What Obstructs India’s Quest for the Status as a ‘Power’?
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Issue Vol. 36.2, Apr-Jun 2021 | Date : 21 Jun , 2021

“Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Our principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party. …According to the Marxist theory of the state, the army is the chief component of state power. Whoever wants to seize and retain state power must have a strong army. Some people ridicule us as advocates of the “omnipotence of war”… in this sense we may say that only with guns can the whole world be transformed. We are advocates of the abolition of war, we do not want war; but war can only be abolished through war, and in order to get rid of the gun it is necessary to take up the gun.

— Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, Vol. II, pp. 224-225

Understanding ‘Power’

From a hard boiled realists point of view the status of a nation being a global/regional power relates to its ability to influence events to further its interests and compel others to modify theirs interests so that their interests are not in conflict with those of the so called ‘power’. Simple and straightforward!?

It is not here to conduct a jargon peppered theoretical academic discourse on power, national interests or security strategies, but to understand the various constituent elements that may be obstructing or curtailing the trajectory of India’s rise as a ‘power’.

As John Mearsheimer says – “The need for security and ultimately for survival, makes States aggressive power maximisers. States do not cooperate, except during temporary alliances but constantly seek to diminish their competitors’ power and enhance their own.” Thus ‘power’ is relative and is as much an objective notion as a subjective one. There is a constant effort to quantify it and measure it in tangible terms.

It is an accepted military fact that no defence is impenetrable. Alongside, the task of maintaining and strengthening the static defences is a never ending exercise and strategically, a more expensive military option.

Numerous attributes have been ascribed to measure power –political ideology, strategic geography based on location, size of a nations landmass, natural resources, internal cohesion, skilled manpower resources, level of industrial and technological development, funding towards R&D, number of applications for patents, the nation’s comprehensive national power (CNP), geopolitical profile and ideological orientation of neighbouring countries, size and status of the nations armed forces etc. Students of geopolitics contend that the very survival of a nation depends to a great extent on geographical factors – location, size, shape, depth, climate, population, natural resources, industrial capacities and social and political organizations. Naked power has been a vital force in world history and power rests securely upon geographical foundations.

Friedrich Ratzel (1844) laid the foundations for geopolitik, Germany’s unique strain of geopolitics. He originated the concept of Lebensraum, or “living space,” which relates human groups to the spatial units where they develop. He theorized that states were organic and growing, and that borders were only temporary, representing pauses in their natural movement. Raum was the land, spiritually connected to a nation (in this case, the German peoples), from which the people could draw sustenance, find adjacent inferior nations which would support them, and which would be fertilized by their kultur (culture).The subsequent misuse of the Lebensraum concept by the Nazi regime in Germany was largely based on the interpretation of Ratzel’s concept by the Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellén.

While Mackinder (1919) attributed landmass and geography as the source of power – (Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; Who rules the World-Island commands the World), Mahan (1900), a contemporary of the same era, based his arguments on sea power being the fundamental element of a great power. However, Mahan the historian and Mackinder the geographer shared a common geographical model and common assumptions about the role of military power and conflict in determining a nation’s status in the international system. This enduring understanding of a world in which regional centres of power compete within a closed system has profoundly influenced how strategists conceive of global space. Nicholas Spykman fused Mahan and Mackinder in his analysis of great power competition for regional and global influence. According to Spykman, a strong power like the United States should, therefore, support buffer states (i.e., in the Rimland) and fight its enemies abroad, as only weak states fight defensively at their own borders or within their own territory. Spykman also studied the difference between how land powers and sea powers think in space, writing in 1938 that “land power thinks in terms of continuous surfaces surrounding a central point of control, while a sea power thinks in terms of points and connecting lines dominating an immense territory.”

To be of any worth, these theoretical analyses need to be applied in the Indian context. Undoubtedly, India is bestowed with an abounding large land mass and unique strategic geographic location in the world. It sits astride the sea routes of east and west as also has the potential to connect the east and the west over land. In ancient times this potential was fully exploited by the rulers that enabled India to play a leading role in trade and have a flourishing economy. However, due to its focus on trade and economy and a sense of being a naturally protected ‘island’ – seemingly impenetrable mountains to the north-west, north, vast desert to the west, densely forested hills to the east and a peninsula jutting out into the ocean in the south – it had no desire to ‘grow’ outside its geography; as such, it tended to neglect its defence and security. Resultantly, it was initially ravaged by plunderers and then by those who conquered and stayed on to roost here and to impose their rule bringing along an alien religion and culture. The pacific passivity evidently has persisted. Independent India’s political ethos has been influenced by the four fundamentals of Gandhian philosophy – Truth (satya), non-violence (ahimsa), welfare of all (sarvodaya) and peaceful protest (satyagraha), to quote Mahatma Gandhi – “I am indeed, a practical dreamer. My dreams are not airy nothings. I want to convert my dreams into realities, as far as possible.” This was instrumental in the government initially adopting an inward looking pacific political orientation.

