Shivshankar Menon: India is hit by a triple whammy of Covid, economic crash, Chinese challenge

Shivshankar Menon
Shivshankar Menon

We’re in a world that is economically multipolar, but militarily unipolar, says the former Indian diplomat.

Shivshankar Menon was India’s National Security Adviser  from 2010 to 2014. Previously he served as the country’s Foreign Secretary (2006-2009), High Commissioner to Pakistan (2004-2006), and Sri Lanka (1997-2000) and ambassador to China (2000-2003) and Israel.

A major milestone of Menon’s career was the landmark Indo-US nuclear deal, which was signed when he was the foreign secretary. He has also written a book, Choices: Inside The Making Of Indian Foreign Policy, first published in 2016.

Here in conversation with Frank Islam, Menon talks about global challenges faced by India in a world hit by a triple whammy — a crashed economy, a covid-induced huge health crisis and a change in balance of power with China challenging the primacy of the U.S. —  and the Indian diaspora’s role in strengthening India-US relations.

The interview, originally streamed by the South Asia Monitor, has been edited for clarity.

You have been India’s Foreign Secretary as well as the National Secretary Advisor under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. How do you see India’s global standing today? Has the landscape changed for better or worse since you were the secretary? And also can you reflect on India’s current foreign affairs strategy, including the current economic crisis that the country is in?

Well, my own approach is that, yes, the world has changed very fundamentally; and every time the world around us has shifted basically, we have had to adjust our foreign policy. In 1989, the Cold War ended. Pretty soon, the Soviet Union collapsed. We revised most of our foreign policy actually, and started changing the way we dealt with the world. Once the globalization decade started, we started transforming our relationship with the U.S., and this was done by all political parties in India, and, in the U.S., it was done it was bipartisan [manner]. In India, it wasn’t just one party or the other. [Prime Minister P.V.] Narasimha Rao might have started, it but [Prime Minister Atal Bihari] Vajpayee saw it through and Manmohan Singh did the civil nuclear [agreement]. For me, when the environment changes, you need to adjust what you’re doing. And we have done that successfully at each stage.

This time, we’re in a real phase transformation. We are hit by a triple whammy. The world economy has crashed; you have Covid, you have a huge health crisis; but you also have a fundamental shift in the balance of power, which has been going on for the last few years, where you see a potential challenger to the U.S. primacy, in China. And you see this growing competition — contention — between China and the U.S. All this requires a very different Indian response from what we used to do, in I say my time… as you said Dr Manmohan Singh’s time, in Mr. Vajpayee’s time. So and that is where I think it’s hard to do because we’re between [world] orders. Today, if you look at the world, we were in a unipolar world. Today we’re in a world where the world economy is multipolar — power is spread. Militarily, it’s still unipolar. The U.S. is the sole superpower. The only country who can project power around the world today is the U.S. So it’s still unipolar military. Politically it’s thoroughly confused. And what Covid has done is, it has reduced everybody’s reputation, power and economic standing. Everybody is now struggling to get their economy going again, standing, create jobs. Most people’s reaction to this much tougher environment abroad is to say, “We’ll turn inwards, we’ll become more self-reliant, we’ll do it ourselves.” But the fact is we can’t solve these problems alone. We need to work with our partners, with our friends… You can see the difference; in the last 10 years, in the last 20 years actually, India’s relations with the U.S. have improved tremendously; with Japan, with we’re looking for, with ASEAN, and actually that goes back to Narasimha Rao… So we adjusted policy, we emphasized economic diplomacy, but today again we have big choices to make, and we have to choose. Today the world economy is being broken into fragments, you know, RCEP [Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership], TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership] in Asia, and there’s a USMCA [U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement], or the successor of Nafta in North America, and the EU in Europe. Aand each one is becoming more protectionist. India did well out of a globalized economy. That’s when we grew fastest, when we pulled 140 million people out of poverty in 10 years. That was the time when we really did well. So for us, we don’t want a fragmented broken down world, which is growing much more slowly. It’s much harder for us to develop, transform. So we will adjust, and I think we will. But we are still in the process of deciding. So… that is what worries me, when we walk away from RCEP and when we start raising customs duties for four years running… It’s one thing to say self-reliance while you engage with the world, it’s another thing to say self-reliance — I’m going to shut myself off. And you have both types of people in India today.

