Author : Shiv Shankar Menon
(Prem Bhatia memorial lecture, 11 August 2011)
Anand, Shyam and other members of the Bhatia family,
Shri Rasgotra and members of the Prem Bhatia Trust,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you for giving me the honour of delivering the Prem Bhatia
memorial lecture this year. Looking at the list of distinguished
speakers before me, I am humbled by your choice.
Prem Bhatia was that rare person who combined in himself the best of two
worlds, journalism and diplomacy. We live in a time when every diplomat
thinks he can be a journalist and every journalist thinks he can be a
good diplomat. Prem Bhatia was the exception who proved that it is only
given to very few special individuals to combine both. He was an
exemplar both as a journalist and as a diplomat. Each of the newspapers
(the Tribune, the Statesman and others) that he edited so magnificently
was the authoritative voice of that time. He brought that same quality
to diplomacy as well. To read his accounts of PM Nehru’s 1954 visit to
China is a revelation, even at this distance in time. He did a great
deal to stabilise our relationship with Singapore at a difficult time.
The sound foundations that he laid in Kenya have given us a good, strong
friend today. I will try to approach this lecture in the spirit of
objectivity, precision, fairness and, above all, calm judgement that
everything written by Prem Bhatia shows.
It was suggested to me, gently, that I might speak on India and the
global scene. I will not inflict on you a compendium of Indian views and
attitudes and relationships around the world – a sort of MEA Annual
Report in a bad year with an uninspired author. What I would like to do
is to look at the broader issue of how India relates to the world, of
how we see our own role and place in the world and the international
community. These are naturally a function of our own interests, the
balance of power in which we operate and the international situation as
we find it.
Today may be a good time to undertake such an exercise. On the one hand
we hear outside voices urging India to be a “responsible” power, to do
more in the international order, particularly in international security.
Within India we increasingly hear loose talk of India as a superpower.
The issue is not the geopolitical importance of India – a country with
1/6th of humanity, a large and fast growing economy, situated in a vital
spot on multiple political fault-lines, with a great civilisation and a
consistent foreign policy. Such a country was bound to be a great power
– great not merely in the UN sense of the word, but great in the sense
in which Ashoka envisaged greatness.
How others see the prospect of India as a great power has always
depended on how they see that prospect affecting their interest. The
Soviet Union decided in the mid fifties that it was in their interest.
The US has now recognised it as such. And China has been too clever to
The issue for Indians is what sort of power India should be, in her own people’s interest.
In one sense this is not a new discussion. We have been here before in
the foundational period of the forties and fifties. In the fifties Nehru
was accused of having too grand a vision of India’s role and place in
the world. Nehru’s towering personality obscures the passion, logic and
depth of that debate, particularly in the fifties. It was a debate about
the very idea of non-alignment. It was a debate about whether values
have a role in foreign policy. It was a debate about the economic
autarchy we should seek, and about the very nature of our
industrialisation. It was a debate about nuclear disarmament. And it
expressed itself not only in Patel’s famous letter to Nehru on China
policy, but as early as Bose’s Fascist approach, in the continuing
internal debate on Pakistan policy, and in multiple Parliamentary
debates on foreign policy. On most of these Nehru’s choices have been
vindicated by history.
At the very outset the interim government that he headed declared his approach to the world in brave words that said:
“We propose, as far as possible, to keep away from the power politics of
groups aligned against one another, which have led in the past to world
wars and may again lead to disasters on a even vaster scale. The world,
in spite of its rivalries and hatreds and inner conflicts, moves
inexorably towards closer cooperation and the building up of a world
commonwealth. It is for this one world that free India will work.”
Opinion was divided at that time among contemporaries even in the USA
about the merits of non-alignment. President Eisenhower once expressed
the opinion in public that there was no need for the USA to take umbrage
at India’s policy of non-alignment, because for a hundred years the USA
itself had remained non-aligned. (Its policy used to be to remain aloof
from what George Washington called “entangling alliances”.) Eisenhower
also said that non-alignment as practiced by India and other countries,
similarly placed, need not necessarily act to the detriment of American
interests. This so upset Pakistan and some other US allies that Dulles
soon declared pontifically that non-alignment is “short sighted and
Nehru was the first to see the strategic space that the Cold War opened
up for the emergence of a third world, much against the wishes of the
superpowers. And he chose to use it not for his personal glory or
national interest narrowly defined. He used it for world peace and to
create the peaceful environment that India’s transformation required.
