India: Need for Strategic Culture and Policy Options
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Issue Vol. 34.2 Apr-Jun 2019 | Date : 24 Jul , 2019

Towards the end of the 20th century, analysts all over the world forecast about the nations that would emerge as power centres on the world scene in the 21st century. India figured on every list of such predictions. India was seen by most as set to emerge as a stabilising power in the new world order. We are now at nearly the end of the second decade of the 21st century and if India is to play a significant role in the international power play in a world that is more globalised than ever before, she needs to be clear about her strategic objectives and priorities. Only then would she emerge as a true global power.

What is Strategic Culture?

We often hear that India does not have any strategic culture. While many in India itself propound such a theory, many others including a number of foreign analysts, see a clear strategic culture in India from ancient times. So what exactly is strategic culture? A commonly accepted definition is that, it is “A set of shared beliefs, assumptions and behaviour derived from common experience and accepted narratives that shape collective identity and relationships to other groups and which determines means for achieving security objectives”. So does India have a strategic culture? A poem by Mohammed Iqbal, which was also quoted by the then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh in the RajyaSabha in 2012, possibly gives us an insight. “Yunaan O Misr O Roma sub mit gaye Jahan se ab tak, Magar hai baki Naam O Nishan hamara, Kuch baat hai ki Hasti mitti na hi hamari, Sadiyo raha hai dushman daur e zaman hamara”. Translated, it means, “Greeks, Egyptians and Romans have all vanished, but we are still here; there must be something special that we still exist despite the whole world being against us.” So evidently, India has had a strategic culture over the millennia even though it may not have been in the modern formulation as we today know or else she would not have survived as a civilisation.

National strategy could also be looked at as a plan for employment of various tools of national power to achieve national security objectives…

What exactly is strategy? The broad definition quoted earlier, indicated it to be the ways and means to attain the objectives or the ends. National strategy could also be looked at as a plan for employment of various tools of national power to achieve national security objectives. Quite often a formal articulation of the national strategy or policy is not available in public domain. This, however, does not necessarily imply that it does not exist. In fact, articulation by many nations of their national strategy is itself a recent phenomenon.

Evolution of the Science of Politics

In the Indian context, the Arthashastra by Chanakya or Kautilya, was the first known document on statecraft. However, scholars have observed that there were at least 14 similar documents prior to the one by Kautilya. The observation is based on the very first shloka or verse of the Arthashastra which says that it is a compilation of all similar treatises by ancient teachers on the acquisition and protection of territory or to use a broader term, the ‘science of politics’. Even the Mahabharata mentions the science of politics and administration implying that the ancient kings of India had certain set of principles for the guidance. Coming back to Arthashastra, Kautilya brings out that public welfare was contingent upon the strengths of the state which, in turn, was achieved through internal development and territorial expansion. The text further talks of overall economic development, infrastructure, commerce and trade, agriculture, government expenditure and the entire gamut of what we today consider that a modern nation state should do. Kautilya also spoke of economics being regulated through centralised planning, need for effective intelligence, foreign policy and the need to guard against the strategies of rival states. It would, therefore, be evident that clear strategic thinking existed in India even in ancient times.

However, after the end of the Mauryan Empire, India did not have any kingdom that unified the nation or occupied bulk of the territory of the Indian sub-continent that we know today. While the South Indian kingdoms, mainly the Cholas and the Pallavas, did spread Indian culture and trade far and wide, they did not hold great sway in the Northern parts of India nor did they capture territory worldwide. Most of the other kingdoms were small in size and were often fighting for survival. Then the Mughals arrived and held large tracts of territory of modern India by the time of Aurangzeb, but subsequently, lost it to smaller chieftains. More importantly, they ignored the sea, where till about 1300 A.D, India had held sway. This enabled the European powers to subjugate the nation. And somewhere along the line, India lost her strategic thinking or perspective as a nation.

In the modern context, development of strategic studies in the form that we know today took place after World War II, as a study of security and defence issues against the backdrop of international politics. It must also be noted that over a period of time, the concept of ‘National Security’, which essentially looked at traditional threats from other nation states, has itself undergone a change. Therefore, apart from mere border security, today we need to ensure the security of the nation from non-traditional threats such as terrorism and trans-national crimes such as smuggling of narcotics, drugs and explosives. We also need to look at issues such as energy security, environmental security and protection of trade and commerce, more so, considering the global nature of trade today.

