Book Review – Pax Indica

The DNA has carried a slightly shorter  version of my review of Shashi Tharoor’ s book Pax Indica


Pax Romana or the Roman Peace is a Latin Term used to describe the, slightly over two hundred year period, when the Roman Empire saw relative peace and prosperity. It was a period when the Republic made way for the Emperor (Augustus); various warring factions within Rome were brought to heel; the Empire was kept safe from invasion and the military expansion was kept to a minimum. It was a time when Rome became the focal point of culture, trade and influence and was the dominant power. The term has been used for other Empires – Pax Americana (the period post the Second World War), Pax Britannica (the century leading up to the First World War), Pax Mongolica (the height of the Mongol Empire in the 13th & 14th centuries). In each of these cases the power of the Empire – military, economic, and cultural combined with internal political stability – ensured Peace. In each of these cases the core of the Empire – Rome, America, Britain and Mongolia – were protected from war on, while they expanded outwards with their military and trade might. This Pax Imperium was great for each of the States that were the power centres, but it had a mixed result vis-à-vis regions & people that came in the path of the Imperial Juggernaut.


Pax Indica or the Indian Peace is Shashi Tharoor’s look at modern India – that has come out of the shadow of internal divisions and external invasion – to take her rightful place on the world Stage.  Tharoor’s basic hypothesis is that India can use a combination of her size, her trade prowess, her soft power and her growing influence in the world to ensure an age of domestic transformation. He sees word Pax Indica not to imply world or regional domination, as much as foreign policy that allows India to play a role in developing a  21st century “Peace System” that will help ‘promote & maintain a period or co-operative co-existence’ and in  “helping shape the global order’


Pax Indica looks at Indian foreign policy from both a historical perspective, and a normative one. He is rather uncritical in his assessment of history. His great admiration for Jawaharlal Nehru probably gets him to see Indian foreign policy through rose tinted glasses. For example, the entire 1962 debacle in which China wrested ’23,200 square kilometres of Indian territory’ is explained away in one paragraph. His defence of non-alignment is robust. And he believes that those who “critique Nehru for not taking the ‘winning side’ speak with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight’. He also says of non-alignment as Indian foreign policy in the first 40 years after Independence gave India an advantage in the last two decades because that policy

‘enabled us to work with all the major powers without exception – and to get help (if I may be allowed to mangle Marx) from each according to their capacity, to us according to our need.

In this period (post 1991) the ‘post-colonial’ chip has fallen off India’s shoulder and she can look at the world from a position of authority.


In a world where it is acceptable, indeed expected, to berate the problems of non-alignment, Tharoor offers a perspective on why the path of foreign policy independence in the years following 1947 was the correct path for India to follow. However, he also says that in the years to come foreign policy cannot be led by belief and ideology as much as with one single goal – that of ‘facilitating India’s economic growth in order to bring our billion strong masses into the 21st century.’ And he talks about the need to

‘cultivate good relations with countries that can assist us in that process – trading partners and investors in the economy; suppliers of energy resources and assurers of food security; and partners in our fundamental objective of keeping our people safe, secure and free ‘


This kind of explains the seeming contradictions in India’s foreign policy – the friendship with Iran and the desire to boost trade ties despite the west having issues  (“Iran’s natural resources, particularly oil and natural gas, have been increasingly important to India for decades’) at the same time as strengthening her ties with the West;  the growing relationship with Israel (‘India is now Israel’s largest market for defence products and services’) along with a continued support for the Palestinian cause ; India’s increasing influence in Afghanistan – not through the display of naked power or military might, but through kinder and gentler ways; an enhanced involvement in Africa – through trade, government credits and private sector involvement. All these, says Tharoor makes India a very influential player on the world stage.


