Audio record of Carnegie book event Nov 12

The Carnegie event in Washington to launch my book –‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’ featured an introduction by Ashley Tellis, a presentation by me followed by a panel discussion featuring Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation, Daniel Markey of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Richard Rossow of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The audio recording is available (and sorry for the earlier misplaced URL) at:

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“Indian Machiavelli”!!

‘Breaking Defense’ covered the US launch of my book — ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’ at Carnegie in Washington, DC, November 12. The story is accessible at and is reproduced below.
‘Indian Machiavelli’ Urges Confronting China
on November 12, 2015 at 4:40 PM

WASHINGTON: Forget Gandhi and satyagraha. India needs to be more strategically assertive and take China on, a longtime national security advisor to New Delhi said today. And if the US doesn’t like it, then “screw you.”

But Washington should like a more aggressive India, said the American-educated Bharat Karnad, because it’s the only thing that can hold the line against a rising China.

“A very strong, pugnacious India is going to help you guys in some sense breathe easy, which you won’t be able to do otherwise,” Karnad told me after his remarks this morning at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“How are you going to manage China? You can’t without India’s help,” Karnad continued. “They’re rivaling you and very soon… they’re going to take you apart, [because] you don’t have the resources anymore to have even 12 carrier task groups.” (The US currently has 10 carriers, with an 11th being completed, leading to potential gaps in carrier presence in key regions).

India can be particularly helpful in the South China Sea, Karnad said, where Chinese territorial claims overlap almost every neighboring countries’ and where Beijing is building bomber-capable airstrips on artificial islands. In fact, the South China Sea is the one area Karnad thinks the Indian government is being almost assertive enough already.

“The Indian government has finally found a voice,” he told the Carnegie audience I asked about the South China Sea. Just months ago, India signed a security cooperation agreement with the Philippines — the biggest target of Chinese provocations — and Indian warships regularly visit Philippine ports. India is building ties with Australia, Singapore, and Thailand. In addition, “we have a burgeoning relationship with Taiwan,” he said. “The Chinese seem to be aware of it and they’re getting increasingly worked up.”

Overall, “we are beginning, I think, to appreciate that we need to be more vocal and more visible in our support of the Southeast Asian nations who have in the past looked to India and been frustrated,” Karnad said. “We’re a lot more active now. That doesn’t mean we’re going to go full pell-mell proactive — we should — but we’re getting there.”

But, I asked Karnad after the panel, aren’t there limits on what the Indian navy can really do in the South China Sea? “They’re essentially self-imposed,” he said. For example, the military’s old “Far Eastern Command” was renamed the “Andaman Command,” after islands in the Indian Ocean, a mental pull-back from the Pacific. The command needs its old name back, a new attitude, and, on top of that, bases in Vietnam.

What about the Chinese? “The Indian navy is very confident that the Chinese aren’t there yet and won’t be there any time soon, for the next 15 to 20 years,” Karnad told me, “but we have to look beyond 15, 20, 25 years.”

True, the Chinese navy already has an aircraft carrier, he said, “but you know having a boat is not enough. You have to be able to integrate a carrier into fleet operations. That takes a long time. It took the Indian navy about 30 years.”

“As far as I know, no combat aircraft has actually flown off a sailing carrier, a Chinese carrier,” Karnad said. To the contrary, he said, Chinese pilots are still crashing regularly when they try to land on a simulated carrier deck ashore — something much shorter than a conventional runway but still far more manageable than the rolling, pitching deck of a ship.

Nevertheless, Karnad considers China the No. 1 threat to India in the long-term. It’s not Pakistan, with which India has fought at multiple wars, declared and otherwise. Pakistan lacks the economic base to sustain a military that can threaten its much larger neighbor, he argued. India would do better reaching out to Pakistan and reopening trade along British-era rail lines and co-opting Islamabad instead of confronting it.

