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Soman, Appu. Through the Looking Glass. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Publish Green, 2012. 343 pp.

There is no phrase that describes Indian diplomacy better than ‘Theatre of the Absurd,’ a literary genre which posits a pessimistic view of humanity and is typically characterized by plays which have illogical actions, meaningless dialogues and unrealistic plots. Appu Soman’s latest book, Through the Looking Glass: Diplomacy, Indian Style (henceforth TTLG) conveys that view splendidly. The title, an obvious reference to Lewis Carroll’s sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, explains with a bewilderment in no way less than Alice’s, India’s relations with Pakistan, China, and the United States since 1998. Given the recent time frame of this project, it does not have the benefit of methodical and tedious work in government archives (though only the US allows that). Unlike his first book, Double-Edged Sword: Nuclear Diplomacy in Unequal Conflicts, The United States and China, 1950-1958 (an excellent read, by the way), Soman intends to engage the layperson on the rotten state of foreign policy practice and commentary in India. The result is a well-documented analysis of media reports and government press releases that Soman weaves together to illustrate the suicidal nature of India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the incompetence of the Fourth Estate.

TTLG is organised by country, India’s relations with Pakistan, China, and the United States. A final chapter looks at the media’s failings in critical reportage of foreign policy and national security. While this is a time-tested model and works well in listing the disasters of the MEA and its fourth estate allies, a chronological narrative might have helped in showing how these different areas interacted with one another. Nonetheless, the thematic approach employed serves to underscore India’s failures on specific fronts rather than present a general picture of gloom and doom.

Pakistan occupies and has occupied the mindspace of most Indians. For better or for worse, the sense that Pakistanis are like an errant sibling rather than an outsider (like China) has preoccupied the Romantic Indian. This point, only hinted at by Soman, might go a long way in explaining the soft stance India has taken on Pakistan, particularly given the recent leadership of Atal Behari Vajpayee (ABV) and Manmohan Singh (MMS) who have strong ties to that north Indian, Islamicate culture. In their negotiations with Pakistan, the Government of India (GoI) has consistently diluted its stance, settled for symbolism and words, and failed to hold Pakistan accountable for its broken promises.  As an example of such behaviour, Soman points to a damning compilation of External Affairs Minister SM Krishna’s declarations just before the 2009 Sharm el-Sheikh summit, holding India’s vacuous policies to sunlight:

  • May 30: Pakistan must demolish the terror infrastructure and punish those guilty of the attack on Mumbai before the dialogue could resume
  • June 5: We will not talk unless they take concrete measures to prevent terror attacks emanating from the soil of Pakistan aimed against India. The release of Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed only shows that Pakistan is not serious about terror and all that terror spells out.
  • July 1: India is not afraid of talking, Pakistan should take concrete and visible action against the terrorist group responsible for the Mumbai attacks and ensure that such attacks would not reoccur
  • July 5: We want the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks to be brought to justice. That is the only thing India is asking for and we are waiting
  • July 9: The meeting will discuss what Pakistan is doing and can do to prevent terrorism from Pakistan against India and to bring justice to those responisble for these attacks, including the horrendous crime of the attacks in Mumbai
  • July 14: India would like a visible response from Pakistan. I think Pakistan should give us an undertaking that they will not let their soil be used for terrorist activities directed against India

Such dilution is not found only in the MEA – Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress Party in power, declared in July 2009, “We support the resumption of the dialogue process with Pakistan, but only after it has demonstrated its seriousness to bring justice to the perpetrators of the Mumbai terror attacks to justice, and to prevent its territory from being used to launch terror attacks on any part of our country.” Yet neither Sonia Gandhi nor Parliament voiced any opposition as dialogue resumed without any action from Pakistan’s side. In November 2009, P. Chidambaram issued a warning to Pakistan: “We have been gaining strength day by day to counter terrorism from across the border. I have been warning Pakistan not to play games with us. (I have told them that) the last game should be Mumbai attacks. Stop it there…. If terrorists and militants from Pakistan try to carry out any attacks in India, they will not only be defeated, but will be retaliated [sic] very strongly.” Two months later, blasts rocked Pune, and the GoI was yet again silent.

