Strategic Pitfalls on India's Road to Greatness

Author : Arun Prakash

Although Indians try to shrug off appellations like “emerging superpower” or “regional power”, which foreigners are apt to use, we often exhaust our small reserve of modesty, and coyly accept the greatness that is thrust upon us. And yet, an honest comparison of the various indices of growth and national power, especially with respect to neighbouring China, is enough to shatter any illusions of eminence that an Indian may briefly harbour.

So does this mean that India should give up its aspirations, and accept a position of subalternity for all times to come? Not at all! Certain incontrovertible facts and statistics speak for themselves. The world’s largest democracy and the second most populous nation, India currently generates a GDP of 1.5 trillion US dollars, which puts our economy at 10th rank in the world. If we can, somehow, sustain a steady growth rate of 8%-9%, the economy is forecast to reach close to 50 trillion US dollars by mid-century. Thus a combination of growing global political clout (including strategic convergence with the USA), a youthful demographic profile and a burgeoning economy promise to place India near the world apex.

So if greatness is, indeed, India’s destiny, we must shed our diffidence and prepare to don the mantle, by developing an appropriate strategic perspective. Strategic Diffidence

In recent months, two of India’s actions have led to debate and discussion, as well as some controversy. In end-April, the MoD made a surprise announcement short-listing two European finalists of the M-MRCA contest and, contrary to general expectations, eliminating the US contenders. Two weeks later, India refused to vote on the US sponsored Security Council Resolution 1973, which called for a cease fire in the Libyan civil war, and authorized military measures to protect civilian lives. The resolution was passed 10-0 with five abstentions, including India.

Although both decisions could be adequately defended, to many, they did not convey a sense that India’s policies are guided by a firm purpose, or underpinned by any great long-term vision for the country. A government which had staked its very existence on the Indo-US nuclear deal now seemed to be saying that the relationship was not really that important.

While on one hand, India frequently draws attention to its rising stature in world affairs, and stakes vociferous claim, in every forum, to a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, it is rarely seen taking a firm stand on any issue of importance. This is as true of foreign policy as of domestic issues ranging from the trivial to the critical. Recent episodes, like dealing with the Somalian pirates over a hostage situation, or handling popular discontent with rampant corruption, do not inspire much confidence. The 13th July 2011 Mumbai bomb blasts have served to confirm the common man’s deep apprehensions about a debilitating national ethos which seems to hold the Indian state in its paralyzing grip.

Even though we never tire of reminding others about our ancient civilization and culture, the fact remains that as a nation-state India is a young and inchoate entity. We still have to learn the ethos and true meaning of “liberal democracy” which our founding fathers willy-nilly transplanted, from Westminster, into India’s inhospitable soil.

India’s growing military strength has intrigued many in the west, because for a poor developing nation to acquire the trappings of a great power is seen as an anomaly with not many historic precedents. In order to gain a better understanding of this phenomenon, India’s strategic culture has been placed under the microscope, mainly by American scholars, in the recent past, and their studies come to some un-flattering but thought-provoking conclusions about a significant lack of strategic sense in our society. This lacuna has historically confined the Indian mind to short-sighted and self-serving thought-processes; resulting, at best, in dissension and, at worst, in treachery and betrayal.

Today, what makes India somewhat unique is that that we seem to be afflicted by a schizophrenic syndrome which occasionally makes the Indian state’s actions appear self-contradictory. At the root of this syndrome are two factors. One is a minimalist attitude which derives great satisfaction from the mere fact that India has survived as an entity amidst thousands of years of invasions, turmoil and upheaval, and never aspired for victories, conquests or empires. At the same time, there is great cultural hubris which continuously drives India to seek its “manifest destiny” and a high enough position in the global pecking order. It is for this reason that we face many conundrums in the national security arena today.

