The flip-flops on matters strategic, our response to the Chinese belligerence in Ladakh, cutting of subsidies (and its subsequent reversal) to Bhutan and our discomfiture in importing oil at cheaper rates from Iran due the danger of annoying America have brought to fore the oft-repeated doubt, “Does India have a strategic culture?” The Economist, in a cover page story a couple of months ago, said “India’s lack of strategic culture hobbles it ambition to be a force in the world”. If that was not enough to hurt our pride then the caricature on its cover page made one cringe — a cat (India) looking in the mirror seeing itself as a tiger!
What’s the reality? In a recent seminar, a former foreign secretary opined that the absence of cordial relations with any neighbour proved that India does not have a strategic culture. An academic countered by stating a contrary view seen from a Pakistani side, “India has two-thirds of Kashmir, has reduced Pakistan to a rump by creating Bangladesh, has been instrumental in casting it as a terrorist state and despite going nuclear has got accepted in the nuclear community through its strategic positioning!” The diplomat countered that if India had the strategic sense, continued military action in 1948 would have got back the entire J&K resulting in a common border with Afghanistan and denying Pakistan a common one with China! The land route from India to Afghanistan and Central Asia would have got Pakistan in a pincer besides giving us a direct link to the region and its natural resources, and so the arguments went.
Strategic culture is the intangible influencing of a nation’s way of thinking and contemplation of subsequent action resulting from “marination” of its society down centuries of existence, the marinade being the kaleidoscope of real life experiences. It can only be used as an analytical tool to conjure the likely course of action, that of an adversary in response to stimuli. We had our time under the sun during the Mauryan and Gupta Empire. Kautilya’s Arthshastra, enunciated 2,400 years ago, is touted as proof of India possessing a tradition of having a strategic outlook, but our independence in thought and action had a long interlude due to our bondage as we came to be ruled by a succession of dynasties and empires from the Islamic Sultanates in the North to Vijaynagar in the South followed by the Mughals from and then the British. The continuity in indigenous governance pan-India was broken and the hue of existential experiences lost as we became nonentities in the strategic machinations of the conquerors. If anybody’s strategic culture matured through the experience, it was that of the invaders and not of the “native” Indians who simply assimilated the intruders who stayed on — other than the British who left after their strategic aim of furthering the interests of the British Empire could not be sustained any longer.
Our freedom struggle was based on ahimsa, but post-1947 important decisions requiring use of force had to be taken. As Ramachandra Guha says in his magnum opus India after Gandhi, the strong sense of fair play resident in our freedom struggle influenced the decision makers of the time and the realpolitik aspect of international relations got short shrift, with the world seen through the prism of idealism. True that there were gigantic economic and social problems for the nascent nation, but missing was a body politic with an analytical foundation forged in the struggles of history and experienced in the rigours of warfare and strategic thinking.
We continue to suffer aftershocks of that deficit. The annexation of Tibet was accepted with subservient speed and the reference of Kashmir to the UN rankles even now. Despite the stunning victory in 1971, the absence of a sense of history and grounding in realpolitik made us return 93,000 POWs without finalisation of the Kashmir imbroglio from our position of strength; the acceptance of Bhutto’s unwritten promise at Simla by our national leadership showed our naiveté for we hadn’t learnt that being a good boy in this world fetches only additional headaches. Power talks, and talks emphatically in real life but leveraging our purchasing power in these times of global slowdown has not dawned on us. China was least concerned about annoying others and its threat of not buying 45 Airbus 330s if the EU did not waive off the crippling penalties due non-adherence to jet emissions, has worked — last month, the law has been put on hold! Shouldn’t we too take a holistic view of the power our economy and other sectors wield?
India’s trials and tribulations are vital inputs in the shaping of its strategic thought. To imbibe them will necessitate accepting that the political state, in an almost bipartisan manner, has placed no premium in making domain experts inclusive in governance. If only our leaders had studied Chinese strategic thought, 1962 may have been different. Dr Andrew Scobell, a China specialist, writes that China has a “Cult of Defence”, and the “…cult paradoxically tends to dispose Chinese leaders to pursue offensive military operations as a primary (emphasis added) alternative in pursuit of national goals, while rationalising these actions as being purely defensive”. But “...we were punching above our weight then..” said our national security adviser, delivering the 2011 Prem Bhatia memorial lecture. Leadership of the non-aligned world and the standing of Pandit Nehru had conferred a halo of ethereal superiority which was mistaken for power but in actuality was far removed from the realities of realpolitik. “…throw out the Chinese” could not have been done for, as Margaret Thatcher had quipped, “Being powerful is being like a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”
The panacea lies in getting varied specialists into positions of decision-making in the politico-military, economic and diplomatic set-up, experts who understand the link between warfare, diplomacy, economics, politics and history of peoples which moulds strategic thought and influences decisions. We need many more diplomats, greater military representation in the foreign and defence ministries and an unimpeded path for military advice to the political leadership. And imperatively, political parties must attempt a bipartisan consensus on strategic national issues, akin to the one on nuclearisation.Utopian thoughts? But try we must, for only then would India truly be able to step on the world stage and build on sound Kautilyan thought which had an unfortunate interregnum, courtesy our own ineptitude!
The writer, a retired Air Vice Marshal, is a distinguished fellow at Centre for Air Power Studies.