Foreign Policy through the Prism of Hindsight
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 22 Jan , 2024

It goes without saying that at one time or the other we have all been victims of that old adage “20/20 hindsight”– the ability to clearlypick holes on past choices! Incidentally, the phrase was first used in 1962, when the British aeronautical journal, Flight International, noted the newest expression in the US air transport business– namely, 20/20 hindsight”. While hindsight is a wonderful prism to critique the past, we cannot ignore the fact that inevitably, every choice is predicated on the situation beingfacedand the consequences of earlier choices. Moreover, it’s worth remembering that in choosing, as American lawyer and politician Joe Andrews so aptly put it, “the hardest decisions in life are not between good and bad or right and wrong, but between two goods or two rights”, which in some cases maywell bechoosing the lesser evil. Ofcourse, it also goes without saying that the choices we make are to a great extent intrinsically moulded by our personalities, life experiences, ideological beliefs and preferences and ‘primordial’biases.

This goes for nations as well, because at the end of the day, be it a democracy, dyarchy or plutocracy,the finaldecision is that of one individual, the leader. For example, the fact that Russia and Ukraine find themselves in the midst of a horrific, futile and seemingly endless conflict, isbecause of the choices made by the two Vlad’s -Putin and Zelensky. Similarly, in our context therefore, the circumstances we find ourselves in today are the consequences of the varied choices made by our Prime Ministers since Independence. Ofcourse, in all of this, the overwhelming influence exerted by Pandit Nehru is undeniable, since he was our first and longest serving Prime Minister.Consequently, he bears the brunt of our angst for things gone wrong, for example hishandling of Jammu & Kashmir with regard to Pakistan, as also the naivete he displayed in his dealings with China.

It is in this overall context that we must view the Foreign Minister, Mr. S Jaishankar’s, new book ‘Why Bharat Matters’. As Dr. C Raja Mohan, one of our foremost foreign policy analysts, points out “it offers a stark assessment of the consequences, intended and unintended, of the choices that India made in the 1950s. Jaishankar’s critique of Jawaharlal Nehru’s “naivete” on Pakistan and China and his “ideological predilections” against the West is not made from the easy benefits of clear hindsight. He draws on the perspective of Vallabhbhai Patel, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, B R Ambedkar, and Minoo Masani, who were questioning Nehru’s choices when they were being made in the 1950s”. More importantly, the book is an account of how and why our approach to foreign policy has changed coursegiven Mr. Modi’s differing world view, ideological commitments and personality.

Mr Jaishankar would have us believe, as he puts it, that “India matters because it is Bharat”. Implying that shorn of its colonial past, our dealings arenow more in our self-interest, robust, bold, goal- oriented and self-assured. Indeed, given that we are most populated country in the world with the fifth largest economy and aspirations to greatness, it is the least that one can expect from the government of the day. Certainly, in this regard the Government’s intent must be applauded, provided it is just not mere talk. After all,as four hundred years ago William Camden so aptly put it “allthe proof of a pudding is in the eating”. Fortunately for us, this is possible because this book comes at a time when the true consequences of our confrontations with China, earlier in Doklam and the ongoing face-off in Eastern Ladakh, are becoming increasingly clearer.

Take the Doklam issue. One may wish to recall the manner in which the Government acted following the Doklam confrontation. On conclusion of the Wuhan Summit, the PLA, leaving aside a face- saving gesture, occupied most of the Doklam plateau even before the ink had dried. Today we face a situation wherein China has constructed villages at the base of the Jampheri Ridge, connected by a road over the Doklam Plateau. As most would be aware, the Jampheri Ridge has enormous strategic implications, as its occupation would allow the Chinese to cut off access to Assam and the North East through the Siliguri Corridor, much in the manner that Pakistan attempted to do in Kargil Heights in 1999 to cut- off our access to Siachen and Ladakh. Their actions were met with complete silence on our part at that time, which continues with even the mainstream media being complicit in hiding this fact.

In the ongoing confrontation in Eastern Ladakh we have reportedly lost control of approximately 4000 Sq. Kms of territory that we earlier claimed and patrolled. This loss being the largest since China’s illegal occupation of Aksai Chin that led to the 1962 Conflict. At that time, it was Nehru who ordered the Army to attack and reclaim own territory, albeit under the naïve belief that the Chinese would back down from armed confrontation. Unfortunately for him, and us, the Chinese pre-empted us at Thag La,responding with force, thereby overwhelming and routing our meagre and ill- thought through attempt.  In sharp contrast our response to the present faceoff was torapidly move in additional forces and strengthen our defensive posture. We then followed this up with the temporary occupation of the Kailash Ranges that achieved tactical surprise, forcing the PLA into talks, and subsequently agreeing to a partial withdrawal.

As things stand, neither have the Chinese shown any intention of reverting to the status quo ante nor have we shown any inclination to escalate matters. Both these are hardly examples of a resurgent Bharat by any means. Our actions, or inaction one should say,remind one,in the words of the French author and journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karrplus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” or “the more things change the more they remain the same.” Especially, if excerpts published from General Naravane, the previous Army Chief’s, memoirs are anything to go by!The truth is our “robust” foreign policy, be it with regard to the Middle East, our periphery, the Global South or the Act East initiative has been one really long train wreck, regardless of the hype. Mr Jaishankar has yet to synchronise the aspirations of Bharat with the reality that is India.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Brig Deepak Sinha

is a Military Veteran. He is a Visiting Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation and a Senior Visiting Fellow with The Peninsula Foundation, Chennai.

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One thought on “Foreign Policy through the Prism of Hindsight

  1. We could not achieve the objective of evicting the PLA, after occupying the Kailash Ranges temporarily. The question is why Indian forces withdrew from the heights of Kailash Ranges before we achieved the objective of restoring the status quo ante. The stand-off has lasted from May 2020 with reports of intermittent clashes.

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