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A Conversation with the Former Foreign Secretary and National Security Advisor to India, Mr Shivshankar Menon

 As published in the Volume 1, Number 2 of Ramjas Political Review

An edited transcript of the interview as taken on December 6th, 2023 is as follows:

PS (abbreviation for Prem Ansh Sinha): Mr Menon, the Agnipath scheme brought up some really interesting issues in the context of India-Nepal relationship that could add China to a position of advantage. Kathmandu had expressed its disapproval about the scheme. When the Nepali soldiers, and most of them being the Gurkhas, would retire after their 3.5 year tenure, they would not be receiving any pension nor would they be able to benefit from the other sorts of government of India jobs.

My first question, with respect to this is:

a) what in that case would stop the retired soldiers with proper military training from joining the Maoist insurgency groups? What’s your take on this, sir?

SM: Well, you know we need to separate two things: one is our doing the Agniveer scheme and its impact on our relationship with Nepal, and second is the second order effect of the same on Sino-Nepal relations and Maoist insurgency in Nepal. Under Nepalese law, citizens can serve for either the Indian Army or the British Army. Over two million Nepalese people are dependent on Indian recruitment. The repercussions of the same can be seen in the drop in the number of applicants for getting into the Indian army. Furthermore, ten Nepalese have been killed while fighting in the Russia-Ukraine war which is illegal as per law. Also, this will result in loss of a pool of friends in Nepal that will have a bad effect on our relationship. Lastly, this issue has the potential of incorporating changes in Indo-China relations.

PS: With China's eagerness to recruit the Gurkhas in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), what does it mean for India?

SM: Well, there is no proof and no eagerness on part of the PLA to recruit Gurkhas to their fold. The PLA has a completely different military culture that exports personnel to security companies across the globe and is an instrument of the party. As far as my opinion is concerned, countering China is of no interest to India. India’s interest lies in building a good relationship with neighbours. Countering China is like throwing a baby out of the bath water that will harm India’s interest. China’s interest is in making India and her partners fight out themselves. Indeed, China is on a driving seat in the relationship, but chasing India’s interests should be of utmost priority.

PS: How appropriate do you think this hypothesis is that if a country has prior friendly relations with India, and is trying to establish an amicable bond with China - the decision is not in favour of India? To put it clearly, if a small nation state in the Indian Ocean wants to pursue friendly relations with China while not disrupting its prior relations with India, should India try to talk them through it? For instance, let’s take the case of Maldives.

SM: Well, once again I would like to reiterate this fact that our job should be and must be to further India’s interest. India’s bigger interest lies in a peaceful periphery and our neighbours who will help us in boosting peace, prosperity, and security in the region. Since our neighbours are also sovereign states, their sovereignty must be respected and India should act as a provider of stability. India should build and flourish its relationship with neighbours through commonalities in history, culture, and tradition. Lesson for India is to make itself a better partner.

PS: A recent article on the Indian Express reads, "The National Council Secretariat is in the process of bringing in a National Security Strategy (NSS).” There is no official notice about it, but we have seen your vocal stand for the same. There are criticisms in the USA for their NSS, that a) it is not actually a strategy, which is a guide for choosing among options, but a list of objectives and deadlines. Strategy by definition says that some things are more important than the others and not all nice things go together; b) strategy documents overgeneralize. What do you think of it and why is it required? When can we expect India’s NSS?

SM: Well, any public document which covers sensitive issues like a National Security Strategy will have its own share of limitations. The strategy serves a three-fold purpose. Firstly, it will provide the priorities of the government in power. Secondly, the public will get a glimpse of what is going to be the course of action to be followed by the government in the domain of security. Thirdly, strategy is placed against realities and is not futuristic. Furthermore, any such strategy will omit a level of detail due to it being made public and will get supplemented by the National Defence Strategy (NDS), National Foreign Policy Strategy (NFPS), and other confidential documents that will be kept out of public domain. NSS will have to be a generalisation and accuracy of the same should not be expected since it will be based on certain assumptions with ascribed probabilities. Lastly, strategy has an ends and means problem that is driven by goals, means and situations. Goals are long-term, means change slowly because it takes time to build national strength and situations are the most dynamic of the three that makes or breaks any strategy. There are three reasons for building NSS. Firstly, as put by Robert Gates (Former Defence Secretary of the United States), NSS is built for an educative function. Secondly, NSS can be used to indicate policy shifts. Lastly, NSS is meant for dissuading your enemies. India’s NSS has been readied before as well with four drafts, but its release is subject to a political call to be taken by the government.

PS: What do you think India should have in mind about the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)? With around a hundred and fifty states benefiting from Chinese investments, why would any Southeast Asian Country want to side with India on any polarising policy issue?

