Monday, Oct 03, 2022

‘India can resist pressure but cannot influence countries’

Here's an excerpt from conservative strategist Bharat Karnad's latest book.

bharat karnad

Excerpted from Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet) by Bharat Karnad

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Rs. 875


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A more methodical view of India’s prospects is provided by V.K. Saraswat, until June 2013 Science Adviser to the Defence Minister and head of the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO). ‘India is emerging as a great power and this process of emergence has its own slope’, he explained.

If you divide the power into its different aspects—economic power, military power, cyber power, and so on, we are growing at a faster rate in some of these areas and slower in others. But if you integrate all these powers in the next 15–20 years, India will find its entitled place as a great power…with a say in the world community as a whole.

This is a reasonable progress chart, but the tenor and substance of statements by high officials in the government, such as the National Security Advisers to-date, hint at a shriveled view of India’s place in the sun and hesitation in owning up to the country’s responsibilities. An inward-turned mindset means constricted Indian policy choices and priorities.

Consequently, the Indian government projects an image of a country too caught up in its domestic developments to do other than the barest minimum in the external realm to keep its bona fides as a would-be great power afloat.

A limited vision for the country means India is unable to recapture the broad sweep of ambition that placed it, in Nehru’s scheme of things, as mediator between the rival ideological blocs in the Cold War and, more significantly, as the pivotal power propping up an ‘Asian Monroe Doctrine’. It is hard to see narrowly-based, short-ranged, and risk-averse policies, which seem to be the norm, doing much beyond reinforcing India’s image as a country without the motor to make it really big in the world. The conclusion by George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, that based on the realist criterion of great power as the ability to both resist international pressure and influence other countries, India is only ‘a middle rank power’ that can resist pressure (as the success
of its nuclear weapons and missile programmes in the face of severe technology denial regimes attest) but cannot influence countries, therefore, holds. The foreign policy principles espoused by top apparatchiks, moreover, depict India as a ‘moralistic, contrarian loner’, the reason why, Perkovich claims, India is not very popular and cannot muster the support in the United Nations General Assembly for a permanent seat in the Security Council. On the other hand, he believes, that were India, somehow ‘to get it right’, meet the aspirations of its billion plus population—which won’t happen in the foreseeable future—it would be a manifestation of global great power’ (Perkovich 2003–04: 129–30, 140.). A manifestation, however, is not the same thing as actually being a great power and is something only votaries of India’s soft power approach would welcome. Even when these Indians in leadership positions urge the country to ‘think big’ it is exclusively in terms of raising the economic growth rate. High levels of growth may afford the country the resources of a great power but is not a substitute for great power. Then again, the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, echoing Indira Gandhi’s line from the 1970s, made clear that India ‘does not desire to be a global superpower’; it only wishes, he wrote, ‘to live in peace and dignity’ (Singh 2007: 19).


This was an unusually meager ambition for a country whose large economy and military, and growing political influence can serve grander aims. It’s possible that this statement was made only for public consumption in line with the low-key official rhetoric and policy involving prudent engagement with the world. But it does manifest the institutional aversion to thinking big and chancing success, and denotes only limited regional and global ambition. Manmohan Singh’s emphasizing the economic advancement of the country, moreover, ignored its connection with the military capabilities of the state because, as the Yale historian Paul Kennedy maintains, wealth is needed to underpin military power and military power is needed to acquire and protect wealth (Kennedy 1989). This is something China has learned well but India has yet to come to grips with. It indicates that even as India grows more powerful economically and more capable militarily, the muted and muddled national vision will be like the ball and chain around the country’s ankles, preventing it from leaping ahead. Then again, may be, it mirrors the diffidence and sensitivity of a state that nearly seven decades after independence is unable to provide the bare necessities of life to a large part of its 1.2 billion population.

