Dwarfed by doubts and hobbled by a lack of political will, India has for so long failed to play out its inherent strength. Can Prime Minister Narendra Modi unlock the great-power potential of the country? A new book by one of India’s foremost strategic thinkers anatomises the power paradigms of a nation in transition
In the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, at a crucial moment when he is about to go into battle against the armies of the mighty king Ravana, the Monkey God Hanuman loses his composure and self-confidence, and finds himself questioning his own abilities even as everybody around cheers him on, expecting him easily to beat the enemy. Trying to get him out of the funk he is in, his friend Jambuwan, the Bear, reminds Hanuman of his enormous powers and how it was time for him to shake off his diffidence and use them, which he does with predictable success.
India is a latter day Hanuman, potentially powerful but dwarfed by doubts, unsure of its strengths, weighed down by a sense of its own weaknesses, hobbled by lack of political will, and tending to be slow, low key, and to playing-it-safe to avoid trouble and, unlike the Monkey God in the Ramayana, with no assurance it will rise to the occasion. India is the classic under-achiever among would-be great powers; while aspiring to do big things it is, nevertheless, unwilling and seems incapable of mobilizing the necessary conviction and effort. It boasts of all the traditional elements believed necessary for a state to become a great power—geography, natural resources, one of the largest economies, industrial capacity, population with a large and talented middle class, a meaningful military, and a potentially effective government and diplomacy. The crucial issue is whether the existing Indian state can extract value and the desired outcome from these attributes of the Indian nation. A 2000 RAND report on ‘Measuring National Power in the Post-Industrial Age’, concluded that the ability of a country in an international milieu to exploit the underway ‘science-based knowledge revolution’ will depend critically on a nation’s political direction’ and that will require ‘a minimally efficient state’. An inefficient state unable to govern well is, however, the Indian reality; it seems incapable of giving India political direction and improving the country’s great power prospects, Then again, India is not a post-industrial society, but an industrializing one that is at the cutting edge in some respects, such as information technology powering the modern knowledge-based world and ‘frugal engineering’. The telescoping of the pre- industrial and post-industrial milieus has created a chasm in a society with one foot in medievalist ethos (deep-rooted feudal traditions, serfdom, women treated as chattel, honour killings, female foeticide and infanticide) and the other foot in the modern age. ‘Socialist-populist’ policies catering to the the poor in a vigorously democratic society are at odds, for instance, with the economic measures needed to keep the manufacturing sector growing and the showpiece information technology (IT) industry at the sharp end. Indeed, the sudden spectacular surfacing of the country’s prowess in the informatics/ computer sector led many to assume the country could bypass the intervening smoke-stack stage of industrialization altogether and emerge as a full-blown knowledge economy and a ‘geek super power’. The campuses of software giants such as Infosys are—like those in Silicon Valley, California—immaculate, while outside their gates the real India of abysmal roads and other infrastructure, haphazard traffic, and reigning chaos intrudes. Given the paucity of electricity, the choice between having IT companies working at peak efficiency with uninterrupted power or distributing electricity, even if unevenly owing to antiquated transmission technology, to the surrounding villages where more voters reside, is easy for the local politicians to make in a rambunctious democracy. It is another matter that IT parks and big corporate campuses—enclaves of first worldism—resorting to captive power generation units and becoming independent of the grid only increases the development dilemma for the country. To work through such anomalous situations democratically requires more time than the six-odd decades India has so far had. On the other hand, the view of the same RAND report that national power is ‘expressed ultimately in terms of warfighting capabilities’ and ‘projectible power’ which ‘in the anarchic system of international politics, constitutes [a country’s] first line of defence’ is more readily achievable for India. But this sort of thinking is missing in government as is the desire to yoke national resources, effort and capabilities to a larger purpose.