SM: There is nothing for India to deal with respect to the Belt and Road Initiative. Most countries that are joining BRI are siding with their own interests since they are sovereign states. India has not joined BRI due to her own concerns that we have flagged. One of them being that the flagship programme under BRI is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which is buttressing Pakistan’s position in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) and is a Chinese transgression in the Indo-Pak status quo. But, BRI also carries a pro with it that projects done under its banner are commercially viable and usable by everybody. For example, Colombo Port developed under BRI has almost 80% of its trade to and from India. Lastly, Belt and Road also carries dependency with it which has led to many nations ending up in a debt trap after taking loans under BRI and even China has pulled back from investing more money into the initiative due to its financial inviability.

PS: All of us know how the sun never set on the British Empire, and within just a few decades, the territories gained through centuries were lost. Empires fall. A few weeks ago in London, Dr Jaishankar, said "the US is not in decline, it is in the process of reinventing itself.” Do you think the External Affairs Minister would have said the same if he were not holding the office? Several scholars believe that the USA is on a decline due to how white-collar jobs are not secure, the cities are not safe, the schools are failing, et cetera; and that China shall be the next USA. What is your idea of this situation?

SM: This question carries two parts. The first part deals with whether domestic factors can ruin a nation? Do you think the US was much better during the 1870s and 1880s which were the times of the Wild West?  Absolutely not, yet it was during this time that the US economy showed tremendous increase. Hence, in my opinion adjudging a country through its domestic factors is very dangerous while formulating your policy. Now, coming over to the second part. In my lifetime, the US has been written-off five times yet she bounced back. First was during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, second during the fall of Saigon in 1975, then during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the Dot Com Crash, and subsequently 9/11. However, the US has kept her share in the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the range of 25-30%. She is still the only superpower militarily with global reach. Furthermore, she is the primary source of innovation. Society is in the process of constant change, which brings its own chaos with it, but distribution of power within society does exist. She has been able to preempt a peer competitor. Conventional wisdom says that China will never be able to surpass the US in terms of per capita income (PCI). The US has demonstrated capability and can reinvent herself. The question of whether she can beat China is a question of our times which cannot be answered now.

PS: A few years ago, you had said that there are five types of Pakistan - the civil society, the business community, civilian politicians, military, and the jihadi elements, where you said that diplomacy and military alone cannot work. Can you please elaborate on this aspect?

SM: Well, of the five Pakistans, two are structurally inimical to India. One being the Pakistan military that has its institutional interest in having India as an enemy. Second is the Jihadi tanzeem that has ideological reasons to be anti-India. Other three are very much open towards India. The policy prerogative should be to make them stay neutral towards India, and then make them dependent towards having a stable Indo-Pak relationship. In my opinion, Pakistan is not a Westphalian state since it has no hard border, no constitutional order and does not clear any count of enjoying Westphalian tag. Hence, Pakistan is a brand new state and must be dealt with through the mechanism that I have just stated of treating her as existing in the form of five avatars. 

PS: A follow up on the same, how do you see the future of Pakistan will look like?

SM: The answer to this question is similar to that of the question on the US. Pakistan has been failing since its inception, but still will stay on as a nation state. The reasons for the same are that her neighbours want her to exist more than anyone across the globe. If Pakistan does not exist, Afghanistan will become a Pathan majority state that will be terribly threatening for other communities. The proposed Akhand Bharat will have 40% Muslim population. Iran will encounter a Balochistan problem. Hence, for all such reasons, Pakistan will stay on as a failed nation state. 

Siddhant Jain (Audience): Should we treat morality and national interests as binary opposites? Can we establish an equilibrium between the two while taking action and framing our policies?

SM: Well, they cannot be separated. Every Indian theorist from Kautilya onwards will tell you that the purpose of political power is dharma. You cannot separate morality from self-interest. But, you can define morality differently in accordance with your desires, because sheer power is not enough to make the state achieve what it wants to achieve. State in order to achieve its objectives needs to have the acquiescence of the public that is especially applicable for the state to have while conquering foreign territories. Political power needs to be legitimised by the use of any of the given three - ideology, charisma, or institutional framework. Legitimacy is the bedrock of ethics in politics and statecraft. Any state requires a sense of ethical justification for legitimising its behaviour. Hence, statecraft does pose serious ethical problems such as killing two people and getting hundred people saved or the other way around. Thus, a state can never have a purely amoral statecraft as is evident from Kautilya’s concept of yogakshema which implies that in the welfare of his subjects lies the welfare of the king. Hence, national interest and morality are inseparable since every decision made in national interest requires moral grounds.

PS: I would like to end our conversation with a question that I remember asking you at the Indian International Centre, a few weeks ago, and I request you to highlight this for our audience as well. Do you think that with the sheer rise in the number of think-tanks in India, Indian Foreign Service is still a viable career option?

SM: In my opinion, IFS is still a great career option. It allows you to test your theories in reality. It is a place where rubber hits the road. However, there are two riders before you think of joining IFS which you must strongly consider. Firstly, you should enjoy change, and secondly, you must enjoy working with people since diplomacy is a public business and is not meant for introverts. 

PS: Thank you very much, Mr Menon for having this conversation! 

SM: Thank you very much and wishing you all the best! 


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