India’s ‘Grand Strategy’ – As Good As It Gets

India needs to rethink its dealings with the world, and with itself. Source: https://spc.vlms.net/

Till about a decade ago, it was not unusual to speak of India’s “peaceful rise”. The Chinese had used it to describe themselves (though substituting “rise” for “development”, thinking it was less militaristic), so it was not original. However, no one uses “peaceful rise” in the Indian context anymore. Internal unrest, divisive politics, ultra-nationalism, jingoism, a collapsing economy, broken institutions and grave threats to constitutionalism are not compatible with “peaceful rise”.


You do hear another narrative, that India’s “prestige” in the world has never been higher since Independence. No evidence is forwarded to advance the claim when all the available evidence points in the opposite direction. Kashmir, the Northeast and relations with Pakistan and China are tense. Neighbours Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan are unhappy with India in varying degrees. In major power equations, India has ceased to matter. The US does not see India as a serious counterforce to China, although visiting US admirals pay lip service to that aspiration. In the momentous remaking of the Middle East, where Iran and Turkey have emerged as major players challenging not only US-backed Arab powers but also Israel, India does not count. The Soviet Union looked to Indian support once upon a time for its misadventures in Eastern Europe and the Middle East; Russia couldn’t be bothered now.


In East Asia flippantly called the Indo-Pacific, nations hurt by Chinese claims in the South China and East China seas do not see any role for India. Like a paper tiger, India issues statements now and then about freedom of navigation and overflights. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership or RCEP was a good point of insertion in the fraught region but New Delhi walked away. Since Suzuki started making automobiles in India, ties with Japan have grown, but they are not strategic. Japan is too exhausted to take on China and it will certainly not bet on doing that with India’s help. No wonder, Japan stayed neutral in India’s Doklam crisis with China. So much for India’s risen prestige in the world.

However, this is not a new story. If you take away Jawaharlal Nehru’s Non-Alignment and the 1991 economic reforms of P. V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh, you would be hard pressed to discover any strategic planning at all in the last seventy years. Even these two (non-alignment and 1991 reforms) were circumstantial. The Cold War rivalry thrust Non-Alignment on India and the first Gulf War, collapsed foreign remittances and plunging forex reserves forced the Rao-Manmohan reforms. That they worked as far as they did is another matter.


India’s problem with a lack of general direction goes deep. You could give it a military or geopolitical dimension by calling it absent “grand strategy”, but nations cannot be boxed into narrow constructs such as these. Vision is better.


The founders of the USA had vision. They wanted no part of European wars. It helped that the Atlantic Ocean separated Europe from America. In relative isolation, employing the Protestant Ethic and free enterprise, they prospered. They did so well that they beat every metric of Great Power measurement by the late nineteenth century.


In its own bumbling way, Britain had vision. Preserving its island status, it took no sides in European wars except as a balancer, including the Napoleonic Wars. It made the balance of power into a fine art. Japan, however, failed to do the same as an island nation. Its rise after the Meiji Restoration was meteoric, but it went to its head. Once it beat Russia at sea, Japan went on an occupational rampage in East Asia which ended with abject surrender in 1945.

The history of Bismarckian Germany is not very different. The era of Great Powers is over. A Great Power may be simply defined as one that can mould the external environment to its lasting advantage. Now, even the US can’t do that. It can’t win in Afghanistan any more than the Soviet Union could in the 1980s. It has left Iraq and, indeed, the
whole of the Middle East in a mess.Soviet Russia’s ‘Great Power’ status couldn’t prevent its break-up. Despite being in the big league, China is making heavy weather of the troubles in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and cannot overcome a
monk named the Dalai Lama. Its economy has been roiled by the trade war with the US which suggests that it has a long way to go before it can be classed as an imperturbable Great Power. That stage may never be reached.


Meanwhile, India’s previous obsession with “peaceful rise” and presently with “international prestige” and such things points the country in the wrong direction. Modern history is dated to 1500 AD when sea voyages enabled the world – the Western world, in truth – to gain a sense of itself.


Indian reawakening came much later in the mid-nineteenth century. However, it was handicapped by discontinuous written history, dynastic empires that did not transform to unbroken central rule of the Indian subcontinent, and wars within the subcontinent which enabled invasions and foreign rule and militated against the idea of a single nation.


India’s founders overcame these tremendous disadvantages by giving the country a liberal democracy based on the tenets of Ashoka and the assimilative character of Indian society. Anything more was not feasible. The unbroken political unity that generally characterizes nation-states was missing and religion and culture were found to be inadequate glues.


Holding these deficits and others responsible for India’s lack of “strategic culture”, the late George Tanham of RAND was pessimistic regarding India’s rise in the traditional sense. The pessimism was deepened by economic backwardness, endemic poverty, industrial and technological stagnation, and lack of innovation. More thoughtful policymakers such as Jaswant Singh have wrestled with Tanham’s dark thoughts since 1992, but to no avail.

It is almost impossible to expect India in the present climate to reassess its direction and to make course corrections, but these cannot be indefinitely postponed. Contrary to conventional wisdom, militarism and militant nationalism will not only not win peace with adversaries, but also weaken India internally, adding to the infirmities produced by economic decline. The history of fallen empires and foreign rule suggest that India’s political discontinuities cannot be overcome by privileging one religion and one culture over everything else. Pakistan is a living example of the failure of such a project and of the Two Nation Theory on which it was based.


Unless India becomes a model liberal secular democracy, it has no chance of influencing the neighbourhood, much less win world prestige. Without the economic capacity to lift tides in and around, it cannot become a beacon of hope to a broken region. While an optimum defensive military force is necessary, militarism goes against the nature of the country and its last apostle, Gandhi. It is never wise to go against nature. The Indian ethos is constructed for peaceableness, diplomacy and negotiated settlements and like it or not, they have to be applied to Pakistan, Kashmir and China. It is the only “grand strategy” that will open a new future for the country.

N V Subramanian

N V Subramanian is a writer, journalist and analyst with two published works of fiction and articles appearing in several prestigious Indian and foreign publications.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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