Nehru’s ‘globalist’ ideas about great power constitute a default position and continue to animate official Indian thinking on this and many other aspects of foreign policy. This is so also because it spares newer generations of leaders and bureaucrats the hard work of familiarizing themselves with history and current trends in international affairs and diplomacy, or study documents from the official archives to derive useful insights as prelude to mulling policy options, narrowing choices and making decisions. Thus, retained from Nehru’s time is the belief in India’s inherent importance, whatever its material status. Describing India as ‘the pivot of Asia’, Nehru in a 1949 encyclical to chief ministers in the provinces, wrote that India’s current strength and value could not be measured in ‘gold or silver or exportable commodities, but by virtue of her present position. It is well recognized all over the world,’ he added, ‘that the future of Asia will be powerfully determined by the future of India.’ Fast forward 60-odd years and India still figures as a ‘swing-state’ obtaining equipoise in Asia. The United States cannot counter-balance China by itself, nor can it do so by only partnering Japan and Australia. India’s size, location and resources have made it ‘an influential global power’, indispensable to building the future, as President Obama said during Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Washington. An indispensable swing state it may be, but India has still to sort out a host of basic issues regarding its rise, like the kind of global power it wants to be and the strategy it means to use to realize that goal. Publicly, the government has said little about the country’s growing military capabilities, explaining them away as necessary for the limited purpose of deterrence and defence. It is less restrained in tom-tomming India’s soft power. In fact, a good part of India’s diplomatic energy is expended in putting a gloss on this aspect by petitioning Western governments to ease the work visa rules (pertaining to the H1B or L1 visas issued by the U.S.) for skilled Indian labour and winning votes of the growing middle class at home sourcing such labour. This is not the same thing as thinking big, having an outward-looking policy, augmenting force projection capabilities, and securing bases abroad. In fact, this narrowing of India’s foreign policy aims in the twenty-first century is the doing of governments of differing ideological persuasions. The coalition regime of the right-of-center Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for instance, ordered the nuclear and thermonuclear weapons tests and weaponisation in 1998 but immediately announced a test moratorium, leaving the country in the worst possible situation—facing economic sanctions and an under-developed and unproven thermonuclear arsenal (because the fusion weapon tested failed to achieve the designed yield). Next, it equated great power aspirations of the country with the globalization of its economy and, to crown this series of initiatives, negotiated the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership with Washington, which was the precursor accord to the nuclear civilian cooperation deal predicated on India not resuming nuclear testing finalized by the successor left-of-center Congress Party regime under the economist Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Manmohan Singh on his part attempted to keep Indian policy in sync with the U.S. views in sensitive areas, such as Iran and nonproliferation, and otherwise talked up high economic growth as the all-purpose panacea for the nation but couldn’t muster the political will to push the pedal on economic and administrative reforms to ensure sustained growth. Ten years thus passed without anybody having any idea about how the current set of policies would promote India’s great power ambition.
With government not giving the lead, the sort of great power India should try and become remains a matter of conjecture and public debate. There are three schools of thought about what will fetch India great power. The first school believes in soft power as the country’s passport to greatness. The second school believes that morality and morally-oriented policies will ensure the country’s greatness, and the third school is of the view that India is faced with too many internal problems, social and economic disparities and under-development to be distracted by the search for great power. Official programmes and the widely dispersed Indian diaspora are considered the mediums of diffusion of India’s soft power. But it is only in the new millennium that governments headed by the BJP, which generates a lot of party funds from Non Resident Indians (NRIs) in the West and discovered the political leverage well-heeled NRIs and NRI organizations wield in the West, such as the America-India Political Action Committee in the United States, to pressure Western governments into adopting India-friendly policies. The acknowledgement by the Indian government of the NRIs’ clout reached its acme with Prime Minister Modi’s well-staged addresses, to massively gathered Indian origin-crowds in the United States—in the Madison Square Garden in New York— Canada, Australia during his official visits in 2014. There’s always the high culture showcasing classical music and dance, drama, poetry and literature, couture, fine arts, and cuisine; this is the staple fare in well-mounted ‘India Festivals’ in prominent cities abroad. The Indian Council of Cultural Relations run by MEA and its newly founded Division for Public Diplomacy, are responsible for running 22 Indian cultural centers in 19 countries, amounting to a systematic use of culture to acquire global influence and promote the country’s interests. There are other institutions, such as the India International Institute of Democracy and Election Management run by the country’s Election Commission, for example, which holds training courses for visiting officials from over 50 countries in conducting elections, and is a sophisticated means of spreading the country’s democratic influence. Then there’s the far more effective popular culture represented by over- the-top Hollywood melodramas, and music and television soap operas, which play a far bigger role in consolidating the India brand in southern and Southeast Asia, West Asia, Central Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. In the West, the profusion of eateries serving Indian regional cuisines, the popularity of the ‘bhangra beat’ from Punjab, Indian writers in English winning international awards, and the large NRI scientific, engineering, and managerial talent in industrial, corporate, and financial circles strengthen the country’s image. Such presence in strength, a onetime junior minister in the Congress government, Shashi Tharoor, contends symbolizes soft power and matters more, he claims, than India’s military might. Nicolas Blarel from the London School of Economics while reporting on the undoubted successes of such programmes as the teacher and software training projects in Africa, schemes for Buddhist religious and cultural outreach in South East Asia, Japan, and even China, the ubiquity of Indian food, films, and music in many Western countries, and the praise for Indian democratic traditions everywhere, charges that India has ‘inconsistently capitalized upon these soft power resources’, and the references by Indian leaders and officials to Indian culture, diaspora, democratic values, and economic development, he says, ‘have mostly been rhetoric for image-polishing.’