Such impotence is defended gallantly by India’s commentariat with the use of poor history (which few Indians know). “Our anti-Pakistan hawks have a single refrain: Pakistan and India are destined to be enemies; no reconciliation is possible between them given the history of three-and-a-half wars, the military’s dominance in Pakistan, and the festering of any number of disputes, ” Praful Bidwai thundered in his columns in The Hindu and Rediff in July 2009. This is a “totally illiterate and a-historical judgment,” he opined, citing the example of harmonious relations between France and Germany. As Soman points out, this is simply asinine – France enjoyed somewhat harmonious relations with Germany only after Germany was obliterated and occupied after World War II and not allowed to have a significant military afterwards by the victorious Allied powers. In fact, France has vigorously opposed German rearmament even within the ambit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Furthermore, Germany never waged in terrorist attacks on France over Alsace-Lorraine.

Another journalist, Siddharth Varadarajan, explained, perhaps unintentionally, the rationale behind New Delhi’s hankering for talks. “If you are talking,” he wrote, “you can always suspend talks. But if you are not talking, there will be enormous political pressure to react in ways that might be counterproductive.” In other words, as Soman explains Varadarajan’s inadvertent truth-byte, the purpose of talks for the GoI is to deflect public demands for accountability for the terror attacks, not to actually further India’s interests. Thus, if talks were scheduled during or soon after an attack, they can be cancelled as a “stern” measure of India’s disapproval, never mind that no other tangible action would be taken against actually preventing the next attack or bringing the perpetrators of previous attacks to justice.

Soman’s criticism of Indian foreign policy on Pakistan is hard to refute. He presents overwhelming evidence to show how India’s political masters have repeatedly bungled their handling of a quasi-rogue state, and how the media has repeatedly served to spin the government’s policies in a manner acceptable to the public. One criticism that might be made of TTLG is that it is easier to be wise after the fact, but this argument is fallacious because the GoI had no dearth of hindsight or experience from 1947 until 2012. However, Soman’s argument would have been more complete if he had also suggested alternatives to GoI policies. The fact is that Pakistan wages asymmetric warfare against India from behind a nuclear shield, and this severely restricts India’s military options. What can New Delhi do differently to bring Islamabad to heel?

On China, the GoI’s timbre is different. Rather than diluting its stance every few days as with Pakistan, the modus operandi seems to be to ignore that a problem exists. Since 1949, India has failed to do any systematic defence planning with regard to its frontier with China. This is, despite Jawaharlal Nehru’s deep mistrust of Chinese leaders (something the Indian Right tries to whitewash). After the shock of 1962 died down, New Delhi has sought to resolve the border dispute with China on multiple occasions but Beijing has either rebuffed such initiatives of made excessive demands and effectively scuttled any hope of resolution. The gap between India and China has widened over the years, as China has consistently built up military infrastructure in Tibet opposite Arunachal Pradesh and in Aksai Chin, putting up roads, railroads, helipads, and even missile silos, but the Indian side of the border remained a wilderness. On a few occasions, India even stopped what little work was going on in the border region upon receiving Chinese complaints.

As Soman reminds us, China has not only acted against Indian security interests itself, but it is also largely responsible for propping up Pakistan (while the US looked the other way) as an anti-India force, giving it nuclear assistance, weapons blueprints, missiles, and other military aid. India has rarely raised these issues in its dealings with China, and when it has, the GoI has been satisfied with Beijing’s blatant lies that such reports are all American propaganda. A clear example of such timidity is after India’s overt nuclearisation in 1998, when George Fernandes declared China as India’s “Enemy No. 1.” Beijing took exception to Fernandes’ statement, and New Delhi was quick to remove the minister from the spotlight. The mainstream media, the CPI(M), and the PMO all turned on the minister, calling his remarks provocative and uncalled for. A rare dissenting voice was former Foreign Secretary AP Venkateswaran, who warned, ” The moment that they (the Chinese) feel that you are bending over backwards (to appease them), they will take advantage.” As if to prove Venkateswaran correct, China extracted India’s recognition of Tibet as an integral part of China during ABV’s 2003 visit, while giving no commitment to recognising Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, or Kashmir as a part of India.

