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.

The rise of Netions

My talk at MEA’s International Conference on Public Diplomacy 2010

Last week I spoke at a conference in New Delhi on how the proliferation of social networks is creating new imagined communities—that I call Netions—and how they are profoundly changing international politics.

Video recordings of all the sessions are available at the conference website.

It’s not transactional, stupid!

Obama’s visit to India is a sign of the symbolism that characterises a strategic relationship

People are missing the point.

It doesn’t require the US president to come all the way to India to sell military equipment, make a case for reforming the UN security council, remove hurdles for high-technology co-operation, or indeed, as White House officials tried to project last week, encourage Indian companies to create jobs in the United States.

Such issues are negotiated by the minions, need bureaucratic and political consensus on both sides and are settled at their own pace. Official visits and summits between heads of state at best impose artificial deadlines and can be used to inject urgency into the negotiating machines. We saw it a few years ago when the India-US nuclear deal was pushed through in time for a Bush-Manmohan Singh summit.

Those who measure the significance and success of Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to India through the prism of deals signed and statements made miss the fact that the India-US relationship is strategic, not transactional. Ironically, the strategic nature of the relationship was sealed by a transaction—the nuclear deal—leading many to expect more of the same. Now, there are good reasons for the Indian government to purchase US military aircraft, but not doing so isn’t about to wreck the bilateral relationship. Similarly, there are good reasons for Mr Obama to declare support for India’s place in a reformed UN Security Council, but other than disappointing his hosts, he won’t do much damage if he skips this topic.

For the first time in more than 50 years, the interests of the United States and India are converging geopolitically, geo-economically and, to coin a phrase, geo-democratically. As K Subrahmanyam points out succinctly, the United States needs India to counter China’s rising power. Likewise, India needs a strong United States, not to ally with, but for its own reasons of swing. This is as true from the economic perspective as it is from a political one. [Also see this CNAS report] Most importantly, India and the United States are mutually popular—the bottom-up factor is a powerful driver of closer bilateral relations.

It’s very hard to measure the extent of strategic relationships. Signing of business or arms deals are poor proxies. That’s where symbolism comes in. Obama has no real business to do in India. Yet he is coming. Sure, he’ll do some business when he’s here, but none that absolutely requires his presence. It’s symbolic and it counts.

For that reason Barack Obama will have a very successful trip to India next week. He just has to turn up.

Related Links: Articles in Pragati: Partnerships are made by bureaucracies – by Nicholas Gvosdev; and What’s the big idea? by Dhruva Jaishankar.

Pax Indica: Use religion in foreign policy

The missing ingredient in India’s soft power

“We have allowed,” today’s Pax Indica contends “our misunderstanding of secularism to keep religion out of the foreign policy toolkit.”


No one bats an eyelid when someone argues that we should use democracy, free-market capitalism, socialism or “South-South solidarity” to promote India’s interests abroad. But mention religion and all sorts of people jump at you. The first objection you hear is that “it’s against our secular values”. This is absurd, as I’ve just argued, because secularism applies only to India’s internal affairs.

It is unacceptable for a country with one of the world’s largest Muslim populations, one with the longest experience of practising the Islamic faith in a multi-religious society to have no voice at all in one of the most important geopolitical dynamics of our time. India’s lack of Islamic soft power is a symptom of its, well, secular rejection of religious soft power. If we are serious about being a major global power, if soft power is to be something more than a feel-good story, and indeed for our own survival and security, we must dispassionately begin to make strategic use of our religion and culture. [Read the rest at Yahoo! India]

Pax Indica: Your own private foreign policy

In foreign affairs, unlike the government, civil society can speak the language of values

In today’s Pax Indica column, I call upon individuals, NGOs and media to take a greater interest in foreign affairs:

Over the last few days, before S M Krishna called his counterpart offering help, many of my friends complained that India — that is, the Indian government — had not offered any humanitarian assistance to flood-ravaged Pakistan. ‘Politics’, some said, should be set aside in the face of the enormous tragedy that has befallen the Pakistani people. Others argued that giving aid will change the ‘politics’ itself. For when ordinary Pakistanis see India as among those who helped them during their time of need, hearts and minds will change, undermining the anti-India position of their government.

On the other side were those, like Atanu Dey, who offered the compelling logic that since money is fungible, giving money to the Pakistani government for flood relief is equivalent to giving money to that government to fund cross-border terrorism or build nuclear weapons. Moreover, another argument goes, since the wishes of the Pakistani people are weakly expressed in their government’s policies, changing hearts and minds won’t make the military establishment stop terrorism directed against India.

