On using the final argument

Issue 21 - Dec 2008

Harsh V Pant


After rescuing two merchant vessels on high seas from pirates off the coast of Somalia last month, the Indian Navy decided to take piracy in international waters head-on and sunk a vessel that turned out to be a Thai fishing trawler that had been hijacked. Despite this unfortunate incident, it is clear that maritime powers across the world are now looking at taking a more pro-active role in managing the global waters and India will have to continue with the aggressive posture. That finally Indian naval forces are now operating in the Gulf of Aden, however, is less a testament to Indian government’s strategic assessment of the uses to which the Indian armed forces could be put to than it is to the lack of choice that it faces in this realm. It has become India’s signature that it does not make a decision until it is almost too late. 

…the diplomacy of violence, however, has been systematically factored out of Indian foreign policy and national security matrix with the resulting ambiguity about India’s ability to withstand major threats of the future. Few nations face the kind of security challenges that confront India. Yet, since independence, military power was never seen as a central instrument in the achievement of Indian national priorities, with the tendency of Indian political elites to downplay its importance. Even though the policy-makers themselves had little knowledge of critical defence issues, the armed forces had little or no role in the formulation of defence policy till 1962. Divorcing foreign policy from military power was a recipe for disaster as India realised in 1962 when even Nehru was forced to concede that “military weakness has been a temptation, and a little military strength may be a deterrent.” A state’s legitimacy is tied to its ability to monopolise the use of force and operate effectively in an international strategic environment and India had lacked clarity on this relationship between the use of force and its foreign policy priorities. 

A lot of attention is being paid to the fact that India will be spending around $40 billion on military modernisation in the next five years and is buying military hardware—such as C-130 transport planes, airborne refuelling tankers, and aircraft carriers—useful for projection of power far beyond its shores. But such purchases in and of themselves does not imply a clear sense of purpose. Indian armed forces are today operating in a strategic void under a weak leadership unable to fully comprehend the changing strategic and operational milieu. At a time when Indian interests are becoming global in nature, India cannot continue with its moribund approach of yore. It is up to the civilian leadership to come up with a credible policy on the use of armed forces and it is up to the military leadership to provide them sound guidance.

India has always been a nation of great ambition but today more than ever it needs to answer the question: What is the purpose behind its ambition? India wants to rise, but what for? It’s not clear if India’s political elite understand the implications of their nation’s rise. India can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines of unfolding global events that impinge directly on vital Indian interests.