Why Isn’t There an Indian Woodward?

The American author Bob Woodward has written his, if I am not mistaken, 17th book on the inner workings of the US establishment. It is impressive that so many high-level US officials, ministers, and even presidents speak so willingly about what was said at the policy-making level. Mind you, they are more frank about what others said and thought than they are about themselves, but the net result reveals quite a bit about what led the world’s sole superpower to do what it does.

Woodward is hardly the final word. But I’ve spent hours working my way through the declassified documents and interviewing US officials when working on some historical work on US foreign policy. I would argue no major country in the world is as transparent about its internal workings as the US. Definitely not India, which doesn’t even have a system of document declassification of any consequence. China is so opaque that its own journalists admit that the darkness surrounding its functioning is a key reason its rise is scaring so many countries. It is an unplanned consequence of the US’s own internal processes of revelation: because its transparency gives them a sense of understanding, other countries are less worried about its actions. Uncertainty and ignorance are the cousins of fear.

Why can’t India have a Woodward-style author? The obvious answer is that no Indian official would talk to him. Without their true confessions, such a book could not work. And it is more than just talking to a writer. When he was foreign minister, Jaswant Singh complained publicly about the lack of a memoir-writing culture among senior Indian leaders. This reflects a number of interconnected problems. One is that the permanent bureaucracy in India sees no incentives in telling all. Its political class sees even less. Documents remain classified pretty much forever. New Delhi is unable to learn from its own mistakes.

This is ultimately self-defeating. One reason, as I noted, is that transparency in decision-making makes other countries less concerned about motives, threats and the like. Another is that the best and brightest no longer join the Indian government. And one more reason is the failure of the Indian system to develop a mystique about joining government service.

Mind you, Woodward himself is running, in my opinion, into a problem. US officials talk to him even before administrations end their terms. This means they speak with an eye to influencing public opinion even as they are still in office. This is somewhat credibility reducing. But it is still better than the darkness in India.



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