July 25, 2020
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The Soft, The Hard, The Swift

A good read, but doesn’t reveal anything new

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The Soft, The Hard, The Swift
Tribhuvan Tiwari
The Soft, The Hard, The Swift
Pax Indica: India And The World Of The 21st Century
By Shashi Tharoor
Penguin/Allen Lane | Pages: 450 | Rs. 799

Pax Indica is the dummy’s guide to Indian foreign policy. It is a book that students, reporters and those trying to understand the new India will find useful. It is written in Tharoor’s trademark easy, lucid style. The book gives you a large sweep of India’s diplomatic challenges, beginning with a chapter that revisits Nehru’s India, and the shift to a more pragmatic foreign policy with a willingness to do business with all. The chapter effectively lays the ground for the ‘onion that is peeled’ next—as Tharoor puts it, beginning with Pakistan and then moving beyond.

But here also lies the problem. While Tharoor, for example, deals extensively with Pakistan, one would have liked more than a page-and-a-half on Iran. Afghanistan, a country so critical to India’s geopolitical interests, is dealt with in just about five pages. In an attempt to cover so many countries and regions, he has often only skimmed the surface. It may have been better, perhaps, to write about fewer countries, for a more incisive final outcome.

With so much written and analysed on Pakistan, I’ll skip that. It’s the chapter on China that gives some much-needed perspective on the relationship and the often overblown perceptions and reports of major hostility. Tharoor doesn’t hide the unpleasantness and the clear difficulties, but with a media that tends to have screaming headlines on any point of difference with Beijing, Tharoor pours some cold water as he explains the complexities.

In an attempt to cover so many countries, Tharoor has often skimmed the surface. Iran gets over a page, Afghanistan five.

The most interesting chapter is the one on Indian ‘soft power’, where Tharoor talks about the perils and pluses of social media in diplomacy and how to deal with a 24x7 news cycle. Indeed, the MEA has changed a lot from the old days (the spokesman regularly gives updates via tweets now) but as Tharoor rightly points out, “India has been slow to recognise the potential of social media”. The next chapter deals with weaknesses in the MEA. Tharoor candidly writes about understaffing and over-stretched officials, the desperate need for reform in recruitments and the utter contempt the ministry has for intellectuals and critics.

Pax Indica is a good read, but doesn’t reveal anything new. Perhaps as a Congress MP, Tharoor was restrained and could not be too candid. With his diplomatic experience, Tharoor certainly has great insights, which is why one would have liked to see a more behind-the-scenes book, an insider’s view. A book more critical of our foreign policy and the mistakes we have made. Perhaps that’s for another time. But this one is definitely worth a read.

(Nidhi Razdan is senior editor at NDTV 24x7 who covers foreign affairs)

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