GP and the World

(GP Birth Centenary Year Lecture, IIC, 18 November 2013)

Shivshankar Menon, National Security Advisor, India

Shri Natwar Singh, Co-Chairman National Committee,
Shri MK Rasgotra, Co-Chairman,
Shri Ashok Parthasarathi,
Ladies and Gentlemen.

Thank you for asking me to deliver the third lecture commemorating the birth centenary of Gopalaswami Parthasarathi, or GP. It is an honour to be asked to speak in memory of one of India’s most influential diplomatists and negotiators, whose career spanned the formative decades from the fifties to the mid-eighties.

Over an extended period, and especially in the Indira Gandhi years, GP was a formative influence upon India’s foreign policy. He served in critical positions at crucial times as Ambassador to China, Pakistan, Indonesia, PR to the UN in New York, member of the International Control Commission in Cambodia and Vietnam and Chairman Policy Planning Committee in MEA. But there was more to his contribution than the posts he held. He was one of a generation of progressive nationalists who saw India’s external and internal policies as interdependent. Hence his seminal contributions on the issues that cross that line such as Kashmir, Mizoram, and the Sri Lankan Tamil issue.

GP was also a man of many parts. He played cricket for India in 1931, and was subsequently described by a friend as ‘a one-day player in an age of tests’. Later, as the first Vice Chancellor of JNU he had an opportunity to implement and institutionalise his progressive beliefs.

There is no question that the world has changed considerably and moved on since GP’s time. And we have since built upon the foundations that GP’s generation laid for India’s foreign policy engagements, taking forward and extending the outcomes that they created in a world that is no longer bipolar or dominated by a Cold War.

Two things struck me when looking back at the foreign policy legacy left by the founding generation that included GP.

For one, many of the fundamental approaches that GP and his generation articulated for our external policies are still valid, with adjustments for present circumstances. The other is the strength of the elements of continuity in the practice of Indian foreign policy and the working of the Indian foreign policy apparat. Let me elaborate.

The Fundamentals

What do I mean by the continuing relevance of the fundamentals of our external policies?

For the generation which struggled for and won independence it was instinctive and axiomatic that India would stay away from Cold War alliances and be non-aligned. To them it was self evident that no external alliance system would prioritise India’s interests, that India’s condition and interests were unique, and that staying outside alliances served India’s interests best. They had not fought for independence in order to play second fiddle in someone else’s orchestra. They were therefore emotionally and rationally committed to a non-aligned policy, if not necessarily to a non-aligned movement.

What about today? There has been some debate on whether non-alignment is still relevant in today’s circumstances. It is still hard to see an alliance with any power or group of powers as being the best way to further India’s interests. What has also not changed is that leaders of alliances still find the very term non-alignment offensive, since it questions the utility and legitimacy of their alliances. But the fact is that more and more states are today no longer aligned in practical policy. Naturally, a non-aligned policy in a world tending to multipolarity is differently expressed in practice, as a quest for strategic autonomy rather than in solidarity, a movement or a united front. But the fundamentals of judging each issue on its merits and by its effects on India’s interests remain as valid today as they were in GP’s time.

So too are the other fundamentals of policy that they stressed: the quest for good relations with all the major powers; the attempt to ensure a peaceful periphery and to avoid external entanglements in order to concentrate on India’s transformation; the primary focus on Asia and Asian developments; an early reliance on omni-directional economic diplomacy and multilateralism; a willingness to use force for just and defined political purposes; and, a unique attempt to reconcile values and interests. If anything, we do more South-South cooperation today than ever before, though the rhetoric may not be the same.

It says something about the foundations laid for our foreign policy by that generation under Nehru’s leadership that these fundamentals are still valid today. It shows that they built on a sound appreciation of what Nehru used to call India’s enlightened self interest. So long as we are a developing country that needs to concentrate on our internal transformation and avoid external entanglements these fundamentals are likely to remain valid.


Looking back at previous Indian practitioners of diplomacy they fall at different points on the spectrum between ideologues and doers, between theoreticians and negotiators. The former, like PN Haksar, for instance, had a very strong world view. The latter, like Brajesh Mishra, were masters of negotiation and of seizing the moment. JN Dixit probably fell in the centre of that spectrum. They all shared a strong patriotic sense of India’s destined greatness and were good articulators of policy. GP’s strength was less in the theory of international relations than in the practice of diplomacy and negotiations at which he excelled. He was much less ideological than many of his contemporaries.

It is not very widely remembered that he played an important role in initiatives to build closer ties with the USA. The first was at PM Nehru’s initiative with President Kennedy in 1963 on IndoChina as President Kennedy sought a way out of what he saw as an impending debilitating conflict in Vietnam. The other was the work he did for Mrs Indira Gandhi’s pathbreaking visit to Washington at President Reagan’s invitation after the Cancun summit in the early eighties.

