Book review: “Pax Indica” by Shashi Tharoor

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Book review: Pax India: India and the World of the 21st Century, by Shashi Tharoor. Penguin Global, 2012. U$ 48.99 (hardcover, amazon.com

When Shashi Tharoor, then India’s minister of state for external affairs, spoke about his country’s future status as a great power in a TED Talk in November 2009, India’s rise seemed indeed inevitable to a large part of the audience. Mr. Tharoor, a former UN official, prolific author and skilled public speaker, argued that India’s source of strength was not its large army, growing economy, or nuclear weapons, but “the power of example” — what is commonly referred to as “soft power”. His speech, watched over 600,000 times the world over, came to symbolize India’s irresistible ascent into the global first league, finally fulfilling its destiny as a global actor.

His presentation also marked the height of global infatuation with India – partially driven by a growing fear of the rise of authoritarian China. India's success, analysts both in the United States and Europe reasoned, was proof that democracy could still compete with the 'China model'. India’s strategic location – sharing a long border with China – also seemed ideal to check Beijing’s attempts to enlarge its strategic sphere of influence. The West’s belief that India was a ‘strategic partner’, while China was a ‘strategic competitor’ (first articulated by Condoleezza Rice in 2000) found its most prominent expression in 2006 when the United States accepted India as a member of the nuclear club – notably despite India’s refusal to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Since then, global interest in India has surged. In the context of the wild success of the “India brand”, Indian companies such as Tata, Reliance, Infosys and Kingfisher have become household names in the global economy. Despite all the attention, India remains a largely misunderstood country, and the number of academics focusing on Indian foreign policy is far outnumbered by those studying China. Except for the United States, the United Kingdom and India itself, the factors that shape Delhi's foreign policy remains largely unknown among both academics and foreign policy makers around the world. Excellent analyses include David Malone's "Can the Elephant Dance?" and “India’s Foreign Policy: Retrospect and Prospect”, a volume edited by Sumit Ganguly.

Tharoor's "Pax Indica" is no academic book - he does not expound any specific theory - but he attempts to bring the topic of India's place in the world to a wider readership, both in India and abroad. As he points out, "my concern is principally with tomorrow, not yesterday." In this, the author succeeds. Beautifully written and engaging, like his previous books, Tharoor manages to tell a fluid story without omitting the many complexities that make the topic so interesting. Those familiar with Tharoor's writings and speeches will recognize several parts of the text - hence the conversational tone of Pax Indica

Tharoor's brief historical review is interesting because it reflects a near-consensus among foreign policy thinkers that Nehru was right to opt for non-alignment, contrary to most Western thinkers who often misunderstand the strong legacy of the struggle for independence and the complex geopolitical constraints India faced at the time.

His chapter on India-Pakistan relations, entitled "Brother Enemy", focuses almost entirely on the Islamist terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008 - a reminder of how much of a setback the attacks have been for the bilateral relationship. Yet it also contains a series of concrete proposals - such as unilaterally accelerating the process of issuing multiple-entry visas to Pakistanis. "Let us show a magnanimity and generosity of spirit that in itself stands an outside chance of persuading Pakistanis to rethink their attitude to us," Tharoor writes. With regard to India's regional policy, the author rightly points out that India's global ambitions depend on its capacity to convince its neighbors that India's rise is an opportunity for them, not a threat. The author is at his best in the chapter on India's relations with the Arab World, mixing historic details with personal anecdotes and his vision of what can be done to strengthen ties.

Notably, Tharoor dedicates part of the chapter 'unchartered territories' to Latin America, lauding Brazil's President Lula's attempts to strengthen relations between emerging powers. Yet he also adds a cautionary note: "South-South cooperation is all very well, but national interests must inevitably prevail."

For those seeking to understand India's position vis-à-vis today's global challenges, Tharoor offers valuable insights. Arguing that India's foreign policy is open to change, he writes that

the post-colonial chip has fallen off our shoulder, New Delhi can now afford to look at the globe from a position of authority. (...) We are now in a position to graduate from a focus on our own sovereign autonomy to exercising a vision of responsibility on the world stage, from a post-colonial concern with self-protection to a new role participating in the making of global rules and even playing a role in imposing them.

These are profound words for a country whose foreign policy identity rests on its traumatic experience of colonization and the subsequent battle for independence, and which has therefore been critical of measures to limit the concept of sovereignty. If Tharoor is right, we could expect India's role vis-à-vis key debates such as the 'Responsibility to Protect' (R2P) to change over the coming years.

The very title of the book expresses the author's conviction that India is destined and ready to play an important role in global affairs. Pax Indica is certain to stimulate the public debate about how Indian policy makers should go about fulfilling the high expectations Tharoor lays out in this highly recommendable and enjoyable work.

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