Book Review: CHOICES :- “INDIA at the World’s Big Round Table”

choices

3.5/5 Stars Goodreads Rating System

“There is some self-interest behind every friendship. There is no friendship without self-interests. This is a bitter truth.” ~Chanakya.

This is perhaps more true for Diplomacy than for anything else. One of the best things about this book other than its core theme was it’s author, there is no one better to tell you about the Choices India made in her most diplomatically charged phase, than the diplomat who helped her make them.

Mr.Menon had been personally involved in all the 4 issues discussed in this book(China in the 1990s, USA in 2006, Pakistan & 26/11, Sri Lanka & LTTE in 2009) and has many years of experience driving the foreign policy of India.Hence this book was a delight and an immediate priority for me to read, to know from the people directly responsible the What and Whys is really refreshing. Though he has been quite evasive on the “How” part, the intricate details of the negotiations or the MOM that I had hoped this might contain are absent. Nevertheless the book though lacking in detailed blow by blow of the various issues, gives you the reasoning and thought process behind the various actions taken by the Indian government working within the constraints of that time period.

One of the most important things this book made me realize is how underappreciated some of the very critical events are, for example P.V. Narasima Rao (9th Prime Minister of India) & his border peace and tranquility agreement with China. The 1990’s was a very critical time for India, our economy was at its lowest point and we were in an unprecedented danger of being bankrupt (Courtesy of the ‘License Raj’ that had been practiced in the country till then) ,so naturally the immediate priority was the economy and its liberalization, but to achieve this having stability with our immediate neighbors was a necessary prerequisite. More so with China, having been defeated in the 1962 war, India was acutely aware of the scale of disaster that could ensue if the Chinese decided to press their advantage once again. Settling the border issue or in the lack of a favorable settlement, agreeing on a peaceful process for its resolution was paramount. Adding to that China,being the victor, would be very difficult to negotiate with specially resisting any kind of concessions(not every country could be as magnanimous (or foolish) in victory as we were after 1971 during the Shimla agreement), and to top it all off convincing the current political heads of the country to shake hands with a previous foe would have been quite a challenge. Yet,the deal was done. And its importance barely noticed,the mind boggles.

Lao Tzu said “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled they will say: we did it ourselves”. This quote is quite apt for the “Accidental” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh & his civil nuclear agreement with the USA in  2006. Like every Indian I have my own misgivings about Mr. Singh and his tenure but the 123 agreement is one of the master strokes that has to be attributed to his dogged persistence. Convincing a country like the USA which scuttled a previous agreement for nuclear fuel supply, imposed sanctions on India after the “Pokharan” nuclear test in 1974, to a civil nuclear agreement, making it alter its own laws and giving a ‘Clean’ exemption from the very restrictions by the NSG that were a direct result of India’s nuclear program in the first place would have been a daunting task. But yet again the deal was done,it is quite interesting to know how,and Mr.Menon as our faithful guide do not disappoint. Yet, I felt that he was way too soft on Mr.Singh, which is understandable as he was his National Security Adviser at the time.But still, not taking a strong military action against Pakistan after 26/11, and just posturing on the border and using diplomacy, still, to this day, doesn’t sit well with me, maybe because as a citizen having these kind of  opinions is easy as opposed to being the one taking the decisions, but explaining away as to why we didn’t use something like Israel’s strong covert response to the situation “because we are different” and “that approach would only lead to temporary peace and not solve the main issue” is ludicrous. Mr.Menon himself admits that he suggested a strong and clear response, which he says we are fortunate the PM didn’t go for, I mean ‘War’ was maybe not the ideal answer but we could have taken the scum who planed 26/11 out, morality be damned. But again, a country’s foreign political machinery is too complicated a thing to be always in perfect working order. He warns the situation is different now and the restraint of the past is now just that ‘Past’.

The Lankan civil war and our involvement in it is once again, I felt, was downplayed quite a bit in the book, India made a number of blunders regarding the LTTE, and I agree with Mr.Menon that perhaps due to our meddling and trying to broker peace we prolonged Sri Lankans suffering. Though, I feel a complete disarmament of the rebels should have been a prerequisite condition before any kind of negotiation. But it is always easy to judge history. The assassination of PM Rajiv Gandhi, is perhaps the result of said blunders and the cause which finally lead to the war’s bloody conclusion.

The last 2 chapters of the book are perhaps my favorite, India’s nuclear policy and a ‘final word’ about the intricacies of decision making, diplomacy and negotiation and their broad contemplation on the country’s psyche and its unique personality were very well crafted. Here in the last chapters you really get to see the diplomat in Mr.Menon in all his glory. The book overall is well thought and well presented, the author talks about things he knows and has a first hand experience in, adding credibility to his statements and thoughts. The fact that these agreements and issues were in a volatile time, as Mr.Menon notes where one could maneuver, concede and negotiate successfully ,as opposed to now where the world order is much more cemented and diplomats don’t have the leeway that they previously enjoyed is what makes the book and his own experience so important. I have always had a keen interest in nations and their behavior towards each other. To any such enthusiast and or history buff this book is a treat, perhaps we would not agree on all the points that Mr.Menon makes but that is not the purpose of this book. He lays down his views and experiences, and as Confucius said “Study the past if you would define the future”. There are indeed lessons here, and lessons worth reading.

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