GP brought the same pragmatic and non-ideological approach to his dealings with Sri Lanka in the eighties. As he sought a solution to the Sri Lankan Tamil problem he was essentially conservative, seeking ways to maintain the unity of Sri Lanka while accommodating the Sri Lankan Tamil desire for a greater say in their own destiny. GP did not see these as contradictory, and thought they could be reconciled through political arrangements in Sri Lanka, with Indian support to the process. His painstaking multi-sided negotiations, with Sri Lankan Tamil groups, with the Sri Lankan government, in Colombo, in Chennai and in Delhi are an object lesson on how to conduct complex negotiations. Although never formally concluded they were the essential basis for the India-SriLanka Agreement of 1987. Fifteen years later his negotiations were still being cited as an example to me in Colombo by both the Sri Lankan government and SL Tamil groups. And twenty five years later it is the solutions that they threw up which still offer a credible and lasting way to political reconciliation and devolution in Sri Lanka.

It was with the same pragmatic attention to detail that he negotiated the accord with Sheikh Abdullah in 1975 which has stood the test of time.

But for me the outstanding example of his pragmatism was his ability to suggest initiatives in our China policy in the seventies and eighties, despite the deep disappointments of his tenure as Ambassador to China from 1958 to 1961, when the relationship deteriorated on his watch to its nadir of conflict in 1962. In 1976 GP argued for a resumption of Ambassadorial relations with China leading to KR Narayanan carrying GP’s letters of recall to China fifteen years after he had left Peking.

Equally significant was GP’s 1982 conversation with Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping when he returned to Beijing as head of an Indian Council of Social Science Research delegation. That was the conversation when Deng proposed a package solution to the boundary which could have meant accepting India’s position in the East and China’s in the West, with minor adjustments. Instead of reiterating the formal position and rejecting the idea GP left the issue open, wanting, no doubt, to consult the government at home. As it happened this initiative was not followed through. On his return to Delhi GP pressed for officials talks on the boundary to explore the possibilities of a settlement.

I had personal experience of his approach when negotiating the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement with China in 1992-3. When that negotiation with China entered into substance in late 1992 Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao wanted GP to be among those we consulted as we negotiated. Every time we spoke in his Lodhi Estate garden I was struck by the care and detail of his constructive suggestions to take the negotiation forward. (Oddly for an ex-journalist, he would never put pen to paper, only indicating the changes he desired, leaving it to you to find the words.) As he urged us on in those negotiations, he was acutely aware of the changing international environment and saw the agreement as important to increasing our diplomatic options and room for manoeuvre.
Diplomatic Style

Which brings me to the issue of consistency in the way in which we Indians have sought to implement our external policies.

Since independence India has been an independent actor on the international stage with a role and diplomatic style and personality all our own. Let me mention some of the ways in which this is so.

1. For one, we have practiced the most frugal diplomacy that I know. We expect a small band of professional diplomats with minimum means to deliver all and more that much larger, better equipped and well funded foreign services do. Judged by international standards we have delivered. But as India’s interests abroad expand it will no longer be possible to improvise and extemporise with what little we have.
2. We are also economical in our foreign entanglements but not engagements. We have so far resisted siren calls for us to do what others want us to, in the name of being “responsible” or “stepping up to the plate”. This shows an acute awareness on our part, but not others, of the extent and limits of India’s power and its potential uses, and a clear prioritisation between our goals and interests.
3. We seem to use multilateralism for our values and bilateralism for our interests. We were among the first and most persistent to raise decolonisation issues, apartheid in South Africa, and nuclear disarmament in the UN. In the early years of the UN India played a pivotal role in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other fundamental human rights conventions and covenants. And India has been a major contributor to UN peacekeeping operations. But our experience of the UN’s reactions to Pakistani aggression in Kashmir and the genocide in East Pakistan in 1971 taught us to rely on our own resources when it came to defending our core interests.
4. India has shown a willingness to use force for clearly defined political ends when the cause is just, once it is clear that diplomacy’s potential is exhausted, as in Goa, Hyderabad, 1947-8, 1971, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
5. In the choice between the imperatives of domestic politics and the demands of external engagement we have normally struck a balance which has stood the test of time. GP knew this well having negotiated the accord with Sheikh Abdullah and negotiated with Sri Lanka on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue.
6. Others tell us that the articulation of our policies is normative, moralistic and academic, even in explaining acts of real politik. We have even been called preachy! This has not changed much over time and may be a continuing cultural trait.

All in all, our diplomatic engagement has been marked by circumspection, which may not be what this age of 24X7 media and celebrity culture demands, but judged by outcomes it has served us well. And I daresay that GP would have approved of the modesty and patience that have marked Indian diplomacy so far, for they were two qualities that he displayed in considerable measure. And, as in GP’s own life, they have resulted in India making quiet but substantive contributions to the world in many ways. But that is another lecture for another day.

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