Does the Elephant Dance? Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy – By David M. Malone


Does the Elephant Dance? Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy by David M. Malone , Oxford , Oxford University Press , 2011 , xxii + 425 pp .

David M. Malone, a former Canadian High Commissioner to India, certainly understands Indian foreign policy—its historicity, institutional processes, ideational underpinnings, and potential future trajectories. His masterly book, surely a primer on Indian foreign policy, will be read by generations of students of the subject. And yet, Malone does a better job of describing India's foreign relations than explaining Indian foreign policy. The celebrated author of a number of well-researched academic books, primarily on UN-related issues, seems to put a very high premium on describing the details of India's relations with other countries from a historical point of view than explaining the various thematic and conceptual underpinnings and compulsions of India's external outlook and behavior. In other words, while the author tells you almost everything you need to know about Indian foreign policy, his thematic and conceptual treatment of the subject is less than satisfactory.

Organization of the Book

This extensively footnoted 425-page-long book is divided into 12 chapters including the introductory and concluding chapters. The chapters deal with almost every aspect of contemporary Indian foreign policy, i.e., its historical roots and evolution; nature of the country's internal and external security challenges; economic aspects of India's foreign policy; relations with its South Asian neighbors as well as with China, the United States, Southeast Asia, Europe, Russia, and West Asia; and the state of Indian multilateral diplomacy. The book also contains an exhaustive index and a useful bibliography.

Interesting Arguments

Malone argues that one of the major challenges that India is facing today is convincing its neighbors that their geographically, militarily, and economically preponderant neighbor is not a threat to their security but an opportunity for their growth. New Delhi's inability to build credible and sustainable regional alliances indeed lies at the core of India's regional security problematique. One wonders, as does Malone, why India has not used its growth story to convince its neighbors that it is indeed an opportunity for them to script their own growth stories. Today, we see more and more of India's neighbors leaning towards China as a result of their disenchantment with India. A related argument that Malone makes concerns the economic rationale of India's international profile. He rightly calls the Indian economy its global calling card.

Another thought-provoking argument that the author makes is about the state of Chinese studies in India. He argues that “the bounded rationality of India's China policymakers is compounded by the insufficient academic attention paid to China in India” (p. 149). Malone also insightfully points out that “the modern history of Sino-Indian relations has been less about China and India than it has been about extraneous actors such as the United States, Soviet Union, and Pakistan, and multilaterally managed issues such as non-proliferation and climate change” (p. 149).

In describing Indo-US relations, Malone makes an interesting argument. He writes, “It appears therefore that the American strategy has been not just to give emerging powers a greater stake in the system but to involve them in ways that restrict their future margin for manoeuvre” (p. 175). Indeed, this explains the bind that New Delhi is currently in with regard to Iran. For all those blind supporters of the Indo-US strategic partnership, Malone's observation should come as a wake-up call.

In discussing the methodological approach to the book, Malone shows why it is very advantageous for an analyst to be located in India in order to better analyze Indian foreign policy. Not only does one get to witness firsthand the increasingly vibrant think tank discourses in the country on foreign and security policy but it is also possible to watch the television talk shows and more importantly be physically part of the foreign policy debate in New Delhi. Let me paraphrase Malone: If you are in Delhi, frequent its think tanks and the India International Centre, and read the print editions of major newspapers and magazines, you can “smell” and “feel” Indian foreign policy!

Strong Points of the Book

I can safely say that this is one of the very few culturally and politically sensitive books on Indian foreign policy written by a Western author. There is often a tendency to ignore the cultural and political nuances and difficulties of the foreign policy making process in India, which is not always intelligible to the fly-by-night experts on the subject. Malone's understanding of the subject is exceptional.

The author also adopts a commendable methodological style in writing the book: he mostly uses Indian writings, gaining insights and information on the subject using personal contacts with thinkers and practitioners of Indian foreign policy based in India rather than depending on the commentaries of other Western experts. As Malone puts it “Much of the Western literature on Indian foreign policy is self-referential: Westerners citing other Westerners. . . . It is a habit of mind in the West that those whose opinions matter are to be found in the leading Western capitals, universities, and publications” (p. 3).

One must also appreciate Malone's excellent understanding of national power and its linkages with foreign policy behavior in the context of Indian economic performance and growth. What Malone means when he argues that India's economy is its global calling card is that India is widely considered to be an emerging power today primarily due to its economic strength. Indian foreign policy and its external behavior in general are more confident today thanks to its economic growth potential and performance.

Weaknesses of the Book

The book, however, also suffers from a number of weaknesses. One important aspect that is overlooked is the foreign policy disputes and bargains that take place in the newly empowered federal space in the country especially in the wake of economic liberalization and coalition governments in New Delhi. This is more acute in the sphere of foreign economic policymaking. Malone does talk about the fragmentation of political space in the country and how it restricts the maneuverability of the central government in the foreign policymaking arena. However, he does not see this as a positive development which, according to me, it can be. Consider this: today the central governments cannot—and do not—make foreign policy decisions which may have adverse implications for various state governments, without consulting them, precisely due to the fragmentation of political space in the country. He also does not adequately problematize the new and significant aspect of Indian foreign policymaking, i.e., the role of constituent units in federal foreign policymaking.

The book also suffers from a lack of adequate discussion on the implications of economic liberalization and coalition governments for the future of Indian politics. He merely looks at the negative fallouts of it. The fact is that the new-found activism of the Indian states can also have very many positive implications for democratization of politics in the country.

After reading Malone's chapter on Indian history, one is not sure what lessons he wants us to draw from it for understanding contemporary Indian foreign policy. Sure, it does make the book more comprehensive and “historical” but the chapter itself does not look in sync with the others. Merely recounting Indian history at the end of a book on Indian foreign policy does not ‘historicize’ Indian foreign policy.

Malone rightly talks about the institutional incapacity of the Indian state to successfully conduct its foreign policy activities. However, there is hardly any focus on the ideational incapacities of the state. For example, the book does not tell us how various ideological underpinnings, worldviews, values, normative considerations, and the general Indian inability to make up its mind are impacting on the country's foreign policy behavior. The book also does not contain adequate discussion on the impact of the country's multiple insurgencies on its security, defense and foreign policy behavior and postures. Chapter 3 discusses most of the internal problems but does not make the linkage between the country's internal problems and its external behavior.

Everything about Indian foreign policy cannot be said in one book; one gets the feeling that Malone is trying to do precisely that. Some of his accounts are far too expansive and generalist especially when he does a chronological survey of India's relations with other countries. The purpose of the book may have been better served had the chapters been thematic rather than chronological, descriptive accounts of India's foreign relations. It is when the book tends to be chronological and historical, and descriptive that it becomes a book on foreign relations not foreign policy.

That said, I rate this book as one of the best works on Indian foreign policy and a must read for any student of the subject. The book is well-researched, unbiased, insightful, and written in easy prose. There is no doubt that this book will have an extraordinary shelf life.