Book Review / Author Q&A: Beyond South Asia by Neil Padukone

Beyond South Asia: India’s Strategic Evolution and the Reintegration of the Subcontinent. By Neil Padukone. Published by Bloomsbury.

In the last year, a must-read book has been published for practitioners, observers, and students of India’s foreign policy.  Beyond South Asia by author Neil Padukone is an excellent and surprisingly easy read considering the complex and puzzling subject matter: the history and future of New Delhi’s strategic thought (insert laugh track here…).  Experts in this area, and lay readers with zero background in foreign policy alike will gain new insights by picking up a copy.  I have read dozens of books on Indian foreign policy from both Western and Eastern points of view.  Padukone’s is easily among the easiest to read, and I was able to complete it in just a few days.

Some analysts, including myself, have complained for decades that Indian foreign policy lacks a cohesive overarching strategy.  Others find the decision-making processes opaque, or even downright flailing.  Padukone has patiently laid out, with copious amounts of quotes and notes in Beyond South Asia that the reality is more subtle; that the young and growing nation has often pursued rational and intelligent policies throughout its history, though adjustments were required as with any country’s strategic vision in the fast-changing landscape of South Asian and global geopolitics.   Padukone earned credibility by working closely with numerous high-level officials in this area; more on that in the Q&A below.

Padukone describes how Indian foreign policy is required to thread the needle of inherent “conflict of  interest” while simultaneously battling questions of the Indian government’s legitimacy.  He also makes a point in the beginning worth sharing, that much of India’s strategy is based on verbal statecraft and not written text for several reasons:

“Moreover, from before the time of independence, foreign policy was largely shaped, influenced, and discussed by Jawaharlal Nehru and his coterie of trusted advisors.  Even today, national strategy remains largely elite-controlled in both the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Parties; foreign policy is largely undiscussed and of little consequence to the majority of voters in regional and state politics and even in national elections.”  

Beyond South Asia is written in an entirely dispassionate neutral voice, avoiding some of the condescension one finds in Western media, or the nationalistic or Pakistan-obsessed overtones all too common in Indian non-fiction.  Perhaps this is a product of Padukone’s four years of research for the book both in India and in the United States.

Readers can expect concise explanations of how topography, geography, internal, and external challenges have shaped India’s foreign policy since independence in 1947.  I also learned new things about “India’s Monroe Doctrine” which shaped the nation’s posture toward its neighbors for many years.

Detailed explanations of Indian bilateral relations are also a strength of the book, with individual breakdowns of the drama-filled history shared between India and Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, China, Afghanistan, Iran, and the United States, while introducing larger themes of Indian diplomacy in general.

As for the future, Padukone lays out the trends and factors to look for as India rises.  Readers should walk away with an overall sense of optimism, even with the hardest nuts to crack such as the bitter Indo-Pak rivalry and responding to the dramatic rise of China.  Yet Beyond South Asia does not gloss over the challenges of extremism, corruption, the “shocking incapacity of public institutions,” and extremely poor economic conditions suffered by much of India’s people.

A concluding discussion of the difficulties and opportunities of urbanization is also relevant, and should be especially to those of us who live in cities, which is probably most of us.  And in my conversations with Padukone, the subject of Indo-Pak detente was of great interest.  Please read on for more about the book and related topics in the Q&A below, where I picked Padukone’s brain.

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1) What prompted you to want to write this book?  

I was working at a think tank in New Delhi, doing research on foreign policy, and what I heard from folks across the political spectrum was that India didn’t have a strategic culture; that, despite its growing economic and political power, it didn’t know what to do with it. It had democratic politics, but didn’t project that as a strength; it had been able to reconcile dozens of faiths and languages within a single country; and it now had economic and military prowess to influence other parts of the world. But it didn’t use these assets to its, or the world’s advantage, they said.

But what I realized was that a lot of the folks with this criticism were too caught up in the changes going on around them to actually see what was happening. For example, India was making an investment in Iranian infrastructure—the Chabahar Road—that could change 200 years of geopolitical stagnation in Afghanistan. India was sitting on a naval asset, in the form of Port Blair in the Bay of Bengal that could curtail China’s geopolitical rise if leveraged appropriately.