Wherever you stand on this issue, what you will notice is that people implicitly assume that when it comes to foreign affairs “India” means only the Indian government.

A few years ago, after France passed laws restricting the wearing of turbans, people lobbied the Indian government to intervene on behalf of French Sikhs. The Indian prime minister sent a special envoy to Paris, to “impress upon President Chirac the significance of the turban to the Sikh faith”. The irony of one famously secular state taking up a religious cause with another famously secular state apart, this was an unwarranted interference into the domestic affairs of another democratic republic. And again, when Malaysia’s Tamil minority was out on the streets protesting against discrimination, Dr Singh’s government gave in to public pressure, gratuitously expressed concern over that country’s domestic politics, and received a rebuff.

Now, the Indian government is obliged to protect the lives and interests of its citizens anywhere their blue passports takes them. It has little business taking up cudgels of behalf of people who might be of Indian origin, but are nevertheless citizens of another country. You could say that everyone has a responsibility to protect human rights in authoritarian regimes, but if the other country happens to be a democratic republic with rule of law, what grounds does the government of India have to interfere?

Does this mean Indians should stop caring about what happens around the world? Not quite. It only means that Indians should stop seeing the government has having a monopoly on foreign affairs. There is nothing to stop individuals, NGOs and media from taking an active interest in the world outside India’s borders. There is nothing to stop us from standing up for whatever cause we like. There is nothing to stop us from drawing attention to the plight of the world’s oppressed people, collect funds, mobilise volunteers, build institutions, lobby foreign governments and deliver social services beyond India’s shores.

Sure, we could also persuade the Indian government as part of our activism, but what stops us from getting on with it in spite of the Indian government? A large number of NGOs at home do valuable work despite the government. Why should it be any different abroad?

In fact, it is in India’s national interest for civil society to become a foreign policy player in its own right. Governments are constrained by realpolitik. They follow the grammar of power. Civil society does not have the same constraints. It is free to speak the language of values. The Tibetan struggle, for instance, is one area where India’s overall policy has benefited from citizen activism. Similarly, after the 2005 earthquake, Infosys announced that it would provide Rs 10 million in aid to Pakistan. Many of us donated money for Haiti’s earthquake victim through the Red Cross and through religious institutions. These are, however, isolated and sporadic instances.

We should ask ourselves why India’s civil society is not a significant international player? The primary reason, I would say, might be the mindset that sees the government as the Grand Solver of Problems. As long as this mindset is dominant, lesser hurdles like lack of financial resources, organisational capabilities and channels of action will appear insurmountable. Another reason is our tendency to contemplate our collective navels, for there are innumerable, seemingly intractable problems at home that deserve our attention. “[So] far as areas outside the physical boundaries of India were concerned” the historian K M Panikkar noted, “we were content to live with the attitude of complacent ignorance…This has been the weakness of India in the past, this sense of isolation and refusal to see itself in relation to the states outside the geographical limits of the subcontinent.”

This, though, is changing, as economic growth increases disposable incomes and as we come to be better informed by the world’s media. That begs the question: why is it that we are only informed by the world’s media? Isn’t it a grand lack of imagination that hundreds of our TV news channels fight for ratings by covering essentially the same domestic stories, only differentiating themselves using ever higher decibel levels? Isn’t it ironic that it is the likes of Qatar’s Al Jazeera and China’s CCTV-4 that challenge the Western media’s hold on the grand narrative? As Indian civil society takes a greater interest in the world, one or more Indian international TV news channels will be invaluable.

So forget about New Delhi’s offer and Islamabad’s response. Think about the enormous human tragedy that is unfolding across our north-western borders. Then think of the political consequences, not least the real risk that the disaster will end up strengthening the bad guys. Think also of the hapless people in Balochistan, where the Pakistani government has banned international relief agencies from operating. You might find some factors more important than others, depending on your personal values, beliefs and hopes. Then do what you think is appropriate.

Pax Indica: The Palestinian Card

The First Law of Middle Eastern Geopolitics

In this fortnight’s Pax Indica column, I record Turkey’s breakout moment.

(It) was only when Turkey floated the flotilla to Gaza that people took notice. The successor to the Ottoman empire had announced its arrival.