Some Conundrums

There can be no doubt in any Indian’s mind that the primary task before the nation today is to lift hundreds of millions of our countrymen from abject poverty and provide them health, education, food, housing and other things that invest a human being with dignity. In order to devote all our resources and energies to this gigantic task we need security and insulation from external interventions. This is the rationale for India’s large defence expenditure. At a little over Rs. 1,64,000 crores, this year’s allocation for defence was 1.83% of GDP down from 2% the year before, but still higher than last year by 11% in real terms. Even if the defence allocation remains below 2% of GDP, but the GDP keeps growing at a conservative 7%-8% this amount will double by the next decade to over Rs. 3, 00,000 crores. Add to this the Home Ministry’s expenditure on our 1.3 million strong Central Armed Police Forces. Some questions that we need to address squarely, in this context, are:

For expenditures on this colossal scale, are we getting the security that we need – both external and internal? Are we safeguarding our core national interests? Are our borders inviolate and can we assure the safety of our citizens in towns and cities?

If we are not, then would this money not be better spent on health, education, drinking water, electricity or irrigation for our desperately poor masses? Looking at another aspect: we have been a nuclear weapon state for 13 years, now, and by all accounts have a small but effective arsenal of about 80-100 warheads. Also available are a number of missiles, as well as IAF fighter-bombers, dual-tasked for nuclear strike, and a nuclear submarine which awaits operationalization in a few months. Nobody can provide even a rough estimate of how many billions this “credible minimum deterrent” has cost the Indian citizen over the past 2-3 decades.

It is well known that since a nuclear war cannot be won, it must never be fought. The role of nuclear weapons is, therefore, only to prevent a nuclear war; and that makes them political instruments to be used for deterrence, dissuasion and, perhaps coercion or compellence. One often hears mention of the Pakistani nuclear deterrent, either from Pakistanis themselves or from frightened Israelis or Americans.

But when is the last time we heard an Indian statesman use the term “nuclear deterrence” or even make a passing mention of India’s nuclear weapons? Possibly in 1999 when PM Vajpayee made the surprising statement in Parliament that, “…the fact that we have become a nuclear weapon state should be a deterrent by itself.”

Unfortunately nuclear deterrence is not as simple as the Indian security establishment seems to think. That is the reason why, in spite of the billions we have spent on it, the efficacy of our nuclear deterrent remains doubtful. India’s courses of action have often been severely circumscribed by Pakistani and Chinese blackmail. However, I cannot recall a single instance where our own statesmen or diplomats have been able to leverage India’s nuclear deterrent to improve our strategic position vis-à-vis our neighbours. Otherwise the Kargil war, the attack on Parliament and 26/11 may not have happened; perhaps China would think twice before calling Arunachal Pradesh “Southern Tibet” or, more recently, calling into question Indian sovereignty over J&K.

Against the background of these conundrums, it was not surprising to hear theNational Security Adviser pose this rhetorical question at a recent seminar “Is there an Indian doctrine for the use of force in statecraft? And then,by way of clarification, he added, “This is not a question that one normally expects to ask about a power that is a declared nuclear weapon state with the world’s second largest standing army. But India achieved independence in a unique manner; through a freedom movement dedicated to truth and non-violence, and has displayed both ambiguity and opposition to classical power politics.” Today we have a situation wherein the Indian armed forces have embarked on a re-armament programme of colossal proportions without the nation demonstrating a tangible strategic intent other than “strategic restraint.”

National Security Management

Most major powers undertake periodic Strategic Defence Reviews or issue defence White Papers which clearly highlight national interests, identify vital goals and objectives, and undertake an evaluation of the security environment. A deliberate exercise of this nature helps visualize the kind of armed forces the country needs, and pinpoints the specific capabilities they must field. India, for all its fiscal constraints and competing demands on scarce resources, is one of the few countries which neither undertakes such introspection, nor generates security doctrines.

Another major challenge facing India is the weakness of its national security edifice, and its inability to cope with multifarious emerging threats. The major cause of this is the failure of successive governments to integrate the organs of state which contribute to national security and strategic policy-making. India is perhaps the only major democracy where the Armed Forces Headquarters are detached from, and subordinated to a totally civilian Ministry of Defence. A major manifestation of this dysfunctionality is the fact that the DRDO and defence PSUs have failed to deliver a single major weapon system for the armed forces, so far. India, consequently, has the dubious distinction of ranking amongst the world’s top arms importers.

