Rajiv Dogra’s new book is a sharply-focused critique of the foreign policies of the seven prime ministers who completed a full term of five years, plus Shastri, the hero of 1965
Dogra considers the role of advisors indispensable to a leader’s success. Indira Gandhi’s regard for the advice of cabinet colleagues and mandarins like PN Haksar and RN Kao and army chief, General Manekshaw, resulted in a stunning victory in the war of 1971. In this picture, Indira Gandhi is reviewing soldiers in 1980.
Two recent books by retired IFS officers have started a new trend in writing the history of independent India by critically examining the policies of the country’s prime ministers. Jaimini Bhagwati in The Promise of India, published last year, after assessing the entire range of the policies of each of India’s 14 PMs proceeds to pronounce a judgment on the impact of the Character, Competence and Charisma of each on the nation’s overall growth. For example, an exhaustive chapter on Nehru’s policies ends with the judgment that the great leader had Character and Charisma in abundance but in Competence “he may be faulted in some measure on foreign policy and national security matters”.
Former ambassador Rajiv Dogra’s India’s World: How Prime Ministers Shaped Foreign Policy is a sharply focused critique in 200 pages of the foreign policies of the seven prime ministers who completed a full term of five years, plus Shastri, the hero of 1965. The author measures the performance of each leader essentially on three counts: whether it ensured the country’s security, strengthened its unity and democracy, and gave India a major role in the world. In this broad framework he relates “without bitterness or partiality” a few important facts from the leader’s policy and actions and reflects, with passion combined with aloofness, on their impact on the country.
Dogra considers the role of advisors indispensable to a leader’s success. The leader must listen, and follow good advice. Nehru’s disregard of the sage counsels of experienced MEA officials and even a senior cabinet colleague, Vallabhbhai Patel, resulted in the tragic failure of his China policy. In contrast, Indira Gandhi’s due regard for the advice of a “dream team” of cabinet colleagues and mandarins like PN Haksar and RN Kao and a battle-hardened army chief, General Manekshaw, resulted in a stunning victory in the war of 1971. At the same time, the author is justifiably critical of the ineptitude of Indira Gandhi and Lal Bahadur Shastri in losing the gains of war at the negotiations for peace.
Failure to learn from the experience of predecessors in dealing with India’s fractious neighbours is a flaw shared by all PMs, except Indira Gandhi. In the absence of a “well drafted long-term approach” each succeeding PM is seen as striving to outdo his predecessor to “improve relations with neighbours”. Failure and disillusionment are the bitter result of such endeavours. Dogra advises against investing hopes and resources in SAARC, for “as transformational regional arrangement it is a pipe dream”.
Similarly, while the divided world of the Cold War dictated the choice of the Middle Path, nonalignment lost relevance with the end of the Cold War. Ever since, by fits and starts, India has been trying different alternatives – Engagement with All, Strategic Partnerships with 30 odd countries, the inchoate QUAD – but even faced with the long-term China threat it wavers at the one worthwhile option of a functioning alliance with the USA. To those who worry over the loss of India’s strategic autonomy in an alliance the author asks: What is the meaning of strategic autonomy for a country without an indigenous defence industry?
Each of the eight PMs has successes to his credit, as well as failures to blemish his story. For example, Manmohan Singh’s friendly labours lost in Islamabad are more than balanced by his brilliant nuclear deal with Washington. And for all Modi’s travails in Kathmandu, Lahore and Wuhan there is soothing comfort of warm hugs in Washington, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. But we should return to Nehru as Dogra has a lot more to say about his “misadventures” in the foreign policy domain.
Dogra’s book, with its honesty and candour of content and his pleasing writing style, is a pleasure to read. There is also wisdom and humour in it in gems like the following scattered across the narrative: “If Nehru had a temper, Narasimha Rao had a temperament”; “When impulse overtakes prudence upsets are inevitable”; “Democracy, like happiness, is one of those elusive things whose promise is almost as important as its performance”.