The Pivot State | Book Review — India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present by Shivshankar Menon

A file photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Ahmedabad (Express photo)

It is not often that books live up to their effusive blurbs, but the volume under review is an exception to this general thumb-rule. Introduced to the reader as “a marvel of historical erudition” and “a magisterial tour d’horizon” as also one that provides a “clear-eyed geopolitical analysis” by three of India’s most credible voices (Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Shyam Saran and Srinath Raghavan) the 370-plus pages are more than rewarding.

Author Shivshankar Menon is counted among India’s most accomplished diplomats and has the distinction of having served both as the foreign secretary and national security adviser. Post retirement from government service, Menon donned the hat of a teacher at Ashoka University where he introduced his students to Indian foreign policy and, as he notes in his introduction, their enthusiasm and interest in learning more about events of a previous century when Indian foreign policy was being shaped “encouraged me to attempt this book”.

The author advises the reader that this book “should not be considered a work of scholarship” but one that attempts “to look at Indian foreign policy with a wide-angle lens”. That lens is geopolitics. In the chapters that follow, Menon explores Indian foreign policy through an informed and empathetic geopolitical perspective “for what it reveals about India’s past, present, and, possibly, future behaviour” against the backdrop of Asian, and by extension, global geopolitics.

The 13-chapter book is divided into two parts—the past and the present. While more pages are devoted to the past—eight chapters of almost 230 pages—it is the present that offers much grist for the mill. The last chapter titled India’s tasks and the very brief afterword about India’s destiny leavens all the previous strands in a compelling but far too compressed manner. Menon locates India as “the ultimate pivot state” in classical geopolitical literature and opines that in the contemporary period, “India must deal with a world and an Asia in which its major geopolitical challenge is the rise of China” and the impact of this exigency “on the balance of power in the region and in the immediate neighbourhood”.

This animation in regional and global geopolitics related to the rise of China is palpable and both the Galwan incident of June 2020, which marked a sharp downturn in India-China relations and the current US-China tension that is becoming the leitmotif of the third decade of this century, are case in point.

Was there an inevitability about discord and mistrust being the overriding characteristics of the bilateral relationship between the two Asian giants who had shed the colonial yoke and become independent nations around the same time—India in 1947 and China in 1949? Menon recalls the major punctuations in the early phase of the Sino-Indian relationship and avers that “From 1959 until the war in October 1962, China and India attempted to find a way out on the boundary question, without, however, understanding the adversary’s compulsions. Both operated on false assumptions.”

This section has many thought-provoking observations wherein Menon recalls the killing of five Indian policemen in autumn 1959 at the Kongka pass in the western sector by the Chinese and Beijing’s decision to return the bodies on November 14—Nehru’s birthday. Suggesting that a divided leadership in China and a PLA loyal to Mao had led to the steady hardening of the Chinese position on the territorial dispute, Menon concludes: “The real driver and decider of China’s road to war with India, by subsequent Chinese accounts, seems to have been Mao Zedong himself.”

But there were missteps and hesitation on the Indian side as well, in relation to gauging Chinese intent that contributed to the deterioration in the complex and troubled bilateral relationship. Zhou Enlai’s visit to Delhi in April 1960 and Nehru’s clumsy political and diplomatic signalling is touched upon and the ambiguity about whether or not a ‘package deal’ was offered by Zhou is briefly detailed. Was this a missed opportunity or did Nehru deliberately reject what was considered by Delhi to be cartographic aggression by China?

A decade later, in May 1970, Mao signalled his willingness to improve relations with India and conveyed this to the Indian charge d’affairs Brajesh Mishra through what is now referred to as the ‘Mao smile’ and his message of friendship to then PM Indira Gandhi. However India was hesitant to this overture and Menon broods in pithy but import-laden manner: “Whatever the Chinese motives, this episode of the Mao smile, when India failed to respond meaningfully to China in 1970, must go down in the books as an opportunity unexplored, perhaps missed.” If only Menon had not been so very measured and restrained!

One editorial wrinkle here—pages 111 and 147 refer to the same Mao-Mishra conversation and the need for ensuring content continuity and zero-error copy editing by the publisher merits notice.

Concluding that “we live in a world of challenge and contradiction”, Menon puts his head on the geopolitical block when he asserts that “neither China nor Asia is ready yet for a China-centred order” and has a word of caution for India as well. “India is being reduced to a bit player on the international stage. We have lost five years. Our national confidence has been replaced by bravado and extravagant statements.”

Exhorting India to set aside ‘dread and hate’ and aspire to be a nation that has universal appeal is sage counsel both for the powers-that-be and GenNext. India’s destiny will be shaped by the choices of its younger demography-symbolised by the students who provided Menon the trigger pulse for this enriching and judicious exploration of the Indian sub-continent and its complex geopolitics.

C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi

India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present
Shivshankar Menon
Penguin Random House
Pp 406 (with index), Rs 699

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