You have been ambassador to both China and Pakistan, India’s two principal adversaries now. How serious is a threat to India’s security because of the Sino-Indian border dispute? Also I want to ask you, do you see brighter horizon in easing the tension between India and Pakistan?

I do think that what’s happening on the India-China border is serious, because we’ve never been in this situation before — not for a very long time. We haven’t had deaths for a very long time. Now we do. We’ve had firing… So while both sides are saying the right thing — the foreign ministers met in Moscow. Both sides say they want disengagement, they want peace and tranquility. But until peace is actually assured on that border, it is, for me, the biggest issue that we need to be dealing with. And it’s something that we need to worry about and I think the Chinese should be worrying about it as well. But let’s see, that’s still an open question, where it will lead to. We’ve been through similar periods in the past. But in the past we’ve always negotiated our way out of it and both sides have actually either pulled back or whoever has moved forward has moved back etc, and we found ways out of it.

Now, in the last few years, China’s relationship with Pakistan has also become much tighter. The China-Pakistan economic corridor, $62 billion dollars pumped in. Also China now has a presence in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, on what we consider Indian territory. So that actually now changes the nature of China’s commitment. She now has a stake in continuing the present situation — meaning Pakistani occupation. And that makes a big difference to it. So, yes, the problems are linked. But it seems to me that the traditional Indian way of dealing with this is to try and address the issues directly bilaterally, with each of these; is to deal with those issues we can with Pakistan, with Pakistan; to deal with those issues which we can with China, with China; deal with them bilaterally, deal with them directly and move on. I mean don’t cooperate where you can, compete where you must, and if you have impossible issues, find a way of managing them.

Very well said…

… and that frankly is the way, for me, the way forward. If you listen carefully to what [Exterbak Affairs Minister] Jaishankar is saying, in many ways, what he’s saying is still what previous governments used to say. Of course, each government wants to say, “I’m new, I’m very different, I’m better.” That’s normal, that’s politics; you know democratic politics. But the fact is I do believe that, in terms of actual practice, we are still trying that. Whether it will work, I don’t know. Because Pakistan’s own condition, I think, doesn’t support normal relations with India. And we seem to have worked ourselves into a situation where a measured, controlled level of hostility with India seems to suit those who have real power in Pakistan, the army. And if it suits them then, that’s… but control, I mean they don’t want to lose. But they need enough to justify their control at home, etc. That’s where we seem to be.

I would hope there’s an interest between India and Pakistan to [maintain peace] because they’ve a border. They basically live together. They’re the same people. Before the partition, they used to be part of India. They have to find a common ground and stand on their ground to work together because they all have shared goals and share responsibility.

You see I was lucky I was sent to Pakistan by Mr. Vajpayee, when, in what were probably the best years we’ve had in many years. I was there from 2003 to 2006, when, you know, in December 2004, I remember 18,000 Pakistani school children came to India for the winter, stayed with Indian families, went home. You know you open travel, you open trade — we opened. And we started the bus [service between] Muzaffarabad [and Srinagar in 2005]. So you don’t have to convince me of this… But I do think that you know we need to work, at least, to show the Pakistani people the benefits of peace that is the very well said because I like the way we are not enemies with the Pakistan people the benefits of peace.

That’s very well said…

We are not enemies of the Pakistani people, we don’t have a problem with them; we don’t have a problem with Pakistani business. Pakistani business is ready to do business.

And they should…

And they should, and we should, too. Even civilian politicians, it’s only some who have opinions which are maybe very retrograde… And for me, therefore it’s important that we segment policy — that we actually deal with people depending on whether there is a real problem there or not. But we shouldn’t just lump our problem with the Pakistan army, or the ISI, on all Pakistanis. That doesn’t make sense to me.