It is an accepted military fact that no defence is impenetrable. Alongside, the task of maintaining and strengthening the static defences is a never ending exercise and strategically, a more expensive military option.

In his analysis Spykman observed that: “weak states fight defensively at their own borders or within their own territory”. This could be aptly applied to the Indian scene after independence. To fight beyond ones borders entails adopting an assertive posture and taking the initiative to call the shots. This would mean identifying and understanding the countries strategic borders and developing capabilities to fight there as also have doctrines which enable the armed forces to undertake these missions successfully. “Not lose an inch of territory”has been the underling mantra of Indian political leadership of all hues. It has resulted in adopting a reactive strategic defense posture that, invariably, leads to fighting within the country’s own territory. It is an accepted military fact that no defence is impenetrable. Alongside, the task of maintaining and strengthening the static defences is a never ending exercise and strategically, a more expensive military option.

To be able to dominate up to India’s strategic borders, it is imperative that infrastructure upto the borders is well developed. Ironically, for a long time it was the Army that resisted any initiative of building new roads in Arunachal Pradesh due to a defeatist mindset, bemoaning that “it would facilitate the enemy’s operations”! Probably that was the reason India did not take up any project to construct a tunnel under Se La (Tawang sector) in the aftermath of the 1962 war!! Later in 1997-98, when an initiative was taken to construct eight south-north roads along the river valleys in Arunachal Pradesh, one in Uttar Pradesh to Lipulekh Pass, and one in Ladakh to Daulat Beg Oldi, the initiative hit many bumps and road blocks. Besides the Army playing tyrant, there was infighting between the military and civilian hierarchy in the Border Roads Organisation for control of the organisation which did cause hiccups. And not to be left behind in putting spanners in the wheel, the civilian administration and bureaucracy of the environment and forests ministries, wild life conservationists, state forest ministries and even the tribal leaders (since land in Arunachal Pradesh belongs to the Tribes not the state government) joined-in to put more road blocks in the process. Consequently, to cite a case, in 1997-98 one of the roads identified for urgent construction was the road from Daporijo to Taksing (Arunachal Pradesh) along the Subansari River. It was set to be completed in 2010, but in 2021(now 22 years on) it has only been completed half way through.

Like in studying leadership, nation’s that strive to lead and become a power too have certain traits and attributes. A sense of national pride and nationalism that is based on its history and ideology become the building blocks for this. The spectacular achievements of Indians in foreign countries are often proudly talked of by Indian political leaders. One cannot but help comparing with China in this regard. In the Deng era post the opening up, large number of students from China went to the West to study. The numbers at times were larger than Indian students going. However, most of the Chinese students returned home on completion of their studies. They were instrumental in reviving the country’s R&D, upgrading the industry and reconstituting the scientific community in China which had taken a body blow during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Indian students seldom return. They join the mainstream of their adopted country and contribute substantially. It needs to be debated as to why do the Indian students not return to their country of origin when even their education here was subsidised? The main reason which is evident is that merit is not recognised. The ever increasing clamour for reservations in higher institutes of learning and government jobs, with states legislating a priority for the ‘sons of the soil’ in corporate jobs and now even reservations of jobs in the corporate sector for the SC/ST breeds the infamous Indian ‘chalta hai’ attitude and results in overall mediocrity. A job then becomes merely a means to secure an income with minimum contribution! Political class exploit these divisions in society for their selfish ends to garner votes with scant regard for the long term effect on the social fabric and cohesion within the country. No wonder that on the Global Innovation Index India stands 50th. South Korea leads. It is followed by Singapore, Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Israel, Finland, and Austria with US and Japan at 11th and 12th place. China figures at 16th spot. This systemic imperfection will negatively impact the ‘Atamnirbhar’ mission.

A nation exists because of its citizens. It is therefore axiomatic that a government representing its people should formulate policies to protect the people and create an environment to assist them in the advancement of their lives.

