A Diplomatic Dispatch for an Ambitious India: How Shyam Saran Sees the World and India’s Place in It

'How India Sees the World' lays out the idea that diplomacy is not only an instrument of politics, but also shapes politics as we know it.

Over the generations, officers of the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) have produced a scintillating array of memoirs that are excellent statements of the politics of their time, but also exhibit a particular kind of literary flair. In that sense, Ambassador Shyam Saran quite consciously embodies the histories of the senior roles he once held. In a professional life laden with secrecy, what you say and what you don’t say are both imbued with great significance. The publication of such a memoir has therefore elicited some controversy and the expectation of an exposé. How India Sees the World is, however, totally unconcerned with the personal detail, and so, Saran remains as inscrutable after the book as he was before it.

A recent essay in the English Historical Journal lamented the tendency of diplomats to attempt travel writing without having the finesse possessed by travel writers. This book turns this on its head, as the really delightful bits are, in fact, Saran’s descriptions of his interactions with Chinese culture. There is a story about Indian currency in Kashgar in Chinese Xinjiang and a nugget about his travels to Chini Bagh, but the real gem is his retelling of a conversation with his Mandarin teacher about the reversed Chinese understanding of time, where the past, having already been experienced, lies in front of us and the future is behind us since we cannot see it.

How India Sees the World: Kautilya to the 21st century was published in 2017.

How India Sees the World: Kautilya to the 21st Century was published in 2017.

Saran held multiple sensitive posts, and so, of course, he has vital observations on India’s continued and daunting challenges in negotiations with its neighbours. Saran has long advocated letting go of the ‘sense of siege’ that has held this direct diplomacy hostage, and the book really does advocate ‘a sense that we could do better’. In that sense, the book is an atypical memoir, because it is more interested in looking back at the future.

But maybe the real value of the book is in the innovation contained in its central thesis. Saran draws on a variety of sources including the Rig Veda, Kautilya, Thucydides, Otto von Bismarck, John Strachey, Walter Russell Mead, Henry Kissinger and Amartya Sen. Saran’s contribution lies in introducing two pieces of work as though they were part of one tradition. First, he discusses Kamandaki’s writings in Dutapracana, an ancient Indian guide to diplomacy as a tool of statecraft; second, he connects that treatise to Ernest Satow’s A Guide to Diplomatic Practice first published in 1917 and read by a newly-recruited Saran in the 1970s. Thus, the book connects ancient Indian theorising of statecraft through a study of diplomatic practice with a handbook for diplomats dealing with 20th-century post-Westphalian world politics.

What this book lays out is a diplomatic theory of international relations – the idea that diplomacy is not only an instrument of politics but that it also shapes politics as we know it because diplomacy is conducted by diplomats, and is therefore an institution alive to the impulses of world politics as they unfold. This line of thinking constitutes a new academic field within international relations, but Saran arrives at it entirely organically by recounting his lived experience as a diplomat.

Shyam Saran

Shyam Saran. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The chapters of the book are centred on the extensive, and expensive, priorities India must juggle – after all, which amongst India’s relations with Pakistan or with China and the looming threat of climate change can we ignore? The section of the book that deals with the climate change negotiations are fascinating because not only are the chapters a statement of whether India’s efforts were successful, but also whether they were worthwhile. Saran’s political position is clearly liberal in the widest sense, because he foregrounds the urgency of the issue and takes to task India’s and the larger world’s failed negotiations on climate change protocols as morally indefensible. When he recounts dramatic instances involving world leaders, or the minor revolt within the Chinese diplomatic service, or the negotiations at the Nuclear Suppliers Group or the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, we know the outcome already. Therefore, this is not a mystery. But it reads like one, because these details have never before been committed to in a narrative of this manner.

There are two themes that Saran alludes to in the book that could have done with deeper engagement – firstly, although he hints at it throughout the book, Saran doesn’t approach the idea of a grand narrative quite so directly. Each chapter carries recommendations for specific components of India’s foreign policy but doesn’t discuss them as coming together to constitute a larger whole. Clearly, the book suggests that India must grow in its capacity to acquire and project power, but it is a case of stating the significance of the issues at hand as opposed to demonstrating how they are significant to India’s sense of nation-statehood. Secondly, Saran speaks almost in passing about the inability of developing nations to coalesce around issues, to unify and presumably, for India to play a leading role in that grouping. However, he does not flesh this issue out at all, and the reader is left wondering whether the author considers the status quo a fait accompli.

What is exciting, and full of possibilities, is Saran’s “deep conviction that to achieve greatness a nation must stand for something more than itself”. This is ambassadorial in the most wonderful sense of that term, because the book reminds us that the Indian diplomatic corps has had an illustrious legacy of raising inconvenient questions, at home and overseas. Saran subtly speaks of not just the racism that has coloured so much of post-war diplomacy but the institutionalisation of that racism in multilateral fora. But this is not a plea for equality – this is a statement of the fact that we are equal, and the stakes before the world have been raised so high by the urgency of matters such as climate change, that we must all lose or win equally. In many parts, this is a sobering book because it points to the hierarchies within hierarchies, which make any real advances so tricky. Indeed, the IFS would do well to relish the advantages it has been able to extract for India over the years. After all, perhaps the greatest achievement for Indian diplomacy is that it has survived other competing diplomacies.

In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, Emmanuel Macron made the observation that ambition was never modest. The history of Indian diplomacy belies that deeply Eurocentric claim and Saran’s thesis, coming at the end of an exceptional career, is the proof that lies in the pudding. If this is a valedictory book, it does well to caution Indian diplomacy against jingoistic rhetoric. After all, a successful foreign ministry is often one that is able to rescue foreign policy from the clutches of the foreign minister. In sum, this book argues that 21st-century India must reawaken its ambitions, while recognising the fact that the world is now faced with new and unfamiliar dangers. It is an argument that is difficult to dislike, and as Saran’s favoured Henry Kissinger once said, it has the added benefit of being true.

Swapna Kona Nayudu is presently a non-residential Fellow at LSE IDEAS, London. Her research interests are in International Relations theory, the Cold War in the Third World, security studies, peacekeeping and India’s external affairs.