India would have responded differently to "Pakistan-sponsored" Mumbai terror attacks had there been a different "mix of people" at the helm, according to former foreign secretary and national security advisor Shivshankar Menon.
In his latest book titled Choices: Inside the Making of India's Foreign Policy, Menon says that as foreign secretary he had "urged" former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the then External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee that India should retaliate militarily as he felt Pakistan had "crossed the line" and the action demanded more than a "standard response".
"My preference was for overt action against LeT headquarters in Muridke or the LeT camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and covert action against their sponsors, the ISI. Mukherjee seemed to agree with me and spoke publicly of all our options being open," he writes.
"Personalities matter. With a different mix of people at the helm, it is quite possible that India would have chosen differently. In fact, if India is forced to make a similar choice in the future, I am sure it will respond differently," he says.
Menon believes that an immediate visible retaliation would have been emotionally satisfying and gone some way towards erasing the "shame of incompetence" that India's police and security agencies displayed in the glare of world's television lights for three full days.
Published by Penguin, the book is an insider's account of five major Indian foreign policy decisions in which Menon either participated directly or was associated with.
These "choices" include the India-US nuclear agreement, the first-ever boundary agreement between India and China, India's decision not to use overt force against Pakistan after 26/11, the 2009 defeat of LTTE in Sri Lanka and India's disavowal of the first-use of nuclear weapons.
Menon examines what these choices reveal about India's strategic culture and decision-making, its policies towards the use of force, its long-term goals and priorities and its future behaviour.
He argues that while the Mumbai attacks, which claimed 166 lives, were unmatched in their level of organisation and "sheer savagery", they, interestingly, united India as no other event except a war and helped the country organise the global community to "isolate Pakistan internationally".
"India began to get unprecedented cooperation from Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf countries, and China, too, began to respond to requests for information on these groups," he notes.
Menon states that it would be "virtually impossible" for any Indian government to express restraint if another attack like 26/11 is mounted from the neighbouring country.
"Pakistan's prevarication in bringing the perpetrators to justice and its continued use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy after 26/11 have ensured this," he says.
Noting that it is no longer in Pakistan's capacity to stop terrorism as it has "infected" and "entrenched" its society and state, Menon declares that temporarily silencing the cross-border terrorists is the best India can hope for.
"Silencing these terrorists is of much lower priority than the transformation of India. The cross border terrorists pose no existential threat to India. Failure in India's nation building endeavor or prolonged economic failure would be," he warns.
Terming India-Pakistan relation as one of the "major failures" of Indian foreign policy, Menon says that India's relationship with Pakistan has been an "albatross that has hobbled Indian diplomacy" and enabled other powers to gain leverage in India's and the subcontinent's affairs.
Mounting a forceful defense of India's no-first-use nuclear weapons policy, Menon remarks that the doctrine actually means India has reserved the right to choose "how
much, where, and when to retaliate."
"No first use is a useful commitment to make if we are to avoid wasting time and effort on a nuclear arms race, such as that between the United States and the Soviet Union, which produced thousands of nuclear weapons and missiles and economically contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union," he writes.
He also reveals that India has effective deterrence against both China and Pakistan and it has been a "huge and large secret effort," which has been achieved by India faster than any other nuclear-weapon states.
"We are sometimes accused of excessive secrecy in relation to our people and scholars. That is because the purpose of the nuclear weapons programme is to deter our adversaries, not our own people or scholars," Menon writes.
About Pakistan's nuclear weapons, he thinks the danger is not so much from terrorists getting their hands on them as from the insiders.
"To my mind the real threat is from a Pakistani pilot or a brigadier who decides to wage nuclear jihad, with or without orders. This risk increases as Pakistan builds tactical nuclear weapons for battlefield use, control of which will necessary be delegated down the chain of command," he says.
Written in a lucid style, Choices is an insightful read for those interested in what drives India's foreign policy.
Photograph: Arko Datta/Reuters