India stays on its own path in league of nations

We should rebuff pressure from others and stay strategically autonomous. Past compromises have given way to the present confidence. We are more atmanirbhar today
Express Illustrations |Soumyadip Sinha)
Express Illustrations |Soumyadip Sinha)

One of the big takeaways from India’s G20 presidency has been the broad understanding that the nation has demonstrated in its strategic autonomy. This gets one to analyse what strategic autonomy means and whether India has been strategically autonomous for the last 75 years. The interest in the theme really stems from the trigger of the Ukraine war, where India has displayed utmost strategic maturity through a studied neutrality despite much pressure from the West. For good measure, India has been deciding its own interests without coming under external pressure.

Strategic autonomy is defined as the ability of a state to pursue its national interests and adopt its preferred foreign policy without depending heavily on other foreign states. It is not something that grows automatically with the progressive existence of a nation in any guaranteed way. It is dynamic; much depends on the quality of leadership at a given time and the degree of strategic confidence that the nation enjoys. The degree to which strategic autonomy can be pursued by a nation is subject to its own comprehensive national power (CNP), its demographic make-up, its ideological leanings and political will prevailing at a given time, and other such attributes. An essential aspect of CNP is military capability, which contributes to strategic confidence and in turn to strategic autonomy.

As a member of the international community, a nation is obligated to follow rules and norms; it will otherwise be declared an outcast at the behest of the most powerful international cliques of the time. North Korea remains strategically autonomous but also carries a rogue status and pursues dictatorial norms that are against the interest of its people, as do many other nations. What we can be certain about is that strategic autonomy is always graded and never absolute. In other words, rarely can a nation follow its interests to the last; there will always be a degree of compromise, a realist approach so to say.

One may claim that in the years when India followed non-alignment to the tee it was generally strategically autonomous. Yet in 1962, we had to compromise and seek military aid, just as in 1966 when a drought forced us to accept the infamous PL 480 variety of wheat in aid. Our military and agricultural deficiency adversely affected our CNP and therefore the autonomy. In 1971, we pursued our strategic interest and militarily assisted the erstwhile East Pakistan. It was mainly possible after signing the Indo-Soviet Treaty, but the same could not win us peace in the Shimla Agreement where we were apparently under immense pressure. The natural follow-up to the military victory should have been the resolution of J&K on our terms; it was not to be as even the Soviet Union had limitations in extending its support.

In 1974, we made amends by testing our nuclear weaponisation capability at Pokhran, which conveyed an appropriate message to China despite the opposition of most other nations. It was a demonstration of our strategic confidence and autonomy, proving that such autonomy is contingency-based and dynamic.

A dark period for India was from 1980 to 1991 as the nation lost its self-confidence at the altar of some poor strategic decisions and a deteriorating internal security situation. That further indicates how dynamic strategic autonomy can be. It is obvious that peace and stability at the centre, an absence of internal violence, and a stable and upwardly mobile economy enable the pursuance of a foreign policy that encompasses all national interests and is thus strategically autonomous.

As the economy improved after 1991, India chose to take its autonomous decisions in the field of economics but was hugely pressured by the US on J&K. It was a measure of the political community’s resilience, maturity and sense of patriotism which ensured that the joint resolution of the two houses of parliament on J&K could be adopted on February 22, 1994. Going overtly nuclear in 1998 and then choosing not to cross the Line of Control during the Kargil war are issues that are always debatable. The autonomism on display with the Indo-US nuclear deal was helpful but the inability to understand military transformation and its urgency in the light of George Fernandes’ assessment in 1998 about China being the main threat cost us a great deal. Strategic complacency could not be counted as strategic autonomy.

In the gradation of strategic autonomy, India was autonomous in many ways in the past but to a much-limited degree. Learning from mistakes is what the wise do and that is exactly what has led to the current status. It took long for the realisation to emerge in India that a modern military needs a sustained supply chain of equipment and spares; Atmanirbharata (self-reliance) has flowed out of that realisation. In times of war, nations are held to ransom if they are not self-sufficient. A transformational change has been the full realisation, where economic development and social engineering can continue simultaneously with military modernisation, though a requisite percentage of budgetary support for the capital budget yet remains elusive.

A sound realisation has emerged that strategic partnerships can be established without being part of military groupings and alliances. An awakening to the understanding that India’s strategic culture is weak and civil society’s understanding of strategic issues is very limited is helping the nation to enhance knowledge management, though our strategic communication is still questionable. Giving all that a fillip is a necessity. Informed public support for government decisions is an element that contributes to the ability to pursue strategic autonomy.

The years 2016 to 2021 were crucial for the reinforcement of strategic confidence, which boosted India’s strategic autonomy. From the surgical strikes to Doklam, and from Balakot to the amendment of Article 370, all were enabling steps. What really gave the greatest strategic confidence was the label of ‘world’s pharmacy’ that India acquired during Covid, the ability to withstand China’s wolf warrior strategy, and the bounce-back of the nation’s economy from a 24 per cent contraction in the first quarter of 2020-21 to a 7.2 per cent growth in all of 2022-23. G20 has cemented all that.

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