Similarly, in the strategic domain, India’s nuclear weapon and missile development programmes have, so far, been based on the exclusive advice of the scientific community. India’s prompt declaration of a moratorium on testing, and a “no first use” guarantee within days of the 1998 nuclear tests remain worrisome issues for strategists, as does its wayward missile development programme.

It is said that since the politician’s horizon extends only to the next election, he does not want to be bothered by long-term perspectives. Moreover he can afford to ignore national security because it is not an electoral issue and does not get him any votes. But this is changing. The aam aadmi is now loudly asking how long he must remain hostage to terror on the streets; and why has India’s neighbourhood remained so hostile and inimical to its interests. Six decades after independence, he wants freedom from perpetual fear, and the politician better take note.

The Writing on the Wall

At a macro level, the decline of America’s economy, and with it, her power and global influence, will be accompanied by the phenomenal ascendance of China in the economic, industrial and military fields; with concomitant gains in terms of international clout. At the regional level, China is likely to retain its hard-line adversarial posture towards India; using Pakistan as a willing and useful tool.

The fact that China has become our biggest trading partner tends to delude a lot of people into discounting the possibility of conflict. Moreover, India-China relations today have elements of cooperation and competition at the same time. We must, however, note that China’s economic boom has been accompanied by the comprehensive modernization of the Peoples’ Liberation Army, Navy, Air Force and the 2nd Artillery Corps, as well as space and cyber capabilities.

With respect to Pakistan, India’s edge in conventional military strength has been neutralized by the nuclearization of the sub-continent. Moreover, it is clear that in any bilateral conflict, Pakistan’s deep nexus with China will come to the fore. While moral and material support will flow instantly between Beijing and Islamabad, it is the opening of a “second front”, whether in the east or west, that troubles Indian military planners.

As far as Afghanistan is concerned, the Great Game is being replayed, albeit with a new set of players and, perhaps, higher stakes. It promises to be the crucible in which the strategic vision of India’s statesmen and the acumen of its diplomats is going to be tested. India must, first of all, visualize how, not just Afghanistan, but its whole neighbourhood should look in 2040 or 2050. It must, then, craft and implement policies with a life-span of 25-30 years to give shape to this vision. We should have learnt from bitter experience that, nature does abhor a power-vacuum and, whenever India has dallied for too long others have stepped in eagerly. Conclusion

India, for all its promise in terms of a steadily growing economy, native talent and youth-bulge may remain a laggard because of poor governance and the absence of a grand-strategy or coherent long-term vision. The great promise held out by the Indo-US Nuclear deal seems to be fizzling out because India’s doctrine of “strategic autonomy” will not countenance any alliances.

The long term security policies of a state must be, guided by a vision of its place in the world and, rooted in perceptions of its vital interests and how best they may be protected and promoted. The formulation of policy must be guided by national aims and objectives, clearly enunciated if possible, taking into account, the geo-strategic context including capabilities and intentions of neighbours.

In India’s current political dispensation policy-making has been assigned to bureaucracy, while strategy is crafted by diplomats, and matters of grand strategy, like nuclear deterrence or ballistic missile defence, remain the exclusive domain of scientists and technocrats. Uniquely amongst major powers, India’s armed forces have not been entrusted a significant role in national security decision-making.

It is, therefore, not surprising that the net result is a strange conundrum, whereby India has collected all the trappings of power, without having a clue about how to use them. Restraint may have been a prudent strategy when India’s aspirations were circumscribed by limited capabilities. But India’s growing economy is steadily boosting its capabilities, and the world sees it as a rising and therefore strategically significant power. India’s ambitions must, therefore, grow to the extent that its vital national interests remain safeguarded.

Indians rarely take advice but when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently commented in Chennai that it was “… a time to seize the opportunities of the 21st century and a time to lead….” she was right on the mark.
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