The re-emergence of Turkey as a major power offers India the opportunity to balance its relationships with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel. This calls for India to reorient its relationship with Turkey, identify common interests—managing China’s influence in Central Asia, for instance—and convert them into cooperative initiatives. That will also require Turkey to look beyond its relationship with Pakistan. In fact, this is the issue that will answer the big question: is Davutoglu’s neo-Ottomanism merely pan-Islamism or is it about Turkey’s national interests? If it is the former, then Turkey will allow its relationship with India to be constrained by its ties with Pakistan. Not so, if it is the latter. [Yahoo! India]

My talk at the Bangalore International Centre

The New Himalayas and the Global Raja-Mandala

Do come and listen to my talk on how India might promote its interests in the geopolitics of the 21st century. It’s next Wednesday 16th June at the Bangalore International Centre.

Synopsis: Despite fundamental differences in the way India and China view international relations, the high Himalayas prevented large-scale military conflict between the two civilizations for nearly two millennia. While the Himalayas are no longer the physical barriers they used to be, the presence of nuclear weapons in both countries makes war unattractive and unrewarding.

The India-China context has, instead, shifted to other domains: in and around the Indian Ocean, in cyberspace, and for access to resources and markets.

The talk will discuss how India might pursue its national interests on this Global Raja-Mandala. It will argue that the nature of the game requires India to adopt an interdisciplinary approach to foreign policy, which not only calls for greater co-ordination among government departments, but also requires the private sector & civil society to engage more deeply in international affairs.

Ambassador C V Ranganathan, former Indian ambassador to China, Ethiopia & France will preside.

Date: Wednesday 16th June 2010 at 6:00pm (Tea will be served at 5:30pm)

Bangalore International Centre
Auditorium, TERI Complex,
4th Main, 2nd Cross, Domlur II Stage,
Bangalore 560 071

To register:
Phone: 98865 99675

For directions: SMS TO BIC to 90088 90088

Sunday Levity: The Swami and the Emperor of China

Elixir of Long Life and the recipe for sugar

In The Real Tripitaka: and other pieces Arthur Waley narrates an interesting episode, a side-story in the aftermath of the first armed conflict between Chinese and Indian forces (see these two posts for the background).

In the summer of 648 the Chinese envoy Wang Xuance returned from India bringing with him a king and an alchemist. The adventures of this mission well illustrate the buccaneering spirit of early Tang diplomats. On arriving in Central India in 647 Wang Xuance discovered that King Harsha had died some months before. After his death great disorder broke out in Central India and eventually the throne was seized by a vassal raja named King Arjuna, who refused to see the Chinese Mission.

Wang Xuance with thirty mounted followers tried to battle his way to the capital. The Chinese fought till they had shot their last arrow and were then captured, along with the presents that various rajas had asked them to take back to the Chinese Emperor. Wang Xuance and his assistant Chiang Shih-jen managed to escape from captivity, reached Tibet, and there recruited a force of twelve hundred picked men, no donut through the good offices of the Chinese princess who was one of the king of Tibet’s wives.

With these and some seven thousand Nepalese cavalry he returned to India, routed the armies of King Arjuna, captured the king, together with a vast booty, and returned to China bringing with him not only King Arjuna, but…a magician named Narayanaswami, who claimed to be two hundred years old himself and to be able to produce (for the benefit of others) an Elixir of Long Life.

The Emperor (Taizong) was much interested, and allotted him a special apartment in the Palace, where he was to pursue his alchemical experiments. No less a person than Tsui Tun-li, the Minister for War, was made responsible for seeing that he was supplied with the necessary ingredients and helpers. The emperor took his first dose of Elixir in the autumn of 648, and the tenth day of the eighth month he wrote to the alchemist: ‘Since I tool the drug I have gradually begun to lose the feeling of heaviness in my hands and feet and I hope that if I go on looking after myself carefully I shall get rid of it altogether … but my fate depends on the result of further doses. I hope I may count on attaining a great age and look forward with certainty to far outliving my generation, without any change in my appearance; also my white hair is turning black again and my worn-out body losing its infirmities and becoming stronger than ever. Do you think these hopes are justified? Please tell me quite frankly. I have the highest regard for your noble art.’

There seems to be no doubt that the Emperor’s health did improve considerably, and one might have expected that Narayanaswami would have got full credit for the improvement. However, in an edict in the ninth month, ordering the enrollment of 18,500 fresh monks and nuns, the Emperor says: ‘In the recent campaign I was exposed to wind and frost, and often spent the night on horseback. I was given some drugs, but did not, while I was taking them, recover completely. Recently, however, I have entirely regained my health, and am convinced that this is due to the pious works I have been undertaking.’

