Shivshankar Menon, India’s famous former national security adviser, has stirred much controversy recently. His recent article for Foreign Affairs, titled “League of Nationalists,” argues that India’s illiberal drift and new transactional foreign policy has weakened relations with the US. Coming at a time when relations between India and the US have grown closer than ever, Menon’s comments are troubling and untrue.
India-US Relationship Is Now Official
Menon’s case has been helped by others expressing misgivings about India. Analyst Ashley Tellis has said that the West will be a less willing partner if India becomes illiberal. Writer William Dalrymple, an Indophile who has made the country his home, is “imagining a future where [he] might not die” in India. Rising illiberalism makes him uncomfortable. Thanks to a colonial hangover, thin-skinned Indians have been rattled by what Tellis and Dalrymple have to say. These Indians are still fixated on the West’s views of their nation. In turn, many in the West take a great interest in India.
There is a good reason for this interest. In 1947, independent India began as an internationalist power. Jawaharlal Nehru, its first prime minister, was a Fabian socialist. Along with Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Indonesia’s Sukarno, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito, he started the Non-Aligned Movement. It was a group of newly independent nations that rejected the two power blocs led by the US and the Soviet Union. To this day, this movement retains an element of romance, and many intellectuals view it through rose-tinted lenses.
After seven decades, India is finally moving away from Nehru’s legacy. This is causing heartburn among many, both at home and abroad. Yet Nehruvian internationalism runs deep. Until 2014, his dynasty was in power. It shaped the country’s institutions and patronized its intellectuals. Its legacy still runs strong. Many anglicized Indians see themselves as members of a global leftist movement. They view the Labour Party in the UK and the Democratic Party in the US as natural allies. This metropolitan elite venerates the BBC, The Washington Post and The New York Times. Since Indians now comprise a significant percentage of their readership, these publications offer much advice to India. So do friends of the country like Tellis and Dalrymple.
The fundamental argument internationalists make about the dangerous drift of India is based on two assumptions: first, that illiberalism is on the rise in India and, second, that the West must act to stem the tide. Both assumptions are questionable. While US President Donald Trump wins votes from working-class men, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s most loyal supporters are rural women. There may be illiberal aspects to the current government, but the reality is more nuanced than the simplistic liberal-illiberal juxtaposition at which many hastily arrive.
Furthermore, the idea that the West can stem illiberalism in India lacks historical and political understanding. For the last 500 years, the Western record has not been reassuring. Genocide in the Americas, the colonization of India, the scramble for Africa, the Opium Wars against China and the divvying up of the Middle East reveal a hegemonic bent of mind. In more recent years, the 1953 coup in Iran, the Vietnam War and the 2003 Iraq War reveal that the West may pay lip service to liberal causes, but it functions as per the blood-and-iron laws of realpolitik.
Anglicized Indians often forget that the West favored Pakistan over India for decades. The former was a military dictatorship and the latter was a democracy, but such inconvenient details did not matter. Indeed, the West favored China over India once Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger decided to seduce Zhongnanhai from the arms of the Kremlin. Thanks to the past patronage of the West, India faces a formidable threat on its border by two hostile nuclear powers.
Getting Key Facts Wrong
India’s internationalists fail to pay adequate attention to this threat. To be fair, Menon admits that in “many ways US-India relations are in better shape than ever.” The US has overtaken China to become India’s largest trading partner. In 2019, India-China trade declined to $84 billion while India-US trade grew to $143 billion. The US and India are cooperating on defense and security as well. Yet all is not well because the US and India are “now conceiving of the relationship in transactional, rather than principled, terms.” Given the history of US-India relations, where interests have always trumped principles, this is a rather naive assertion.
Menon also paints a rather simplistic picture of India for his American friends. He claims that “India has excluded Muslim immigrants from the path to citizenship.” Menon is wrong. A cold read of India’s 2019 citizenship legislation reveals that India expedites the path to citizenship for non-Muslims. It does not bar Muslims from getting citizenship. The act was brought in because of persistent persecution and ethnic cleansing of non-Muslim minorities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. On September 27, the Associated Press reported how the last embattled Sikhs and Hindus fled Afghanistan after threats from a local Islamic State affiliate. These refugees have arrived in India and have a path to citizenship thanks to the 2019 legislation.
Similarly, Menon makes another glib allegation. He critiques the Modi administration for limiting “the autonomy of the Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir region.” He forgets that this former princely state comprised of Buddhist Ladakh, Hindu Jammu and Muslim Kashmir. For years, Ladakhis suffered discrimination from Kashmiris and did not want to be under their yoke. Ladakhi autonomy does not seem to be of concern to Menon. He would be well advised to read an article this author co-wrote with Fair Observer’s editor-in-chief Atul Singh on Kashmir that examines the tortured history of the conflict and its geopolitical complexity. The thorny issue of Kashmir is a little more complicated than Menon’s disingenuous throwaway line would have us believe.
Power, Not Principles
Menon’s glibness raises a key question: Is he genuinely standing up for liberal principles or is there more than meets the eye? Menon’s grandfather served Nehru as India’s first foreign secretary, and his father was the ambassador to Yugoslavia. Menon himself is a blue-blooded member of the Indian establishment that was dethroned in 2014. Modi’s victory meant that Menon had to leave his colonial bungalow in Lutyens’ Delhi and play bridge with other out-of-work patricians instead.
One line in particular has angered many, including those who do not have much admiration for Modi: “Uninterested in human rights and democracy, Trump has given the Modi government a free pass on its controversial domestic agenda.” The idea that Trump or any other American president should have the right to give a free pass to a government that won a thumping parliamentary majority at home is neocolonial and deeply problematic.