It would be in order to mention here the Ministry of Defence’s decision to ban import of 101 items of defence equipment in August 2020. A list of another 101 items is to be released shortly. One of the items in this list is ammunition. It is quite intriguing that on promulgation of this list suddenly the Indian Ordinance Factories will be in a position to manufacture ammunition which,till now, was being imported. If it was that simple then why was ammunition being imported in the first place? Private sector too is gung-ho this ban but they too don’t have the technological expertise or requisite skilled work force and capacity to meet the requirement of manufacturing the entire range of equipment banned for import. The whole exercise should not end up in a ‘cut and paste’ job with cutting edge defence technology continuing to elude Indian defence industries. ‘Aatamnirbharta’ does not mean autarky but that is what it is being interpreted as and is being excitedly bandied around by the establishment. Manufacturing/producing everything from a screw to an aircraft is an utterly ridiculous proposition.

National Interests

‘National Interest’ is a fundamental concept in International Relations. Nations are always engaged in the process of fulfilling or securing the goals of their national interests. Therefore, a nation’s foreign policy formulation devolves around working to secure national interests. Consequently, the behaviour of a State is invariably conditioned and governed by its national interests. Morgenthau defined it as – “The meaning of national interest is survival – the protection of physical, political and cultural identity against encroachments by other nations-states.” However, foreign policy must be in sync with the nation’s internal realities.

A nation exists because of its citizens. It is therefore axiomatic that a government representing its people should formulate policies to protect the people and create an environment to assist them in the advancement of their lives. In a globalised world a nation cannot isolate and insulate itself from the goings on, in the neighbourhood, region or globally. It was evidenced in the last two decades in trade and manufacturing with intertwined global supply chains; where borders were only red lines on a map. The internet and social media has thrown up new vistas of engagement and depending on the ideology, can be taken as a challenge or a threat. The current pandemic has shaken the world into facing a reality that no one is safe till all on the planet are safe. The vaccine hoarding and border sealing are only measures that can delay the inevitable.

In such a world, India has to identify what its internal and external interests are. These interests should help generate policies for overall development of the country and individual advancement of its citizens. US and China have aspired and formalised their ‘dreams’ as long term goals. They are developing means and identified ways to fulfil their goals or ends. India seems to be only having nightmares! No long term and midterm goals have been enunciated? Promulgating goals (ends) are necessary to coordinate and synergise effort of all material and human resources to make it possible (means) and decide on how to go about achieving the goals/ends (ways). Means-Ways-Ends; are the basic tenets of formulating strategy. Nations do not advance by confronting one crisis after another which occur due to poor foresight, planning and inept management of resources.

The most serious problem confronting India internally is poverty. Measures to alleviate poverty have been often dented due to a well-oiled system of corruption in the government mechanism.

Post independence, India adopted policies largely influenced by the ideals of Gandhian and Nehruvian philosophies. The much flaunted Panscheel Treaty or The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence signed between India and China in 1954 was the benchmark for developing India’s foreign policy and seeking a leadership role amongst the newly decolonised nations which chose not to align with the two opposing ideological blocs in the Cold War that ensued post World War II. Despite being the proponents of the treaty of principle of peaceful-coexistence, India witnessed three major wars and skirmishes with China and later Pakistan over territorial disputes. The principle of Non-Alignment (NAM) did not prevent Nehru from seeking military aid from the US and Great Britain during the India-China war in 1962, or from concluding the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation in 1971, which ensured the transfer of substantial quantity of Soviet weapons and equipment that enabled India’s military intervention in liberation of Bangladesh the same year. Nehru’s ‘socialist’ orientation brought India strategically closer to the USSR during the Cold War period without abandoning NAM.

Internal strength in comprehensive terms is essential to enable India to assert any influence beyond its borders. The most serious problem confronting India internally is poverty. Measures to alleviate poverty have been often dented due to a well-oiled system of corruption in the government mechanism. Only in the last six years with the aid of digital technology has the corruption in the official chain been by-passed. The Gandhian Economic Order was based on simplicity, decentralization, self-sufficient village units, and nationalisation of basic industries. India has been slow to adopt this reality despite the lofty campaign sloganeering of “Grabi Hatao” (Removing Poverty). Mao in his thoughts as put out in “The Little Red Book” indicated of how it tackled poverty – “Apart from their other characteristics, the outstanding thing about China’s 600 million people is that they are “poor and blank.” This may seem a bad thing, but in reality it is a good thing. Poverty gives rise to the desire for change, the desire for action, and the desire for revolution. On a blank sheet of paper free from any mark, the freshest and most beautiful characters can be written, the freshest and most beautiful pictures can be painted.”

