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Indian PMs and the art of not learning from the past

Rajiv Dogra’s new book takes a deep, perceptive look at the role played by Prime Ministers in shaping India’s foreign affairs. The author, however, could have written more on the maverick P.V. Narasimha Rao, says Utpal Kumar.

Utpal Kumar

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P.V. Narasimha Rao with Manmohan Singh.
India’s World: How Prime
Ministers Shaped Foreign Policy
Rajiv Dogra
Rupa, Rs 349

Among Indian diplomats, writing on Pakistan, Ambassador Rajiv Dogra invariably shines with his categorical assessment of what has become “a criminal enterprise” for India and the world. He is upfront and unapologetic without ever being flippant. Reading his books, especially on Pakistan (Where Borders Bleed: An Insider’s Account of Indo-Pak Relations is a case in point), one often gets the feeling of reading the work by a diplomat and a historian combined in one.

So, when Dogra comes out with a new book, India’s World: How Prime Ministers Shaped Foreign Policy, it instantly draws attention. And it doesn’t disappoint a bit. It is a fast-paced account of the eight prominent Prime Ministers of India, out of the total 14. One only wished he had delved more deeply on P.V. Narasimha Rao, about whom he himself writes: “If Jawaharlal Nehru ‘discovered’ India, and if Indira Gandhi made it ‘proud’, Narasimha Rao ‘transformed’ it.” Giving just 10 pages to this utterly neglected Prime Minister who single-handedly, and without proper majority in Parliament, transformed not just Indian economy but also foreign policy, seemed out of place. In contrast, Rajiv Gandhi, who seemed bright and made a few good amends but delivered very few tangible gains in global affairs, gets almost double the space.

Given the author’s love for history, it’s not surprising to see him devote the maximum number of pages to Jawaharlal Nehru, and rightly so. For, either via his contributions or through his follies, he shaped India’s destiny in many ways. So much so that even after seven decades of Independence, the Nehruvian edifice continues to survive, though in a crumbling shape especially since 2014.

 Dogra begins the book by telling how India and Indians were left to fend for themselves while the financially generous Marshall Plan by the US was available to rejuvenate Europe. “India made a virtue of its misery by terming it self-reliance,” the author writes. But as events suggest, the fault primarily lied with the Indian leadership who pushed idealism at the cost of pragmatism. Nothing can be more ironical, especially in the land of Kautilya who had over two millennia ago “propounded the concept of saam (advice or cajole), daam (pay or bribe), dand (punish), and bhed (exploit secrets) as the policies to be followed, as per need, by a ruler. Indians, especially in the Nehruvian times, never really went beyond the first option, and very rarely used the second. What else can explain India’s decision — or rather Nehru’s unilateral decision, as Dogra asks in the book — abdicating the UN Security Council seat for its “brother” China, which returned the favour in 1962 – and is still doing so in the Galwan Valley? It is this kind of idealistic posturing that put off even J.F. Kennedy, who was an admirer of Nehru till the Indian PM visited the US in 1961. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr writes in his book A Thousand Days, “Reminiscing about the meeting, Kennedy described it to me as ‘a disaster — the worst head-of-state visit I have had’.”

 Even internally, Nehru had disappointed many, including his friends. The author quotes Maulana Azad, writing in his memoirs quite apologetically, about supporting Nehru for the post of the Prime Minister. “I acted according to my best judgment but the way things have shaped since then have made me realise that this was perhaps the greatest blunder of my political life… (It was a great mistake that) I did not support Sardar Patel…”

 But to be fair to Nehru, he worked on a clean slate. He had no precedent to rely on. Which can explain his mistakes on Kashmir, China, et al. But what about India giving Pakistan a bloody nose in 1971 in today’s Bangladesh but losing everything at Simla. Dogra asks very pertinent questions, “Why is it that we are generous with others to the extent of sacrificing our interests? Is it because by nature and tradition we hesitate to displease a visiting guest; that he must not leave resentfully or with an empty plate? Or, is it that, despite knowing of the policy misadventures of predecessors, every new Indian leader feels that he or she can write a new chapter on a clean slate?”