Well, but the current government seems to be geared… motivated by having not the conversation, but having the fight, because that’s how they get the votes unfortunately.

Well, that’s when I say that it seems to suit those who have power that they have some level of hostility. That’s that unfortunate but sadly true.

You are quoted as having said, “India has lost the ability to be a modern country.” You also said that India is isolated. Can you elaborate on this thought? Also do you still think that India is a global beacon of hope, democracy, diversity and secularism? Can you reflect on your thoughts also on the Kashmir issue, the CAB, the human rights, the freedom of press and the freedom of religion in India, which has been a major talk within the Biden foreign policy team?

It seems to me that the Indian experiment of trying to transform India into a prosperous, strong, modern country, while being a democracy, which is and on this scale, I think, this has global significance and people have always recognized that. It obviously has huge significance for us in India, but it’s still an experiment. I think we have to also recognize that even after 70 years, which is…

We are still experimenting our own democracy after 250 years…

And that’s not a bad thing because it means that we’re growing, we’re evolving, we’re adapting to change, to new things. That’s good. I mean I have no problem with that. But, in our case, I think a lot of the friction that you see now in India and things that you mentioned, you know, the agitation about the CAA, et cetera, the NRC, human rights, many of these are exactly where  those that friction at the edges is. And it’s interesting that it’s changed its form completely. In the ’50s and ’60s, we worried about separatism. You worried about revolution. I mean you started with Telangana up in arms. You worried about a whole different set of issues. Today you’re worrying about social inclusion. It’s actually you’re worrying about inequality, which is a result of rapid growth and unequal growth. Some people have obviously done much better. Today, you’re worrying about social issues, which are very different from before. And as NSA, I used to say if you look at us this century, all the parameters of violence in India have actually declined steadily. And this is still true. You look at terrorism, look at deaths by separatism, you look at all these — all these have gone down, except two things have gone up. And those are the dangerous ones: one is communal violence, that’s deaths by communal violence. The other is crimes against the person. This is social violence. This includes things like rape and so on, which suggests a society in some kind of ferment, and some kind of change. So now these are not things that the traditional state, or traditional policing, traditional security is good at. We’re not good at dealing with society. These are social issues. Society has to sort them out. And what we’re seeing on the streets, or what we see in terms of violence is really the explosion of that. And that is the stage that we are at. It worries me certainly, but I but overall I’m still an optimist. I think we can handle it, but part of it is because we’ve changed so fast, so many people have suddenly come out of traditional, they no longer have their family, their clan, their village, their traditional people’s support systems. They’re now alone, anonymous in a city, completely exposed thanks to social media, telephones, etc, ICT [information communication technology] to a whole new world out there. And, therefore, you get shifts in politics — politics becomes much more emotional, much more a question of mass mobilization. Because the means exists and the population is also now relatively [young] — you have a young new ruthless population — you look at politics, every general election 140 million new voters, that’s not a small number, 140 million. It shifts the nature of what happens in society in fundamental ways. So I think we need to get used to that and cope with it. I’m sure we will. But it’s not going to be easy. There will be friction in the process.

You also need the leadership to bring the people together…


The Indo-United States relationship after the U.S election, depending on who’s elected, but sounds like the poll shows that Biden is ahead. Do you believe the India U.S. relationship under Biden will include a lot more trade, commerce investment? Also you see the Biden will promote the inclusive democracy and equitable society, as you mentioned, which is consistent with the values of America’s democracy, character and conscience?

Mr. Biden has been a friend of India for a long time. When he was in the Senate Foreign Relations committee, for instance…

He was the chairman…

He was the chairman when we did the nuclear deal. He came to India as vice president. He has a family connection which goes all the way back, actually.

I did not know that.

