Grand Strategy

India has always had a grand strategy: to keep the country united

N S Sisodia, IDSA’s director-general, makes the case in the Indian Express today for the strategic affairs community to develop and articulate a grand strategy for India. IDSA recently launched the National Strategy Project (INSP) that aims to bring together a wide range of scholars, analysts and experts and jointly shape a grand strategy. (Disclosure: a couple of us at Takshashila are involved in this project).

Now, that government-related institutions are beginning to think systematically about the big “Why” questions of foreign and national security policies is a good thing. (ICRIER had launched a National Interest Project in 2007). Does India need a grand strategy that will inform and influence policymakers across ministries, across political party lines and over time? Obviously, yes. Should this be publicly articulated? Most certainly—it might not convince everyone, but doing so offers us a way to assess whether or not policymakers are sticking to the given script.

But is it true that India has lacked a grand strategy all this while?

Two answers are usually offered: the first, made famous by George Tanham, suggests that India lacks coherent strategic thinking. Unlike many other countries, the Indian government’s decision-making remains behind a wall of secrecy, records remain locked up in archives or personal collections and few people close to the action write books on contemporary events, if they write at all. So it is fair for information-starved academic scholars to conclude that the absence of evidence is really evidence of absence—forget grand, they would say, New Delhi lacks strategy.

The second answer contends that non-alignment was India’s grand strategy from independence to the end of the Cold War. During the early Nehruvian-era, non-alignment had realist underpinnings, but in 1962—when Nehru requested Kennedy for US air power support—non-alignment became a grand slogan. But what are bureaucracies for if not to provide policy continuity? Non-alignment continued to be worshipped by India’s politicians and intellectuals even after Indira Gandhi—in an act of hard realism—signed a treaty with the Soviet Union in 1971. It was only when the Cold War ended that non-alignment became a painfully obvious anachronism. The deity had vanished, leaving the worshippers lost and confused.

So it is perhaps not a coincidence that Tanham’s view gained traction in India the early 1990s, just after the Cold War ended.

Actually, the case of the missing grand strategy remained unsolved because they were looking in the wrong place. India’s leaders, at least from the Mauryas to the Mughals to Manmohan Singh, have always had a grand strategy. And it is a very simple one—to unite India and keep it united. Scholars of international relations have missed this because India’s grand strategy has been largely domestic in its focus. As K M Panikkar laments, India’s rulers have always been preoccupied with the subcontinent. Even as it indicates a lack of interest in extra-subcontinental geopolitics, it suggests that they were not “bereft of coherent strategic thinking”.

From Chandragupta’s empire building to Aurangzeb’s military expeditions to the Deccan to the Indian republic’s foreign policy, the grand strategy is consistent—bringing the whole of the Indian subcontinent under their rule and keeping it that way. Non-alignment was not grand strategy, but rather, an approach that followed from the grand strategy. And Tanham was wrong. The survival and security of the state, the most parsimonious definition of the national interest, has been and remains India’s grand strategy. It should remain so.

That said, can India afford such parsimony in its strategic approach towards the twenty-first century? Not quite, because to the extent that India’s grand strategy caused India’s leaders to be inward-looking, both the opportunities and threats emanating from outside have been neglected. In the highly competitive times of the twenty-first century, India cannot afford to miss either. So there is a case to rethink grand strategy. There is a need to shake up the foreign policy and security establishment from one that was defending a weak India from a world that was out to get us, to promoting the interests of a stronger India in a world where there are opportunities as there are threats.

5 thoughts on “Grand Strategy”

  1. Nitin,

    Thats a great point on this issue. I can see the western perspective as India does not have think tanks and institutions that advise govt or formulate policies in the sense it happens in the West. All they see is the bureaucrats holed up in the ministry, making decisions and analysis in the media aftermath. The minutes are not released nor PM/ministers/remote control operators speak much in the public about the vision.

    India is relatively young nation to think on grand terms in international context, outside subcontinent and maybe, indo-china. We are a nation-in-building and we do not yet have matured political and institutional framework for strategic policy making. The nation still has internal issues to deal with – education, healthcare, employment, naxalism, terrorism etc. However, IDSA project seems to be a great effort in the right direction. We do need this vision to guide us in policy making and keep tab on the geopolitical changes.

  2. Arun Jaitley recently proclaimed he had information the GoI was considering reverting J&K to its pre-1953 status, whatever that means.

    This is yet to be confirmed but if true, it most certainly casts doubt on the desi grand strategy == keep India united hypothesis, IMHO.

  3. Great article Nitin. Your missing out chanakya was a bit unfair to his genius.
    He said that states like magadh were merely organs of bhaarat — the country.

  4. Nitin, we at SAI are articulating thought on this critical issue of national strategic culture, vision and thereafter a grand strategy borne out of the concept of restructuring our method of governance to meet the complex future that face us. A future where more Indians might be able to participate in conjuring a vision and through informed strategic thinking and devise suitable strategies across spectrum to take India beyond our current pitfalls of governance model. Some posts are 1 2 3

    There’s more and we think we finally need Governance 2.0 urgently

  5. It is easy to forget that there are think tanks in India too. There is the Administrative Reforms Commission, the National Knowledge Commission, the Planning Commission etc. It is their jobs to think of long-term strategy and bring together academics to develop blueprints for policy-makers. That a lot of their work is ignored is the issue; but then that’s probably true of think-tanks everywhere. There are the practical aspects of politics where survival often trumps long-term rationality. And yet, can we really blame the politicians? Let anyone who’s invested money in the stock-market for “the long term” ask himself how often he worries about a falling stock market and decides to cash out at the wrong time.

    It is true that politicians must think of long-term priorities but it is up to the electorate to reward them for long-term thinking. The other lament, that most policy-making in India takes place behind close doors, with little public participation and with almost no real explanation of why it is important in the long run, is valid. It is also the reason why the electorate does not vote with the long-term view. Participation of the public and the education of the public is crucial.

    For a country as large as India… the grand strategy should be simple… to ensure that those who can create wealth for the country are given the opportunities, freedom and resources to do so and that the nation can reap the benefits of their labours (to lead to inclusive growth) without alienating them completely. General prosperity can cure a lot of other ills in the country.

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