July 25, 2024

Book Review: Why Bharat Matters

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By: Aastha Agarwal

Why Bharat Matters – source Internet

After the resounding success of his debut book ‘The India Way’ in 2020, S Jaishankar, a veteran diplomat, former Foreign Secretary and the incumbent External Affairs Minister of India (EAM) has brought out his second book called ‘Why Bharat Matters’.

At the outset, the book is pretty compact, a compendium of neatly organised 11 chapters spread across 219 pages. The book explores a series of closely interconnected themes pertinent to Indian foreign policy and its place on the global stage.

Beginning with the title, Why Bharat Matters, there is an evident ‘decolonial’ and ‘anti-colonial’ underpinning, that might have possibly stemmed from the cultural, Indic revival under way in India. Throughout the book, the author asserts that India matters to the world because and when it is more ‘Bharat’, when it sticks with its traditions, its roots, its sanskar, its sanskriti. There are analogous references to episodes from Ramayana to demonstrate India’s strategic culture.

The context of this volume has been set as the last decade which the author calls a ‘deeply transformational era’, both globally and in domestic Indian setting. The author gives an objective picture of current global landscape marked by its challenges and complications like Covid led disruption, sharpening polarisation and the prominence of AI. Coming to how India has significantly changed in its foreign policy approach – he talks of New India that has broken out of the Non Aligned mould and engages vigorously with old and new partners, guided solely by its national interests. Also, the G20 summit has underscored India’s ability to shape global agenda and to emerge as Vishwamitra.

There is an evident ‘hero worship’ tone whenever the EAM speaks of the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi leading India’s civilizational resurgence and addressing India’s national concerns of socio-economic development. He holds PM’s grit of character as the most important factor in catalysing the image of New India, Bharat. Examples being – PM as trailblazer in India’s diaspora outreach starting with 2014 Madison Square event and a leader in climate change mitigation. His Neighbourhood approach, SAGAR vision, De-hyphenation of Israel and Palestine and serious messaging on China have been oft hailed by the author.

Thecontents of the book have been systematically organised where the first chapter presents an objective view of the current global landscape marked by sharp polarisation and explosive impacts of technology and suggests India to tell the world that it stands for rules based order, a Ram Rajya for the benefit of all. In the next chapter, the EAM asserts that foreign policy is not just for external national security but it is an exercise to meet citizen needs in routine and in crisis. The cited examples work effectively in instilling confidence of the people in its foreign affairs machinery. The author also touches upon the power of positive narratives to build coalitions over a protracted period to meet these needs.  There is some repetition in the theme of third chapter that says world is deeply interconnected but more fragile and that AI revolution comes with risks of data security.

The next chapter highlights current global challenges – backlash to globalisation, retreat of USA, increasing salience of China and the rise of mini-lateralism and regionalism to deal with challenges in a diplomatically frugal and localised manner.

The fifth chapter seemed the most interesting most informational to me. However, the tone appeared pretty partisan, pretty boastful of the ‘out of the box’, ‘unprecedented’, ‘visionary’ leadership of the prime minister in foreign policy domain.

He calls his tenure as ‘serious work in progress’ laying the foundation of Indian footprint globally – carefully cultivating SAARC, strengthening relations with major powers, tending adequately to middle powers and catering to every sub region Global south, Central Asia, Gulf and Indian Ocean states.

Again he appears as the mouth piece of the PM who has re-written India’s story on the global canvas making her the largest FDI destination. India’s feats in all areas have been underlined – space, diaspora, digital governance etc. PM has been projected as the foremost cultural ambassador of Bharat facilitating the exchange of best practices and championing fresh initiatives on climate change, counter terrorism and connectivity, and forging India’s entry into SCO, MTCR, Wassennar agreement etc.

