- India's Eastward Engagement: From Antiquity to Act East Policy by S.D. Muni and Rahul Mishra
It is said that the best work is usually one that is done in the pursuit of truth, or in the case of this book, the solid reiteration of the truth. The authors, S.D. Muni and Rahul Mishra, both experts in Indian and Southeast Asian affairs, trace the history of India's eastward engagement from antiquity to the present time, which culminates in the reinvigorated Act East Policy (AEP) announced by Prime Minister Modi in 2014. The book highlights important indices of India's dynamic political behaviour and all aspects of Indian statecraft with respect to the East, flawed or otherwise.
The authors begin with an insightful introduction into how India perceives the East and the important civilizational exchanges and cultural diffusion that have taken place over millennia between the two places. The introduction also provides a clear outline of the book's main themes. Despite the elaborate historical recount, there is a clear focus on India's foreign policy and the country's engagements with East and Southeast Asia. The coverage of the three initial "waves" of India's eastward engagement and the "Indianization" of Southeast Asia not only serve as a chronological background to the study, but also contextualize the cultural similarities and the Indian diaspora present in Southeast Asia today.
The account of the three waves of history is especially fascinating as it chronicles the first signs of India's interaction with the East, which occurred as early as prehistoric times. The authors skilfully highlight Hindu and Buddhist influences which are considered the first wave. In fact, in the case of East Asia, India's engagement began with the Buddhist wave. The spread of Islam to Southeast Asia, the second wave, was facilitated by regional Muslim kingdoms in southern India, particularly along the Malabar Coast. Thus, these two waves are actually the origins of the Indian diaspora in Southeast Asia. The third wave, orchestrated by the British colonial authorities, was more deliberate and purposeful. Britain sent millions of Indians to its Southeast Asian colonies as plantation and mining workers. This third wave made possible the emergence of the links between India's political elite and the leaders of countries in the East struggling for independence, and paved the way for the camaraderie that characterized the many amicable relationships between the leaders of these countries in the succeeding decades. [End Page 440]
The chapter on the "Nehru Wave" is by far, in this reviewer's opinion, the best. Muni and Mishra elucidate on Nehru's "eastward" successes and failures with care and precision. They also explore in detail Nehru's leadership and its impact on India's relations with its eastern neighbours. He was a charismatic leader, and, in many ways, an idealist. What stands out in this chapter is the subtle focus on the psychological dynamics underlying the Nehru-led eastward engagement, particularly the lasting impacts of these psychological processes on India's engagement efforts. For instance, Nehru's strong personality, characterized by his tendency to take the lead and strive for excellence, had rather insidious consequences when it came to engaging with his Southeast Asian counterparts. The tempestuous relationship between Nehru and Soekarno was also a major reason for the subsequent failure of India and Indonesia to engage in any meaningful cooperation. This book would hence appeal to readers who seek to understand the role of individual behaviour and leadership in international relations, as well as the relevance of misperceptions, biases and prejudices.
The chapters that follow cover India's eastward engagement after Nehru's premiership. The authors detail the various policies that India has adopted towards building ties with Southeast Asian states, especially efforts to rehabilitate its strained relations with some Southeast Asian countries at that time. While eastward engagement under Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri was relatively tepid, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi later had her work cut out for her, as she had to...