Joseph S. Nye Jr, of Harvard University and a Clinton-era assistant secretary of defence, in a recent Washington Post oped piece noted that US political scientists were more interested in honing international relations theory than doing policy-related research. This development, he claimed, has led to their absence, by and large, from the senior ranks of the Obama administration. Nye’s rueful tone is understandable. The US foreign and military policy post-World War II has been in the vanguard of thinking in the main because of its high-octane intellectual content, of course, but also because US leaders have had the confidence to trust the experts and shape policies based on their advice.
In India, economists and statisticians have always held positions of responsibility in government, apparently because the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, couldn’t make much of the “dismal science” and hoped the specialists he relied on to implement the Soviet socialist model would deliver fast-paced economic growth. In the foreign and military policy realms, however, he was convinced that nobody else on the scene could match his knowledge of history or his capacity for insights into global power politics. India’s foreign and military policies in the formative years, therefore, became a matter of implementing Nehru’s decrees. No surprise, then, that the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), while having pretensions, never really developed intellectual muscle. How could it if, as Natwar Singh, a former foreign minister and diplomat, claims, 70% of IFS officers have not read a book after joining service? Nehru’s contempt for civil servants paralleled his lack of respect for Indians holding flag rank in the Indian Army, whose inability to score a decisive victory in the 1947-48 Kashmir operations only reinforced his prejudice, eventuating in his belief that the China threat would have to be tackled diplomatically.
Subsequent prime ministers sometimes called in people from outside for advice. Indira Gandhi had her “kitchen cabinet” comprising Left-leaning friends. Other than indicating the line, policy definition was left by her to the so-called “professionals”—the diplomats and senior Indian Administrative Service officers and uniformed personnel where defence was concerned, who, in turn, hewed to the Nehruvian guidelines long after these became obsolete. The ensuing system of policymaking disregarded the fact that conceptualizing grand strategy and working out strategy and policy options in a milieu in flux requires qualifications beyond following precedent and adopting an incremental approach, which is what non-expert careerists “playing safe” do. Honourable exceptions apart, they are ill equipped to jettison overnight a lifetime bureaucrat’s habit of mind or acquire the necessary analytical capability, intellectual heft and expertise across critical foreign and national security policy domains for the purpose of creative strategic visioning and fleshing out alternative policy schemes. Despite this, political leaders have mistaken a civil servant’s tenure in a ministry with expertise in the field and a be-medalled visage for the ability to strategize. Moreover, retirees from the civilian and uniformed services tapped for advice have a vested interest in prolonging brain-dead policies they were associated with.
Naturally, stodginess and diffidence—the bane of India’s foreign and military policies—have resulted. And the dubious thinking of civilian and military bureaucrats, whose reputation for sagacious counsel is overtaken by the growing weight of their wrong advice, remains the touchstone of fearful political leaders. Thus in 1995-96, for instance, K. Subrahmanyam, the late J.N. Dixit and retired Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, all urged the Indian government to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The antique 1974 bomb was sufficient, they argued, for nuclear deterrence even in an uncertain future potentially rife with grave risks. But come 1998, and they crowed about the political and strategic benefits accruing from the tests and were given a role in shaping the Bharatiya Janata Party government’s foreign policy agenda. These advisers then championed the strategically short-sighted deal with the US predicated on India’s giving up nuclear testing pushed by the successor Congress party regime that has sucked the credibility out of its minimum deterrent stance. It is a deal that is coming unstuck with the non-proliferation-minded Obama presidency, which will hold India to its commitments but not deliver unhindered trade in civilian nuclear technologies.
The awareness is growing that in an ever more complex world, where specialist knowledge is the building block of policy, not according a substantive role to experts in policymaking is a self-inflicted liability. The second Administrative Reforms Commission headed by M. Veerappa Moily has recognized the need and recommended the lateral entry of outside experts to improve policymaking generally. In this context, the new dispensation assuming power mid-May should, for starters, create advisory posts at the highest level in the defence and external affairs ministries and departments such as atomic energy and space, and fill them with outside experts. This will better utilize the available intellectual resources, ventilate a closed policymaking process, expose the government to cutting edge analytics and offer up a rich array of policy choices. It could initiate the sort of “revolving door” system (wherein experts follow up stints in government with time in think tanks and universities) that has served US policymaking so well.
Bharat Karnad is professor in national security studies at the Centre for Policy Research and author, most recently, of India’s Nuclear Policy. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org