According to its blurb, former US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott’s book ‘Engaging India: Democracy, Diplomacy and the Bomb’ is a “racy read, the James Hadley Chase of diplomacy”. It is certainly a welcome departure from the dreariness and self-importance of the average political memoir.
‘Engaging India’ is primarily a serious examination of the role political bickering among and within countries has played in allowing nuclear proliferation to continue as well as the changing face of Indo-US ties. And despite the nod to India in its title and indeed, the amount of canvas that country and its former External Affairs Minister, Jaswant Singh (featured on the cover) occupy in the book, what emerges is a short history of the role nuclear arms have played in international politics especially in South Asia. Along the way, Mr. Talbott, a member of the Clinton Administration and one-time foreign affairs correspondent covering the Soviet Union for Time Magazine, has written a book much on the same lines as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s expressed view that actions in one part of the world cannot fail to affect events in another part of the globe.
Throughout the book, Mr. Talbott traces the evolution of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and their impact on South Asia, the United States and the Cold War alongside the fascinating character sketches of somewhat sinister politicians who hold the fate of millions in their palm. Simultaneously he is able to concisely explain the historical compulsions of each state and politician.
But one of the charms of this book is that no one escapes unscathed – Mr. Talbott turns a jaundiced eye on the Republicans in the US Senate who sabotaged the CTBT for nothing better (he says) than political one-upmanship; he is by turns exasperated and wary of the distinctly Machiavellian Indians and their right-wing, Hindu nationalist BJP-led government, with which the Americans had to co-exist perforce thanks to the “mystery bordering on a miracle” of Indian democracy; and he is annoyed and alarmed by the Pakistanis (one diplomat leaps across a table with hands extended in an attempt to strangle Mr. Talbott) and their country’s fragile political stability.
Almost gossipy and very informative, he covers a lot of neutral ground in this slim volume but there are bound to be those who will accuse Mr. Talbott of “tilting”, much like he explains the Cold War US attitude towards Pakistan, in India’s favor. This will no doubt be fuelled by the unhidden affection Mr. Talbott expresses for Mr. Singh, his Indian counterpart, in whom he is convinced he finds a statesman and an intellectual albeit one who occasionally appears quite Sphinx-like and whose personal political beliefs (the doctrine of Hindutva) continue to worry him to the end. However, he is impressed by Mr. Singh’s unflappable presentation, his team of experienced colleagues, his felicity of rhetoric and his personal demeanor. On the other hand, he finds the Pakistani side in a chaotic free fall, violent and unstable and doesn’t mince his words about it. The only exception to this being Riaz Muhammad Khan, later appointed Ambassador to India.
His personal equation with Mr. Singh apart, Mr. Talbott finds plenty to disquiet him on either side of the border. If Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is portrayed as a political cipher whose diplomatic strategy is likened to that of a mugger “who was holding a pistol to his head and threatening to blow his brains out if you didn’t hand over your wallet”, Indian Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani is an ominous figure dwelling fondly on the thought of the day when India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar would be “re-united in a South Asian federation” – but obviously under Indian hegemony.
This reviewer, however, was particularly interested in the occasional glimpses of major figures in South Asia today – terror mastermind Osama bin Laden, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam, Congress leader Mrs. Sonia Gandhi and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – during the period of Mr. Talbott’s tenure in the Clinton Administration. In sharp contrast to President Clinton’s lackluster accounts in his much less entertaining ‘My Life’, Mr. Talbott’s version of these meetings is instructive, juicy and takes great pains with subtext as he weaves them into his narrative in a fashion that shed new light on the actions of these people today.
For example, according to newspaper reports India’s External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh hinted last week, while in South Korea, that India’s decision to become an acknowledged nuclear power might have been both hasty and unnecessary. An outraged Opposition, which had engineered said decision demanded an explanation from the Government. The Prime Minister, who in 1998 had paid impassive attention to Mr. Talbott’s entreaties to Mrs. Gandhi (then leader of India’s Opposition) to support the CTBT, hastily disowned his External Affairs Minister’s purported remarks. At the front of this attack was Mr. Talbott’s greatest Indian ally in the fight to ratify the CTBT, Jaswant Singh. Later on in the book, on a grimmer note we learn that among the three guerillas India was forced to release in exchange for the lives of one hundred and fifty five people held hostage aboard their hijacked Indian Airlines plane in 1999 were Maulana Masood Azhar and Omar Sheikh, head of the Pakistan based Jaish-e-Mohammad and the killer of Daniel Pearl respectively. This is politics, both domestic and international, at its most cutthroat.
In the end, ‘Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb’ is a must read for those interested in South Asia and nuclear diplomacy not just because of its sheer readability but because it is an honest effort to look at diplomacy, democracy and the bomb outside the set limits of Mr. Talbott’s role as a former American administrator. And in the process he provides us with more than 200 of the most entertaining pages on recent world history.
originally published at Chowk.com 2005, and in slightly altered form, Desicritics.org/Blogcritics.org 2006