India’s grand strategy for the 21st century

Piecing together the elements of India’s geostrategy since its independence.

A review of Beyond South Asia: India’s Strategic Evolution and the Reintegration of the Subcontinent.


The Indian Prime Minister made a whirlwind tour to the Indian Ocean island states of Sri Lanka, Seychelles and Mauritius a couple of weeks ago. While some analysts termed this visit as an attempt by India to reclaim its ‘backyard’, others saw it as an endeavour in pursuit of  mutually beneficial partnerships between India and its neighbours. This confusion regarding regarding India’s role vis-a-vis the geopolitical actors in the Indian subcontinent is the central theme of Beyond South Asia: India’s Strategic Evolution and the Reintegration of the Subcontinent.

The author of the book, Neil Padukone is a strategic affairs analyst who has consistently explored the various facets of India’s strategic interests in his earlier writings.  He concedes that while there is a huge body of work focusing on views from the world about India, India’s  own conception of the world has seldom been articulated. The author seeks to bridge this divide by analysing the major strands of India’s strategic thought since its independence. In order to accomplish this task, the author employs perspectives from realist, liberalist and constructivist school of thought, alternating between them in an effort “to stay true to the factors that drive and have driven India’s strategic perspective at different junctures in history”. The book is backed by field interviews with Indian officials, activists, political analysts and journalists along with the analyses of primary and secondary documents on India’s strategic worldview.

The book is divided in three parts, each exploring a different era of India’s evolution as a geopolitical actor since its independence.

The first section deals with India’s worldview that took shape after independence when India took onto itself the project of securing the Indian subcontinent. Analysts have called this strategy as ‘India’s Monroe doctrine’—referring to the US foreign policy declared in 1823 which viewed any interference by European countries in North or South America as an act of aggression requiring US intervention. On similar lines, the Indian subcontinent was seen as a single geographic and strategic unit. This understanding, combined with the colonial experience convinced Indian policymakers that securing the strategic unity in the wake of new borders which were essentially ‘demographic and marginal’ and not strategic required a two-pronged approach. One, keeping the subcontinent united and two, denying extra-regional powers any presence in the region. The first aim was instrumentalised by denying autonomous tendencies of the smaller neighbours, particularly if they tried to bandwagon with extra regional powers. The second aim was aided by Non-alignment, which was ‘meant to be the practice of realpolitik cloaked in idealism’.

Padukone then goes on to discuss how this doctrine started crumbling under the weight of several internal and external factors. Centrifugal tendencies like the Hindu majoritarianism and Naxalite movements weakened India internally. The 1971 war which witnessed the presence of a US battleship USS Enterprise in the Bay of Bengal and the subsequent Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation effectively ended the policy of resisting extra-regional powers’ presence in the region.

A particularly insightful chapter in the book is the one where the author traces India’s relations with each of its geographically smaller neighbours. This section has several fascinating details about how the Monroe Doctrine unraveled. It is a must read for anyone looking for a historical understanding of India’s actions in its land and maritime neighbourhood.

Any discussion on India’s strategic culture up to 1992 will remain incomplete without a discussion on its relationship in Pakistan. Padukone employs two interesting paradigms— offensive realism and paired minority complex to decode this tense relationship. These concepts apart, the India-Pakistan relationship has been explored in various other books in greater detail. What this book has new to offer is the assertion that ‘the question of the two-nation theory will fundamentally not be answered by events in Pakistan, but by the status and socio-political integration of Muslims within India’.

The second half of Beyond South Asia takes a look at how the economic shifts in the late 1980s and early 1990s changed India’s strategic worldview. The author explains it best when he says “No longer would it be New Delhi’s objective to keep India—or the subcontinent as a whole—economically self-sufficient, isolated, or insulated from the rest of the world. Instead, the region would benefit from cross-national trade, open borders, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), and even local comparative advantages in the production of goods rather than centralised economic management.” Unfortunately, the book still views India’s strategic worldview being driven from a ‘New Delhi’ angle rather than acknowledging that the changed geo-economic environment means that India’s interaction with the world is also being driven by global business hubs like Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai.

Beyond South Asia deals extensively with India’s role as a balance to China in the new setup.  There are two important points that the analyses leads to. One, a war with China on the eastern borders is highly unlikely because ‘Tibet is not an existential issue for either country: its status can enhance either country’s security but threatens them only marginally’. Second, it is the maritime space in which India has a distinct advantage. While China’s trade routes are susceptible to blockages at the two chokepoints— the Lombok and Malacca straits, India’s peninsula itself is like “an unsinkable aircraft carrier”, limiting Chinese options in the Indian Ocean. A growing India is also poised to play a bigger role beyond the subcontinent as it looks for markets and energy resources while competing with China in this global search.

The chapter on US-India partnership echoes the views of K Subrahmanyam who believed that since there is no clash of national interest with America, in a world with America as Number One and China as Number Two, it is in our interest to ensure that it is America that remains Number One.  The author identifies four hitches in this partnership — the irritant role of Pakistan, US insistence that India take a lead on the US way of global governance, India’s expectations that the US will counter China on the political front and an ideological legacy of the Indian political system that, devoid of a realist outlook, sees any coordination with US as an act of abdicating sovereignty.

The third section of the book is an assessment of the perception of India’s neighbours to India’s changed geostrategic posture. With economic growth as the focus, India seeks to maintain stability in subcontinent by sharing the benefits of growth. Given a world where India’s geographically smaller neighbours can easily engage with Beijing or Washington independent of India, a belligerent stance by India is unlikely. The chapter on Pakistan, titled Mutually Assured Construction is too optimistic though. The chapter fails to take cognisance of the fact that the dominant decision-maker in Pakistan is the Military Jihadi Complex, an irreconcilable entity that cannot be won over. Dismantling it is the only way to ensure the prosperity of both India and Pakistan.

The concluding segment of the book reviews the challenges confronting India’s strategy in the coming years. The author rejects India’s obsession with a greater role in the United Nations pointing out that India’s goal of a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council restricts its flexibility more than it helps increase its power. A second dilemma is that as foreign investments become a central aspect of India’s global engagement, the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of nations will be challenged. As money is fungible, large sums of money are being used to affect the domestic setup. India witnessed this in its interaction with the two Sudans and will have to redetermine its core strategy of non-interference. Another dilemma that faces India going ahead is that while the option of strategic restraint in its charged neighbourhood is a boon, other nations expect it to play a greater role as it becomes a global decision-maker.

The book agrees that the key to India’s role beyond the realms of South Asia lies in the success of the idea of India. This idea has two parts to it. Socially, it requires pluralism to succeed and economically, it requires India to attain the lofty goal of yogakshema — well being, peace and prosperity.

[Full disclosure: Neil Padukone was the Fellow for Geopolitics at The Takshashila Institution from January 2012 to January 2013]

Beyond South Asia: India’s Strategic Evolution and the Reintegration of the Subcontinent
Author: Neil Padukone
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 233
Price: INR 1078 (Kindle edition) and INR 1870 (Paperback edition)