The external affairs minister in the Vajpayee government, Jaswant Singh, who in the past talked of India’s interests coinciding with its ‘civilizational reach’, blamed the ‘timidity’ of thought and of action ‘born of the slavery India went through’ and the fact that the Indian government is ‘not yet free of [its] shadows and overhang’, for the country’s failure so far to make it as a great power. It is a view seconded by many in the military. Former head of the Indian Air Force (IAF) and member of the National Security Advisory Board, Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy (Retd.) is trenchant in this regard. ‘It is in our cultural DNA. We have been slaves who helped outsiders rule us for over fifteen hundred years.’ [Th e elongated timeframe is a reference to the Muslim rulers of South Asia in the wake of the Arab invasion starting in the seventh century, the subsequent forays by adventurers from Persia and Central Asia, and finally the expansion of the power of the East India Company and the consolidation of the Crown colony following the first War of independence in 1857—all of which foreign entities, incidentally, co-opted native rulers and used local mercenary armies to extend and solidify their grip on the subcontinent]. ‘So guarding someone else’s interests, but not our own, comes naturally to us.’ The theme of foreign subjugation and the Indian people’s central role in sustaining it hints at historical fears which contributed to India’s nonalignment policy and its latter-day variant, strategic autonomy.

India’s ego is fragile, and seeks international, especially Western, approval and validation of the country’s standing and policies, and yet it is touchy about supposed slights, insults, and even unintended acts of ‘condescension’, impelling Indians and their government alike to show umbrage, and is part of the Indian persona and psychological baggage the people and the country carry. The Indian armed forces, for instance, quietly bristled at a 2002 U.S. Department of Defense Report on ‘Indo-U.S. Military Relationship’, which seemed to confirm their worst fears of being fobbed off with ‘low-end operations in Asia…[thereby] allow[ing] the U.S. military to concentrate its resources on high end fighting missions’ against the Chinese threat common to both countries (MacDonald 2002). The low-end operations referred to Indian naval ships acting as armed escorts for U.S. naval flotillas transiting the Malacca Strait. But many fear that such secondary actions are all that India is capable of prosecuting, because it is culturally and politically disabled from thinking and acting culture, we are satisfied by the meeting of immediate needs’, said Dr. Saraswat, former DRDO head. ‘We are not an ambitious people. Even if we want to become Number One in the world, the attitude is ‘ Haan, ho jayenge ’ (Well, yes, we will become one in due time) we are not driven; that’s the reason for our slow pace of progress.’ It marks India out as a country that isn’t revisionist, won’t rock the boat and, therefore, an ideal strategic partner for big powers such as the United States to help prop up the extant order in Asia they dominate (Clary 2011). New Delhi sees the country’s ascent in terms of big powers voluntarily sharing ‘the high table’ (permanent membership in the U.N. Security Council, etc.) with India once it has persuaded them to get over their ‘entrenched reluctance’ to do so. Implicit in all such official depictions of where India is headed is the basic belief that India will secure the great power position by goodwill and deft diplomacy unlike other states that obtained it by sheer will, strategic vision, and show of force. It is a desire to ‘free-ride to great power status, which includes ducking hard decisions and avoiding shouldering a burden, [and] [not] bearing …responsibility ’ (Ladwig III 2010: 1171). It ignores Kautilya’s advice to his emperor in 223
BC that sama (concessions, peace treaties and peaceful incentives of various kinds) and dhan (economic grants, financial credit and aid) are all very well, but it is dand (preponderant military power) that ultimately persuades unfriendly states to toe the line. Or, consider the advice by Europe’s Kautilya come-lately, Machiavelli, to his Prince that for success to attend on his ventures he should have the cunning of a fox and the strength of a lion. In other words, guile works better when backed by the gun.


In contrast to China’s grab-as-grab-can attitude to augmenting national power, India’s less frenetically-run race to global presence, power and status is, perhaps, easier for the international community to digest. But New Delhi anticipates that this approach combined with the pull of demography—‘the soft underbelly of geopolitics’ will make the regional and international milieus receptive to its slow and steady rise as an Asian power. With a young, vigorous, and aspiring demographic, however, India today is a very different country to the India of the past century—less forgiving and less patient. Saraswat believes the younger generation may be unwilling to wait too long for India to become a great power. ‘They are not affected by [the current ruling generation’s] cultural and historical background of morality, colonialism, religion, pacifism’, he said. ‘They are vibrant, ambitious for the country, willing to act, to take risk, and to take up challenges.’ The new BJP Prime Minister Narendra Modi reflected this restlessness of the young and the aspirational in the ‘India First’ doctrine he enunciated. ‘Whatever we do, it must be for India’, Modi told a youthful and enthusiastic audience in Spring 2013. ‘We must never let India, her honour, the dreams of the people be adversely affected. India first it must be.’ Modi’s ‘India first’ ideology and thinking could potentially alter how Indians see their own country and fire up policies to make India a great power.

First published on: 28-10-2015 at 05:06:24 pm
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