And probably most consequentially, there was a sea change in Indo-Pakistan relations that was enabling, for example, trade between Indian Gujarat and Pakistani Sindh, and between the two Punjabs. These were tremendous moves that India was making—even as the former Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, was being dismissed as useless—that were driving huge changes in the region and the world.

Nobody was talking or writing about these changes or their impacts on the 21st century world. So I decided to write this book.

2) I saw that you got access to some heavyweight thinkers in the area of Indian foreign policy.  How were you able to connect with them?  

I had the great opportunity to work at a New Delhi think tank in 2008-10, where all manners of political thinkers and leaders would come through to discuss these issues. I came up with and led an initiative to comprehensively overhaul the national security establishment in the wake of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and through that experience, had the opportunity to work with dozens of the folks you’re talking about. I also had some really kind colleagues and mentors who helped connect me with other interesting folks to share ideas.

And sometimes it was just a matter of being pushy—I’d just email or call or show up at someone’s office until they responded! I was surprised at how nice folks can be!

3) How did you manage to juggle writing with your other endeavors at the time?

I wrote Beyond South Asia partly when I was consulting at the National Defense University, which gave me a pretty flexible schedule, and finished it up while I was in a full-time graduate degree. It forced me to balance my time a little more effectively.

In the best of times, the ideas flowed onto the paper like water. But there’s nothing like a conference deadline to force you to get your stuff together and make it happen!

4) Any plans to write more books?

I’m not sure about that! But while I was working in India, I realized that the country’s future wouldn’t just be written on the Pakistani border, but in the dirt-paved roads of Bombay’s Dharavi neighborhood. All over the world, countries are seeing tremendous metropolitanization, which will affect world economies, international relations, and even national security. For example, the topography of the 2008 Bombay attacks, where gunmen streamed out from boats and attacked people in train stations and hotels, was originally planned for another harbor peninsula—Manhattan, New York, in 1992. But the FBI interdicted that plot before it happened. The attackers just took that plan off the shelf and applied it to Bombay.

I tease some of the effects that these metropolitan and urban changes are having, in the conclusion of Beyond South Asia, and it might be the topic of a forthcoming book. We’ll see!

Mumbai’s Victoria Terminus

5) How much have your ideas in the book been shaped by your travels to India, other parts of South Asia, or the West?

A lot. You can read all you want about a place, but none of it actually makes sense without seeing it live and in context.

Interviewing Mumbai police members right outside of Victoria Terminus, where the 2008 attacks happened, gives you a completely different perspective on how they could have responded.

Reading about all of India’s financial indicators on paper, without seeing with your eyes that almost 90% of employment and more than ½ of all economic transactions occur in the informal, undocumented sector, puts into context the potential and the limitations of what’s on paper.

Or taking a 7-hour van up the Rohtang Pass in Himachal Pradhesh makes you realize what a challenge the Indian Army would face if it had to move troops to the northern border with China—which is why they’re looking to bore a tunnel through that ridge.

Nothing can make up for that.

6) When will detente between India and Pakistan happen in your prediction?  It seems like the two countries keep getting mired in pettiness and slide backwards in bilateral relations.
Admittedly, those words—“détente” and “peace”—are a little hyperbolic. A better word would probably be “normalization.” There may still be military standoffs—even America has tiffs along its borders with friendly neighbors. But on the whole, the India-Pakistan equation is getting less and less fraught.

Trade relations are moving forward, military confrontations may continue but they’re decreasing in intensity, and at the end of the day, both countries have bigger fish to fry—India’s more concerned about China and its own development, while Pakistan’s worried about internal stability as well as threats from Afghanistan and even the US!

Both India and Pakistan are engaging in a policy of ‘mutual avoidance’ in the strategic realm, which is opening pathways for other types of engagements.

uncle-sam-vector-cartoon-598x7707) How large or small a role should the United States play in Indo-Pak relations?