Furthermore, just as Pakistan has successfully delinked negotiations over Kashmir and other issues from taking action on terrorism, China has delinked its military assistance to Pakistan – including nuclear and missile technology – from trade or the border dispute. This is a total disaster of Indian foreign policy surpassed perhaps only by the likes of the Greeks at Salamis or the Romans at Cannae or Adrianople. Soman quotes a Times of India article that gushed after ABV’s 2003 visit to Beijing, “It is irrelevant what we take or give on Sikkim and Tibet because old notions about territory are no longer sustainable… [I]n a knowledge economy it makes almost no sense to devote precious time and energy to coveting bits and pieces of land.” Soman writes, “The media’s tendency to sensationalize, coupled with its failure to investigate the reports of incursions and present the correct picture, has hidden from the public what is really happening.” A BJP team that visited the India-China border region reported that China was continuing to “grab land by the inches,” revealing that in all likelihood, India had lost more land to China since that fateful October in 1962. The UPA has been silent on this issue, and the media has taken no interest in the BJP’s report either.

China has hounded India on almost every issue imaginable – border skirmishes, arming Pakistan, transferring nuclear and missiles technology to Islamabad, blocking international loans to development projects in Arunachal Pradesh, cyber warfare of epic proportions against Indian facilities, terrorism (blocked listing of the Lashkar-e-Taiba as a terrorist organisation thrice), the Indo-US nuclear deal, permanent membership to the United Nations Security Council, building dams on the Brahmaputra river, de facto possession of Gilgit-Baltistan, arming rebels in India’s northeastern quadrant, gaining access to Indian markets but restricting access to its own markets to Indian goods by creating tariffs, flooding Africa with knock-offs of Indian brands of consumer goods and medicines…the list is nearly endless. The Indian response to this, under the NDA as much as under the UPA, has only been to look away and fawn obsequiously over bizarre concepts such as “Chindia.”

The third country Soman analyses India’s relations with is the United States. Much of the differences between the United States and India arose due to their clashing world views during the Cold War. While the US criticised India’s supposed non-alignment and the close relations it enjoyed with the Soviet Union, it is difficult for New Delhi not see US actions as anything other than detrimental to Indian security – its arming of Pakistan, the rapprochement with China, and Washington’s pressure on New Delhi to accede to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The end of the Cold War brought a sliver of hope for improving Indo-US relations under the presidency of George HW Bush, or Bush 41. However, not much came out of it, and the Clinton era, despite the hype, was one of unmitigated disaster for India. President Bill Clinton put pressure on India to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, reversed the position of Bush 41 on Kashmir (who had accepted Kashmir as a part of India) and re-labelled it a disputed territory, refused to declare Pakistan a terrorist state (and co-birthed with Pakistani strategists the idea that the world could not afford to let Pakistan collapse), put pressure on Russia (in 1993) to renege on the sale of cryogenic engines to India, and continued the policy of turning a blind eye to Sino-Pakistani collusion on nuclear and missile technology. After India’s 1998 nuclear tests, Clinton did his best to “come down on India like a ton of bricks,” vetoing World Bank loans to India (despite explicit provisions in the charter to keep loan decisions non-political) and passed sanctions against Indian defence firms which set back DRDO projects by years. Furthermore, despite not having Afghanistan as an excuse any more, the Clinton administration continued America’s soft policy on terrorism of Pakistani origin, as was evidenced by Washington’s relative lack of concern at the hijacking of IC 813 in 1999. Soman admits, however, that US policies that had a detrimental effect on Indian security were never about India or even Pakistan but about US interests. The GoI simply abdicated its role of putting Indian concerns to the United States government emphatically.