 I think it’s both. In the process, the Indian leaders lose both their own respect and the nation’s. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto got his 93,000 men as well as the territory captured by India, without giving anything, except soothing words said charmingly: “Aap mujh par bharosa keejiye (Please trust me).” Bhutto had no intention of fulfilling his promise. As he told a close political aide on his return to Pakistan, “I have made a fool of that woman.” Years later, Atal Bihari Vajpayee fell more or less into a similar trap vis-à-vis Nawaz Sharif and Gen Parvez Musharraf.

This is where current Prime Minister Narendra Modi scores over others. Yes, in the first few years of his first term, there were several overtures to Pakistan, but once he saw the outcomes, he mended his ways. There are still many holes in India’s Pakistan policy, if there’s one, but at least now we have started learning from mistakes, we have started reacting to Pakistani misadventures, we have started putting the accountability clause in the relationship. After all, didn’t the Indian leadership make a monkey of themselves by first claiming the whole of Kashmir through a parliamentary resolution in 1994, and then three years later, under PM I.K. Gujral making a move for composite dialogue? This is the last thing a government should do: To revert its publicly-stated stand without any reasonable ground.

The Modi government seems to be making amends to this trend of not learning from the past and being stupidly generous. For, one overwhelming characteristic of the Indian ruling class has been its reluctance — and failure — to learn from the past, thus being condemned to repeat the same mistakes again and again. For instance, Indira Gandhi should have realised much before inviting Bhutto that he was the man behind the 1965 India-Pakistan war. Writes Dogra, “On his own, Ayub was a cautious man; he was most reluctant to risk a war with India. But Bhutto talked him into it. The time was most opportune, Bhutto added, because India was badly shaken by its ‘humiliating’ defeat in the 1962 war with China. Moreover, after Nehru’s death, his successor Shastri was ineffectual… ‘It is now or never,’ Bhutto insisted.” And, Indira was being generous to this man!

Despite deep historical exploration, this book is primarily for the layman and the general reader. It will help understand where we, as a nation, went wrong and how. And like Dogra’s previous books, it’s simple, yet profound.

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Of blossoming hope & constructive work

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Usha Mishra Hayes, a career UN staffer, in her new book, Social Protection: Lands of Blossoming Hope, tries to give an insight into the positive impact that UN agencies like the World Food Programme (WPF), which was recently awarded the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize, and the UNICEF have on economically developing and socially fragile countries.

 Hayes, who has served with the WFP in Bangladesh and Ethiopia, and in several more with UNICEF, gives a peek into the workings of organisations that have rightly, through rather belatedly, been recognised for promoting world peace. The book is rather unusual in many ways. First, it talks about ‘hope’ — a rare perspective in today’s world which is full of grim news and increasing apathy and frustration. It presents the possibility of national reform by the UN and by zealous, committed UN staffers. Second, it provides an intimate insight into an otherwise obtuse world of the workings of the UN, in general, and the work of influencing policy, in particular. 

The book recounts the workings of governments and their interface with the UN with a breathtaking sweep — from the tropical plains of Bangladesh to the ocean-flanked scenic Tanzania, and from the stable, upcoming Cambodia to the fragile, exploding Afghanistan. These countries have been brought to life by the author with stories of how the governments considered bringing in policy to deal with the problems of street children, as in the case of Ethiopia, or when elections were used as an opportunity for creating positive news for the government while achieving important policy reforms on lagging issues, as was the case in Tanzania. Each country covers a different aspect of policymaking, making each chapter uniquely interesting and rich in insights, which are shared casually and effortlessly, without much ado. 

 Important alliances get formed among the World Bank, UNDP and UNICEF in a casual meeting by the residents’ swimming pool, as in Cambodia, and highranking secretaries’ break into open verbal warning, aiming to draw in UN officials, as in Afghanistan. The book shows how arriving at decisions regarding the scope and design of programmes for the poorest is often made in the UN offices, using extremely sophisticated analysis and planning tools. 