And most important, Nehru gave India a sense of destiny.
Nehru’s was indeed a grand conception. The fact that it did not coincide
with that of the two superpowers in a Cold War world did not make it
His conception led to some outstanding successes in foreign policy and
development terms, but perhaps less so in terms of hard security as
traditionally measured in military terms. India was largely instrumental
in bringing about a ceasefire in Korea, and it was the Indian formula
that solved the tangle regarding the repatriation of war prisoners and
brought about the armistice. In Indo-China India played an unobtrusive
but effective part in bringing about a political settlement after the
battle of Dien Bien Phu. India’s was a role that we can recall with
pride in encouraging decolonisation, relaxation of tensions among the
blocs, international disarmament, and the beginnings of multilateral
attention to development.
In hindsight we might be accused of a misplaced faith in the
multilateral approach and international organisations where we expended
so much effort. We even took Pakistan’s aggression in J&K to the UN,
thinking the UN would come to a quick and proper decision. But the
first act of the Security Council was to change the subject on the
agenda from the”Kashmir Question” to “India-Pakistan question”! We had
underestimated the protean forms of power politics. If the fifties were a
period of fulfilment, the sixties were, on the whole, a period of
There is no question that in Nehru’s time we were punching above our
weight, measured strictly in realist balance of power terms. This was
possible because of the strategic space that the Cold War opened up for
us, and because of the eminent good sense and reasonableness of what
Nehru was doing and advocating. During the fifties India stood higher in
the world’s (and her own) estimation than her strength warranted.
During the sixties the reverse was the case. After 1971 there has been a
greater correlation between India’s strength and prestige, and this
seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
I remind us of what must appear to be ancient history to most of this
audience because of its relevance to us and some of our present
Let us consider our situation today, and where our interests lie, seeing
what sort of power India might aspire to be, namely, how we might best
pursue our interests in today’s evolving world situation.
I proceed from the assumption that our primary task now and for the
foreseeable future is to transform and improve the life of the
unacceptably large number of our compatriots who live in poverty, with
disease, hunger and illiteracy as their companions in life. This is our
overriding priority, and must be the goal of our internal and external
security policies. Our quest is the transformation of India, nothing
less and nothing more. If we have consistently sought to avoid external
entanglements or outside restraints on our freedom of choice and action
it is because we have been acutely conscious of this overriding priority
and wanted nothing else to come in the way of its pursuit. This was and
remains the essence of the policy of non-alignment. If we have sought
the strategic autonomy that nuclear weapons bestow upon us it is to be
able to pursue this goal without distraction or external entanglement.
This is the touchstone against which policy should be measured both for
desirability and effect.
How have we done in practice?
Not badly, when judged by the pace and nature of the development of
India’s society and economy. Only one other country, China, can be said
to have drawn more people out of poverty largely as a result of her own
efforts. Consider the statistics. In 1947 the average Indian lived for
26 years, only about 14% of us were literate, and we were one of the
poorest countries on earth with well over 3/4ths of our population in
poverty. Famine was common, as was disease. Today our average life
expectancy is over 65 years, 2/3rds of our population is literate, and
(using similar relative yardsticks) around 1/5th of our population is
poor. We feed ourselves and know how to control disease. This is a vast
transformation, particularly when you also consider that our people can
now choose their own rulers and have social and political opportunities
that they never had before independence.
But the same statistics show that there is still a long way to go before
we can say that all our people enjoy a satisfactory standard of living
or are in a position to enjoy and exercise their rights and realise
their full potential.
We need at least 15 years more of 9-10% growth if we are to abolish the
mass poverty which still afflicts us. So, while India is already a major
economy in terms of size and ability to influence prices and supply and
demand in certain markets, it will still be a country of poor people
with overwhelming domestic priorities for an extended period of time.
This will certainly be true for the foreseeable future which is, at
best, fifteen years.
Hence India’s primary responsibility is and will remain improving the
lives of its own people for the foreseeable future. In other words,
India would only be a responsible power if our choices bettered the lot
of our people.