There are Bidens in Chennai, there were. Started in Chennai but there were Bidens from, I think, from the 19th century. And there was, there are still some Bidens in Mumbai. It is from the East India Company, all the way back. I think in India there’s a tremendous amount of goodwill for him, as an individual and expectations of somebody who chose a vice presidential candidate, who [is] partly Indian origin. I think that made a huge impact throughout the country. It seems to me even if you look at it purely from the real politic point of view, India and the U.S. have more and more in common. And that congruence that is growing is going to keep growing. So I would expect both countries to do much more together in the years to come. I think this is a relationship which will actually do well, which will grow, which will flourish deeply. And I think it will expand beyond just the pure hard security issues into the other issues. There’s a natural convergence in the economy, for instance, which I think both sides need to now actually go out and do something. And as things get harder, I think they are more focusing on this. Already we’re trying to do a trade deal, at least, a Phase One trade deal right now. But ultimately I think we should be more ambitious and go for the big one and I think we can do it I really think we can.

And we should do it.

We must…

You were the National Security Advisor under Prime Minister Singh. What do you think are the fundamental differences in the global view between Singh and Modi? To an American, you know this administration is motivated by religious nationalism and being polarized and divisive and preaching fear, not hope. At least, that’s the impression that the Washington Post and the New York Times has. We need to bring the people together and to find and to pursue the common good

You know I can’t speak for the Modi administration, or about the Modi administration. I haven’t worked with him, or I don’t know him closely. I know that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had a view of India, which meant that India would do well when it was open to the world, and that the U.S. was a natural partner in this because of the complementarity. As an economist, he saw the advantages. In fact, I think he’d done his PhD thesis on the advantages of trade and the benefits that foreign trade actually gave an economy. He understood how the world worked and I saw this especially after the 2008 crisis, in the G20, when I saw the respect with which other leaders, not just President (George W.) Bush, but then President Obama who had just taken over and Gordon Brown of the UK. So when we went to the April London G20 summit, I remember, this was one of the voices that everyone wanted to hear that they keep asking, “What do you think we should be doing?” And you know, for me, that was very important because India could speak as an objective observer and project her own point of view at the same time.

And I think that is important. Unless you are part, at that level, unless you are part of the formation of ideas, you become an object of other people’s policy. And the whole point of transforming India, of foreign policy, is not to be the object, but actually to be the one who’s subject. And you’re taken off the menu. So I think that’s the key. And that idea of building India’s autonomy and role in the world, I think that’s an idea which, we need to stick to even in hard times like today. And we shouldn’t forget the basics. We need to keep our eye on the ball, rather than getting distracted by sideshows and other things. But, as I said, I can’t speak for this government. I don’t know how they work, how differently. But for me that was an education to watch [Manmohan Singh]. You would say, “Oh but that’s very professorial.” Yes, but the world is run by ideas ultimately.

I agree and the ideals…

Very important.

I know you have been very much involved with the Indian diaspora. What do you think the Indian diaspora can do to help India achieve its fullest potential, in furthering India’s interests in the United States? They could be a wider resource in health care, in innovations, entrepreneurship, philanthropy, education and skills development, and also creating new company and creating new jobs. How do you motivate people to be involved, to be engaged with India, to help India achieve its fullest potential?

Actually took the word from my mouth. Because I’ve been telling all my friends that what we need for India and the U.S. together is to actually be working on things like doing another Green Revolution, or at least changing the way we handle our farm produce, bring it to market, and basically modernize agriculture. Education is something where we have so much in common, where we can actually do so. There’s a whole host of things, science and technology, etc. For me the perfect bridge is the community, the Diaspora.

You know the first time I went to the U.S., in 1962, there were about 12 000 Indians. That’s it.

There is a lot more now!

Yeah, 4 million. So this is a huge resource for both countries. I think it’s also good for the diaspora to actually form that kind of bridge, and to encourage that kind of interaction between India and the U.S. because it has… for foreign policy, it has immediate impact, obviously. It’s a force multiplier for both countries. But it’s more than that. It also provides a bridge for other people like you; don’t forget where we all came from. Most of us are what two generations, one generation away from a village. And I think we owe it to the others. I would appeal to the community, to the diaspora; let’s broaden the relationship between India and the U.S. Let’s make this our job now.

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