  The book is easy to read and leaves you asking for more when it ends. It also makes us wonder as to how much of policymaking in the developing countries is inspired by the Good Samaritans within the UN. Whether we are supporters or critics of this international entity, one cannot but acknowledge that the UN does provide free, high-quality technical expertise for many countries that will find it difficult otherwise to mobilise such talent. This book recounts some of the deft ways in which this expertise aligns with or challenges the national policy agendas to make it more pro-poor. It is a book of hope and a constructive take on international efforts at addressing some chronic national challenges.

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It’s never too late to start writing: Jigs Ashar

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Treating voracious readers who love being kept on the edge through a host of fascinating tales, award-winning and India’s bestselling storyteller Ravi Subramanian launched a series of mystery-driven short novels titled Shortz. The book series will see Subramanian collaborate with a variety of esteemed authors from the thriller and suspense genre. For those avid bibliophiles of fiction and action, the book series will consist of 20 short and pacey thrillers that are sure to leave them wanting more. As part of the book series, the first two thrillers, Insomnia and A Brutal Hand (Westland) respectively, have been co-authored with Jigs Ashar, a banker-turned-consultant. Excerpts from a candid conversation with Jigs Ashar:

 Q. How do you juggle the two worlds— writing and banking? 

A. There comes a time when one has to pause and think how to balance work with things you really want to do — what you love. Work is a part of my life, and an important one at that; but sometimes we let work become our only life. I have consciously tried to change that over the last few years. I took up running and now am an avid marathoner. I play the guitar. And of course, have taken to writing quite passionately since 2017. 

Q. Why and how did writing happen?

 A. You know, a phrase that really resonates with me is, ‘You do not choose writing; writing chooses you.’ I was pursuing a part-time course on Creative Writing, and loved the process of writing. Around the same time, in September 2017, I read about the Times of India Write India Season 2 short story contest. Coincidently, the advertisement I saw had Jeffrey Archer — one of my favourites — as the judge for that month. Just the possibility that my story might be read by Archer was hugely exciting for me. That’s how I wrote my first thriller short story: The Wait is Killing. And to my absolute delight, I was one of the winners! In the same season, I submitted my second short story — Make(up) in India — and that, too, was a winner! This time around, the judge was Shobha De. The genre I explored with this story was humour. Later, in mid-2018, I also wrote another thriller short story called Duel, which was short-listed in the ‘Short Story of the Year – 2018’ by Juggernaut. And it’s been an amazing journey writing Insomnia and A Brutal Hand.

 Q. Why is writing thrillers so easy for bankers? 

A.Writing is not easy, especially thrillers. But it is an immensely enjoyable experience — developing the plot, the graph of the story, the conflicts, the characters, the dialogues, everything! I think thrillers as a genre has always fascinated me; and I try and write what I, as a reader, would like to read. I have grown up reading Agatha Christie, Jeffrey Archer, Frederick Forsyth — still do. As for bankers turning thriller writers, on a lighter note, one look at the newspapers and you will know that deriving inspiration for thrills and mystery is not difficult for a banker. 

Q. When do you find the time to write? 

A. One has to make the time for what one is passionate about. I can write anytime and anywhere. My way of writing is very structured. Once I finalise the plot in my head, I start writing a brief summary of each chapter — how does each chapter take the story forward, who are the characters that appear in the chapter, etc. I do this to ensure the flow of the story is clear and at the pace I have envisaged; and, also to ensure each character comes in at the right time to take the story forward. Once this is done, I start writing the manuscript. And if I am stuck at a point, there is nothing like a good run to clear your head. 

Q. Your experience of working with Ravi Subramanian. Did he interfere a lot in the plot?

 A. It has been an absolute pleasure collaborating with Ravi. It is a dream come true for a debut author to co-write not one, but two books, with one of India’s bestselling writers. In the last two-anda-half years, during which time we co-wrote Insomnia and A Brutal Hand, we had a lot of brain-storming sessions on the plots, characters, their back-stories, etc. We especially spent a lot of time discussing the finale of Insomnia. It has been a lot of fun and creatively, a very satisfying experience. Ravi has been very open and discussed possibilities, but never imposed any ideas, which made writing with him very enjoyable.