“We fixate on the wrong threat… looking in the wrong way at Pakistan when the real threat is China,” Karnad told the audience at Carnegie. As a result, “you really do not have the kind of capabilities to thwart and deter China from the larger design of containing India.” Karnad’s referring to China’s so-called “string of pearls,” a series of agreements and investments in countries from East Africa to Sri Lanka to Burma.

Yet Indian strategists still focus on Pakistan, “which is not a threat, cannot be a threat, was never a threat….despite having nuclear weapons,” he said. Pakistanis are smart enough to know that the “exchange ratios” come out badly for them in a nuclear war, Karnad told the Carnegie audience, which didn’t seem particularly reassured.

Overall, the gleefully provocative Karnad got a lot of nervous laughter at Carnegie, with his American fellow-panelists smiling and wincing by turns. It was a fascinating view inside the mind of a leading Indian hawk.

His new book, Why India Is Not A Great Power (Yet), contains plenty of suggestions that are sure to give official Washington heartburn. India, he argues, should resume nuclear testing and abandon its doctrine that it won’t use nuclear weapons first, allowing instead for preemptive strikes. It should put nuclear demolition charges in the Himalayan passes to close them in case of Chinese invasion (the two countries have a decades-long border dispute that led to war in 1962). It should base nuclear-missile submarines in Australia, if the Aussies could be trusted not to share too much intel on the subs with the United States. It should arm Vietnam and Tibetan rebels against China.

“It’s fascinating,” said Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Dan Markey. “[Would] an aggressive, even a pugnacious India….serve American strategic purposes?” he asked. “Right now I don’t have an answer. What I know is, it would make us profoundly uncomfortable.”

“A big part of why America has been so eager to partner with India… is because it sees none of that pugnacity or aggressiveness,” Markey continued. The idea of India as essentially peaceful made it possible for President George W. Bush to lift sanctions imposed on New Delhi for its 1998 nuclear tests and sign a deal on civil nuclear cooperation, for example. An India that stirred up trouble in its region, he said, could easily alienate Americans.

“It’s a complete rejection of a kinder, gentler India,” said Carnegie scholar Ashley Tellis, “the kind of India that seems to win praise, especially among Western audience.”

Western praise doesn’t count much for Karnad. “We hinder ourselves, hamper ourselves, trying to be a quote ‘responsible state.’… trying to gain brownie points from other states,” he told the Carnegie audience.

He was even blunter with me after the panel. “India should be disruptive in its policies. Screw the goddamn status quo in every way,” Karnad said. True, if India starts testing thermonuclear weapons, Washington will “go apocalyptic,” he acknowledged. “Who cares? We should say, ‘screw you buggers.’”

Karnad is writing as a kind of “Indian Machiavelli,” Markey said, “whispering in the ear of the Prince” with truths others don’t dare say. It’s “useful and provocative.”

That said, Markey went on, it’s unlikely the New Delhi establishment will take Karnad up on his suggestions. “Is it even remotely conceivable that the India that we actually live with could become the India you’re describing?” he asked Karnad. “My bet is no.”

But Indian policy is changing, even if not as radically as Karnad would like.

“Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi is moving in this direction,” said another panelist, former State Department and Hill staffer Lisa Curtis. “He’s pursuing a much more assertive foreign policy and a more courageous foreign policy than his predecessor, Manmohan Singh.” Modi has visited the US twice, hosted President Obama once, visited neighbors like Sri Lanka, Mauritius, and the Seychelles, and built up trilateral military cooperation among the US, India, and Japan.

The question is whether this movement will continue in a consistent fashion. “This is a book that I think in a sense reflects a lot of my frustration over the last 30-odd years in Delhi,” said Karnad, who’s advised the Indian prime minister’s office, foreign ministry, and armed forces over the decades. He notably served on India’s first-ever National Security Advisory Board, convened by the Indian National Security Council to draft a doctrine on nuclear weapons — which, Karnad grumbled, the politicians then threw out “for no reason I can fathom” in favor of a simplistic principle of massive retaliation.