The magician was told that he might go back to India, but did not avail himself of the permission and soon afterwards discredited his art by dying in Chang-an. [Arthur Waley/The Real Tripitaka: and other stories, pp 95-96. ]

Elsewhere in the book, Waley writes that while Harsha had sent an envoy to Taizong after being impressed with the itinerant monk Xuanzhang, the reciprocal embassy “was commercial as well as diplomatic.” Wang Xuance had been “instructed to obtain the Indian recipe for making sugar. The great Chinese centre of sugarcane growing was at Yangchow, and the sugar made there according to the recipe soon (we are told) excelled that of India.” (pp 78-79)

On Yahoo! India columns, every fortnight

Pax Indica

“Nitin Pai,” writes Amit Varma, “known for his sharp analysis of foreign affairs, will set out every alternate Tuesday to demystify international relations for you in a column named Pax Indica. Rather than just comment from on high about current affairs, he will explain the different schools of thought in the field, and talk about the prism through which he views geopolitics. Whether or not you agree with him, it will at least be clear to you what his belief system is, and which first principles he draws them from.”

What this means is that I will summarily dismiss liberal internationalism, constructivism, post-modernism and all other schools of international relations in the very first sentence, and then hold forth on realism in every column. Okay, not in the first sentence. But I might argue that it’s really all about alcohol. Or declare that Indian foreign policymakers need to frequently ask themselves “What would Mukeshbhai do in this situation”. Or demand that Shah Rukh Khan be appointed as India’s special representative to Afghanistan. Or, or…anything you, the regular readers of The Acorn, suggest.

What will interest you is the company Pax Indica finds itself in. Anything That Moves, Minority of One, Corner Plot, Atlas Invested, Viewfinder, Dead Tree Diaries, Persistence of Vision, Stereotypist and even a Mirth Vader. More from Amit on his blog and his introductory piece at Yahoo! India.

We are entitled to fish!

Of fishermen and foreign policy analysts

Photo: Steve Weaver

Two Indian fishermen went out to sea in a little boat. Matta was a very good man. He was a good son, a good husband and a good father to his two children. He was not given to the alcoholism that characterised the fishing communities along the coast. He didn’t even smoke beedis. He was frugal in his habits but not miserly. Yet such was his lot that he couldn’t put away any money by way of savings. Life, literally, was a day-to-day affair. The well-being of his entire family depended on his ability to catch fish.

Kutty, his childhood friend, was his inseparable companion. While not brimming with virtue, and even after accounting for his tendency to become cynical, Kutty was also a decent man. He had only his own mouth to feed so he didn’t need to catch all that many fish.

The sea off their village was not teeming with fish, but it had long sustained the dozen or so hamlets that dotted the bay. Winters were more bountiful than summers and there would be days in spring where the fish would very nearly jump out of the sea and into the boats. But there would also be days when it would be hard to spot so much as one seer fish for hours of trying.

The two fishermen were unhappy: Matta, because he couldn’t catch too many fish at all, and Kutty because he knew others could.

Matta would not attach a bait to the end of his fishing line. And he wouldn’t take his boat into the waters beyond his own village because he believed that would be wrong. The fact that boats from other villages entered his own waters didn’t change his mind, for he argued, two wrongs don’t make a right. He held to his steadfast conviction that he deserved the fish because not only because he needed them, but also because he was a virtuous person. He was, he firmly believed, entitled to the fish.

So he would be surprised when he came home in the evening with a few small fish or none, while that Beoda next door hired half-a-dozen hamals to offload his catch. And he would be surprised frequently, sometimes as many as seven times in a week.

Kutty, who left the actual fishing to Matta, lamented that their boat was old, the fishing rod was not long enough and their nets let the fish slip out. He complained, often to Matta but mostly to himself, that they were too busy to repair their boat and too poor to buy a new one. One of Kutty’s favourite hypotheses—and he had many of these—was that people who lived to the south of the big mango tree were bad at catching fish. Kutty also blamed the village panchayat and the fishermen’s union for a variety of reasons, including being comprised of several people who lived south of the said mango tree. “Something has to be done about all this” he would say often, always in the passive voice.

The two fishermen were unhappy: Matta, because he couldn’t catch too many fish at all, and Kutty because he knew others could.

Related Posts: Santa Singh on Train Number 2627; Esky and the Penguins