India’s strategic location, size, resources and a booming economy are of little consequence when the country is confused about its “manifest destiny” and the means to realize it. The trouble is India wants to become a great power by acclamation and without expending blood, sweat and riches as other great powers have done throughout history; perhaps because it considers such position a social entitlement! How else to make sense of the country’s progressive strategic reduction?
The failure is attributed to India’s being a “soft state”, one incapable of exercising the hard options. But the soft state is a myth propagated by Indian leaders to cover up for their muddled handling of critical matters. Nevertheless, this concept hitched in recent times to the “soft power” that India supposedly packs, has generated a thesis, to use the British military analyst Jeremy Black’s phrase from another context, of “infinite applicability” that both explains away weaknesses its short-sighted rulers have foisted on the country and to offer up alleged solutions.
India, it is maintained, can emerge as a great power by becoming an economic and cultural giant using its “soft power”, while remaining a military-strategic pygmy. It is another matter, that the conviction that soft power can best hard power in the new era is of a piece with the belief that the economic card can trump the military card, and is so much hogwash. Great powers have historically been marked out by a forceful vision reflected in ambitious and expansive policies, the ability to muster the will to realize that vision, the possession of decisive military wherewithal, to wit, terrifying high-yield thermonuclear weapons carried by intercontinental-range missiles, and by amoral, hard-headed, policies.
Alas, India has proved itself deficient in these four prerequisites of great power, with successive governments hobbling the country with policies of self-restraint and self-abnegation.
Thus, Jawaharlal Nehru’s grand vision of an “Asian Monroe Doctrine” powered by India articulated in 1947, instead of being fleshed out in terms of an ‘Indian Monroe Doctrine’, clearly delineating the entire Indian Ocean basin and on the landward side, Tibet and Central Asia, as an Indian sphere of responsibility, has been reduced in practice to establishing dominance in the subcontinent!
To complement this, unlike the extant great powers, who followed up their fission weapons breakthrough with an expeditious march, at no great additional cost, to thermonuclear capability and intercontinental ballistic missiles, India has frozen its capability at the level of a small, quality-wise primitive, atomic arsenal and the missile programme prioritized the development of the short-range Prithvi rather than an ICBM.
Further, the strategy to raise its standing in the world has faltered at the first step. Instead of configuring a cordon sanitaire of friendly countries which depend on it for their security and well being—the sine qua non of great power—India has methodically alienated its neighbours, paving the way for China to establish itself in strength in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar. Worse, the paranoia of the adjoining states is perennially stoked by our military posture.
Large armoured and mechanized forces and short-legged aircraft able to fight only small, short duration wars in the vicinity have been purchased at the expense of capabilities for expeditionary and distant warfare—the sort of military and naval muscle that should ordinarily fuel India’s unstated ambition to emerge as a credible counterweight to China in Asia.
India has also voluntarily abjured the policy of selling arms—the proven diplomatic instrument to make friends and influence people, despite Nehru’s founding the domestic defence industry in the hope that it would sustain itself by selling its wares to the Indian and other Third World militaries. But what obtains is a defence industrial complex, grown fat on licensed manufacture deals, producing mostly second-rate goods and rich contracts for the Russian, Israeli, French, British, and, soon the American, arms industries!
Moreover, notwithstanding the success of India’s naval diplomacy, the ministry of external affairs’ allergy to anything military remains, leading to its nixing arms transfers to countries in the littoral and farther afield and to naval and air bases not being sought to counter China’s growing presence in the region. Such wanton disregard for the imperatives of military geography is, however, consistent with the Indian government’s short strategic horizon. India’s inability to discern its vital national interests has spawned an over-weaning approach and satisfaction with achieving small successes where lesser states are concerned, but a policy of limp accommodation with big powers. India, in the event, finds itself treated with near contempt by China, disguised disdain by the US, and with little respect by the rest of the world. Without correctives, India’s search for great power status, already something of a joke–note its inability to win the votes for even temporary membership of the Security Council—may turn into a fiasco.
Bharat Karnad is Professor of National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, and author, most recently, of Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security, now in its second edition. We welcome our readers’ comments at firstname.lastname@example.org