“India has been lacking in strategic vision,” Karnad lamented. With constant turf wars among the 72 government departments and a deep-seated distrust of military professionals, he said, “all decisions are ad hoc….so we are shooting off in all directions without the kind of impact we should have had.” That is the fundamental reason, he said, that India has not realized its potential to be a great power — yet.

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London preparations for PM

In London for the ECFR book event, stayed in the St Jame’s Court Hotel not far from Buckingham Palace and a Tata Taj Hotel property. For the last few days prior to PM Modi’s visit this hotel had its top floors taken over by his security working with London Metroplitan Police. some 60 of them are in the hotel, roaming the place.

The main event seems less the pro forma meeting with David Cameron than the Wembley Stadium occasion where NRIs are expected to do the by now usual –throng Modi, cry themselves hoarse, with the huge Gujarati community in the vanguard and, in particular, celebrating one of their own.

The cribbing heard is mostly about the modus operandi employed by the Ram Madhav-led effort to drum up local support among Indians. The effort reportedly started with Indian companies with UK presence and leading Leaders in the community getting letters soliciting views about what the PM needs to do and to say. This letter promised that the best suggestions could result in these persons being allowed a meeting with Modi. This generated much interest. But it was followed up with letters asking for donations to fund the Wembley event! Many called this a sneaky sort of thing, and has turned off many.

Dispassionate observers note that unlike the Xi Jinping UK trip Modi’s tour is generating little “excitement”. After Bihar elections, moreover, the Indian PM’s political stock has so plummeted many say the Cameron govt is wondering about whether the BJP can deliver anything at all on any commitments hereafter.

Posted in Asian geopolitics, civil-military relations, domestic politics, Europe, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, Indian democracy, Indian Politics, society, South Asia, Strategic Relations with the US & West | Leave a comment

RUSI book event merged with ECFR event in London

For those in the London metro who were planning on attending the Nov 9, 6PM event to launch my book — ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’ at RUSI, please be advised that this event has been merged with the event ECFR is holding (at the King’s Building, 7th Floor, 16 John H, Smith Square) on Monday Nov 9 at 8:30AM. ECFR will accommodate all comers. Hope to see you there.

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Modi down if BJP fails in Bihar

The next 24 hrs until the Bihar election results stream in will be a pressured, stomach-churning, wait for Narendra Modi. On his party’s success ride the next three and half years of his remaining first term in office. There are many who feel the elevation of Nitish Kumar in Patna even if propped up by Lalu Yadav’s regressive casteist politics is a turn of events to be welcomed because it will compel Modi to rein in the wacko element in his own party, and even leaven the attitude of the RSS high command, who will see clearly that persisting with the unnecessary roiling of the social milieu will dim Modi’s prospects of a second term and lose the Sangh the prized political ground it now occupies and the attendant benefits. The danger and the greater likelihood, however, is that Modi’s loss will embolden the opposition parties to a point where sessions of Parliament until the general elections in 2019 will degenerate into virtual pitched battles and an interminable series of adjournment motions, etc. that will be so disruptive, it will affect the functioning of the government until it begins grinding to a stuttering halt. This is the worst possible denouement for an India which desperately needs the govt to get going on economic and administrative reforms and for the country generally to fire on all cylinders. The still worst fate is that, with the BJP regime sidelined by its failure to control the many Hindu fringe groups, single party government will acquire a bad name, and the next general elections onwards India will be saddled with gridlocked coalition governments that will be unable to work at all.