Stating the obvious, you might think. But think this through. There are
several significant corollaries to this simple sounding proposition. It
is certainly not a recipe for turning our backs on the world and trying
for pure autonomy. We tried that for a while and it led to a growth rate
of 3.5%. Instead it implies the active pursuit of our interests in the
world, always bearing in mind our goal. Here are some of the
consequences of what that would mean in practice:
1. We need to work for a peaceful periphery. We have an interest in
the peace and prosperity of our neighbours, removing extremism and
threats from their soil, as we are doing successfully with Bangladesh,
Sri Lanka and Bhutan. This is more than the negative interest in
avoiding sources of terrorism, extremism and insurgency from cross
border ethnicities or others. It is a positive interest in working
together with our neighbours to realise the joint development of South
This is not to say that we do not need a secure peace to make
development possible. We should need no reminding, having lost two Prime
Ministers to terrorists. But our choices in that fight have been
vindicated. For three decades we have faced a sustained campaign of
cross-border terrorism and military aggression in Kargil. That campaign
coincided with the period when India grew, changed, and accumulated
power at a rate never before achieved in our history.
2. As a country lacking some of the essential resources for our
continued development, (such as, oil, high grade coal, fertilisers, high
technology and non-ferrous metals), it is essential that we work to
ensure our continued access and build up our strategic stockpiles and
alternatives. This requires a sustained cooperative engagement with the
world, of the type that we are attempting in Africa and South East Asia
and already have with West Asia. When we have physical access Central
Asia too becomes important to us for this reason.
3. We have an interest in helping to create an enabling international
environment. We have an interest in global public goods like a peaceful
order, freedom of the seas and open sea lanes. Over 20% of our GDP is
now accounted for by our exports and our growth and survival depend on
our imports of fertilizer, energy and capital goods.
4. We have a responsibility to build the infrastructure in India and
our neighbourhood that enables us to pursue these goals. In this sense
roads in the border areas, air, rail and sea connectivity with our
neighbours, and economic integration in our extended neighbourhood all
become strategic goals.
5. Defencebecomes just that, defence not offense, unless offense is
necessary for deterrence or to protect India’s ability to continue its
own transformation. We must develop the means to defend ourselves. To
what extent we become a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and
our neighbourhood would depend on how it contributes to India’s own
transformation. As of now it is our appreciation that our nuclear
deterrence is best maintained by a credible and assured retaliatory
capacity, rather than a destabilising first strike doctrine.
You will notice that I have spoken of desirable outcomes, of goals that
we should aim for so that we can make India the modern, prosperous,
strong country that we all want. I have not spoken of the means, of the
tools that we have to forge and improve, namely, our armed forces, our
governmental structures, our national security organs, and so on. A
review of our National Security System structures is presently underway.
The Cabinet has asked a specially appointed task force to undertake
this task. How we shape those instruments will depend on the task we
have set ourselves as a nation and on the threats that we see to India’s
What about our values you will ask. Do we not have a responsibility to
spread democracy and fight for our values abroad? Yes and no. Yes, if we
have the means to actually ensure that we are able to spread them. And
yes if having democrats as our neighbours contributes to the peaceful
periphery that we need. But please remember that a people cannot be
forced to be free or to practice democracy. They have to come to these
values themselves if they are to be lasting. Such a crusade for one’s
values is often mistaken by others as the pursuit of self-interest
couched in high tone words. We have seen how high sounding phrases like
the “right to protect” are selectively invoked and brutally applied in
the pursuit of self interest, giving humanitarian and international
intervention a bad name.
[Perhaps one result of trying to spread one’s values to other countries
is for us to feel good and posture in front of our own people. But this
is the worst form of hypocrisy. It also prevents a realistic
understanding of the world we live in. It gets in the way of the pursuit
of our real interests.]
It could be argued that I have outlined a very selfish policy, and that
if every country were to follow such a policy, avoiding external
entanglements and only taking what suits it from the international
community, the world would actually end up poorer and less secure than
before. It is true that absolute security for one country means absolute
insecurity for all others. Extreme prosperity in some is at the price
of the immiserisation of others. That is why it is also necessary to
look at the sort of world we are living in and at the reactions that our
pursuits will provoke from others.
