Perspectives on foreign policy

Print edition : November 10, 2017
The essays by Professor Manohar Lal Sondhi, starting from 1965, are still relevant for scholars and the general public despite the passage of time.

THE many-splendoured personality of Professor Manohar Lal Sondhi (1933-2003) has left enduring footprints on the sands of time. Academically brilliant, Sondhi, a Rhodes Scholar, topped the civil services examination in 1956. His first posting was in Prague where he was easily the most popular young diplomat. On his return to India, Sondhi, at the request of V.K. Krishna Menon, leader of the Indian delegation to the United Nations General Assembly, was appointed secretary to the delegation and deputed to New York.

On his return, Sondhi resigned from the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) and embarked on a teaching career at the Indian School of International Studies (now the School of International Studies), New Delhi. As a probationer of the 1964 IFS batch, this reviewer had the good fortune to attend Sondhi’s lectures. He was an outstanding teacher and encouraged his students to think independently. He loved being asked difficult and irreverent questions. Later, Sondhi joined the Bharatiya Janata Party and was elected a Member of Parliament. He spoke and wrote on foreign policy and other issues.

We should be grateful to his wife, Madhuri Sondhi, for asking Professor Harsh V. Pant to put together and edit this volume of Sondhi’s writings on foreign policy. The essays starting from 1965 are still relevant for the scholar and the general public as well.


The book has five sections. The first is about non-alignment, a policy that Sondhi was opposed to. The title is prophetic: “From Non-Alignment to Non-Appeasement: A Reconstruction of India’s Foreign Policy”. It was published in Shakti in June 1965 and the author is named as Vishnugupta (M.L. Sondhi). The reader will note that Vishnugupta was the name of Chanakya.

Sondhi writes with caustic wit: “It is one thing to bring daily encomiums and quite another to have non-alignment as one’s standard and suffer humiliation and loss of territory. In a period of loss of national influence and power, a totalitarian regime or a military government can more easily adhere to a non-alignment policy. A democratic regime has to maintain a certain ratio between adherence to a favourite policy and the result of that policy as indicated by reinforcement of power, security and prestige.” The reader might note that Sondhi’s priorities as listed do not include world peace or development. True to the teaching of Chanakya, Sondhi seeks “power, security and prestige”.

Sondhi finds no reason to praise the Ministry of External Affairs. “The Indian Foreign Office has not provided any evidence that it has the capacity to analyse the feedback received from its international environment.”

Yet another Sondhian criticism of non-alignment is that it accepted the bipolar division of the world and the U.N. Charter without thinking of modifying either to India’s advantage. Is this criticism valid when seen with the advantage of hindsight? Not really. The permanent members of the Security Council have so far successfully prevented any amendment to the Charter that will admit more to that privileged club. If India had asked in 1965 for a revision of the Charter to make it more reflective of the changes since 1945, it would have been ignored.

Views on Pakistan

Sondhi’s views on Pakistan are interesting. As the United States, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and China have influence on Pakistan, India should ask these three powers to put pressure on Pakistan instead of dealing with that country bilaterally. The reader will find it difficult to agree.

Looking into the future, Sondhi says that Pakistan and China may “individually or jointly use tactical nuclear weapons against us in the future”. Surprisingly, Sondhi does not take his own argument to its logical conclusion and advocate India’s developing nuclear weapons. “U.S. and USSR cannot protect India against the ‘salami’ tactics of China and Pakistan. For this we require to have independent resources for defence and military retaliation against our enemies accompanied by all-round trading of our support with other middle and small countries to give moral sanction to whatever countermeasures we may be forced to undertake (emphasis added throughout). Is Sondhi hinting at nuclear weapons? If so, it is un-Sondhi like for him to be so circumlocutory about it.

Sondhi concludes by urging India to replace non-alignment with non-appeasement. India should “correlate the interests of important countries as understood by their ruling elites with their ideological, military, psychological and political limitations”. India should recognise that military capabilities are important. Non-appeasement might require getting out of the “Commonwealth and Afro-Asian groupings” from which India has hardly benefited. India will have “a large number of options in strategy.… This does not mean that the only way to offset the nuclear threat from China is to develop an Indian nuclear capacity.”

Sondhi, an ardent advocate of Tibet’s freedom, was a formidable critic of India’s policy on Tibet. India should have armed the Tibetans and advocated their case in the U.N. India’s policy was “naive and maladroit”. He wrote in 1972 that India should talk to the USSR about Tibet and seek its support. In another essay, Sondhi argues that India should recognise a Tibetan government-in-exile. China will not retaliate in any way against India. India should give military aid to the Tibetan government-in-exile. That government should “declare authoritatively that it accepts a neutral status and is prepared to participate in an international conference to declare its neutral status as binding”. This essay is not dated. But, it is clear that on Tibet Sondhi deviates from his Chanakyan realism. At some point of time, Sondhi stopped using the name “Vishnugupta”.

‘Deft diplomacy’

Sondhi advocated India’s establishing diplomatic relations with Israel before it happened in 1992. He saw the strategic advantage of getting close to Israel, especially in the context of access to sophisticated military technology.

The last essay, dated September 2002, is titled “Coercive Diplomacy: Beyond Deterrence”. The military mobilisation following the December 13, 2001, attack on Parliament House proved that “controlled military escalation is sometimes necessary to induce external attention to one’s own interests, that there is no such thing as ‘deft diplomacy’ unless it has the backing of punishment that is tied to a political purpose”. India’s diplomacy on Kashmir has been “anything but deft”. Jawaharlal Nehru unwisely took the Kashmir issue to the U.N. and internationalised it.

“It is now up to the Indian leadership to not take a long summer siesta till the next crisis erupts.” It is necessary to involve the armed forces and the intelligence community also in policy formulation. India should discard the policies of a “landlocked country” promoted by Nehru as well as his “fixations with Pakistan, China, and nuclear disarmament to create a new nation, confident and prepared for the twenty-first century”.

Sondhi’s criticism of Nehru’s non-alignment policy has some merit. But, for the sake of younger readers, it is necessary to see Nehru’s policy in a properly understood historical setting. Henry Kissinger, himself an eminent Cold War warrior, has described it as follows: “The superpowers often behave like two heavily armed blind men feeling their way around a room, each believing himself to be in mortal peril from the other, whom he assumes to have perfect vision…. Of course, over time, even two blind men can do enormous harm to each other, not to speak of the room.”

Essentially, non-alignment meant a decision not to blindly follow a blind man. Further, Nehru wanted the two blind men to open their eyes as they were not really blind. They had only willed themselves into blindness.

Professor Pant has written an excellent introduction. The brief biography of Sondhi could have done with more dates. The photographs are well chosen. An index would have been a useful addition. While the reader may not agree in toto with Sondhi’s across-the-board criticism of Nehru, it is indeed an intellectual treat to read Sondhi despite the passage of time.