Book Review: Pax Indica by Shashi Tharoor

As usual, I start with  excerpts from the book that will make the Indian reader sit up… “India was much more open to the west than hindsight suggests… it was driven away by western condescension… and the western leanings towards Pakistan… The US congress once passed a resolution refusing to help India construct a steel plant since it was not the US business to help build socialism in India…  The west was noticeably sympathetic to Pakistan over Kashmir… The Soviet Union frequently vetoed anti-India resolutions”…    “And yet, if there is another Mumbai – another horror perpetrated on a scale comparable to 26/11 with similar proof of Pakistani complicity  - comparable restraint may be impossible, and all bets will be off” 

A book on foreign policy sounds a pretty boring affair – one does not keep high expectations from a book that deals with such an esoteric topic. And to compound matters further, if this book is written by someone like Shashi Tharoor – who is known for his rapier-like wit and penchant to introduce a quip or a witticism; or outright humour in the most unlikely of paragraphs in a book - this raises expectations of 2 types: one that this book might be boring; and for those who have read Tharoor, there will be the expectation of a witty exercise. The book is neither heavy, nor is it witty. 

This book has introduced a refreshingly different side of Tharoor; on reading this one can understand how this person rose to such mercurial heights in the United Nations. It is a mature and balanced look at the Indian Foreign Policy Scenario, and has taken a look at both sides of every coin. We also get to see one side of his writing that all of us are used to: bluntness and straightforward to-the-point statement of intent, or realities. The combination of these 2 factors elevate this book from a mundane one; it is a high-quality and power-packed book. In typical Tharoor fashion, he has not held his punches; the punches flow thick and fast – but are grounded in a superb factual, mature analysis. The western reader will be able to understand Indian approach to foreign policy much better – although some passages might be highly disconcerting;  for the Indian reader, the book offers a wholesome fact-based understanding of our policy imperatives and direction. 

Shashi Tharoor has placed the Indian defence to allegations it has faced over the years very lucidly, if in a somewhat blunt fashion. His analysis of why and how we drifted away from the West just after independence is enthralling; high time we Indians made a strong defence – and place the blame where it lies- USA and to some extent UK. His blunt defence of our Non-Alignment and our rabid independence; our unwillingness to heel to any “bloc” has been based not on rhetoric but on solid logic. 

The book examines our relations with each  neighbour in chapters – Pakistan, South East Asia (SAARC Region) China, USA, EU, Africa, Middle East. The best part of the analysis is not just strategic, but business realities, balance of trade, business imperatives, defence and strategic imperatives are all looked at – which give a complete and balanced view of each relationship. Furthermore, the author has not just paraded the Indian viewpoint and expectations from our partners; the other nations’ expectations from us have been given and analysed. Faults are bluntly put forward – be they Indian mistakes, or be they the other nations mistakes. No one has been spared; there is no diplomatic-speak anywhere (except in the chapter on China, where I could detect a reigned-in and controlled response). 

The book underscores India’s strategic independence – and our total unwillingness to march to any other piper, to any other tune. The foreign reader will be let in no doubt that India is one nation that will always march to its own tune – whatever be the consequences. Furthermore, it also underscores where India has been jilted, or harmed; where Indian security priorities lie  - but the emphasis is on building a relationship and trade; on a forward push in the right direction. It only talks tough on the USA – and is uncompromisingly tough on Pakistan. Even on these 2 – the beauty is the balanced and mature analysis – presenting internal realities of both these countries. The Indian reader will be able to better understand the steps taken by these 2 nations much better. The Indo-USA fractured relationship and its analysis is in a class of its own – giving US expectations as well as its underpinnings, while underscoring where it has gone wrong – and panning it for its penchant for transactional treatments, while keeping the substance for China and Pakistan. 

The book is worth a read for the section on Pakistan alone, and the lucid analysis of why we need to continue to talk peace with Pakistan; its internal realities, and the way forward. You are left in no doubt as to the merits of the peace approach with Pakistan - and the best part of this is, this has been done without any compromise. It also leaves a clear and straight warning to Pakistan that this is contingent on no teror attacks.. This section makes it a must read for every educated Indian. But far and above all this, the book identifies India’s biggest failure – its failure at building a positive relationship with its immediate neighourhood – including with the nation it helped to win independence – Bangladesh. It is these 2 chapters that form the biggest takeaways for the Indian reader… as I said, a must read for every educated Indian!


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