Frankly, for a long time, US involvement in South Asia was making Indo-Pak relations worse. For literally decades, the US has been depending on Pakistani geography for access to Central Asia. This meant that it turned a blind eye not only to Pakistan’s nuclear buildup (it’s now got more nukes than Britain or even India), but also to its support for militancy—including groups that target India, American interests in Afghanistan, and even Pakistani people. That meant that the US was dealing with the region with one arm tied. And whenever Washington would yell at the South Asians for fighting with each other, the Pakistanis would feel smug and the Indians would feel resentful—and both would dig in their heels.

Things started to turn around after the Bin Laden raid and the Raymond Davis affair—the Americans tried to diversify their supply lines in the region and the Pakistanis started to feel like India wasn’t as big a threat as even the United States, which actually did launch a strike on their territory. (India hasn’t done that in decades).

The tough thing now, as the US steps back from Afghanistan, is, first, making sure that Pakistan’s evolution progresses well—and that we’re not forced to plunge back into the region after a 9/11 or Soviet invasion-style crisis and resume our dependence on Pakistan, while also making sure there’s geopolitical stability in the Indian Ocean, specifically between India and China.

The US should still prepare to manage crises just in case—like it did in the Kargil War and the military building up 2002.

But more than anything, what would be most helpful is if the US helps to undo the economic partition of the subcontinent. There are natural, geographic affinities between India and Pakistan that were severed at Partition, to the detriment of the people of both countries—I go into this in the book. But today, those affinities can reemerge even while India and Pakistan retain their political autonomy.

8) Will the United States and India become closer allies or can they drift apart?

I think Indo-US relations are only on an up-swing. There are a few hitches, including old habits that die hard—-Indian bureaucrats still see the US with disdain, and the US has trouble engaging with a country that isn’t 100% ally but still isn’t an enemy.

But some stronger, uniting factors are (i) Indian diaspora communities with more political clout in the US, (ii) the China factor, since both countries are intimidated by a growing Beijing, particularly in the Indian Ocean—the Indian and US Navies have been more coordinated than almost any other bureaucracy, (3) to a degree, the issue of terrorism, though actually dealing with the source is a point of disagreement, and (4) over the medium term, the Iran factor, surprising as that may sound.

As the nuclear deal eases sanctions on Iran, countries like India will start to invest in Tehran—-which will mean that, finally, the US and India won’t be at odds on the Issue. Back in 2008, a major clause of the US-India nuclear agreement was that India would oppose Tehran, even though it was one of Delhi’s important partners. But that blockade could come down.

So on the whole, there’s a lot of space for cooperation.

9) What might be the next major crisis in South Asia?

One thing is that fears of an Indo-Pakistani nuclear crisis are really overblown. People expect a right wing BJP government to respond more hawkishly if a Pakistan-based terror attack happens in India. But there are all sorts of reasons that wouldn’t happen—mostly, nuclear deterrence and the cost that that conflict would inflict on both sides.

But there’s always something interesting happening somewhere in South Asia. A few things I’m concerned about are: (i) the rate of metropolitanization overwhelms infrastructure and resources. The last time something similar happened in India on a small scale, was the 1970s, when folks moved to cities like Bombay for work, only to find the mills and factories shuttered. In the wake of that, Hindu and ethno-nationalist and nativist parties started to fill the breach. That’s what we’re seeing more of these days throughout the country—the RSS is trying to change the story of what being ‘Indian’ is, to include only certain types of Hindus.

background-raftingI think another major crisis will come more insidiously, and that’s one related to water resources. When water gets depleted in the countryside because of industrialization and climate change, agricultural employment tanks, and we see folks move to cities en masse. Though India has been pretty good at finding jugaad ways of employing people, after a while if those poorly paying construction or menial service jobs aren’t available or don’t pay enough—as food prices go up because of that water crisis—we’ll see a ton of political instability. This is exactly what happened in Syria and Egypt before the Arab Awakening.

This is probably less likely, in a democracy like India—Amartya Sen has written about how democracy helps ensure against famines—but you can never tell how a crisis of water will call itself: “radicalism,” “separatism,” “fundamentalism,” or something else. That’s what I’d be concerned about these days.

Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor

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