Right at the beginning Tharoor says that the book is ‘like an onion’ begins with Pakistan and peels outwards, from South Asia and neighbourhood to the world beyond.’ There is a whole chapter (entitled “Brother Enemy) devoted to our troublesome neighbour in the west.  A State whose own internal divisions are so vast that the rulers of Pakistan ‘do not feel able to challenge militant groups and their leaders because they have become too popular with a radicalized and pro-Islamist populace’ – the charitable explanation; or ‘those in power are happy to allow the terrorists to run free and wild, as long as they are only threatening India’ – the sinister excuse.  Tharoor is of the firm belief that it would not be realistic to expect Pakistan to change fundamentally for there to be peace – there are too parties jostling for power in Pakistan to allow that. He spends quite a bit of time listing those parties and their positions vis-à-vis India in public and private. But, in his opinion, ‘we want peace more than Pakistan does, because we have more at stake when peace is violated’ and therefore India should ‘seize on whatever straws in the wind float its way from Pakistan to explore possibility of Peace’. It is possibly the only controversial statement in the entire book. And also rather simplistic. He believes that stronger economic ties, a MFN status, and trade could enable Peace, while more contentious issues like Siachin or Kashmir get discussed separately.


There is an entire chapter on China that doesn’t say too much except that we can’t compete with them, we shouldn’t have conflict, maybe we should co-operate. He says that the normally complacent Elephant (us) is naturally wary of the “hissing dragon’. History, the last 60 years including India’s support and sanctuary to the Dalai Lama and the Chinese support of the Indian communist movement – plus the war of 1962 and China’s territorial claims on parts of Arunachal Pradesh have kept relations between the two strained. He lists all the advantages that China has “India’s sclerotic bureaucracy versus China’s efficient one, India’s tangles of red tape versus China’s unfurled red carpet to foreign investors, India’s contentious and fractious party politics versus China’s smoothly functioning top-down communist hierarchy,” and then says, without a trace of irony or sarcasm “India has become an outstanding example of the management of diversity through pluralistic democracy’. But he says, “India is a fractious democracy, China is not. But as an Indian, I do not wish to pretend we can compete in the global growth stakes with China” . He sees India and China following different paths and both making the future their own.


The first 7 chapters of the book are devoted to the neighbourhood; ‘The Near Abroad’- the Arab world and the Rest of Asia; The United States of America; Europe, Africa and Latin America – bunched together in a single chapter.   The bulk of these chapters are a walk through the history of India’s relationship with that country. It is in the last 4 chapters that he makes his recommendations. He believes that India ought to use a combination of soft power and public diplomacy in a multi aligned world to achieve her objectives. With the rest of the neighbourhood and the world he advocates growing trade ties to bind us together. In the case of the rest of the world the recommendation is similar – trade ties and soft power to see “peace in our times’. Tharoor is a fan of Indian soft power, though the role of the state in building that power is unexplained. Soft Power arises despite the state – from films, trade ties, cultural exchanges – all the State can do is exploit it, if it exists. The chapters on the ‘Global Commons’ and the need to move from “multi alignment’ extend his philosophy of being ‘ajatshatru’ (without enemy) and ‘sangamitra’ (friend to all) – and that is the guiding philosophy of the book. It may seem optimistic, simplistic and even naïve in parts – but it possibly has a grain of truth and practicality. Apart from Pakistan, India has decent relations with most of the world. It cannot afford to militarily engage to establish influence; nor does she have the kind of wealth to sign blank cheques for the rest of the world – so all that remains to be used is soft power. And, Tharoor advocates that India use that to the hilt.


Pax Indica is foreign policy 101 – a great introduction to foreign policy for students and those interested in reading about how India’s foreign policy evolved since independence. It is a good starting point to understanding Indian foreign policy, but any reader should read more before forming opinions. Shashi Tharoor has a way with words, and the book flows easily and is immensely readable. As he admits, it is not academic, more his perspective as a ringside observer of changing world dynamics.  Pax Indica is a bit like a nice breezy travelogue – the generic kind carried by tourists on visits – through the terrain of Indian foreign policy. There is a bit of history, a bit of geography, some amount of characters to know about, who to know about, the events that mattered, those that didn’t, what to see, what to avoid. It is a very good first person, insider view of Indian foreign policy.  It is an easy read for a serious subject, and that should not be held against the book. If you know nothing about Indian foreign policy this is a good starting point. The book looks at India through rose tinted glasses, and it is good to discount some of the optimism. But, in a scenario where the overwhelming opinions emanating from India is one of doom and gloom Pax Indica is a good countervailing point of view.



Pax Indica

  • Hardcover: 456 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (June 20, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067008574X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670085743

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