June 26, 2020
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Touring The Decades

Neither subtle nor flashy, a hard-nosed look at foreign policy

Touring The Decades
Across Borders
By J.N. Dixit
Picus Books Rs 450, Pages: 453
DIPLOMATS, like generals, when they retire usually fade away. Or at least that is what their colleagues, erstwhile political masters and assorted journalists, think-tankers, academics hope they will do! Indian diplomats have taken this wish too seriously. Most of them have gracefully faded away to enjoy retired life and to appear at a somnolent seminar or two at the India International Centre.

J.N. Dixit is that breed of diplomat who has not chosen "vanaprastha" and we should be grateful for that. He continues to advise the Indian government, he is a regular at seminars and not just at the IIC, he speaks but most importantly he writes his mind—and with verve, candour and bluntness. Across Borders is his latest book. It is redolent of his seminar interventions and his previous writings, touching on themes, ideas, predilections, prescriptions, incidents and periods that one associates with this most public of former foreign secretaries. However, this is not a repackaging of his earlier books which dealt with his term in Sri Lanka and on relations with Pakistan. It is a descriptive and analytical survey of Indian foreign policy since Independence, and therefore sits somewhere between a superior if fact-ridden textbook and a more rigorous, critical weighing of the formulation, direction, successes and failures of India's relations with the world.

Survey writings contain much that is well known. In addition, this is a massive tome. If time is a concern, read chapter 14, which pulls together the basic arguments of the entire survey. Four or five big things catch the eye though and these are worth highlighting in a review. First, on balance, India's foreign policy has been a success. The basically Nehruvian principles and vision that have undergirded, with some inflections and adaptations, our relations with the rest of the world have advanced our interests, kept the peace more or less, and made us some enduring friends. In this day and age of Nehru-bashing, this is not a particularly fashionable conclusion. Perhaps it is simply the conceit of an insider, whose professional life was dedicated to that policy. But I think we must grant that Dixit is far too self-conscious and honest to be caught in the trap of self-delusion and self-congratulation. We may disagree with his conclusion, but we must grant that Dixit's work reeks of integrity.

A second eye-catcher, it seems to me, is Dixit's rating of his political bosses. In respect of foreign policy, he rates the Nehru family and Shastri high. Narasimha Rao as both foreign minister and prime minister gets a good credit rating. Chandra Shekhar in his brief sojourn as PM gets a tick mark or two of approval. Vajpayee as foreign minister in 1977-79 also merits Dixit's approval. But V.P. Singh and I.K. Gujral do badly in Dixit's estimations; they failed to come to grips with the end of the Soviet Union; V.P. Singh mishandled Kashmir, particularly the Rubaiya Sayeed kidnapping, and Sri Lanka; and Gujral got nowhere with the "Gujral Doctrine". This would be mere gossip, in a sense, except that Dixit points out Singh and Gujral led rather misled Indian foreign policy at a transformative moment.

Third, Dixit has some rather interesting things to say about the India-China relationship. His criticisms of India's stance and his prescriptions for a better China policy are amongst the most frank and forthright to have come out of a former diplomat. Amongst his prescriptions: go beyond a "historical, emotional and purely technical" approach to the border problem; compromise, with an eye to the strategic interests of both sides; accept that colonial boundary delineations are not binding and that compromise plus new cartographic and legal methods of resolving the dispute exist; continue with the CBM approach initiated in the 1990s; and educate public opinion on the need for, and nature of, a final settlement.

Fourth, Dixit is refreshingly blunt on India's handling of what he describes as two "poignant" issues which had an impact on its relations: Babri Masjid and Kashmir. He accuses the government of the day of mishandling the Babri Masjid issue. Dixit reveals that he urged the cabinet secretary, S. Rajagopal, "to move...security forces to the actual site (of the mosque) to prevent any untoward developments". Rajgopal, for "reasons best known to him, hesitated from conveying this categorical advice". He is even more critical on Kashmir. The government's Kashmir policy was "tragedy bordering on farce" (p 231). Institutional incoherence, personal rivalries, bad governance, lack of consensus among parties and the public, all these have contributed to the disaster. Force has its limits; India must acknowledge its mishandling of Kashmiri alienation if it is to restore peace and tranquility to this troubled state. Not new admittedly but boldly said for a former official.

There are more nuggets in the book: Vajpayee's opening to China and Israel in 1977-79; Indira Gandhi's nuanced Afghan and Soviet policy in the early 1980s and in particular the suggestion by a Soviet official that India reintegrate Pakistan Occupied Kashmir by force; why India did not go all the way in Kashmir in 1948 but pushed for a UN role and why we stopped our advance on the western front in 1971. Some misses; Pokhran I is barely mentioned; President Johnson's manipulation of food aid against India in 1966-67 is absent; and South Asia apart from Pakistan is rather neglected.

Across Borders is not flashy, stylish or subtle. It is not an easy read. It is a crucially annotated compendium composed by a hard-nosed, reflective, even pugnacious insider determined to set the public record straight. India needs more of them.

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