Projecting power to protect unity

Changing India’s strategic culture

The dominant view among the members of India’s strategic community is that India lacks a strategic culture. Given the cacophony, rancour and partisanship in public debate, with policy discussions taking place within the high walls of the government apparatus, with political leaders seldom articulating the rationale behind foreign and defence policy decisions and with few grand ideas coming out of the academia, it may well appear that a strategic culture is absent.


Looking for culture

Before we challenge this conclusion, let us first ask whether or not there is an Indian culture? At first glance, one is confronted with not one monolithic, homogenous Indian culture but riot of many, heterogenous cultures. From music to visual art, from worship to cuisine, from costume to language, the reality is one of many Indian cultures. Yet, despite all these differences, it is possible to discern a common ethos among them all, making them parts of the whole.

Image: San Diego Museum of Art

What are the aspects of this common ethos? The most important, in my opionion, are Spirituality, Plurality and Balance. You might have a different list, but very few will dispute the contention that there is an Indian culture that comprises of many Indian cultures.


So why should Indian strategic culture be any different? There is strategic culture in the government; among the elite intellectuals of the strategic community; in Jawaharlal Nehru University and other universities; in think tanks like the IDSA; in the media; in the scientific establishment; in the army, navy and air force; in the leadership of our political parties; in the business elite and among foreign scholars dealing with India. Moreover, over the last two decades, a strategic culture has emerged among connected citizens centring around websites like Bharat Rakshak, the Takshashila Institution’s Indian National Interest blogs and magazines such as this one.


Securing unity

Those who lamented the lack of a strategic culture were perhaps looking for something that would be similar to what they thought was the strategic culture obtaining in other countries. Our reality is different. How can it not? India’s strategic culture exists in its diverse strands, but they have in common visions of a united India, maintenance of order within, and ideas on how pluralism is to be managed. This strategic culture has suggested and pursued a grand strategy that can simply be described as “keep the country united”.


Here, it is important not to conflate the government’s decision-making processes with strategic culture. The latter only provides the context for various political & bureaucratic forces to interact and arrive at policy decisions. It is important not to overstate the importance of strategic culture in day-to-day policymaking. Its influence is at the level of grand strategy.


Indeed, uniting and keeping the country united has been the grand strategy of India’s rulers from the Mauryas to the Mughals, from the British Raj to Sardar Vallabbhai Patel, from Jawaharlal Nehru to Manmohan Singh. The pursuit of the same grand strategy by different types of governments over two millennia suggests that the roots of India’s strategic culture are far deeper than we realise. India’s strategic culture is not Alexandrian or expansionist, and concerns itself with maintaining national unity. That, however, is no argument to deny or understate its existence.


Beyond the subcontinental mindset

Unfortunately, this preoccupation with unity blindsided India to the need to be aware of developments beyond the subcontinent. As the historian and diplomat K M Panikkar observed, “[So] far as areas outside the physical boundaries of India were concerned, we were content to live with the attitude of complacent ignorance…This has been the weakness of India in the past, this sense of isolation and refusal to see itself in relation to the states outside the geographical limits of the subcontinent.” Obliviousness to the state of affairs across the Hindu Kush and the Himalayas, across the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, led the inability to anticipate invasions, and indeed, to prevent colonisation. Fortunately, though, the ability to manage plurality allowed India to survive, albeit at great cost to Indian society and civilisation.


We can no longer afford to be oblivious “about the balance of power across its national frontiers”. Not only is it necessary to understand global politics and how it affects us, it is necessary to shape the global balance of power in a manner consistent with our national interests. The age-old grand strategy of keeping the country together must therefore shed its subcontinental preoccupation and also concern itself with maximising and projecting national power.


Why India must project power

In the twenty-first century, nations, above all, are defined by success. In a globalised world, the easy movement of people, capital and ideas means that successful nations preserve their unity, while failing ones fall apart. Success requires prosperity. Prosperity requires power. Kautilya’s Arthashastra teaches us this. If India does not enter a virtuous cycle of achieving success, prosperity and and unity it risks falling into the vicious cycle of failure, penury and ultimately, disintegration.


The emergence of China, a civilisational power with a clashing geopolitical worldview and a competing political model will use its power to change international norms in its favour, and attempt to make others, including India, play by its rules. To the extent that international norms are shaped by power, it is obvious that India can’t afford to sit out of the competition.


The upshot is that India must project power abroad to stay united at home.



First, act as swing power. The United States will remain the pre-eminent global power in the next two decades. China, in second place, will continue to close the gap with the leader. If the United States were not involved in propping up the Pakistani military-jihadi complex, it might have made sense for India to align more strongly with the United States. Since Washington is unlikely to change course, India should dynamically swing between the United States and China. Swinging, unlike non-alignment, is neither passive nor rhetorical. It is an active approach, using diplomatic, economic and military leverage, to promote India’s interests by exploiting the competitive dynamic between the two bigger powers.


To be a swing power, India must have better relations with the United States and China than they have with each other. It must also develop the credible capacity to give pleasure or inflict pain on geopolitical and geo-economic issues. From the military perspective, the former calls for the Indian armed forces to improve military-to-military ties with both countries, while the latter enjoins us to acquire the capability to influence the military balance of power beyond the Hindu Kush, in and around the Indian Ocean and East of the Straits of Malacca.


Second, break through the paradox of proximity. The instability immediately across the borders makes it important for India to intervene but there are structural constraints on the ability to do so, despite possessing adequate military capabilities. The situation further afield is reversed: there are fewer constraints on the ability to project power, but there is lack of appropriate military capabilities. Indian power can not only make a positive difference but is actually sought in regions like the Somalian littoral, the Gulf of Aden and the waters East of Singapore that Indian.


Third, reform, reform, reform. It is impossible to project power unless the Indian economy is fully unshackled, and the once-promised and long-delayed second-generation economic reforms are implemented. It will be impossible to generate the resources, and indeed the consensus to allocate the required resources for defence, unless there is sustained, equitable economic growth.


It should be amply clear that without structural reforms, the defence services will be unable to project power abroad, especially in theatres thousands of kilometres from the Indian frontier. The recommendations of the Kargil Committee report should be the starting point of reform of the defence services. The delay in their implementation is inexcusable and has set India back by a decade, even as the Chinese People’s Liberation Army has leapfrogged into a next generation force.


How will we get there? India’s political climate is unlikely to throw up a statesman with the knowledge and commitment to push through the required reforms. Nor does the civilian bureaucracy have an incentive to promote them. Civil society lacks the depth of expertise to demand them. The armed forces must, to use Mahatma Gandhi’s phrase “be the change you would like to see in this world”. The rest will follow.