George W Bush’s administration has received a much better reception in India, but Soman suggests that it would behoove Indians to only be cautiously optimistic. Bush 43 no doubt represents a sea change in Indo-US relations. Unfortunately for India, the September 11 attacks raised Pakistan’s value as the US invaded Afghanistan, and India’s terrorism agenda had to take a back seat to US interests. Thus, Bush 43 was forced to soft pedal on terrorism out of necessity, upsetting ABV’s government. For example, the attack on India’s Parliament in December 2001 evoked barely a murmur from the War on Terror team. Nonetheless, the nuclear deal and US assistance to India in obtaining a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) was, as Soman admits, something that would have been nearly impossible for India to do on its own.

Little ire is spared Indian elites who voiced platitudes of a natural alliance between the oldest and the largest democracies. TTLG reminds them that despite a nice massage to India’s ego, little has transpired between the United States and India in concrete terms, particularly under Barack Obama’s regime. Fancy acronyms such as NSSP (Next Steps in Strategic Partnership) are followed in close succession by other acronyms such as EUMA (End User Monitoring Agreement), CISMOA (Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement), LSA (Logistics Support Agreement), and BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation). Until New Delhi and Washington can come to a mutually satisfactory position on these, US sales of equipment such as the C-130J transport aircraft and the P-8I maritime reconnaissance aircraft are delivered to India with some items withheld from them.

Soman also argues against the concept of dehyphenation that India’s diplomats have seen as a great achievement. In essence, the goal of South Block mandarins was to get the United States to respond to India and Pakistan separately, not trying to balance policies towards one with equivalent policies towards the other. Soman argues that what the US does with Pakistan is bound to have an effect on India and vice versa. Thus, dehyphenating India and Pakistan only allows the US to pursue its goals to the maximum while disregarding India’s objectives.

It is disconcerting to note the abundance of utterly nonsensical pronouncements from think tanks in the United States. Part of this is because of a total failure of a strategic dialogue within India, and the absence of a strategic community that is off the government’s apron strings. Another part is the massive machinery of the Congress government that has taken every opportunity to vilify – to outsiders – any opposition to itself. The success of this is seen in the denial of a visa to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and the problems caused by the allegation of ties between senior Obama aide Sonal Shah and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). This makes any counter-narrative to the one woven by US think tanks difficult. One example of intellectual sophistication on South Asian matters Soman cites is Christine Fair’s response to the Bombay attacks in November 2008. Then a Fellow at Rand, Fair said to the New York Times, “This is a domestic issue. This is not India’s 9/11.” Fair blamed India’s failure to correct its economic disparities and address its “rising Muslim problem” publicly. This failure of the Indian state had created a lot of very angry Muslims, according to Fair, though the “Indians will have a strong incentive to link this to al-Qaeda.” She later tried to clarify her position and admitted her error, but such lapses in a crisis situation can have serious repercussions.

The reader should not take Soman’s critique of Indo-US relations as his opposition to the development of a strategic partnership between the two nations or his support of the much-hyped buncombe of strategic autonomy. In fact, Soman states clearly that both

New Delhi and Washington need to do some deep thinking about what they want from each other and learn to communicate their mutual expectations better. Indo-US relations have been carried on the back of sentiments for too long. The times warrant a more substantive relationship, one with a firm foundation based on an appreciation of each other’s strategic interests… A close Indo-US security partnership would have a positive effect on regional and global security.

While the view in India may be that they have been on the receiving end of US slights, Soman explains that it is up to India to “fight for its interests, not ‘understand’ American motivations for pursuing policies that go against vital Indian interests, however meritorious they are.”

One objection to Soman’s understanding of India-US-Pakistan relations is the notion of dehyphenation. Soman argues that such a move only hurts India, but his view is based on the principle that relations between states are necessarily interlinked. In the grand scale of things, this butterfly effect is hard to disregard, but this is not how the architects of dehyphenation explained it to me in a 2009 interview. Ashley Tellis and Philip Zelikow both were of the opinion that dehyphenation meant that the US would not be trapped in a tit-for-tat bargaining between India and Pakistan. If the US sold Pakistan a few F-16s, it would not feel compelled to extend to India something in compensation. Dehyphenation meant that the US would be free to pursue big ticket items with India and not feel the need to balance it with equivalent military or economic aid to Pakistan. One example is the nuclear deal, and another is the anticipated Indo-US cooperation on ballistic missile defence and space exploration.

