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Book Review: Does The Elephant Dance – David Malone

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Reviewed By – Prasoon Kaushik


Does The Elephant Dance –Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy

David M Malone, Oxford University Press



These days when a credit card and e-bay can get you almost anything any place, it is unusual not less, to make half a dozen calls to all leading book stores in Delhi and listen to a polite “no” and travel from Ghaziabad to Connaught Place just to get a copy of an Indian edition of a book, which by all gauges remains most acclaimed but on all e-portals remain unavailable. Finally Jain Book Agency, B-Block, CP had a copy.

As a reader who reads any hardened pulp with ink over it, it was quite [interesting] to learn a Canadian career diplomat penning one of the most acclaimed books on Indian foreign policy. Interesting, first because “the great Indian socialism” even in the hard-headed issues of foreign policy remains an elitist fashion for the Indian intellectuals and a prescription from a diplomat of one of the world’s epitome of capitalism would surely have raised eye brows. And second because David Malone, the author of Does the Elephant Dance? Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy, then the High Commissioner of Canada to India was not allowed to visit the JNU, New Delhi, on the count that his ideas might adulterate Communism of the campus. Two reasons were enough to fire the belly of those ‘keedas’ in my mind, which in every sense had a sumptuous diet- this book.

Foreign policy usually doesn’t interest a non political-science student or one who has no interest in International Relations. But this book begins with a fantastic opening. Beyond all barriers Malone has proved his abilities in understanding of Indian history that has shaped present day India’s external affair intends. But history again is controversial, what one says can be countered by other, at least all that that has no dates. The author has given sound reasoning, though limited for a serious reader who would expect more of it, for most of the historical facts and transits smoothly from history to modern day arts and science of external affairs. A start without surfing randomly through the book and giving the fact a back seat that this is an IR book may illude one to take this book as a book on history. The book disapproves this with legitimacy. A description on India from a foreigner has always been fascinating. Throughout the book I had this idea floating that why some of the best works on India come out from the pens of no sons of the soil. (The Wonder That Was India by A L Basham. The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple.)

Trenchantly concluding his words on contemporary security challenges of India in third chapter of the book, the author writes “economic growth alone will not solve all of India’s problems. While continuing to remain a useful international calling card, it will not alone secure much greater power status, which will remain a priority for India’s security establishment, unhappy with the predominance of economic themes in discourse of the Union Government.” The writer being a diplomat has thoroughly been selective about meshing the words together, but his sharp and clear comments on India’s domestic issues will resonate with any Indian having nurtured any school of thought.

The book has been organized in twelve chapters, with major regions of world important for Indian diplomacy finding a dedicated chapter each. On China, that remains more domestic to India and Indians than anything else and perceived a global threat (at least presented so by the Indian media) is claimed to pursue ‘peaceful rise’ policy in region by the author. ‘A lot depends internationally on the ability of these ‘two tigers to share the same mountain’’ concludes Malone while rejecting any possibility of outright war between the two nation-states. This chapter remained a favourite and shall get me back to it time and again. With no signs of any glitchy diplomatic terminology the issues have been diagnosed and dissected with honesty. Historical perspective and contemporary issues have been explained well. Anyone with a general interest will find it an informative essay.

The pragmatism of author has shined in his work on India-USA relations. The crest and troughs of the relation between two giants have been analysed with a new perspective against the usual odd and cynical hype treatment of USA by Indian intelligentsia. The powerful most sentence of the book goes as, “the entente between the two nations is not much an alliance as a ‘selective partnership’ based on specific shared interests in some areas and quid pro quo arrangements in others, all underscored by strong economic interdependence……to predicate long-term strategies excessively on systematic cooperation would be hazardous for both countries.” The specifics of Europe and Russia, Central Asia, West Asia, East and South East Asia and hints on Afghanistan are detailed in specific chapters. Any informed reader will find some new facts and opinion on these.

The writer’s powerful background in diplomacy has presumably helped him pen some exciting and bold information. The book presents useful data in forms of tables and statistical graphs sourced from various Indian and international sources. A data based approach to justify his thoughts shall bear imprints on a reader’s mind and can be useful for any further presentation. Writings on West Asia are small but informative.

The power packed reading brought punches in the final essay titled “Conclusions” (chapter 12). Pakistan and China issue has been re-dealt after the opening chapters. Writes the author, “Nevertheless, in the complex geostrategic games afoot in Asia, the China-Pakistan alliance is likely to endure, while China also mostly accommodates India’s rise”. Writer also has his own solutions for Kashmir and readers may have some fodder material on issues of multilateralism, CTBT, non-proliferation, Indian diaspora and Indian economy. Sympathies have also poured in for Indian Foreign Servants and policy makers along with honest criticism of organizational structure of Indian foreign affairs making.

However, nothing is perfect and at times readers may find the treatment of issues a bit right wing biased. Skepticism on India’s sustained rise may appear unfair. An inquisitive mind will also search for broader discussion on Afghanistan and Western Asia as the region remains most dynamic and present attention of globe. Multilateral institutions could also have been discussed in details and Latin America has found only negligible mention. But as a reader I have to say that this book is no text-book. This book is a work of observations by a diplomat. The aforesaid things remain little holes that can be supplemented reading news papers. History, geography, economics and behavior have been coupled to present New Delhi’s stance on world. Mr.Malone has extensively quoted Indian experts throughout the book. From Kautilya to Nehru and Kanti Bajpai, former diplomat to C Rajamohan  of The Observer Research Foundation, every known figure has been quoted. It shows his respect for the Indian perspectives on issues that are sensibly Indian issues first. And Shashi Tharoor has extensively borrowed from Malone in his work Pax Indica.

Notes to pages in the essays are compiled at end followed by a bibliography (page no. 304-410). An ignited mind can surely have a research source for foreign policy in this extremely helpful list of sources.

A wonderful read indeed.