Diplomacy, the inside story

Print edition : February 02, 2002

Beyond Autonomy: Roots of India's Foreign Policy by A.K. Damodaran; Somaiya Publications, 2000; pages 246, Rs.350.

FOR fifty-five years, the central and unalterable themes of India's foreign policy have been the ones delineated by Jawaharlal Nehru - independence of action, rejection of hegemony, disapproval of military blocs, creative non-alignment. Any attempt to tamper with the fundamentals of this policy framework will be stoutly opposed both inside and outside Parliament. Any alternative vision must face close scrutiny and be acceptable to the vast majority of Indians. None is forthcoming.

A.K. Damodaran is a dedicated Nehruite. With P.N. Haksar (1913-1998) gone, Damodaran is now the most cerebral and thoughtful among our retired diplomats. He was born in 1921. He went to jail during the Quit India Movement and spent more than 12 months in jail. All good Malayalees migrate to Delhi. Damodaran taught English at Delhi University. As a "freedom fighter", he was given an age concession and he qualified for the Indian Foreign Service in 1953 - the same year as I did. He retired in 1980, after having served in China, the USSR, Sweden and Italy. He worked in the Policy Planning Division of the Ministry of External Affairs for a number of years. He is now co-editor of the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru. With U.S. Bajpai, he was co-editor of Indian Foreign Policy: The Indira Gandhi Years.

Damodaran has dedicated the book to his Professors at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Massachusetts, "who initiated me into the intricacies and dilemmas of international relations". The book is a collection of Damodaran's writings of foreign policy over the past 15 years. One or two of them date but a majority do not.

Damodaran's views are steeped in Nehruana. He finds the Nehruvian approach to foreign affairs to be congenial. He belongs to a school of thought which subscribes to the view that finality is not the language either of diplomacy or foreign policy. Geopolitical considerations are not absent in our foreign policy perceptions; neither is morality; nor self-righteousness; nor a sense of decency and fair play. Realpolitik was not neglected by Indira Gandhi, but the theory of balance of power has had few takers in India.

In his learned chapter on Indo-Pakistan bilateral relations, he offers astute insights. He fields the view that in future, Pakistan's policies will increasingly be influenced by the United States, China and Russia - in that order. This is proving to be true. He has also a word on the much-touted but flawed theory of a clash of civilisations: "With our special credentials as a multi-religious civilisation going back several centuries, we should be wary of accepting new slogans of western policy formulation". He is elegantly disdainful of Samuel P. Huntington's "high flown literary jargon". Damodaran has a refreshingly wise view on the nuclear factor, which according to him, makes India and Pakistan "Siamese twins, one cannot hurt the other without destroying itself."

The chapter, "Roots of Foreign Policy" should be required reading for the South Block fraternity. The chapter, "Power as an instrument of social, economic transformation," shows the author's grasp of realpolitik. Here too Gandhiji scores. Damodaran dismisses the thesis propounded by Herbert Read about Gandhiji being an anarchist. Mao's Cultural Revolution is expertly analysed. Damodaran has first-hand knowledge of this appalling event in modern Chinese history.

The two chapters on non-alignment should be read by cynics as well as sceptics. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) remains relevant. At present, the movement is in need of diplomatic dialysis. And here, India can play a central role. It would do no harm if some of Prime Minister Vajpayee's colleagues read the speech that he made in 1998 at the NAM Summit in Durban, South Africa. No, NAM is not a lost cause. What it needs is rejuvenation, repair, resourcefulness amongst its members. India has never looked at world problems in terms of black and white. The vast gray areas are covered by non-alignment.

Damodaran ends the volume with some lively personal reminiscences. Diplomacy is a complex process. Its conduct requires special training, a capacity to sit out crises in a calm and composed manner. Crusading zeal has to be discouraged, ill-temper avoided. Style and substance should go together. Damodaran reflects on our present diplomatic dilemmas when he writes that "the Nehru years were simple when compared to our present discontents. We cannot afford to be non-professional or indifferent in diplomatic practice at such a time. Just now there is a feeling abroad and you can become a diplomat overnight by reading Time and Newsweek."

A.K. Damodaran is a man of superior understanding and intelligence with a professional grasp of foreign policy and diplomacy. What he writes needs to be read with care and respect.