India’s World – How Prime Ministers Shaped Foreign Policy – Book Review

The importance of leaders shaping the diplomatic stature of nations is often unnoticed, yet ever-significant.

The importance of leaders shaping the diplomatic stature of nations is often unnoticed, yet ever-significant. Foreign Policy is one segment where India’s relations with the subcontinent neighbours play the centre-stage role in both the nurture as well as the sustenance of a conscious connect with the ground realities and core cultural values. The book explains the experience of selected Indian prime ministers taking the responsibility as torch-bearers to exemplify the degree of preciousness set for foreign policy in India’s transformation path from independence to self-reliance.

Rajiv Dogra (2020) India’s World – How Prime Ministers Shaped Foreign Policy. New Delhi, India: Rupa Publications, 248 pp. ISBN: 9389967406 

 Among the participants, Nehru is the first.  Pointed by scholars as an ardent Internationalist, Prime Minister Nehru was approached by the text worded as the leader posted to the position in accordance to Mahatma Gandhi’s choice. Mr. Dogra has very aptly structured the key happenings of Mr. Nehru’s tenure with a balanced focus on Nehru’s oratory cum linguistic fluency and his diplomatic blunders. Nehru’s foreign policy of non-alignment or the middle path has and continues to shape India’s outlook to this date along with the legacy of democratic and pluralistic society. The text very vividly also goes to highlight his blunders leading to the Kashmir and Article 370 as well as India-China border disparity.  

Next in line, Lal Bahadur Shastri. While much of history categorised his role as a small man, Mr. Dogra finds it apt to add a ‘no’ prefix to describe a brief, yet highly significant contribution. Mr. Shastri was influential to take the call to capture 1,920 sq. km of territory across Pakistan Occupied Kashmir with his so-described “now or never” moment. However, the text rightly points out that whatever Shastri has claimed in war, he had lost them in the Tashkent diplomatic table alongside Pakistan and mediated by the Soviets. 

Next emerges the Goddess of Indian foreign policy, Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Her tenure has been recalled as the dawn of a new India with a pragmatic leadership and realpolitik foreign policy agenda. It is to be observed keenly that Mr. Dogra has concentrated major portions on Pakistan in almost for all the Indian leaders; Indira Gandhi is no exception. This may also be attributed because the author has spent a quality of his office as the last consular general in Karachi. Again, the words used to describe Prime Minister Gandhi’s contribution as a ‘suave’ personality in strategy goes to show the exceptionality to structure her contribution in a few pages of text. 

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi has been reflected largely from his diplomatic victory in tempering down the Khalistan threat with the Rajiv-Harchand Singh Longowal Accord of 1985. Mr. Dogra’s analysis covers extensively on the diplomatic side of the story while focusing comparatively lesser on the outcomes. This may be pointed in how Mr. Dogra brings out the US-India and India-China negotiations in depth without highlighting the major outcomes, one being technological revolution and the other being the brief border stability between the neighbours. 

Narasimha Rao as the fifth participant has been associated in parallel with Chankya. While the leader’s benefit as well as the costs have been well-categorised as the government’s one-way street approach, with the IMF loan recovery alongside the cost to open up in accordance with the Western-led rules order. While his period may have involved various course corrections with China, the text very aptly dissociates Prime Minister Rao with Chanakya due to the former’s ultra-believer version in democratic stability.  

Atal Bihari Vajpayee has been categorised as a patriot, poet and politician and his tenure has been a mixed bag of surprises. While Mr. Dogra never forgets to detail the Lahore bus diplomacy move, the reference his role as the architect of India’s China policy during 1998-2002 has been shaped by his previous foreign minister stint under Morarji Desai (1977-79) leadership led by a posture of resolve and restraint. In this regard, Vajpayee’s visit to Beijing in 1979 and the supposed recognition of Tibet as part of the PRC resulted in the reciprocated recognition of Sikkim as part of India. 

As with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the template of agendas had remained constant with the focus on Pakistan and China. This has been over-specified across most of the predecessors and their agenda. The Pakistan blunder that paved way for the Manmohan-Musharraf path, which if chosen, could have resulted in the verdict of history being unkind to our prime minister. However, the credit must be duly given for his role in steering through the global financial crisis and the maintenance of the healthy and progressive economic growth rate of our country. 

Lastly, the incumbent prime minister Mr. Narendra Modi. Mr. Dogra terms his tenure as the rule maker of India’s foreign policy. While his exploits in Pakistan with Prime Ministers Sharif and Khan may have caused diplomatic flip-flops, Modi’s policy towards keeping China engaged in 2017 Doklam and the 2020 Galwan Valley clashes goes to indicate India’s active response to threat in its immediate neighbourhood. India’s wooing back Russia and US in its agenda goes to depict the rational character and charisma of Prime Minister Modi. Thereafter, this reaffirms the standard diplomatic adage that the ‘more it changes, the more it remains the same’. 

Siddharth Shankar
Siddharth Shankar
Mr. Siddharth Shankar is currently pursuing his First Year Masters’ Degree from the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal, Karnataka. His research area of interest deals with the Geopolitics of Maritime Security in the Indian Ocean and Central Asian geopolitics.