Significance of National Security

How then does a nation develop a national strategy or its security policies? Broadly speaking, national interests are decided on the basis of national values and aims. National interests would in turn decide national security objectives from which flows the security policy of a nation. The security policy would guide the formulation of a national strategy and in turn, the strategies to be followed by its Armed Forces i.e. land, maritime and air strategies.

The nation needs to agree on whether India should be a global player, a regional player or a mere bystander…

From the Indian Constitution, we could infer her national aim to be the socio-political and economic development of the nation and its citizens. The national interest would be to ensure sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of India and preserving its democratic, secular and federal character by providing a secure and stable internal and external environment that is conducive to safety, security and development of the nation and its citizens. National security objectives would, therefore, be to ensure the security of national territory, its citizens, resources and maritime trade routes. There is also the need to ensure a secure internal environment and to guard against threats to national unity and development. National security policy would hence need to be framed in line with such objectives, keeping in mind economic strength and capabilities and taking into consideration the prevailing regional and global security environment. In order to achieve these, it would be essential to strengthen cooperation and friendship with like-minded nations to promote regional and global stability.

India’s Geographic Advantage

In the modern era, strategic perspectives of any nation would be influenced by its geographical location, history, culture, economic status and geo-political realities. In case of India, she is a continental as well as a maritime nation. Her location at the base of Asia, has blessed her to be in a position to control the Sea Lanes of Communications that go through the Indian Ocean Region and in fact, the Asia-Pacific Region as such. Many years ago, India’s first Prime Minister had asserted, “India is too big a country to be bound down to any country. India is going to be and is bound to be a big country that counts in world affairs.” Therefore, while her size, population and geographical location should have by now made her a significant player with a clear strategic policy, we need to ponder as to whether India is there as yet?

Is a National Security Policy in Place?

India has had a National Security Council since 1999, but there is no comprehensive document in the public domain indicating a National Security Strategy or Policy. What are the possible reasons for this deficiency despite the fact that a number of think-tanks have been discussing the issue over the years? One major reason could be the lack of political consensus or agreement on national security issues or on the aspect of security itself, despite the wars fought with neighbours and the insurgencies faced along the border states. While the North-East and Punjab are now tranquil and would hopefully remain so, problems remain in Kashmir. While it is also a fact that, in times of hostilities with neighbours and internal turmoil, the nation has come together. However, after the event, no agreement or long term plans have been forthcoming. Lack of coordination between various agencies on the aspect of national security is another concern. However, the Kargil encounter and the 26/11 attack on Mumbai saw for the first time some coordination on security issues. The aspect of Maritime Security with specific allocation of duties and coordination was then speedily resolved to a large extent.

As a nation, India needs to decide on the role she wants to play globally. The nation needs to agree on whether India should be a global player, a regional player or a mere bystander. In this context, the impact of globalisation needs to be considered. The issue was very aptly put across by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2007, while speaking on security in the 21st century. He said, “The frontiers of our security no longer stop at the Channel…The new frontiers for our security are global. Our armed forces will be deployed in the lands of other nations far from home, with no immediate threat to our territory, in environments and in ways unfamiliar to them…”

India in the 21st Century

It is also for consideration that the 21st century, in view of the globalisation, was to be an era of inter-dependence rather than one of conflicts and rivalry. While globalisation was expected to overcome national barriers and has indeed brought the world closer, protectionism keeps raising its head from time to time. No policy can, therefore, be made without considering sensitivities of other nations. One could also consider the effective use of Track II diplomacy, as discussions and negotiations are certainly a better option than having an outright confrontation. There was also talk that the conventional wars as we knew in the 20th century would be replaced by international coalitions, possibly under the UN Security Council. Has it really happened? While there have been coalition forces collaborating to face certain challenges such as piracy off the coast of Somalia, there have also been sanctions and threats imposed on some nations without UN authority.

