On the front foot

When will India step out?

Captain Bharat Verma’s latest opinion piece in the Indian Defence Review (available online on Rediff) covers a lot of ground. He advocates a muscular approach to internal security and purposeful geopolitical power projection, through a mix of ‘carrot and stick’.

One point he makes is that India can only be a great power “if instead of being an inward looking nation, New Delhi’s footprints extend outwards”. That’s an important one. Unlike European states or China, India has historically never been an expansionist power. The territorial ambitions of Indian emperors have generally been limited to the Indian subcontinent. It is easier for states with an expansionist historical tradition to appreciate the value of power projection.

In its reluctance to get on the front foot, India, in some ways is like the United States. During a recent conversation, C Raja Mohan noted that the British government had to mount a public information campaign (including employing MI6) to get the United States to enter the Second World War. It took America almost four decades—from around 1900 when it acquired the capacity of a great power to the 1940s when it entered the war—to ‘shoulder its share of global responsibility’. President Woodrow Wilson might have been instrumental in establishing the League of Nations after the First World War, but the US Congress refused to let the deal go through. The US too, until that time, had an inward looking culture. It took Pearl Harbour for that to change.

Perhaps it is to be expected that like the US, India will take time to get onto the front foot. Let’s hope it won’t need a Pearl Harbour.

10 thoughts on “On the front foot”

  1. Nitin:

    The idea expounded by Bharat is laudable. But the three decisive steps that he mentions to execute the idea are pretty difficult to achieve.

    Even if we have the political leadership which believes in the idea, where will be the instruments to achieve this?

  2. Nitin: Let’s hope it won’t need a Pearl Harbour.

    Seems like we’ve had several that could qualify – though none after it began sinking into the public consciousness that India could indeed be a world power.

  3. “The US too, until that time, had an inward looking culture.”

    That a rather slighting characterization of a nation for whom the main reasons for seeking independence from Britain was international trade.

  4. A very timely article by capt Verma. The last time Indians thought this way was way back during the 4th century BC faced with a Greek invasion.that qualified as our “Pearl harbour” moment.i.e., until the Kalinga moment that is when Indians started chasing imaginary butterflies and lost all touch with reality.sigh!

  5. I am torn by a selective reading of history in these passage. The singular example used of looking outwards is USA.

    If you were to take the example of Portugal, Spain, Netherlands, or Turkey, Iran all were at one time an outward looking and expansionist. But they have realized that a lot of the governance happens within the boundaries and much of what happens is posturing, unless they have to actually wage war. I think that is a wise choice for India as well.

    With 300 million in poverty, the last thing the government would love is a threat from outside to divert more money in to the defense than infrastructure, jobs and opportunity inside. and as US has demonstrated there are no moments of accountability in foreign policy. under the duress of a threat, any action can be taken without much consultation. So this line of reasoning has to carried through with greater care than a simple comparison with the U.S.

  6. If we are farsighted, New Delhi can counter Beijing. The collapse of Pakistan is almost certain. India should ensure that China’s proxy Pakistan disintegrates. This handicaps China by taking away one of its arms out of the two, the other being North Korea. The build up towards the collapse of Pakistan should see New Delhi initiating moves to deny Gawdar port facilities to China by leveraging existing its goodwill in Baluchistan.

    Nitin, Verma here argues exactly the opposite of what u had written in a recent pragati article. do u think he has a good point here?

  7. Bharat,

    With 300 million in poverty, the last thing the government would love is a threat from outside to divert more money in to the defense than infrastructure, jobs and opportunity inside.

    This guns vs butter argument is so old and fallacious that one gets tired of debunking it. The polemics of it might be seductive, but India’s annual defence expenditure today is merely twice the annual subsidy load on petrol & diesel. While arguably the defence expenditure is a public good that benefits everyone, the petrol and diesel subsidy mainly benefits the rich. Perhaps reducing the oil subsidies will benefit the 300 million more?

    The fact is that the US is still torn between looking inwards and outwards. The isolationist streak was extremely strong until WW2, after which it has begun to look outwards. I’d go so far to say that much of its woes are because it isn’t sufficiently outward looking—not taking the trouble to understand local nuances before intervening.

    In India’s case. as libertarian put it, India has had way too many Pearl Harbours. It is naive to think that staying on the back foot will buy us security. I recommend Kipling.

  8. Apollo,

    Until someone gives satisfactory answers to the issues I raised in the piece, I’ll just say breaking up Pakistan is more about adrenaline than considered thinking.

  9. Nitin,

    I think one valid reason for India to ensure Pakistan’s quik death is that otherwise it would continue to tie up India in its own homefront and also sign up with any outside power which wants to check India’s rise for its own reasons. I don’t see how India can play its legitimate role on the global stage with Pakistan embroiling India in its own home turf like it has done for the last six decades?

    and since u drew parallels between the Indian and American experiences. Would America have become such a great world power had the Confederate states of America survived the civil war and thereafter like Pakistan in our case kept the US embroiled in its own homefront and also had allied itself with outside powers hostile to America and wanting to keep it down for their own reasons.

    i think this is also what capt verma is trying to get at. remove this thorn ourselves or let it destroy itself on its own for otherwise it has a lot of continued nuisance value.

  10. Why the talk of finishing off our neighbor? They are closer to us linguistically, ethnically, and culturally than anybody else. It should be apparent to Pakistan’s generals that that being a pawn of China and a lapdog for US is useless. The day they realize their folly then we can have some rapproachment, till then we should be taking steps to ensure that terrorism on our soil stops. Who is behind this decision to attack specific targets? Take them out, that is what was done throughout recorded history. Some went so far as to take out whole families, look up the actions of numerous Middle Eastern, Chinese, Japanese, Mongolian, Turkish empires. Once you have fixed responsibility for your actions, this should peter out.

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