base for a future with them. China, alas, is progressing at a breakneck speed on its world class six lane expressway while India is still maneuvering on its potholed dirt ridden single lane road. With the European Union, India's relations are better poised with few individual countries than with the whole for, not in the least, bureaucratic underpinnings on both sides. The incident where a mayor from Lima presses for a Tata Nano manufacturing plant is humorous. That India doesn't like to be pursued as a balancing power to China's growing stature and prefers being accorded importance due to its own standing was a revelation. In Africa, India is doing fine, though it once again pales against the Chinese diplomatic incursions.

The most charming section of the book is of chapter eight titled The Hard Challenge of Soft Power and Public Diplomacy. He quotes Joseph Nye in defining soft power: "the soft power of a country rests primarily on three resources: its culture, its political values and its foreign policies". Tharoor then asserts that India's soft power is nothing new and has been there since centuries, if not, at least, a millennium. We just need to capitalize on it. In India you are always a minority - maybe because of your language, or religion, or caste, or race or culture and hence India cannot be typecast by any insular definition and "pluralism is a reality that emerges from the very nature of the country". He then gives several examples when he has come across India's soft power - in Afghanistan because of Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, in Oman and Africa because of Bollywood and in Australia because of Indian food. His commentary also includes on benefiting from the new communications channel of social media and how it has supplanted political thought from Egypt to the United States to Bahrain.

The last three chapters deal with what lies beneath India's foreign policy - the Indian Foreign Service and Ministry of External Affairs and their standing in the political structure, and what lies above - the future which lies ahead for India, not just as non-aligned, which anyways is defunct now, but as multi-aligned. He comes out hard on the slow, if any, implementation of changes in the IFS in terms of readiness and preparedness to tackle the new world order. He outlines the severely limiting problems which plague the IFS and MEA and suggests solid action items for overcoming them. In the next chapter he discusses the role of United Nations in the world and that of India in the United Nations. He is generous in according the UN a role of importance especially in view of US invasion of Iraq and the recent uprisings in the Arab region. Yet, he is critical as well of its functioning and says it well by pointing out that the time for a reform rather than to die has come for the UN. He also visits the topic of NRI's and their importance in the Indian story. In the last chapter, he argues that rather than being aligned to a set of principles, India is and always should act on a case-by-case basis: as in Myanmar and Iran. 'Problems without passports' is the term he coins for poverty, terrorism, dangers to the environment among others. "India is well qualified, along with others, to help write those rules and define the norms that will guide tomorrow's world".

All this reminds us of the adage: In foreign relations, there are neither permanent friends nor foes. Stressed and oft repeated throughout is the tenet that "the basic task for India in international affairs is to wield a foreign policy that enables and facilitates the domestic transformation of India, while promoting our own national values (of pluralism, democracy, social justice and secularism)". For someone who wants an updated (over)view of India's foreign relations with the world, this is the book to begin with. It is not scholarly, and that's the beauty of it - rising above the theoretical and being grounded, practical and based on experience.

1. I remember the day when I dialed up few Pakistani numbers on 25th of May, 2011. Times of India had published a snapshot of David Headley's diary (originally Daud Gilani). Handler's of Headley and their phone numbers were mentioned in that page. I had dialed four of those numbers. On connecting with the first number, the guy talked in Hindi and said he is from Lokmanya Tilak area of Mumbai. The number belonged to Rahul Bhatt, the son of Mahesh Bhatt - a famous Bollywood director and producer. But probably Rahul had given this number to his help or driver or someone of a similar social stature because I could make it out from the dialect being spoken.

The second number was of someone named Vikas (or Vilas - a smudge on the page made it difficult to decipher). This number was not reachable. The third number had the country code 92 - of Pakistan that is. I had a goose bump or two before trying this one. Not in the least because it was from Pakistan but also for it was of a 'handler' of Headley! But nonetheless, my hatred of these men was so profound that I pushed the buttons on my phone. Mr. Jehangir picked up and greeted "Assalam Wailaikum" and I didn't know how to respond. I had never really replied "Wailaikum Assalam" to even Muslim friends as they never greeted me like this. I went blank for a moment. Then, I too, greeted him "Wailaikum Assalam". His tone of voice was refined, soft and confident. He was talking in a way a radio jockey would - clearly pronouncing his words, evenly pacing them and without any crests of annoyance. His English was perfect and definitely was a man from the upper class of the society (could he have been from the ISI or Pakistani Army?). His first reaction on my mention that his name was mentioned in a paper in India as a handler of Headley was of shock and surprise. Then he mentioned that somebody had called him the day before as well from India regarding the same issue. It was more than an 'issue' for me. He went on to add that he had studied with Headley in school and was a friend of his and later either he or Headley went to the US for studies and lost touch and apart from that he knew nothing. I ended the call by "Thank you for talking to me".

The fourth number was from Pakistan again and an interesting thing happened. A lady picked up and in a harrowed voice asked me "Why are you doing this" and continued to speak in Urdu that she had been harassed so many times during the day and she knew nothing. And then she hung up.

There were more numbers in the diary, but I could not gather courage to dial any further - for the fear that the Indian police might wonder why I was calling these numbers. It left me wondering whether these were really the handlers of Headley or just random people who knew Headley and were unfortunate enough that their numbers were in his diary? (I have deliberately not mentioned the numbers here lest they were innocents). Well, that's that. (You may want to read a similar account on NDTV website)

2. Just couple of hours after I was impressed by the chapter on soft power, I searched for 'Shashi Tharoor' on Youtube and a TED talk of his was amongst the top five results. It was on soft power - and disappointingly most of what was in the chapter was in the video too! That video was uploaded in December, 2009 and this book published in the first half of 2012 - which was like rubbing salt onto one's injuries.

3. I had stopped following Shashi Tharoor on Twitter because my timeline was getting flooded by his dozen-a-day tweets and mentions, but after reading this book I have started following him again.


  1. Too impressed and frankly, overwhelmed, firstly with such a nice way of presenting an almost professional review of the book of a person, whose name, even the scholars think twice before taking; and secondly, by your depths and breadth of understanding as well as unbiasedly reviewing the book. I've read all the reviews you've shared on Twitter lately and this one, though the lengthiest, stands out as the best so far! I'm sure you can make a stunning career out of diplomatic writing, or even better, diplomat for India! Think about it Nik. :-)