Menon notes how it has been left to Democrats like Pramila Jayapal of Washington state and Ro Khanna of California to express “public disquiet” over Modi’s domestic policies. The idea that Democrats should intervene for liberalism in India is similarly flawed and problematic. Menon, Jayapal and Khanna come from the upper caste anglicized Indian elite that has been defenestrated. There is a sneaking suspicion that it is not liberal values but loss of power that drives them.
Menon’s grandfather was an internationalist who loyally served Nehru. Ironically, Menon is attempting to enlist American support in stark contrast to his grandfather who opposed the US and wooed the USSR. More importantly, the former diplomat’s diatribes reflect the beliefs of a significant section of India’s bureaucratic firmament that views the world differently from its own citizenry. For them, India’s politicians are a bunch of uncouth upstarts. They are untrained in grand vision, strategic perspective and humanitarian ideals. In 2007, India’s ambassador to the US at the time called Indian MPs “headless chickens” with “vegetable brains” for opposing some clauses of the India-US nuclear deal.
This blue-blooded elite league of internationalists disdains India’s democratically-elected politicians. They take the view that these politicians should focus on fighting elections and leave matters of state policy to elite bureaucrats. They resent their loss of control over foreign policy and national security under Modi. This league of internationalists, whose children study at Harvard and Yale, want to take back control from the league of nationalists who speak languages like Gujarati, Hindi and Tamil.
Nehruvian Princelings Have Failed India
Menon and his ilk take their cue from Nehru. India’s first prime minister fervently believed in international anticolonial cooperation. He despised the military, distrusted the intelligence community and, as a good Brahmin and a committed socialist, looked down on business and entrepreneurship. Nehru molded the nation in his image. He imposed Soviet-style planning through a colonial bureaucracy. The result was the infamous Hindu rate of growth.
Unlike other leaders who fought for India’s independence such as Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel and Maulana Azad, Nehru promoted his family and established a dynasty. Inner party democracy went out of the window. Social mobility vanished. His daughter Indira Gandhi brought in the idea of a “committed bureaucracy.” In the words of Sir Mark Tully, the legendary former BBC South Asia bureau chief, this ushered in an era of the neta-babu raj — domination by a politician-bureaucrat nexus — which kept “India in slow motion.” Menon’s father loyally served Indira Gandhi and was part of this nexus.
Rajiv Gandhi, Indira’s son and Nehru’s grandson, was not as dictatorial as his mother but not quite democratic either. David Goodall, the then-British high commissioner to New Delhi, observed that Rajiv’s cabinet was like an “oriental court” where he was “king among courtiers.” Menon was a favored page boy in this court. After all, he came from good stock. He was a third-generation Nehru family loyalist. The patrician elite Menon belongs to merrily forgets that India was neither liberal nor democratic when they were in charge.
In the heydays of the Nehru family, India huffed and puffed as a socialist economy. Victory in the 1971 India-Pakistan War was squandered by poor diplomacy in the 1972 Shimla Agreement. India’s anglicized diplomats snatched defeat from the jaws of victory much to the chagrin of the Indian military. These diplomats also shied away from formulating a clear policy on Tibet or Afghanistan. They threw open Indian markets to Chinese goods, getting little in return.
These heaven-born officials failed to safeguard the rights of Tamils in Sri Lanka or champion the rights of minorities in Pakistan or highlight ethnic cleansing of the Hindu Pandits in the Kashmir Valley. They also took their eyes off Nepal. As a result, Chinese-backed communists took over the country.
In 2008, India’s financial capital Mumbai was attacked by Pakistani terrorists. Hundreds were killed or maimed. Menon was foreign secretary then. Bomb blasts in major cities had already been a regular occurrence. Yet Menon and his underlings failed to mount a vigorous diplomatic effort against Pakistan for using terror as an instrument of state policy. Worse, the establishment Menon belonged to kept arguing for an “uninterrupted and uninterruptible dialogue” with Pakistan. Menon’s strategy led India nowhere, yet he rose to be national security adviser.
Dancing in the Shadows
Today, Menon is dancing in the shadows. His patrons have lost two consecutive elections. Under Modi, Ajit Doval is now national security adviser. He is a former intelligence operative who argues for a muscular foreign policy. Unlike Menon, Doval believes in punishing Pakistan for terrorism through military strikes. He has thrown Menon’s Pakistan policy into the same dustbin where he has deposited Menon’s China policy. This makes Menon and his ilk uncomfortable.
The likes of Menon, who have run India’s foreign and security policy for decades, have been Nehruvian pacifists and internationalists. They decreed that India occupy the commanding heights of international morality. Some aspects of this policy were commendable, such as India’s support for independence of colonized nations and its sustained opposition to apartheid in South Africa. However, this policy largely failed to further India’s national interests in terms of boosting economic growth or achieving national security.
Today, this policy has lost credibility for another reason. Like all elites, the Nehruvian one became corrupted by power. Over time, it earned notoriety for nepotism. Menon became foreign secretary by superseding 14 officers senior to him. There is a possibility that he was indeed so brilliant that he deserved to jump the queue. However, the fact that Menon came from a family of Nehru dynasty loyalists might have helped his meteoric ascent.
There is another tiny little matter. ShivshankarMenon was national security adviser to a government that noted journalist Chaitanya Kalbag damned as “the most corrupt in [India’s] history.” When princelings damn peasants for being unprincipled and transactional, they could do well to remember Bob Dylan’s words that “The Times They Are a-Changin’.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.