Poverty alleviation will demand substantial resources which in turn will impact other modernisation efforts. Military modernisation will be slowed without doubt. There is a tendency amongst the military brass to plan induction of weapons and equipment for its modernisation basing it on a hypothetical scenario of liberal unlimited availability of funds. It seeks to equate it with the US Army on the meager India Defence Budget!! As a result there is a huge mismatch in what is planned for and what is actually made available for modernisation. Successive governments have shied away from indigenising defence production on a mistaken premise that with money in hand weapons and equipment can be picked off the shelf. No country will ever sell cutting edge military technology. The responsibility for this mess is as much on the political class as on the bureaucracy who are the advisers to the politicians. There has been a markedly poor example of military-civil relations in India. The bureaucracy has always tried to keep the military away from the political class in power. In the first term of the current NDA government, the Prime Minister scheduled periodic meetings with the Chiefs of the three Services. Probably he found that the Chiefs were always demanding more resources which he could not provide, he found the next best alternative – put an end to these meetings!

It is a fact that the Indian Ministry of External Affairs is the most professional Ministry in the government because it has the Foreign Secretary and his entire team from the Foreign Service Cadre. And this time even the Foreign Minister is of the Foreign Service Cadre! In comparison the Ministry of Defence does not have a single bureaucrat who has served in the military! Neither has any of them ever opted to serve in the Territorial Army as a token measure!! The frequent military coups in Pakistan have always been taken as an example and is exploited by the bureaucracy to drill into the politicians of the possibility of similar military takeovers if the Ministry of Defence is ever headed by a military man.

India’s national interests have to be more grounded and nuanced. It should not be a case of a one eyed man being king of the blind!

So what should India’s national interests be to be able to influence regional and global issues that matter to it? It may be said that Nehru banked on three main tenets – Panscheel, NAM and moral high ground based on truth. Considering the historical and contemporary realities, India’s national interests have to be more grounded and nuanced. It should not be a case of a one eyed man being king of the blind!

Any foreign policy formulated to secure national interests should be backed by hard power. The regional and global environment is not utopian. Conflicts will occur. Diplomacy tackles adverse situations as foreign policy challenges. However, for the military every adverse situation or potential adverse situation is a threat. It is axiomatic that diplomacy is backed by hard power for it to be worthwhile.

In conclusion one may say that India needs to gets its internal situation and affairs in order before it can profess claims to a power status. India’s chaotic panic response in the face of the second wave of the Corona Pandemic has laid bare the hollowness of its claim to great power status. Medical care facilities, vaccinations, medical oxygen, trained doctors, nurses, medical equipment technicians and paramedic staff were all not there in adequate numbers. It is a shameful blot on the image of India and is indicative of the malice that plagues the nation – shunning meritocracy. Undoubtedly, priority has to be poverty alleviation. Develop villages and the holistic range of infrastructure of the interior remote areas – half a dozen plus large metros are not true representation India. Education and building skills for contemporary technological environment is vital to channalise the energy of the youth to gain from the much hyped ‘youth dividend’. If unattended this large mass may rise against the elites and the bourgeois which may be irreversible. Integrate the remotest areas to the hinterland. Build a regime of meritocracy – India should be attractive for the best minds to stay on and those who have left to find it worthwhile to return. Modernise the military on an indigenous defence industrial base. Make the bureaucracy and government machinery accountable. Failure should see heads roll – job security in the government is for the competent and industrious not for hanger-on’s and passengers. The Indian political ethos is not about service of the people but about serving themselves and living comfortably in a secure insulated environment by usurping the resources of the country. If India is strong internally it can pursue ambitious interests globally.

Hope and aspirations cannot be a national strategy.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen (Dr) JS Bajwa

is Editor Indian Defence Review and former Chief of Staff, Eastern Command and Director General Infantry.  He has authored two books Modernisation of the People's Liberation Army and  Modernisation of the Chinese PLA

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One thought on “What Obstructs India’s Quest for the Status as a ‘Power’?

  1. Using Wall Street as an example, they split corporations when they become huge and ineffective. A leaner, smaller company, business, organization, team, or nation has numerous advantages. When anything is too large, it always has encumbered issues, baggage, deadwood, etc. India is weigh down by too many parts to become a world power like USA that has only 330 million population. India ‘s population is strangled by a deadly lack of water and it is not improving.

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