The final chapter of TTLG is dedicated to the media. Soman reminds us that the fourth estate is the last line of defence against partisan politics or sectional politics derailing a country’s development. The media’s role is to provide the public with credible information and to be a watchdog upon the country’s political masters. Soman argues that the Indian media has failed abjectly in this, quoting Minhaz Merchant that proximity breeds complicity. “The Indian media has itself become one of the most serious threats to national security by allowing itself to be used by the government for what Merchant calls ‘choreographed journalism’ to support flawed policies,” declares Soman. So great is this failure that Soman writes, “Can there be a ‘Through the Looking Glass‘ without Tweedledum and Tweedledee? The Indian Express’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta and its strategic affairs editor and later columnist, C. Raja Mohan, have been doing their best to play those roles.” As Soman points out, Mohan and Gupta have remained preoccupied with India making territorial concessions to Pakistan and China, and argue for India’s role on the world stage, all the while ignoring its problems at home. Tweedledum writes, “innovative approaches to the negotiations on Kashmir with Pakistan and the boundary dispute with China would allow India to go beyond the burdensome territorial imperative and focus on regional peace and security.” Such views have evinced support from other quarters as well. The Telegraph, and the Hindu‘s Varadarajan supported MMS’ delinking of terrorism and talks with Pakistan, claiming that MMS had done far more at Sharm el-Sheikh than ABV had in Lahore. They are right – far more damage.

Lest TTLG be thought of as a partisan attack on the present government of India and the media, it is prudent to point out that Soman is equally critical of the BJP-led NDA. However, it is simply a matter of fact that the Congress Party has led India for 53 of its 65 independent years and should receive proportional credit and blame. Thus, while TTLG excoriates Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi and the heir-apparent Rahul Gandhi for not ever articulating a lucid vision of the country’s foreign and security policy, it is also equally eviscerating of the BJP for having failed to improve on critical conventional defence, defence infrastructure, or pursuing Indian national interests to their logical conclusion. Soman rues,

Except for a few sparkles by Arun Shourie on the nuclear deal and by Arun Jaitley and Yashwant Sinha on some occasions, the BJP has not distinguished itself in the parliament on foreign policy. By frequently disrupting the functioning of the parliament (whatever be the justification), the party has actually shielded the government from the exposure of its many wrong policies. To compound this failure, it has made no attempt to take the issues to the people. It protested the Sharm el-Sheikh sell-out by Manmohan Singh but when he went ahead and implemented what he had agreed to in the joint statement in the next two years, the party kept quiet. It has remained silent of defence issues in the last seven years, despite the revelation of many scandals in these years.

Finally, it has been brought to my attention that some may find Soman’s put-down of India’s politicians and commentariat scathing and harsh. I disagree: while it has certainly been the case that critiques within academia of each other’s works have been becoming more and more polite, it is not rare to find utter decimation of an opposing view (for example, James Hankins in Plato in the Italian Renaissance utterly takes apart the post-modern turn). Besides, I am not sure that what-do-you-want-me-to-tell-them journalism warrants any respect.

TTLG is a dense work with scores of incidents over the past 10-15 years that Soman has analysed. Through them all, he shows a clear pattern that vindicates the two theses of his book: 1. that Indian diplomacy is inconsistent, incoherent, and has a theatre of the absurd/through the looking glass quality to it, and 2. the commentariat – media, intellectuals, think tanks – have done so poor a job that rather than provide careful reflections and expert scrutiny, they have assisted the government in covering up its blunders. Undoubtedly, the book can be further improved by access to government archives and records, but such things are unheard of in any systematic way in India and the events are much too recent for declassification. Appu Soma’s Through the Looking Glass: Diplomacy, Indian Style is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in understanding the making of Indian foreign and security policy.