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Mainstream, VOL LV No 19 New Delhi April 29, 2017

The Original Propagator of ‘Coercive Diplomacy’

Sunday 30 April 2017, by Apratim Mukarji


ndia’s Foreign Policy: Selected Writings by Prof Manohar Lal Sondhi; Editor: Harsh V. Pant; Har-Anand Publications Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi; 2017; pages 224; Price: 695.

As the space for counter-thought in India is being sought to be constricted under virtual state sponsorship, re-reading Prof M.L. Sondhi’s writings on India’s foreign policy in 2017, nearly five decades since their first publication, one is immediately struck by his ‘audacious and dangerous’ thinking on subjects which are essentially in the state’s domain.

Take, for example, the first article reprinted in this volume ‘From Non-Alignment to Non-Appeasement: A Reconstruction of Indian Foreign Policy’ (1965), a precursor to his iconic publication, ‘Non-Appeasement: A New Direction for Indian Foreign Policy (1972), advocating that it was time to discard the non-alignment policy. The former diplomat used rather strong language to make his point, ‘The theory of Non-alignment which Lal Bahadur Shastri and Swaran Singh have inherited from Jawaharlal Nehru is not even grey (alluding to Lenin’s famous advice to a comrade), it has turned into a colour which recalls something which has decayed and decomposed past recognition of any kind.’

The basic tenets of non-appeasement were first aired by the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (much later to be picked up by its successor Bharatiya Janata Party) but these were developed into a far more complex theory informed mainly by the world-view that Sondhi had formulated resting on the supremacy of the need to establish and preserve harmony among nations.

This was why his criticism of communism was based not only on ideological disagreement but also on the imperative of a humanistic approach to conflict-management and reso-lution. Peace dividend became the cornerstone of his thinking on international affairs. Whether it was relations with China or Pakistan, he was not satisfied with a foreign policy that would take care of India’s security parameters and stop short thereafter. He wanted a policy that would work towards improving relations with them with a view to turning them into active partners in peace and progress. While he opposed the pro-Soviet tilt under Indira Gandhi with all his determination, he advocated at the same time a policy of friendship and cooperation between India and the Soviet Union.

It was the consequence of following the non-alignment policy rigidly that led Sondhi to diagnose its unsuitability in the following decades and prescribe non-appeasement as the correct panacea.

While his analysis of the fundamental weak-ness of the non-alignment policy—at the height of the global movement embracing Asian, African and South American countries in its fold—attracted wide attention in India and abroad, Sondhi’s scholarship and work expe-rience enabled him to identify several other areas where New Delhi’s foreign policy was clearly found wanting and sometimes totally absent.

His extensive and repeated tours of South- East Asian nations during his parliamentary career, conversing with scores of people ranging from heads of state to Ministers, diplomats, journalists and others, persuaded him to initiate a regular campaign in India to highlight New Delhi’s utter failure to utilise the enormous opportunities being wasted in the region to advance India’s role vis-à-vis China which had emerged as the biggest threat to regional autonomy. Following India’s ignoble humiliation by China in 1962, South-East Asia and the Far East were expecting India to pay attention to the Indo-Pacific region as the second most important Asian country. It would take many more decades before India would initiate its Look East policy; by then, China had grown much stronger and resourceful. Clearly, a glaring failure of India’s foreign policy lay enshrined in this region.

Pant quotes Sondhi to illustrate this point, “...problems of routine security are still allowed to divert attention from India’s potential as the other big power in Asia with substantial human and material resources. To contribute to both a peaceful world order and to regional stability the problem should have been defined not as a pursuit of India-US bilateralism but preferably as the definition of India’s own economic, military and alliance strategies for the next century. (According to the logic of the post-Cold War world, ‘alliance’ should cease to be a dirty word for Indian diplomacy!)” This was advocated in the 1990s when, as he noted, the circumstances for improving Indo-US relations were better than before. It was only in the first decade of the present century that India embarked on that journey.

In fact, the most striking characteristic of these articles is the remarkable display of Sondhi’s detection of areas of weakness in India’s foreign policy and his prescient analysis of the corrections that were required. He waged a sustained campaign, not just through his writings but also by organising seminars, foreign tours, seeking out like-minded people in relevant countries including government and Opposition politicians, diplomats, academics and journalists in search of comprehension and effect.

As this volume brings forth, the issues and countries he particularly concentrated on were Tibet (including highlighting the security implications for India and the role of the Dalai Lama and his struggle for independence), China (his thoughts are still very much relevant as New Delhi is clearly caught in a snare and keeps on alternating between flitting determinations), Israel (he could later on rightfully claim the successful fruition of India’s relations with the country for which he worked very hard as a personal success), Pakistan with which he remained engaged till the very end of his life, East European communist countries like Czechoslovakia where he gained first-hand experience of communist regimes, and nuclear diplomacy, and Japan (he started his campaign when India and Japan remained supremely aloof from each other against all conceivable logic).

However, his analyses and prescriptions for India’s foreign policy encompassed a far wider spectrum, and going through them years later the reader is repeatedly struck by his prescience and depth. Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal engaged his attention throughout his career, and as always his analyses presented years ago continue to evoke sheer admiration. Despite the time gap, the relevance of these articles remains unchallenged, and this is where the worth of this volume lies.

An analyst of South and Central Asian affairs, Apratim Mukarji has authored the forthcoming book, Think Dangerously: A Political Biography of Prof M.L. Sondhi (working title).

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