The commissioning of the INS Vikramaditya late last year has made India the only Asian nation other than pre-war Japan to operate more than one aircraft carrier at a time. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who visits the carrier today, should know that this special moment in Asia’s maritime history will not last too long. India’s ageing carrier, INS Viraat, is now 60 years old and will have to be decommissioned sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, India’s construction of an indigenous carrier is short of funding and woefully behind schedule. Even if New Delhi gets its defence act together in the coming years, India will find Beijing adding more carriers to the first it commissioned a couple of years ago.
The rise of China as a great economic power, the dramatic expansion of its naval might and its growing assertiveness in Asia’s waters are transforming India’s security environment in multiple ways. Delhi, obsessed as it is with land-based threats, has been unable to digest the significance of this extraordinary change in Asia’s maritime space, let alone respond effectively. It is probably fortuitous that Modi has chosen his first field engagement with the Indian armed forces at sea. But he can put the decision to good use by reflecting on India’s long-neglected maritime imperative.
Hailing from Gujarat, which for millennia was at the forefront of India’s maritime trade with the world, Modi may be better placed than his recent predecessors to think of India’s strategic future in maritime terms. Modi is perhaps aware that the origins of the Indian navy can be traced back to Gujarat. It was way back in 1612 that the East India Company established a marine force at Surat to combat piracy in the Arabian Sea and secure British commercial shipping with India. Four centuries later, not much seems to have changed, as most of the world’s major navies, including that of China, are in the Arabian sea in the name of fighting piracy.
What has changed, though, is the volume and strategic significance of India’s trade. While the British Raj integrated India to the global markets across the seas, Delhi, in the early decades of independence, progressively turned sea-blind.
Two factors led India to turn its back on the sea. One was India’s choice of self-reliance as the national strategy of economic development. Once India shunned trade, it was inevitable that its maritime vision would blur. On the security front, independent India had to deal with new borders created by the Partition of the subcontinent and China’s entry into Tibet. The wars with Pakistan and China in the high Himalayas would freeze the continental mindset of the security establishment in Delhi.
It was only when India began to globalise its economy at the turn of the 1990s that India woke up to the maritime imperative. A quarter of a century later, India’s world trade, most of which moves by the sea, now stands at nearly 50 per cent of its GDP. India is also profoundly dependent on the import of energy resources by sea. Yet, the development of maritime infrastructure, whether it is building world-class ports or expanding India’s shipbuilding capacity, has not kept pace with its growing reliance on the sea. Nor has Delhi developed the two island chains in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea that give India extraordinary maritime reach and potential influence.
On the security front, India’s deeds have not always matched its words. Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, insisted that India’s security perimeter extends beyond the land frontiers and covers the entire Indian Ocean littoral. If Singh had the right policy insights, he did not have the political authority to persuade his defence minister, A.K. Antony, to act upon them.
By the middle of the last decade, there was no doubt that as a major trading nation, Delhi must build a large and powerful navy capable of projecting power, securing India’s interests dispersed around the Indo-Pacific littoral and contributing to the global public goods in the maritime domain. But regrettably, Delhi became the main obstacle to the advancement of India’s maritime and naval objectives in the last few years.
Under Antony, the Indian navy had to endure all the tragedies inflicted on the armed forces by the ministry of defence: the mismanagement of civil-military relations, chaos in weapons procurement and the refusal to support the expansion of domestic defence production, to name a few. The navy also suffered an additional burden thanks to the MoD’s utter lack of appreciation of matters maritime. While the Indian foreign office valued naval diplomacy as a valuable addition to India’s tool kit, Antony actively discouraged the navy’s international engagement.
At the very moment when nations big and small, as well as multilateral institutions, regional and global, were urging India to play a larger security role, Antony slammed the brakes on India’s naval diplomacy and its international maritime partnerships. The mismatch between the navy’s natural outward orientation and Antony’s mofussil mindset has had disastrous consequences.
Modi will have his hands full clearing the detritus from Antony’s prolonged tenure in the ministry of defence. But he will have to devote special attention to the civilian and military dimensions of India’s maritime imperative.
Nearly 60 years ago, when Jawaharlal Nehru acquired India’s first aircraft carrier, Vikrant, maritime power was entirely marginal to India’s economy and security. Today, as Modi dedicates INS Vikramaditya to the nation, the Indian navy must be put at the very heart of India’s economic and security strategies.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’