 Q. Any anecdotes you would like to share… 

A.Before I started writing, or even expressed a desire to write a book, my wife, Vidya, always believed that I could write a book. She is the one who actually planted this idea in my head. And in early 2017, she actually did a lot of research and almost forced me to enrol in the creative writing course. That was the first trigger that’s gotten me where I am. So, in a way, it’s thanks to her that I am here with you. Another incident — a funny one — is from the first day of my writing course. When I entered the classroom, it was filled with other students who were almost half my age. So, when I entered, they assumed I was the professor and greeted me, and were shocked when I went and sat down next to them. The message is, it’s never too late to start! 

Q. What’s next?

 A. Currently, I am writing a thriller novel, which is almost 70% complete. The working title is The Strike of the Serpent. It’s an international thriller, with an assassination plot at the core of the story. I also want to develop my award-winning short story, The Wait is Killing, into a full-fledged novel.

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Not truly an insider’s account

Delivering reforms is often not about ‘what’, but about ‘how’ and ‘when’.
Bimal Jalan, with considerable experience of working within the executive
and even within legislature, could have written more about the ‘how’.

Bibek Debroy

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“This book is being published after the Lok Sabha elections held in May 2019. The previous government has been re-elected for a second five-year term (2019-24) with a substantial majority… This is a relatively short list of agendas for the re-elected government.” 

Bimal Jalan is a respected economist. Having held several positions in government (Finance Secretary, Chief Economic Adviser, RBI Governor) and quasi-government (Chairman, Economic Advisory Council to PM; Chairman, Expenditure Management Commission), he is indeed a “government” economist, warranting use of the word “insider” in the sub-title. He also had a stint in Parliament, as a nominated MP. 

Post-1991, I can reel off names of half-a-dozen important books written by Bimal Jalan: India’s Economic Crisis, 1992; India’s Economic Policy, 2000; India’s Economy in the New Millennium, 2002; The Future of India, 2006; India’s Politics, 2008; and Emerging India, 2013. There were others, pre-1991 and edited. This book is on India, then and now, with eighteen essays classified under three heads of “The Decade of Industrialization”, “The Decade of Liberalization and Globalization” and “India in the Twenty-First Century”, with six essays under each head. “Then” implies historical and is subject to interpretation. One definition of “then” might be that “then” means pre-1991 and “now” is anything that came after 1991.

 A couple of decades ago, that might have been an acceptable interpretation. But the 1991 reforms occurred almost thirty years ago. An alternative interpretation, one that Bimal Jalan implicitly seems to have adopted is that “then” means the 20th century and “now” means the 21st. At least, that is how the essays have been classified. For the twelve essays under the first two heads, everything said in this book has been stated in a much better way by Bimal Jalan himself, in the earlier books I listed. What’s the utility of revisiting the themes again, though, with the passage of time, one might have a slightly different perspective? The answer is given in the Preface. “As a witness of India’s economic trajectory through the decades, I decided to put together for the readers my writings that reflect how India has progressed since Independence to the present times. In doing so, I was principally guided by two considerations: the first was to cover different subject areas that may be of interest to the general reader in addition to experts in economics, politics and administration.” In other words, the target audience is different, perhaps one that is unlikely to have read his earlier books.

 The third head is different and has six essays on exchange rates, the role of Parliament, ethics of banking, politics and governance, a prosperity template and a future agenda of reforms. (Those aren’t exact titles of the essays. I have paraphrased them.) These themes remain topical. But the question to ask is: When was this book completed? As the quote at the beginning illustrates, the manuscript was certainly completed in 2019, perhaps even in 2018. This is a dilemma several authors and publishers have faced and continue to face. Covid-19 has made publications schedules go haywire, with few books published in calendar year 2020 and many publications postponed. This raises a couple of problems. One, the book doesn’t recognise and factor in government initiatives since May 2019. Two, with Bimal Jalan’s experience and expertise, one would have liked essays on — indirect tax reform (read GST), Union-State fiscal relations (read Finance Commission), government expenditure management and fiscal policy and health sector issues (broader than Covid-19 alone). Reading a book published towards the end of 2020, with no mention of these issues, leaves one dissatisfied.

