Book: Pax Indica
Author: Shashi Tharoor
Pax Romana or “the Roman Peace” described the period during which Rome became a dominant power and the focal point of culture, trade and influence in Europe. Similar terms have been used for other empires, like Pax Britannica for the century leading up to the First World War. In each case, the power of the empire — military, economic, and cultural, combined with internal political stability — ensured peace. It was an age of glory for the states that were the power centres, although there were mixed results for the regions that came in the path of the Imperial juggernaut.
Pax Indica, or the Indian peace, is Shashi Tharoor’s look at modern India. Tharoor’s basic hypothesis is that India can use a combination of her size, trade prowess, soft power and growing influence in the world to ensure an age of domestic transformation. As far as Tharoor is concerned, “pax Indica” is a foreign policy that allows India to play a role in developing a contemporary “peace system” that will help “promote and maintain a period or co-operative co-existence”.
Tharoor is a fan of Indian soft power, which according to him arises despite the state — from trade ties and cultural exchanges — but the state can exploit it for progress and peace. He stresses the need to move from being ajatshatru (without enemy) to sangamitra (friend to all) and that is the guiding philosophy of Pax Indica. It may seem optimistic, simplistic and even naïve, but there is a grain of truth and practicality in it. Apart from Pakistan, India has decent relations with most of the world. It cannot afford to militarily engage to establish influence; nor does she have the kind of wealth to sign blank cheques for the rest of the world — so all that remains to be used is soft power. Tharoor advocates that India use it to the hilt.
Trade, government credits and private sector involvement, says Tharoor, makes India a very influential player on the world stage. His emphasis upon India’s need to “cultivate good relations with countries that can assist us” and become “partners in our fundamental objective of keeping our people safe, secure and free” goes some distance in explaining the seeming contradictions in India’s foreign policy. Consequently, the friendship with Iran (“Iran’s natural resources, particularly oil and natural gas, have been increasingly important to India for decades”) and the desire to strengthen ties with the West, the growing relationship with Israel (“India is now Israel’s largest market for defence products and services”) and India’s continued support for the Palestinian cause are not as contradictory as they initially seem.
Tharoor’s admiration for Jawaharlal Nehru results in a rose-tinted view of India’s early foreign policy. (For example, the entire 1962 debacle, during which China wrested “23,200 square kilometres of Indian territory”, is dealt with in a single paragraph.) His defence of non-alignment is robust and Tharoor writes that non-alignment as Indian foreign policy in the first 40 years after Independence gave India an advantage in the last two decades because that policy “enabled us to work with all the major powers without exception — and to get help (if I may be allowed to mangle Marx) from each according to their capacity, to us according to our need.”
Post-1991, Tharoor says the postcolonial chip has fallen off India’s shoulder and the country can look at the world from a position of authority. At a time when it is acceptable, indeed expected, to berate the problems of non-alignment, Tharoor offers a perspective on why the path of foreign policy independence in the years following 1947 was the correct path for India to follow.
One chapter in Pax Indica is devoted to Pakistan, a state whose own internal divisions have created a situation in which the rulers of Pakistan “do not feel able to challenge militant groups and their leaders because they have become too popular with a radicalised and pro-Islamist populace”. Tharoor says it would be unrealistic to expect Pakistan to change fundamentally — there are too many parties jostling for power in Pakistan to allow this. In his opinion, India should “seize on whatever straws in the wind float its way from Pakistan to explore possibility of peace”. He believes stronger economic ties could enable peace, while more contentious issues like Kashmir should be discussed separately.
It is possibly the only controversial (and also, rather simplistic) statement in the entire book.
In the chapter on China, Tharoor says the normally complacent elephant (India) is naturally wary of the “hissing dragon” (China). He lists all the advantages that China has — “India’s sclerotic bureaucracy versus China’s efficient one, India’s tangles of red tape versus China’s unfurled red carpet to foreign investors, India’s contentious and fractious party politics versus China’s smoothly functioning top-down communist hierarchy” — but then says, “India has become an outstanding example of the management of diversity through pluralistic democracy”. Yet he maintains, “India is a fractious democracy, China is not. But as an Indian, I do not wish to pretend we can compete in the global growth stakes with China.”
Pax Indica is a great introduction for those interested in reading about India’s foreign policy and its evolution since independence. Tharoor has a way with words, and the book is not academic, but a perspective from a ringside observer of changing world dynamics. It may be wise to discount some of Tharoor’s optimism although, given the opinions about India are usually, all doom and gloom, Pax Indica is a refreshing and educated counterpoint.