Defence must be India’s way

India’s grand strategy has been, is and will be unique. It must be developed even more keenly.

It has once again become fashionable in international foreign policy circles to lament about India’s lack of strategic culture. The Economist kicked off the latest round of this criticism with its March 2013 article called “Can India become a great power”? The latest issue of Foreign Affairs magazine has a lead article by Boston University Professor Manjari Chatterjee Miller titled “India’s feeble foreign policy”.


The Economist article about India’s great power potential is rather weak. It is written strictly from a militarist point of view with little appreciation of India’s millennial history of being pacifist. The article details the military capabilities of India, China, Pakistan and Indonesia. On most military ‘things’, India’s capacity is about a third or half that of China’s – for instance India has 870 combat capable aircraft to China’s 1900. The article ends with the observation that “India’s strategic shortcomings are a liability and an obstacle to India’s dreams of becoming a 21st Century world power”. If you were a cynical observer, you would read the article as an international corporate manifesto to sell more arms to India. Read more objectively, the article mixes its time-frames in the development of a nation. Like China before it, India needs to focus on its economic development and on creating prosperity for its citizens before it begins to spend on a regional arms race to keep pace with its richer Asian neighbour. Can India become a great power? Perhaps. But it is not time yet.

Miller’s article in Foreign Affairs is extensively reported, based on her conversations with foreign policy mandarins in Delhi. Miller focuses on the mechanics and intent of India’s policy and finds strategic objective wanting. She writes of policy being made by individual foreign-service officers without a strategic umbrella. In contrast to the US and China, India lacks an intellectual ecosystem for policy – experts, think tanks and governments – that debate and recommend policy, she says. There is, of course, some truth to this current description of Indian foreign policy.  Since Independence, it was first the purview of one man (Jawaharlal Nehru) and since has largely been the domain of a select few IFS officers with little engagement with civil society and think tanks. But as the author herself admits, this is changing with more think tanks and influencers making their voices heard and with the foreign office planning an expansion of the Foreign Service.

While these articles are recent, the original seed of the idea that India lacks a strategic culture was sown in a seminal article by George Tanham of the Rand Institute in a paper entitled “Indian Strategic Thought” written in 1992. Tanham describes the purpose of his report thus “this study focuses on the historical, geographic and cultural factors influencing India’s strategic thinking: how India’s past has shaped present day conceptions of India’s military power and national security; how Indian elites view their strategic positions vis a vis their neighbours, the Indian Ocean and great powers alignments; whether Indian thinking follows a reasonable consistent logic and direction; and what this might imply for India’s long-term capability to shape its regional security environment”.

Tanham had wide access to the defence and policy establishment of that time – General Krishnaswami Sundarji (of Operation Blue Star fame), Dr K Subrahmanyam (of Institute of Defence Study and Analysis) and Admiral KK Nayyar. Tanham’s 80-page paper is comprehensive. The first chapter on “Influences on India’s Strategic Thinking” is written with nuance and wisdom.  It is, one of the most incisive short pieces that captures the idea of Indian thought. This section is littered with gems, for example, “India is a dazzlingly diverse country. No ruler or dynasty has been able to impose a single ideology or doctrine on its population” and “Indians express pride in the spread of their culture and note that they had the greatest influence abroad through their ideas, rather than through military or political coercion”.

Tanham captures India’s security strategy succinctly in the second chapter. He describes this as a series of mandalas (concentric rings). The core is India – and its strategic purpose is unity – the immediate next ring encompasses all of the sub-continent. The third, includes China and Russia and so on. The chapter tours through Pakistan, non-alignment, China, and the Indian Ocean. Tanham writes, “strategically India sees itself as a friendly regional peacekeeper”.

Tanham’s third chapter entitled ‘Propositions’ is the one in which he makes a disastrous leap. He connects India’s historical lack of political union and the Hindu concepts of time and fate and says India derives its lacunae for strategy and planning from there. To this magic potion, Tanham throws in three more ingredients: the agricultural basis of India’s culture (which country was not agricultural before it became developed?), the rigid structure of Indian society and the bureaucracy of India’s administrative services.  And there you have it: a brew that adds up to a lack of a grand strategy – and the defining view since then from outside idea.

There is much truth in the details provided by each of these articles about India.  And we would do well to understand and improve upon those. But these external observers miss the most central point.  My colleague Nitin Pai wrote in the Business Standard in response to the Economist article that India’s grand strategy is and should be national unity. To that I would add that India’s offence has historically and contemporaneously been synonymous with defence. From an expansionist, militarist point of view, the word defence is often substituted with the pejorative ‘defensive’. In a game of semantics, soft power and weak power are used interchangeably.  But time and again through history we have learnt that soft outlasts hard. At Independence, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote “India is going to be and is bound to be a country that counts in world affairs, not I hope in the military sense, but in many other senses, which are more important and effective in the end”. Rather than follow the herd, India must develop this unique strategy even more keenly. It must become a voice for defence over offence.

A world that has seen two major wars and numerous minor ones in the last hundred years is not yet in a position to appreciate tolerance, pacifism and unity as India’s grand strategy. But in a world where there are likely to be a dozen or more nuclear powers, the old rules are no longer likely to apply. The benefit of historical wisdom suggests that that will be India’s contribution to a post-modern World order.

Photo: Geoffrey Gilmour-Taylor