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choicesMenon, Shivshankar. Choices: Inside the Making of Indian Foreign Policy. New Delhi: Penguin Random House, 2016. 224 pp.

Memoirs by retired, senior Indian government officials are an occupational hazard for a historian. On the one hand, they may contain valuable insights or data and offer a peek behind the scenes into the world of policy-making, but on the other, remain the memories and interpretations of one person, usually years after the events. This is true of memoirs everywhere, but what makes them even more perilous in India is the lack of periodically declassified archives. For example, imagine understanding the United States’ role in international affairs through Henry Kissinger’s three-volume memoir.

Shivshankar Menon’s Choices, however, cannot truly be described as a memoir. The book discusses five important decisions India has had to make over the past 25 years, and in each of these, Menon was either intimately involved or at least a senior official in the process. However, the author’s tone is that of a professor than a practitioner. Each of the decisions is placed in its historical context and the rationale for the way things unfolded is broadly explained. Rarely does the reader get the sense that the author was one of the central dramatis personae in what he is reading!

This is not a weakness in itself, but Choices is, unfortunately, very short on the details in terms of the dynamics between the key actors and how the various variables influenced their thinking. How did the decision evolve? What were the hurdles? Whose minds were changed? What were the turf battles? The answers to these sorts of questions come through in government documents and paint a comprehensive picture for historians. Memoirs ought to reveal at least one side of the puzzle, but Menon is reticent on the matter. This could very well be due to India’s secrecy rules, but it still leaves the story incomplete.

The subject matter for Choices is the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement with China in 1993, civil nuclear cooperation with the United States in 2005, the Pakistani terrorist attack on Bombay in 2008, Delhi’s role in the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, and the rationale behind the nuclear no-first-use policy. Little of what Menon goes over is new to anyone who has followed these events in the newspapers, except to lend a particular line of thought an air of gravitas now that a former foreign secretary and national security advisor is also extending it.

Menon is no hawk on China and in fact thinks that India is entering an era of opportunities with China. As he argues, there are facets to the relationship other than the border. The reason for the delay in settling the border dispute, to Menon’s mind, is that both sides think that time is on their side. For the 1993 accord, the then joint secretary for the North East gives credit to Atal Behari Vajpayee for his many ideas and putting country above party. Regarding China’s present assertiveness, Menon does not believe that encircling China will help; in fact, it will only confirm their worst suspicions, Menon argues, and diminish trust. Similarly, India is too large for China to attempt to encircle.

During the nuclear negotiations with the United States, Menon was foreign secretary. He attributes the willingness of most countries to support India to commercial interests of varying intensity. However, the former foreign secretary has harsh words for the small states with big egos, or the mini-six – Austria, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Switzerland. These states had no interest in nuclear commerce and had little stake in India anyway; the Nuclear Suppliers Group gave them some importance and that was they stage upon which they could pontificate.

Although Menon had argued for military reprisal in the aftermath of the Bombay attack in 2008, in retrospect, he defends India’s decision to abjure from the use of force and instead seek a diplomatic route. Menon argues that this has been more successful in that Pakistan has been isolated in the international community and India received cooperation from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar – all Pakistan’s traditional partners. By working through international fora, Delhi was able to bring the heat on Islamabad through Washington, the Europeans, and even its patron, Beijing.

The Israeli model, the former national security advisor opines, has been misquoted in India. It has not brought peace or deterrence to Israel and it will not do so to India. “Mowing the grass,” as the Israelis call it, seeks cumulative deterrence, not absolute deterrence. However, he misunderstands the purpose of Israeli anti-terror operations: they have not been, at least for the past 20 years, for deterrence but for attrition. India’s war against terror is a protracted one and it cannot be solved. Temporary silencing is the best Delhi can hope for, which, according to Menon, is much lower on the list of national priorities than the socioeconomic transformation of India.

Menon is under no illusion that Pakistan continues to be a hotbed of terrorism but he reminds the reader of the more complicated geopolitical web. For example, the United States has restricted India’s access to David Headley, one of the chief reconnoiters for Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence. Additionally, when Ahmed Shuja Pasha, then director general of the ISI, visited the United States, he was given diplomatic immunity to protect him from law suits brought against him by the families of Americans killed in Bombay.

Insisting that nuclear weapons are only political signifiers and not meant for war, Menon defends India’s nuclear NFU policy. His defence could interest only a lay reader, unfortunately, for it completely ignores the counter arguments to such a policy. In all fairness, Choices is not a exegesis of nuclear deterrence theory and a thorough explanation would skew the balance of the topics covered. Essentially, the two strands of Indian nuclear thinking, one represented best by General Krishnaswamy Sundarji and the other by nuclear scientist Raja Ramanna, either viewed the super weapons as necessary to redress a conventional imbalance or as an enabler of political goals. The second strand held sway in the discussions after the 1998 nuclear tests.

On the whole, Menon’s view is that Indian nuclear policy is sober and realistic even though it has been couched in moral terms. He is not particularly fond of the international non-proliferation regime either, for it has not addressed any of India’s concerns such as China’s proliferation of nuclear weapons and missile technology to Pakistan or the danger of rogue nuclear actors within the Pakistani Army. However, there is no gain to India by flouting it and staying within earns diplomatic goodwill. This should not be construed to mean that India is a status quo power.

The most interesting part of the book is Menon’s brief airing of his views about India’s place in the world. Despite being taken to task by Bharat Karnad in his Why India Is Not A Great Power (Yet), Menon insists that he does believe that India is destined to become a great power and not by soft power alone. The former foreign secretary does believe that there is a particular Indian style to foreign policy, as Deep Datta-Ray argues, though it is difficult to put a finger on it. Nonetheless, Menon attempts to describe it:

If there is an Indian way in foreign policy, it is marked by a combination of boldness in conception and caution in implementation, by the dominant and determining role of the prime minister, by a didactic negotiating style, by a fundamentally realistic approach masked by normative rhetoric, by comfort in a plural and diverse world or multiverse, and, most consistently, by a consciousness of India’s destiny as a great power.

This caution, Menon allows, could be due to systemic failures – the Ministry of External Affairs is desperately understaffed and centralised foreign policy under the prime minister’s office has meant that no other player has the authority to contemplate on grand strategy or vision. In other words, Indian foreign policy (also) suffers from weak institutions. The structured and formal decison-making is always preceded by considerable informal consultations and discussions. In light of this, it makes sense why an MEA official asked Datta-Ray why he wanted to see their documents since they only indicated process and not thinking.

Interestingly, Menon believes in an Indian exceptionalism and his belief in India’s destiny to become a great power smacks of the same Nehruvian arrogance when contraposed with India’s shortcomings in health, infrastructure, education, society, law, governance, and military. Geography and demographics are necessary but not sufficient conditions of becoming a great power.

All things considered, Choices is a disappointing production given the senior positions in government that its author achieved and the knowledge and experience that must have come with them. Anyone expecting a fresh or insightful exposition of Indian foreign policy will instead find an elegant rehashing of what columnists have already said umpteen times. This is a wasted opportunity to reveal, to scholars and the public alike, how choices are made in the PMO and MEA. Its saving grace is that it reads well and is short.