One of India’s major achievements which impact her strategic culture has been her commitment to democratic values…

As brought out earlier, it would not be possible to decide on a strategic policy that India should adopt, unless she is able to prioritise on what is good for the country and decide on the role she wants to play in world politics. Predictions are that India is going to be a $5 trillion economy soon. Therefore, should she not have a major say in world affairs? It is also for consideration whether the challenges facing the world today, more so the unconventional threats, cannot be tackled by any one nation alone. Therefore, India needs to cooperate with like-minded nations through data and intelligence sharing, joint surveillance, and patrolling in areas of interest. Furthermore, to be a global player, India needs to be in a position of strength; only then will her voice be heard. Apart from economic strength, she also needs to have the ability to deploy her Armed Forces in far-flung areas if need be. Joint exercises with other nations would give the necessary visibility as well as the capability of developing inter-operability. More than any other force, the Indian Navy has the ability to be present along the maritime boundary without impinging on the sovereignty of other nations. While having bases overseas would help in enhancing the reach of the armed forces, they may not be easy to come by. Therefore, arrangements for logistics support from nations across the globe should be made to attain the necessary reach and flexibility in operations.

Democracy, Economy and Globalisation

One of India’s major achievements which impact her strategic culture has been her commitment to democratic values. This is evident from the fact that her armed forces have remained totally apolitical with clear civilian control over the use of forces unlike what has happened in many of her neighbouring states or in many parts of the developing world. Armed forces world over are developed to fulfil a nation’s strategic policy. Soon after independence, some views were expressed as to whether India needed a large Armed Force especially in view of the envisaged policy of peace and non-alignment. However, the subsequent realities ensured that India developed her military strength and capabilities to a level befitting a nation of her size and strategic position. In this context, it would be worth recalling the words of President Kennedy, “Diplomacy and Defence are not substitutes for one another”.

The future strategic culture of India will be largely dependent on how her political hierarchy keeps up with the major changes taking place globally. As observed earlier, with globalisation getting more entrenched and non-traditional threats overriding traditional ones, new forms of conflicts will arise. In this regard, it is important to remember that exploitation of sensitivities/discontentment of citizens of a nation by inimical external powers to create internal upheavals and unrest is a new form of conflict. India, therefore, needs to have a strategic policy to meet the new threat patterns, which could include threats to economy, trade and commerce as also from terrorism, insurgency or domestic upheavals. Any policy adopted cannot be in isolation of international forces at play or without examining the ramifications of the policy on other nations. Whether she claims it or not, India is a major player in the 21st century, economically moving up the chain with a large number of nations looking at her as a balancing power without any hegemonic ambitions.

In Conclusion

Over the years since independence, India has adapted to the changing international environment with reasonably positive results, even though she may have been slow or extra cautious. Internally, there are many issues which need adept political resolution but have been left festering. These have restrained India in its socio-economic growth and development as a nation to her full potential. It needs to be emphasised that strategic culture of a nation is influenced by its political culture and, if that is flawed, it would impact the overall strategic capabilities of the nation. Strategic assumptions of the earlier eras will also need to be modified to meet new threat patterns, which today are more asymmetric in nature.

Indian Defence Review Apr-Jun 2019 (Vol 34.2)
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India needs to think and act as if she is a major player on the global scene and look beyond her immediate neighbourhood. In this context, China has deftly gone beyond looking at issues with India or other neighbours and has started playing a major role at the global level. With many nations, more so in the Indo-Pacific region looking up to India to provide stability, it is incumbent on her to develop its strategic policies accordingly. It hardly needs to be emphasised that unless a nation is in a position of strength, her voice would hardly matter. Therefore, apart from continued industrial and economic development, India also needs to develop her armed forces into a technologically up-to-date entity, capable of deployment anywhere in the world. India would also need to build up relationships and closer understanding with like-minded nations across the world. By any measure, India is a significant country capable of emerging as a global power in this century. Whether she achieves it or not would depend on how quickly she is able to formulate her strategic policies and adapt her way of thinking to meet the needs of the new global order.

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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

Vice Admiral MP Muralidharan

was the first Commandant of Indian Navy Academy at Ezhimala.

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