India's retaliatory surgical strike across the LoC on 29 September, 2016, produced such a long-awaited sense of national requital that the phrase has entered the popular lexicon—even the PM's decision on demonetisation was described as a surgical strike. Indians had waited a long time to avenge the soft response to the horrific 26/11 killings in Mumbai and now, for the first time, we have an insider's account as to how difficult that restraint really was.
Mumbai 26/11: Revenge or restraint?
Shivshankar Menon, able Foreign Secretary who later became National Security Advisor reveals in his memoir, Choices—Inside the Making of India's Foreign Policy, that when the Mumbai attacks were underway, he was among those who pressed "for immediate visible retaliation of some sort, either against the LeT in Muridke ... or their camps in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir, or against the ISI, which was clearly complicit." However, he soon came round to the prevailing view that restraint would thwart Pakistan's war preparations, strengthen India's position internationally and serve its military and economic interests better at the time. Sagaciously outlining the pros and cons of the "attack—no-attack" dilemma at the core of our Pakistan policy, Menon confirms there is a real threat of nuclear proliferation from Pakistan where a rogue army insider in the "only nuclear weapons program in the world which is not under civilian control," could run amok.
There will always be a suspicion in India that the United States knew much more than it admitted [about 26/11].Shivshankar Menon
The lack of a global consensus in implementing legislation to contain terrorism reflects both the limits of statecraft and the interests of different states. In the case of Mumbai 26/11, Menon says:
"There will always be a suspicion in India that the United States knew much more than it admitted. The attack was prepared and reconnoitred by a US citizen of Pakistani origin, David Coleman Headley (born Daood Gilani)...who worked for both the ISI and LeT simultaneously. That the American government allowed Headley to enter a secret plea bargain and that access to him and his testimony was restricted as a result, fed Indian suspicions."
How the nuclear deal was made
In an engaging chapter on the difficult negotiations with US on civil nuclear power Menon says that contrary to his critics' portrayal, Manmohan Singh was a man whose gentle demeanour hid a steely resolve: "Looking back, it is evident that the civil nuclear initiative (with the US) would not have reached a successful conclusion were it not for the quiet persistence of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in India," says Menon.
"At least twice during the tortuous domestic process in late 2007 and early 2008, Special Envoy Shyam Saran and I argued internally that if our domestic constraints made it difficult for us to go through with the initiative, it would be best to call it off by mutual consent with the Americans, thus minimising damage to India-US relations and the prestige that Prime Minister Singh and President Bush had personally attached to the effort.
It was the prime minister who insisted on letting the process in India play out, and who finally forced a decision on going ahead when—and this is admittedly hearsay—he told the Congress Party leadership that he would not stay on as prime minister if the initiative were abandoned...it was Singh's dogged but quiet persistence that sustained the initiative at every stage and ultimately made all the difference. Personalities matter."
[T]he civil nuclear initiative (with the US) would not have reached a successful conclusion were it not for the quiet persistence of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh...Shivshankar Menon
Equally interesting, his impression of US President George Bush as a man of intellect is certainly at odds with the popular image of Dubya. "President Bush does not get enough credit for running an effective, like-minded, and committed team in his second term, and for his clear strategic vision," says Menon. One might question the strategic vision which led to the destruction of Iraq and the morass that now engulfs the region, but Bush saw India as a natural ally, says Menon, and not just in the global war on terror.
"In all our meetings with Bush I found him focused, clear on the issues, well prepared, and willing to listen. I can only speculate that this son of privilege, born to the blue-blooded in the US establishment, went to great pains to appear ordinary, and succeeded. But the image concealed a sharp mind and a genuine ability to connect with other people, as shown by his close and productive relationships with Manmohan Singh ...When Bush and Singh were together, they were relaxed to the point of laughing and joking with each other. On the US side as well, personalities mattered."
5 foreign policy choices that shaped India
In a broad sweep of five foreign policy choices that shaped our relationship with China, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the US and our Nuclear policy Menon says:
"Each of India's prime ministers made—chose to make—significant strategic decisions that had a long-term impact on the future of India: Jawaharlal Nehru and nonalignment, Indira Gandhi and the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, P. V. Narasimha Rao on the Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement (with China) and economic reform, Atal Bihari Vajpayee to test nuclear weapons in 1998 and in diplomacy with Pakistan, and Manmohan Singh with the Civil Nuclear Initiative and settling issues with Pakistan. Each of the initiatives or cases examined in this book changed the landscape... If the 123 Agreement raised expectations of India-US relations to an impossibly high pitch, the 26/11 attack on Mumbai dropped expectations of Pakistan so low as to limit future policy choices."
India has serious capacity issues in the implementation of foreign policy and lacks the institutional depth to see policy through...Shivshankar Menon
While Menon is frank that "India has serious capacity issues in the implementation of foreign policy and lacks the institutional depth to see policy through," he also charts the rise in the nation's global standing from a time when India requested UN intervention in the 1947 war with Pakistan to 2008 when "helped by the United States and other major powers, the international community rewrote the rules for nuclear cooperation with India, making an exception in its favour in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. That is progress."
"India will be a great power"
Written with a behind-the-scenes authenticity that students and foreign policy wonks would find interesting, the book sometimes reads like a novel, particularly when detailing the nuclear agreement with the US that stretched India's diplomatic capacity to the limit. Is a nation's foreign policy a result of its culture and worldview as some suggest or is it a composite of geographic, historic and demographic considerations?
Whatever the forces, Menon is convinced that India will be a great power mostly because of its own desire to improve the economic conditions of its billion-plus population. The ultimate goal of India's foreign policy, he quotes Mahatma Gandhi elegant articulation, is "to wipe every tear from every eye."
Choices—Inside the Making of India's Foreign Policy by Shivshankar Menon is published by Penguin Random House India