The influential civilian strategist, the late K. Subrahmanyam, conceived India’s grand strategy as dealing with the security threat from terrorism while outsourcing the tackling of the more potent, strategic military threats faced by the country such as China, to the United States. Such thinking actually had traction in official corridors in the mid-2000s and motivated the India-U.S. civilian nuclear cooperation deal, which its critics had warned would principally divert the Indian nuclear programme from the plutonium route based on the country’s vast reserves of easily accessible thorium (some 30 per cent-40 per cent of the world’s deposits in the monazite sand of the Coromandel Coast and available for surface strip-mining in the Northeastern hill states) to the imported enriched uranium fueled reactors. That such diversion would result in depleted funding and consequent lack of development of the indigenous breeder reactor and thorium reactor projects constituting the second and third stages of the 1955 three-stage Bhabha Plan, because of resources being channeled into purchases, prompted by the nuclear deal, of extraordinarily expensive light water reactors from the U.S., France, and Russia. And that this would turn India, a potentially energy-independent state, into an energy dependency and, worse, the foreign reactors and the economy relying on the electricity produced by them, and the country at large, would all become hostage to policy interests of the supplier countries. The critics had also pointed out that should New Delhi gather the courage and resume testing to obtain proven and reliable thermonuclear weapons and a measure of confidence in strategically dealing with China, supplier country sanctions would kick in, the sale of enriched uranium fuel, reactor spares, and servicing support would cease, and the billions of dollars invested in buying and installing foreign reactors would become a dead investment and ecological hazard. None of these very real possibilities deterred the Congress government which staked its rule on the nuclear deal and survived by the skin of its teeth (aided by some allegedly underhand shenanigans) in the July 2008 vote of confidence in Parliament.
Such an extraordinarily blinkered policy injurious to the most strategically decisive nuclear programme was justified by Manmohan Singh with his mantra of ‘20,000 megawatts by 2020’. It still remains a ‘pie in the sky’ promise by the time he demitted office. His National Security Adviser (NSA) and former diplomat, Shivshankar Menon, explained the nuclear deal and the Indian posture generally as reflecting ‘strategic restraint’ imposed by economic priorities. India, he elaborated, is a ‘unique sort of big power’ intent on improving the lot of its people. ‘Eliminating poverty and realizing India’s potential will be the focus of our efforts—not external entanglements, arms races or other such balance of power distractions. For the foreseeable future, strategic restraint will probably be India’s strategic choice.’ While disavowing any desire or intention to work the country up to the level of a great power, or even an influential power, he did concede the possibility that if, without really trying, the country reached that status, ‘that would be fine’. This view of India as an accidental great power, of this status achieved less by design than happenstance, is unique, revealing the vapid thinking and complacency that has shaped Indian policies for a long time. On the other hand, it may be that such a position was deliberately taken to avoid getting the gander up of extant great powers, who would otherwise be inclined actively to impede India’s climb up the great power ladder. After all, why would the present lot of great powers want to ease the entry into their ranks of an aspirant state such as India? Thus, Washington continues to warn New Delhi against resumption of nuclear testing, for example, on the pain of termination of the nuclear deal and renewal of sanctions. But this raises the question whether such great power recognition as India may secure at another country’s sufferance actually makes India a genuine great power? What is also worrying about Menon’s conceiving great power in this way is that it separates cause and effect, rendering the process of India’s becoming a great power into a mysterious, even magical, occurrence. Why a straight-forward expression of great power as a national goal was eschewed is not clear. Possibly, it was a policy habit of mind of the MEA acquired after Nehru’s high-strutting diplomacy crashed to the ground and the national ego was dented by the military defeat in the 1962 war with China so much so as to convince the foreign policy mandarins to, as much as possible, fly under the radar and advance national interests by stealth. The best possible spin that can be given to it is that not dwelling publicly either on India’s meaningful military capability or its ramifications for the existing regional and international power balance echoes German Chancellor Bernhard von Bulow’s injunction from the early 1900s, when the German navy was sought to be enlarged on the sly lest it provoke Britain. ‘We must operate so carefully,’ he had advised his government, ‘like the caterpillar before it has grown into the butterfly.’ A more trivial reading of the situation could be that it was only logical for a regime headed by an ‘accidental prime minister’, which is how Manmohan Singh described himself, to conjure up an India as an accidental great power. If, on the other hand, the former NSA’s views are taken literally, and the great power end- state is seen as an unintended consequence of a series of events that India did not initiate, does not control, and has made no concerted effort to realize in the first place, then it is reasonable to conclude that, because great power doesn’t happen by luck or chance, India will never become one. In the real world, countries contest every little bit of political, economic, diplomatic, technological, and military space and claw for slivers of relative advantage. The international system, moreover, does not concede much or easily, and certainly not bestow great power status on a shrinking violet of a country as an act of charity or by way of altruism. The Darwinian slant to the ascent of a country to great power highlights clear vision, iron will, military capability, and coercive policies when these become necessary.
It is not surprising that pronouncements by New Delhi usually avoid trumpeting the country’s hard power or the policy options it generates. The antipathy to the military capabilities of the state in policy circles and, even more, among the intellectual elite, may have binary sources. There was the belief of the leaders of the Indian freedom movement that their policy of non-violence was instrumental in fetching the country independence— a questionable thesis with recent historical research suggesting it was the growing evidence of fraying discipline in the ranks of the Indian army in the inter-war years owing to rising nationalist consciousness in the Indian army, which had been used previously to subjugate the Indian people, that convinced the British to up stakes and leave. And then there was the fact of the Indian soldiers in the largely British officer- run army being studiously kept out of the war planning and strategy-making processes. As a result after 1947, when nonviolence and pacifism became the dominant themes in the official discourse, the military did not offer the country a competing model to achieve international power. A modern nationalist tradition of Indian thinking on security and military strategy consequently was never seeded in the public culture. In this vacuum, Nehru was not merely the sole source of foreign policy but also of security policy Lord Wavell, the British penultimate British Viceroy, noted Nehru’s keenness to have ‘a strong, virile, active, and stable government’ and, no doubt, country. As regards military capabilities Nehru’s thinking was molded, ironically, by a trio of Englishmen. Professor P.M.S. Blackett, a former naval person and Nobel Prize winning physicist, Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck, an old British Indian Army-hand who was deposed by Churchill as head of the Allied Middle East Command during World War II and transferred to India as Commander-in-Chief, and Lieutenant General Francis Tuker, who led the Fourth Indian Division with success in the Allied Eight Army’s campaign in the Western Desert, and returned to command India’s Eastern Army, actually seeded Nehru’s Monroe Doctrine-scheme premised on India’s geographic centrality. The writings of this English trio, and their interaction with him shaped Nehru’s idea of India as a nuclear weapon state and one that was also self-sufficient in conventional armaments. It led to the project at Hindustan Aircraft Ltd, Bangalore, led by the aircraft designer Kurt Tank, who was commissioned by the Indian government to produce a supersonic fighter. A prototype was flying inside of five years by 1961. And to a versatile nuclear energy program that became weapons-capable as early as 1964. This stage of Nehru’s thinking on security matters evolved in closed official quarters. Limited public awareness resulted in military issues being addressed by rhetorical flourishes and a muddled harping on Indian morality and non-violence propagated by iconic national figures, among them, Mahatma Gandhi and the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. But their attitude almost of renunciation of power and power politics does not lie in Hindu culture and religion, as is mistakenly believed to be the case both in India and abroad.
