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September 28, 2017

Book review: Shyam Saran’s ‘How India Sees the World: Kautilya to the 21st Century’

Former Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran’s book ‘How India Sees the World’ is a collection of fascinating essays touching upon a myriad of topics. The book covers a wide timespan from the origins of India’s foreign policy to vital foreign policy landmarks, such as the signing of the momentous India-US nuclear deal, where Shyam Saran played a decisive role. The essays are written as part-memoir and part the former secretary’s own critical analysis of India’s foreign policy at crucial junctures, drawn from his forty years of experience in the foreign service. The overarching theme of the book is an analysis of India’s history, culture and worldview. It presents a picture of our strengths and ties them to the role that India can play on the world stage. The book is lucid enough for a reader merely interested in global politics, while a few chapters provide new insights for a foreign policy expert. These acumens mainly revolve around the behind-the-scene negotiations that culminated in the Indo-US nuclear deal and the two almost-done deals with Pakistan that ultimately fell through (on Siachen and Sir Creek).


The book begins by elaborating on India’s traditional and rich sources of literature on statecraft – from Kautilya’s Arthashastra to Nitisara of Kamandaki. Saran advises how India can draw inferences from them to navigate today’s complex world. However, he cautions that these texts are not to be applied mechanically but offer a useful template for managing diplomacy in a chaotic world.


Shyam Saran goes on to map the forces that shaped our foreign policy post-Independence. He defends Nehru’s worldview and believes India’s policy of non-alignment, in a Cold War era, was borne out of a sense of practicality which primarily served its own strategic interests. As Saran asserts, it was “a policy assuring relative autonomy to a newly emerging country in a polarised international environment.”


A major focus of the book is on India’s immediate neighbourhood and its fractious relationship with two important neighbours – Pakistan and China. Saran, a China expert, emphasises that is there a lack of familiarity with Chinese culture and their peculiar worldview. The Chinese believe that their relegation to an underdeveloped country was an aberration of the last few centuries and that they are destined to regain their rightful position as a global power. If India is to address the China challenge, it must familiarise itself with their way of strategic thinking. Saran argues that the belief that we are heading to a world dominated by China is overblown, given that China is still way behind the United States economically, militarily and in technological advancement.


On the age-old question of Pakistan, Saran states that the equation between the countries isn’t going to drastically change through any big-bang affair because of deeply entrenched differing viewpoints. His alternative is a series of well thought out modest steps resulting in a substantial cumulative outcome. The book asserts that India’s future is tied to the stability and prosperity of its immediate neighbours. Hence, the regional economic integration of the subcontinent must rank as one of India’s highest foreign policy priorities. The challenge here is to slowly transcend these political divisions and make borders increasingly irrelevant in economic trade terms, while acknowledging that the border conflicts with Pakistan aren’t going to dissipate soon.


Saran provides a more insider’s account through interesting anecdotes of two important negotiations in which he played a key role – the Indo-US nuclear deal and the negotiations on climate change at Copenhagen. The book takes the reader through some nail-biting negotiation tactics employed by the envoy, to ensure that India was able to gain access to civil nuclear commerce while keeping intact its nuclear weapons strategy programme. Ultimately, India successfully negotiated with 48 countries, which were part of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, for an India-specific waiver, allowing the deal to come through. At Copenhagen, on climate change, Saran recalls how China’s chief climate change negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, publicly berated his own premier and accused him of giving in to the excess demands of the United States. He observes, “Xie’s outburst was most unusual and unexpected. For an official to angrily disagree with his own premier in public would be unthinkable in any country, and more so in an authoritarian and strictly hierarchical system like China’s.”


Finally, Saran focuses on India’s role within the new emerging world order, as an era of US unipolarity comes to an end for a more multi-polar world. He insists that globalisation has created a deeper interconnectedness and interdependence where global challenges can only be met by a globally-oriented regime that complements national interests. He warns against relapsing into an assertive and competitive nationalism, of the type that is currently sweeping the world. He reminds readers that India possesses the attributes, of upholding diversity and plurality, that could contribute to the success of a new international order. Ultimately, this is where India, a plural vibrant democracy aspiring to be a free economic power, holds the advantage over all other countries.


(IDFC Institute recently hosted an event with Shaym Saran, Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research. He discussed a host of topics, touching upon his experiences while serving in the foreign office as well as on themes discussed in his latest book, "How India Sees the World: Kautilya to the 21st Century."  Read about the event and watch the video here.)

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