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.