What that may mean for India’s future is nightmarish to contemplate, and will only spark rueful sentiments about what might have been had Modi trusted not the Establishment of babus — the permanent secretariat of civil servants and police officers, but his own ideological thrust of trusting in the genius of the individual and the Indian private sector instead of falling back, in effect, to save and sustain a decrepit apparatus of state habituated to corrupt practices and to spreading poverty in the guise of promoting socialist aims. And further, how very different India’s stature would have been in the world had he junked the usual retired babus he has surrounded himself with and brought in outside advisers and expertise to help him configure a more outward-looking, agile and purposeful foreign and defence policy that would take up the challenge posed by a bumptious China instead of staying with a policy set that is strategically myopic, deepened the differences with neighbouring states and, in real and substantive terms, has lost India ground (by needlessly alienating Russia, for instance), reducing the country to growing irrelevance. If Manmohan Singh’s time in office is seen in retrospsect as the “lost decade”, the one-term Modi will be dismissed as an aberration, and the responsible right-of-centre ideology –reflecting the conservatism of an Edmund Burke, say, which distrusts big government and values the liberties of the individual, that so needs to gain strength and put down roots in the Indian polity and which a few of us had seen, perhaps mistakenly, as encompassed in Modi’s ideas, will remain unmoored. And India will oscillate between Leftist populism and illiberal socialism of the Indira Gandhi variety the declining Congress Party has, post-Lal Bahadur Shastri, represented.

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Live-streaming of the Carnegie book event Nov 12

For those interested, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC has informed me that the event associated with my new book — ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’ on Thursday, Nov 12, 1030-1230 hrs, US Eastern Time, will be live-streamed at

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A counter to the American “pink flamingo” nonsense

David Barno (a retired US Army Lieutenant General) & Nora Bensahel published an article on the influential ‘War on the Rocks’ website, on November 3, 2015. It purveyed the typically stock nonsense analysis about the South Asian, India-Pakistan security situation, that masquerades as expert analysis in Washington Beltway thinktanks — and must be read, to understand just how skewed US policies are. I submitted a brief historical analytical note in response which was published on that site Nov 5. Both the original piece and my response can be accessed at

My response is reproduced below:

Bharat Karnad says:
November 5, 2015 at 3:16 am
This is typical of the kind of articles that pass as deep analysis in Washington (and Western security enclaves, generally) when, actually, they are entirely bereft of the basic understanding of the socio-political reality in the Indian subcontinent. So, here’s a very brief historical analysis (elaborated at much greater length in my books – most recently ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’ [Oxford University Press, 2015), ‘India’s Nuclear Policy’ [Praeger, 2008], and ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security’, 2nd ed., [Macmillan India, 2005, 2002].

The partition of British India in 1947 resulted in an ethnically and religiously cleansed Pakistan (with the mass of Hindu population driven out) and an India that retained its composite character, including a large bloc of Muslims who today constitute the largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia. For Islamabad the “unfinished” business of partition revolves around the two-thirds of the erstwhile “princely state” of Jammu & Kashmir, whose future was legally decided by its Maharaja, per the “transfer of power” rules agreed upon by the departing colonial power, Britain, and the leaders of the freedom movement, who acceded to the Union of India rather than join his kingdom with the rump state of Pakistan. Pakistan then decided to force the issue by deploying a force of irregulars to overturn the accession resulting in a limited military conflict. The UN-imposed ceasefire that obtained the present territorial division of that state followed India’s taking the dispute to the world body. The referendum promised in the UN security council resolution that both parties accepted first required Pakistan to remove its military and police forces from the third of the state it had forcefully occupied, which didn’t happen thereby nullifying the UN resolution. Subsequent and regular elections in Indian Kashmir since then have validated the people’s support for the state’s legal union with India.