Chapter 6 has a creative title and an important subtitle on why India should expand its political diplomatic capital to make friends everywhere. There is an exploration of India’s relations with three permanent members of the UNSC i.e. with UK with its colonial baggage, time tested relations with Russia and partnership with France. There’s a repetition of India’s neighbourhood relations, about India’s energised focus on sub regional engagements from the Nordic, and Central & East Europe, to Latin America and Caribbean, and even in the Pacific islands.

The next chapter explains the background of QUAD, and gives a succinct account of India’s bilateral relations with each of the QUAD members. A common thread appears in setback in relation due to India’s nuclear tests, later normalised though convergence in other areas like supply chain resilience, disaster resilient infrastructure etc.

A complete chapter dedicated to China, explains the importance India’s EAM attaches to this country. This chapter is themed on the constant dilemma on how China might be dealt with – realpolitik versus moralpolitik. It gives a systematic history of post-independence bilateral relations between the Himalayan neighbours highlighting points of conflict and confrontation and their little common space eg at WTO, UNFCCC. Previous dispensations have been blamed for their left wing romance with respect to China until recently when the present regime made a realistic assessment of Chinese capabilities and started to bridge this gap through infrastructure augmentation in border areas including tunnelling, road making.

“Corrosion is the new competition” is succinctly the premise of the next chapter. Borrowing from post modernism, author says ‘Knowledge is power’ and that Psy-ops are new forms of warfare. Here, the author comes up from my favourite analogy from Ramayana. He explains that in the present borderless politics, image and narratives, are key to legitimise and delegitimise. The author politely rebukes previous governments to have chosen the comfortable option of over leveraging of low cost options from outside and thus eroding domestic manufacturing.

Tenth chapter has been named creatively and highlights the divergences in the political, strategic understanding / calculations of the towering leaders post-independence. Nehru’s idealist choices have been sharply criticised and his ‘Asian Solidarity’ dismissed as delusion. He has been charged for harbouring false internationalism at the cost of national interest.

In contrast, Patel has been hailed for his strategic clarity on the intentions Pakistan and China. Similarly the concern of Shyama Prasad Mookerjee on Balkanisation of India have been vented. An interesting revelation comes on Mookerjee’s Cultural Diplomacy, specifically Buddhist Diplomacy with South East Asia. Coming to Dr. BR Ambedkar, it has been mentioned that in addition to his advocacy for social reform and inclusiveness, he was much concerned about India’s foreign policy that alienated most of the world; thus India lost support in UN even for its genuine cause and that non alignment jeopardized our prospects of technological advancement. Minoo Masani has been brought to say that NAM paralysed India to repel attack from China. The author thus cautions that ‘acceptance / prestige’ cannot trump national interests and hard power must come prior to soft positioning.

Thefinal chapter of the book makes a powerful assertion on why the world needs India. It begins by commending India’s multifaceted feats – the successful landing of the Chandrayaan, the diplomatic expansion of G20 to G21 through inclusion of African Union, and the Vaccine Maitri program of the pandemic era that established India as the ‘pharmacy of the world’.

The author brings precedents from history to argue that the global mental space is obsessed with India, beginning with the quest to discover sea routes to Bharat – a country with geographical and demographical weights and notable a cultural, civilisational influence.  

There are empirical evidences quoted on how India – its traditions and modern capabilities matters to the world as India advocates rules based world order (eg. UNCLOS) and champions the cause of global south, multi-polarity and decentralised globalisation.

Nationally, it is a testament of ‘democracy that delivers’ and that done efficiently through massive digitalisation of government services plugging leakages. It has focussed on enhancing the quality of its human resource through conscious efforts in health, education and skilling. Indian Diaspora is truly global and so are India’s capacities to help them in distress. India does treat world as a family and walks the extra mile often showing up as the ‘first responder’ in moments of crisis.

To conclude, despite certain repetition and partisan undertones, there seems no exaggeration. The book is a must read for all those interested in India’s story, students and teachers of politics and international relations. The language is scholarly yet accessible. A Hindi translation seems much warranted to reach wider audiences.


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