The World Situation
We live for the present in a globalised world, which is increasingly
tending towards multi-polarity, where power is more evenly distributed
between and among states. There is no question that the world of 2011 is
no longer as supportive of our transformation as in the nineties. The
world economy has deteriorated in the last few years since the global
financial and economic crisis of 2008. Pakistan and some areas west of
her have declined into what appears to be chronic instability. West Asia
is in turmoil. Technology has empowered small groups of radicals,
extremists, hackers, pirates and terrorists, shifting the balance of
power within states too. Between states, the rise of China has been
magnified by a matching loss of Western will and economic confidence.
But attempting to predict the evolution of the world is risky and
unlikely to be accurate. Let us instead look at the factors in the
international situation that will affect our quest. In my opinion, three
issues are likely to most affect our future ability to transform India.
1. The first is the rise of China and Asia. The facts are well known.
What China achieved in the last thirty years is phenomenal. In thirty
years China’s economy has grown by a factor of very nearly ten. The IMF
recently projected that it will be the largest economy in the world in
just five years time. By 2035 China will use one fifth of all global
energy. China, which used to be dependent on direct foreign investment,
is now herself the investor with three trillion dollars of international
reserves and a sovereign wealth fund with 200 billion dollars. She is
about to overtake Germany in terms of new patents granted each year.
The world worries whether the powerful China that is emerging so rapidly
will be a hegemon, or whether she will be one of several powerful
cooperative states in the international order. Will she reorder
international structures to suit herself, as the US did after WWII, and
as other states have done in history? Or will she continue to rely on
existing security and other structures that have worked so well for her,
enabling her rise so far?
There are no agreed answers to these questions, in India or abroad.
India’s interest is clearly in an inclusive world order, with China as
one of its cooperative members. That is clearly what we need to work
towards, along with China itself.
Bilaterally India-China relations today have elements of cooperation and
competition at the same time. We have a boundary dispute, and
overlapping peripheries in our extended neighbourhood, which is also
China’s extended neighbourhood. So long as both of us continue to be
primarily concerned with our internal transformations, cooperate in the
international arena on our common interests, and do not see the other
affecting our core interests, we can expect the present relationship to
continue as it is. But this will require much better communication
between India and China, and no misunderstanding of each other’s actions
This also requires that some of our media and commentators, whose
unquestioned brilliance is regularly on display lambasting other
countries for their politics and policies, learn the virtues of
moderation. The Chinese cannot believe that these media and commentators
do not speak authoritatively for the country, as does their controlled
media and academia. We must recognise that other countries too could
have similar imperatives as ours and their own reasons for what they do.
And why create self-fulfilling prophesies of conflict with powerful
neighbours like China? (For me that is one of the lessons of the fifties
that some of us are in danger of forgetting.)
2. The second is a clutch of energy and technology related issues.
Energy security, climate change, renewable energy and so on. Most of
these issues that will determine our success in transforming India are
not amenable to just our actions. We need international partners,
coalitions where possible, to deal with major economic or political
issues. Consider inflation in India, which concerns each of us. Much of
what we see today in India is caused by the massive injection of
liquidity in the international economy by the USA, China and developed
economies to promote their own recovery after the economic crisis of
2008, and the rise in oil and commodity prices that has followed. This
effect has been compounded by events in the Middle East and the
uncertainty that this has caused, particularly about future energy
Technology issues include the new domains of space and cyber space and
proliferation. These are new domains of contention where the old rules
of engagement and war no longer apply. Just as the world had to learn
new rules and ways of thinking about nuclear weapons, we are now at the
beginning of doing so for outer space and cyber space, both of which are
increasingly critical to our daily lives, economies and futures.
3. The third is our internal cohesion and coherence, namely, our
success in meeting the formidable internal challenges that we face and
will face in the foreseeable future. These include the social and other
effects of rapid but uneven growth. Left Wing Extremism or Naxalism is
one such challenge to our development strategy and to our state
institutions. We cannot say that we know all the answers. What we do
know is that neither the application of force alone nor a single-minded
focus on development can solve the problem. Equally we now face new
challenges of policing megacities and a population of which over 50%
will soon be urban not rural. The defence of porous borders requires us
to learn new rules for the use and combination of force, suasion and
deterrence, alongside other more benign means of persuasion. Talk of
strategic autonomy or of increasing degrees of independence has little
meaning unless our defence production and innovation capabilities
undergo a quantum improvement. A country that does not develop and
produce its own major weapons platforms has a major strategic weakness,
and cannot claim true strategic autonomy. This is a real challenge for
So what does this add up to in terms of a global role for India?
