Two Decades of India’s Look East Policy: Partnership For Peace, Progress And Prosperity
Vibhanshu Shekhar ·       

The book is a significant academic exercise as it involves the who’s who of the LEP (Look East Policy). The contributors are the same set of people, who have contributed in different manners to the making and growth of this initiative. No one could have explained it better than the people involved in the making of the LEP.

Often it is said that the policy-making process is tardy, boring and extremely uninteresting to read. This book reverses the perception. It is lucid, concise and engaging. The personal narratives are authoritative and authentic, with strong analytical inputs.

Does the book significantly contribute to the existing inventory of knowledge on India’s Look East Policy?
Yes, it does. The book is extremely rich in information. It gives a detailed account in a very authoritative manner of how the LEP evolved, and brings out the nuances of diplomacy in how the LEP was conceived, expressed and implemented during the last two decades.

The book is also very rich in bringing out the debates regarding the timing of the conception of the LEP, catalysts for the LEP, the position of the Northeast in the LEP, and the geographical canvas of the policy. Nevertheless, the book does not settle the debate, rather it further confounds it with different writers putting out diverse arguments with their inside inputs and experiences.

The book successfully explores two important components – nuances involved in the making of the policy, and domestic and regional imperatives of the policy. It might be stating the obvious but masterstrokes have often been played whenever the political leadership and the MEA have worked in a united fashion. Two befitting examples, as the book points out, were the official announcement of the LEP by P V Narasimha Rao, the then Prime Minister, and the announcement to have an FTA with ASEAN in 2003 by Atal Behari Vajpayee, also former Prime Minister.

The book rightly refers, on various occasions, to the LEP being a facilitating force in India’s global aspirations, especially when the gravity of power shifts to the East. However, the book does not delve deeper into this issue that confronts today’s scholars as well as practitioners dealing with both the LEP as well as Indian foreign policy.

Although certain debates do not fall within the mandate of the book, it would nevertheless have been useful to have some insight on them. The book remains sketchy in discussing the ongoing debates or discourses involving India’s engagement with the East. It does not lay out in detail how India has participated in these debates and what have been India’s own articulations. For example, two issues remain conspicuous by their absence in the book, despite meriting special focus from the Indian strategic community. First, why do seven out of 13 Indian strategic partnerships lie in the region and what they entail? Second, how has India articulated its role in the evolving ASEAN security architecture? The discussion on East Asia Summit remains limited.

The book also remains uneven in terms of its focus on the first and second phase of the LEP. While there are roughly six chapters detailing the first phase of the policy, there are only two chapters discussing an all-round expansion of the policy during the second phase. It does not sufficiently address problems plaguing the LEP, whether during the first phase or the second phase. For example, the issue of implementation. The book talks about how various initiatives were stalled but cursorily glances over the reasons for these limitations. It refers, on one occasion, to the lack of inter-ministerial coordination as an important reason for limited growth of the LEP, especially during the first phase of the policy. It also does not lay out any road map for the direction or shape this policy should take in the coming years and decades.

Overall, the book is very rich in history but thin as it traverses towards the present and fades as it approaches into the future. Given the fruitfulness of this exercise, there is a need for another similar initiative reflecting three dimensions of the policy – on-going debate within the LEP, problems facing the LEP and a comprehensive roadmap for the policy.