 If one is especially interested in the “now”, the relevant essay is the last one, titled, “The Future is Ours”. In the various agenda items, we have, “It is also desirable to reduce the political powers of ministers and their vested interests in the allocation of public resources… In practice there has been substantial erosion in the ability of Parliament/ legislatures to hold ministers responsible, either collectively or individually, for the decisions taken by them on behalf of their ministries… Similar autonomous institutions should be created for the allocation of all valuable national resources, including oil and gas. The government, even at the highest level, should refrain from giving directions to such institutions… 

A further measure for the greater empowerment of civil service personnel, while reducing their number over time, is to reform the procedure for launching vigilance inquiries and the number of agencies involved in such investigations… The basic issue that needs to be tackled to improve the morale of civil servants is that of the ‘separation of powers’ within the executive — between ministers and civil servants — in so far as postings, transfers, promotions and other similar administrative matters are concerned… In order to reduce the present built-in incentive for the fragmentation of parties and to improve governance in the future, it is of utmost importance that the anti-defection law be made applicable to all parties and the so-called independent members who choose to join a government in power… Over time, the number of ministries and departments involved in regulating almost all segments of the economy, society, foreign affairs, defence and border security have expanded enormously.” 

Bimal Jalan has considerable experience of working within the executive and even within legislature. Delivering reforms is often not about “what”, but about “how” and “when”. There is a political economy of reform and a political economy of resistance. All reforms are fundamentally grounded not only in the executive, but also in the legislature and the judiciary. There won’t be substantial disagreement with the statements just mentioned (within quotes). Why has it been so difficult to bring about change? How was it managed in 1991, when some change was actually introduced? Bimal Jalan is no ordinary academic economist. He has been a practitioner. Yet, in all his books, including the present one, he has been reticent about the toolkit for reforms. There are others who can write about the template, not too many who can write about the “how”. 

Bibek Debroy is the Chairman of the PM’s Economic Council.

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Gangster on the Run: The True Story of a Reformed Criminal

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Puja Changoiwala HarperCollins India, Rs 399

This is the extraordinary story of a hitman who became a de-addiction counselor and outran his demons. Rahul Jadhav took the name Bhiku from ‘Satya’, a gangster who was everything he once wanted to be. Capturing his don’s attention as a tech-literate criminal, running his extortion ring over Skype, Rahul found himself shouting threats down the barrel of his gun and became one of the most wanted gangsters of his time. He was arrested in 2007, dealt with drug abuse and went into a near schizophrenic state. Today, he is an ultra-marathoner who has covered nearly 10,000 km.

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Extraordinary: 51 Surprisingly Simple Ways to Get Extraordinary Results

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Ketan Krishna Notion Press, Rs 375

Extraordinary’ is about the author’s experiences in the form of short stories about how ordinary people with eXtraordinary dreams get eXtraordinary results. This book is for people who deep inside have committed to becoming a better version of themselves. The book aims at providing personalised learning to each reader. If you are looking at inspirations, and nudges to help find answers for yourself, this is the book. It has the author’s points of view and his version of the truth. The author believes in action, so this book will be effective if you work on the action section crafted at the end of each chapter.

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Tales from the Himalayas

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Priyanka Pradhan Rupa Publications, Rs 295

Award-winning author Priyanka Pradhan takes you on a journey into the Himalayas through her stories. You will find tales of snow leopards and mountain ghouls, bagpiping girls and itchy herbs, and stories even as old as 500 years! See the beautiful state of Uttarakhand, resplendent in its colourful customs and traditional costumes, taste the sweet-sour wild berries, feel the chilly autumn wind on your skin and smell the musky pine forests, in seventeen stories. Welcome to the mountains. She is the recipient of the ‘Ruskin Bond Promising Writer Award 2019’ at the Dehradun Literature Festival, held in October 2019.

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