This is not an argument for inward looking passivity. In fact it is just
the opposite. You would notice that what I have listed as the likely
determinants of India’s success in transforming herself would all
require us to work with external partners.
As a nation state India has consistently shown tactical caution and
strategic initiative, sometimes simultaneously. The record bears this
out. Non-alignment itself was an act of strategic courage. We kept our
nuclear option alive despite the NPT and exercised it in 1998 when
economically stronger countries could not. Since 1988 we have made
considerable progress in our relations with China. The Indo-Soviet
Treaty, the India-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987, the India-Sri Lanka Free
Trade Agreement of 2000, the India-US civil nuclear cooperation
agreement, and so on. The list of our previous strategic initiatives is
But equally, initiative and risk taking must be strategic, not tactical,
if we are to avoid the fate of becoming a rentier state. That is why it
is important to peg our goals and use of power to our immediate and
overriding interest in our domestic transformation. In other words, our
condition and the state of the world require us not to seek hegemony, or
domination, or expansion, or strategic depth. None of these serve our
basic interest, even in a defensive sense. Being a bridging power, or a
swing state might, in certain circumstances.
What would this mean in practice? It means, for instance, that faced
with piracy from Somalia, which threatens sea-lanes vital to our energy
security, we would seek to build an international coalition to deal with
the problem at its roots, working with others and dividing labour.
Today the African Union has peacekeeping troops on the ground in
Somalia. We could work with others to blockade the coast while the AU
troops act against pirate sanctuaries on land, and the world through the
Security Council would cut their financial lifelines, build the legal
framework to punish pirates and their sponsors, and develop Somalia to
the point where piracy would not be the preferred career choice of young
Somali males. This is just one example of what such a policy could mean
In today’s world we must also be ready to contribute within our capacity
to the global public goods that are increasingly important to our well
being, such as freedom of the seas. Are we ready to shape outcomes on
critical issues such as energy security and in areas such as the West
Asia? Not yet. We have internal hesitations due to what I would call the
Partition syndrome and our fear of the communalisation of discourse.
But more than that, our capacities, though growing, are still limited in
certain fields critical to national security.
As a result of sixty years of non-entanglement or non-alignment we have
built a country whose influence is considerable in our immediate
neighbourhood. As a result of our economic growth, we are heard with
respect and consulted in global economic councils. The new central role
of the G-20 is tribute to the shift in global economic power and
interdependence. But political and military power is the core, and is
something that existing power holders do not share voluntarily or
easily. On the larger political issues of the day we are consulted and
have views that matter. India’s independence of action (or independent
agency) has grown over time. In 1948 we went to the UN seeking help
against Pakistani aggression in J&K. In 1971 we helped the people of
Bangladesh to create their own state, using legitimate force in self
defence and in the service of a clear and legitimate political goal. And
in 2008, helped by the USA and major powers, the international
community rewrote the rules for nuclear cooperation with India making an
exception in our favour in the NSG. This is progress.
With time, our positive interests will grow and our horizons expand, as a responsible member of the international community.
As an old fashioned patriot I am confident that ultimately the Indian
people, history and geography will prevail, as they always have.
To sum up.
For a considerable time to come India will be a major power with several
poor people. We must always therefore be conscious of the difference
between weight, influence and power. Power is the ability to create and
sustain outcomes. Weight we have, our influence is growing, but our
power remains to grow and should first be used for our domestic
History is replete with examples of rising powers who prematurely
thought that their time had come, who mistook influence and weight for
real power. Their rise, as that of Wilhelmine Germany or militarist
Japan, was cut short prematurely.
So at the risk of disappointing those who call on India to be a
“responsible” power, (meaning that they want us to do what they wish),
and at the risk of disappointing some of you who like to think of India
as an old-fashioned superpower, I would only say, as Mrs Indira Gandhi
once said: “India will be a different power” and will continue to walk
her own path in the world. That is the only responsible way for us.