Pakistan, however, did not stop contesting India’s control of the larger part of Kashmir, initiating all the “so-called wars” to try and wrench it from India. It repeatedly failed until in 1971 it lost the eastern portion of the country, which Islamabad had hugely misruled resulting in irreversible alienation of the people, a violent freedom struggle and the emergence, with India’s military assistance, of independent Bangladesh. The leadership of the Pakistan Army – an army with a country of its own – seethed unable to do much about the conventional military superiority India enjoyed. The unique feature about India-Pakistan ties, however much these may now and again sour, is that the sharp end of the animus is blunted by vibrant kith and kinship relations of the divided Muslim community which politically dictate how far either side can militarily go in hurting the other. Hence, all the India-Pakistan wars without exception have resembled “riots” not real “wars”, with the militaries as per unwritten rules of road, engage occasionally in “wars of maneuver” not “wars of annihilation”. No India-Pak “war”, the 1999 Kargil border skirmish apart, has lasted more than a fortnight or so, or extended beyond a 30-mile-wide corridor on either side of the border (and then mostly in the desert areas where armor and mechanized units can rumble unhindered unlike in the Punjab where the network of canals hinder rapid movement by mobile forces), or been particularly comprehensive in the wherewithal used – both sides have desisted from counter-city bombardment, for example).

But Western analysts and commentators are not clued into this socio-political reality in which conflict is automatically curtailed, or simply won’t bring it into their analyses and assessments as that would undermine the interests of Western states keen for geostrategic reasons in sustaining a role for themselves as mediators and balancers.

The insertion of nuclear weapons into this milieu does not change the basic character and nature of India-Pakistan conflicts other than marginally. The military hostilities were always way short of total, but nuclear weapons have their political uses. An N-arsenal burnishes the image of the Pakistan Army managing the country’s nuclear weapons program as the guardian of the Pakistani state and society, and affords the Pakistan government the international political and diplomatic leverage that comes from periodically raising alarms about the nuclear flashpoint, which Western thinktanks peddle for self-serving reasons. (Indeed, the head of a Washington thinktank once refused to publish a paper by me explicating the above thesis – and later explicated in my books and other writings — to counter the flashpoint theme his outfit has been embroidering over the years, saying “it would close the doors in Islamabad”!) So, why have Indian and Pakistani analysts taken to iterating the flashpoint line and, thereby, legitimating Western concerns of a region on the nuclear boil? Plainly stated, because those among them in the academia and the thinktanks have to do so for reasons of brightening their professional prospects, and for India and Pakistan-based analysts because it gets them short-term attachments at American thinktanks and enables them to get on to the Western-funded seminar/conference circuit.

So, why is the N-flashpoint thesis nonsense? Innumerable nuclear war games over the years conducted by the Gaming & Simulation unit of the National Security Council in Delhi have proved that crossing the nuclear weapons threshold, in any rational sense, is almost impossible. To argue that Pakistan will wilfully ignore the uncertainty and definite escalatory risks attending on violating the nuclear taboo, and disregard the horrifically unbalanced “exchange ratio” in case of nuclear war that could quickly become total– the destruction of several Indian cities for the certain extinction of the Pakistan state and society, and trigger first use even if on its own territory against aggressing Indian armor and mechanized forces, is to believe one of three things: that the threat of “massive retaliation” (promised by the Indian nuclear doctrine) is incredible, or that the Pakistan Army is essentially irrational, will court the risk of a kind it has not done before, even going against its own record of pragmatic actions in past conflicts that have actually injected credibility into its deterrent stance and legitimated its possession of nuclear weapons as weapons of the very last resort. Or, that the Pakistani posture, apparently bolstered by the emphasis on tactical nuclear weapons, is an over-stated bluff.

The evidence suggests it is a bluff Pakistan will persist with owing, as explained above, to continuing politico-diplomatic payoffs in the external realm, and internally because it burnishes the Pakistan Army’s self-image – no small thing in a country widely perceived as a near “failed state”. If it is not a bluff then Pakistan stands to lose its all. “Pink flamingos” in terms of nuclear hostilities in South Asia are a mirage. The insider-assisted capture of Pakistani nuclear weapons is, however a “black swan”.

Posted in Asian geopolitics, Culture, Defence Industry, Europe, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Pakistan military, society, South Asia, Strategic Forces Command, US. | 3 Comments