Hindusim is not exclusively, or even largely other-worldly philosophy, spiritual yearning, and pacifism. There is a surprisingly harsh side to it that is less well known and propagated. The original, four to five millennia-old religious text, the Rig Veda, considered the fountainhead of Hinduism, for example, is so steeped in violence and amorality it is hard to connect it with the effete and ‘bovine pacifism’ (as I have called it in a previous book) of contemporary Hinduism. The Rig Veda was not only the first great treatise anywhere to imagine monstrous weapons of mass destruction but to explicate in considerable detail their political and military utility as deterrent, and to define the situations for their use as part of Vedic machtpolitik that is breathtaking in its bloody-mindedness. It features astonishingly modern- sounding armaments, with the ultimate weapon described as exploding with ‘the brightness of a thousand crore suns’, which description is what J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project and an amateur Sanskrit scholar, was motivated by when on seeing the flash of the first atomic explosion over Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945 he famously uttered the words from the Bhagvad Gita: ‘I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.’ The degree of detachment and distance of the Indian intellectual and policy circles from the country’s ancient hard-as-nails strategic culture was revealed by their buying into the thesis propounded by the late K. Subrahmanyam and George Tanham, the latter in a RAND monograph of the early 1990s, that India had no strategic culture. It may have alerted the Indian political class to the deficient strategic content in Indian policy but was wrong in extending the argument to the past to conclude the country had no base of traditional strategic thought to build on, when the fact was that the strategic culture lay buried in the detritus of history.
New Delhi sees the country’s ascent in terms of big powers voluntarily sharing ‘the high table’ (permanent membership in the U.N. Security Council, etc.) with India once it has persuaded them to get over their ‘entrenched reluctance’ to do so. Implicit in all such official depictions of where India is headed is the basic belief that India will secure the great power position by goodwill and deft diplomacy unlike other states that obtained it by sheer will, strategic vision, and show of force. It is a desire to ‘free ride to great power status, which includes ducking hard decisions and avoiding shouldering a burden, [and] [not] bearing responsibility’. It ignores Kautilya’s advice to his emperor in 223 BC that sama (concessions, peace treaties and peaceful incentives of various kinds) and dhan (economic grants, financial credit and aid) are all very well, but it is dand (preponderant military power) that ultimately persuades unfriendly states to toe the line. Or, consider the advice by Europe’s Kautiliya-come-lately, Machiavelli, to his Prince that for success to attend on his ventures he should have the cunning of a fox and the strength of a lion. In other words, guile works better backed by the gun.
In contrast to China’s grab-as-grab-can attitude to augmenting national power, India’s less frenetically-run race to global presence, power and status is, perhaps, easier for the international community to digest. But New Delhi anticipates that this approach combined with the pull of demography—‘the soft underbelly of geopolitics’ will make the regional and international milieus receptive to its slow and steady rise as an Asian power. With a young, vigorous, and aspiring demographic, however, India today is a very different country to the India of the past century—less forgiving and less patient. V.K. Saraswat, until June 2013 head of the Defence Research and Development Organisation, believes the younger generation may be unwilling to wait too long for India to become a great power. ‘They are not affected by [the current ruling generation’s] cultural and historical background of morality, colonialism, religion, pacifism,’ he said. ‘They are vibrant, ambitious for the country, willing to act, take risk, and to take up challenges.’ The new BJP Prime Minister Narendra Modi reflected the restlessness of the young and the aspirational in the ‘India First’ doctrine that he enunciated. ‘Whatever we do, it must be for India,’ Modi told a youthful and enthusiastic audience in Spring 2013. ‘We must never let India, her honour, the dreams of the people be adversely affected. India first it must be.’ Modi’s ‘India First’ ideology and thinking could potentially alter how Indians see their own country and fire up policies to make India a great power.
(Excerpted from Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet) by Bharat Karnad, Oxford University Press India, Rs 875, 568 pages. The book will be published on 1 October 2015)