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  Books   02 Mar 2024  Book Review | Textbook on government foreign policy, not juicy thesis on Bharat

Book Review | Textbook on government foreign policy, not juicy thesis on Bharat

THE ASIAN AGE. | INDRANIL BANERJIE
Published : Mar 3, 2024, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Mar 3, 2024, 12:00 am IST

Foreign Minister Jaishankar's insightful analysis of India's global standing, though dense, sheds light on the nation's diplomatic victories

The book titled Why Bharat Matters is about how India or Bharat has assumed greater global stature in recent years and what challenges it has encountered along the way.
 The book titled Why Bharat Matters is about how India or Bharat has assumed greater global stature in recent years and what challenges it has encountered along the way.

Subrahmanyam Jaishankar is easily one of the savviest foreign ministers India has had in recent times. He has the huge advantage of not belonging to the political class but to the breed of elite bureaucrats of the country’s foreign service establishment. This background has been immensely beneficial in building his reputation among global peers as well as nurturing a large following within the country. He has been in the foreign minister’s chair now for almost five years and with the next general elections approaching he has come out with a book listing the great strides in foreign policy matters the Narendra Modi government has made since it came to power in 2014.

The book titled Why Bharat Matters is about how India or Bharat has assumed greater global stature in recent years and what challenges it has encountered along the way. It is, of course, a self-laudatory exercise aimed at showcasing this government’s geopolitical successes rather than a measured account of developments in this sphere. But then the book is not meant to be a critique but a checklist of achievements.

To be sure, this government’s successes in the geopolitical sphere eclipse its failures. Even in the case of China, the great achievement lies in the containment of the crisis and the prevention of a catastrophic conflict. In other areas, India has shone by becoming a trusted entity for Western powers even while maintaining its traditional bonds with Russia as well as with the great body of nations constituting the global ‘South’. This has placed India in a sweet spot where it is for the first time being considered a real alternative to China, whether as a bulwark in Asia or as a source of global manufacturing.  At the same time, India has been able to shield itself against Western wrath in maintaining close ties with its old ally Russia, a stance that has allowed imports of huge quantities of discounted Russian oil to feed its energy hungry economy.

Mr Jaishankar has been vociferous in defending India’s stance regarding not just Russia but also on a host of other issues. He has also very cogently articulated the centrality of his country’s self-interest as being the primary driver of its geopolitics. The book of course goes on to list and explain much more, although it ends up reading like a textbook on the Modi government’s foreign policy.

The book has several chapters on various key aspects of Indian foreign policy including obvious ones on China, the Quad grouping, and India in relation to the rest of the world. The eleven essays which make up the book “range from an analysis of the global landscape to an identification of India’s opportunities.” A central theme is how Prime Minister Modi has been the prime driver of the many changes and decisions taken in the country’s foreign policy sphere.

In an attempt to impart a “Bharatiya” tone to this work, the author has inserted passages narrating episodes from the Ramayana to illustrate an Indian foreign policy principle, decision or development. This juxtaposition of myth and reality, at times illuminating and at times tedious, is an interesting twist. More interesting, however, are parts of the books that deal with less than obvious developments and trends.

The chapter titled ‘Re-imagining Security’ is among the more engaging ones where the author talks about security threats that are not as obvious as those emanating from internal security, terrorist or military challenges. He points out: “Life is not what it used to be. Neither are its challenges… Every day, all around us, activities and interactions are happening that put our polity and society at risk. Unless we wake up to how much globalisation can impact our security, a day may come when we will find ourselves compromised beyond redemption.”

The author is talking about the imperceptible but real threats emanating from counter-narratives, the hollowing out of national self-confidence, the undermining of core national interests through intellectual corrosion and the propagation of ideas that threaten national integrity. “A lot of our security threats are gradual and corrosive, not necessarily blunt trauma. If our nation’s unity and integrity is weakened and alternative loyalties created, should we remain indifferent? If sympathy, succour and support are given to separatists in the name of democratic freedoms, should we display equanimity?” 

Clearly, the book has much to recommend for itself and reflects the thoughts and ideas of a brilliant mind. Regrettably, to the lay reader, however, it could be a massive bore. The author deals more in principles and lists a seemingly endless string of foreign policy steps taken during the last ten years that have benefitted the country. The author tends to plunge into details without providing a context for the lay reader and seems to assume a basic awareness of contemporary geopolitical developments. Perhaps the book is intended for the foreign policy savants and not the average reader.

The net result is not a reader friendly book. Moreover, geopolitics far from being a dry, abstruse discipline is one rooted in the hurly burly of global life, the constant jostling of nations and is rife with the excitement of a great game. None of that comes through in this book, which is a pity given Mr Jaishankar’s penchant for spirited exchanges in international fora. The intellectual pugnaciousness and verve he exhibits in real life is missing in this volume. If the reader is looking for an exciting read, this is not it. Yet, the book is invaluable. For, as the author remarks in his preface, we are in the midst of a “deeply transformational era” where it is “imperative that an objective explanation of the changes is provided to the public”.

Why Bharat Matters

By S. Jaishankar

Rupa

pp. 256; Rs 695

Tags: subrahmanyam jaishankar, book review 2024, why bharat matters