Roadmap for Second-rate Power Status for India: Response to Quasi-official foreign policy document– ‘Nonalignment 2.0’

The title, the membership of the group comprising persons with Nehru-vian liberal/neo-liberal bent of mind (Nandan Nilekani, Shyam Saran; four academics – Sunil Khilnani, Pratap Mehta, Rajiv Kumar, Srinath Raghvan; a newspaper editor, S Varadarajan; and a token military-man, retired Lt Gen Prakash Menon), and administrative support rendered this project by the National Defence College, suggest its official provenance. Considering, moreover, that its public release on February 28 at the rundown, loss-making, govt property, Ashoka Hotel, in New Delhi, featured the entire constellation of NSAs (minus the late Mani Dixit) – Brajesh Mishra, M.K. Narayanan, and Shiv Shankar Menon, alongside  former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, and one is compelled to take this document somewhat seriously.

In a nutshell, ‘Nonalignment 2.0’ (available at is an exercise to force the present into a conceptual policy straitjacket from the past. While it is ostensibly future-minded, its utility as a foreign and military policy roadmap and “tool box” (a term used repeatedly in the report) is limited, being essentially a wordy rationale for whatever it is the Congress Party coalition regime headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been trying to do in the external and national security realms since 2004.

While there is little that is original in this report, by reiterating certain foreign and military policy ideas that have been aired in public space over the last 20 years by me  in my various books and writings since the early 1980s — ideas such as forging sporting and other links between the militaries, exchanging observers at military exercises, military educational exchanges, etc. with Pakistan(p.14), turning military focus and effort from Pakistan to China, etc. (pp. 33,35), it is helping to mainstream them, which is good.

But the deficiencies in the Report are too many and too obvious to ignore particularly because they come bundled in a policy package that indicates a  debilitating world-view and mindset. If its recommendations are realized, it will end in India remaining a second-rate power. What follows is a short critique of selective themes and ideas in the report that struck me as grievously hurting the Indian national interest.

1)    The basic flaw is up-front and centre, and underlies much of the argumentation in the document. It claims that “the fundamental source of India’s power in the world is going to be the power of its example” – high-paced growth coupled with a “robust” democratic system (p.1). That may have been so in the 1950s when much of Asia and Africa had no models to emulate. But in the 2nd decade of the 21st century, the Indian political system, ironically, is lauded more in the United States and the West, than sought out as a developmental model by the Third World. Poor countries these days are impressed by ends more than means, by outcomes rather than system or process and, therefore, find the extraordinarily-rapid but generally orderly progress by a China, more tempting.  The notion the document propagates that it is in the world’s interest to ensure India’s success is a remarkably introverted world-view, and then to go ahead and suggest that this supposed hankering by the world for India’s success should be used by India as “leverage” (p.4) is to dive through the rabbit hole and into an imagined Wonderland.  India’s democratic pretensions cannot be stretched that far.

2)    The acme of soft power, according to this document, is Indian democracy  and liberal Indian traditions and values — the underlying theme of this report (pp. 2-4). But the Indian democratic system and society are still a work in progress, which fact curtails its impact on foreign audiences. In any case, to believe that Indian democratic norms and processes can be used as policy fulcrum in the harsh world of international relations, is to misrepresent Joseph Nye Jr’s original concept of soft power. When Nye wrote of soft power for a mainly American audience, he presumed US’ base of very hard power on which soft power of the state rests. Indeed, he argued that by relying mainly on its hard power without tempering it with intelligent use of soft power, America had experienced foreign policy failures. The obverse of this, that overly to stress soft power and its uses and minimizing the value and impact of hard power is equally injurious to the national interest, especially of a rising India, did not occur to the drafters, leading to a fatal weakness in the report. It is a weakness compounded, moreover, by the authors’ implicitly endowing this soft power with moral superiority – the sort of thing that in Nehru’s days set people’s teeth on edge in Western capitals and multilateral fora alike, and even now is a patent policy liability.

3)    Nonalignment is, of course, the principal idea the Report self-consciously wraps itself around. Except in a world dominated by the US and China, adhering to this concept, the report avers, will require “skilful management” by India, of unstable “complicated coalitions and opportunities, especially” – and hear this! – “ïf it can leverage into the international domain some of the domestically acquired skills in coalition management and complex negotiation” (p.3).  Seriously? Recruiting renowned bahubalis (strong arm experts) from the badlands of western Uttar Pradesh, fresh from exertions in the latest elections, on MEA teams negotiating climate norms, EU free trade agreement, and entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, will no doubt be a diplomatic innovation. But it may be frowned upon by the effete Americans and Europeans. [I know, I know, but such is the rich seam of absurdity running through this Report, a talented satirist could do it more justice.]

4)   In terms of practical advice, the report reaffirms the passive-defensive “do nothing, provoke nobody” policy Manmohan Singh regime has been flogging all these years. Thus, it talks about developing “a repertoire of instruments” to deflect attempts at coercion, then turns around to propose that “we do not appear threatening to our many friends and well-wishers.” (p.4) This is a hint that India, for instance, will not develop, at least, not in Manmohan Singh’s watch, an inter-continental ballistic missile, whose design is in and only awaits Delhi’s green signal to get into prototype testing followed by full production, lest it upset the United States. To be consistent, it extends such an understanding to China as well. After suggesting that India concede superiority to PLA on the LAC but build-up maritime capabilities in the Indian Ocean (p.7) — which the Chinese Navy is already in a position to out-muscle, it counsels  “avoiding relationships that go beyond conveying a certain threat threshold in Chinese perceptions” (p.8, 26). In other words, India is supposed to forsake meaningful strategic partnerships with third countries, such as the US, Japan, Vietnam, Australia, et al, disadvantaging China because it might anger Beijing,  even as the Chinese proceed with implementing their wei qi encirclement strategies (Kissinger elucidates in his book “Ön China”). India is being asked peacefully to acquiesce in a correlation of forces favouring China and in coming Chinese-shaped regional and world orders. Can anything more fatalistic and defeatist be conceived as policy prescription?

5)    The document states that instead of behaving like other great powers which use multilateral organizations and forums to advance their singular interests, India, exceptionally, should strengthen their legitimacy (p.28). Of course, every country, including signatories to the CTBT, NPT, Doha Round, Climate summits, international laws, et al would be extremely happy with India, praise it to the skies, gain it goodwill, were it to undertake to abide by all their injunctions and resolutions, no questions asked and without preconditions. This is the way, the reports says, “to shape global norms” (p.30). Ah so. Then again, isn’t that what distinguishes weak powers with little leverage? Further, the authors wag a finger at powerful states inclined towards intervention using “universal norms and values” as “fig leaf for the pursuit of great power interests.” (p.31) Wonder what they would say were the situation in the Maldives to turn really bad for India, necessitating an Indian military intervention to restore a friendlier regime and ensure Indian interests endure in that island nation?

6)    If the above themes and ideas were not problematic enough, the section on hard power has a few doozies, reflecting a passing acquaintance with the relevant literature, lack of understanding of military and strategic realities by the authors, albeit all of them proverbial generalists ready to pronounce on any and every thing, and their uncertain grasp of limited war, escalation, and nuclear deterrence.  Briefly, the authors push something they call an “äsymetric strategy” against China. It requires India to favour building up chiefly the country’s maritime forces and the air force to counter China’s supposed superiority along the disputed border – Line of Actual Control. Worse, it recommends the same kind of penny-packeting of forces along the border and occupation of Chinese forward posts in retaliation for small land-grabs by the PLA in what is called a “strategy of quid pro quo” (p, 35). But this is “forward strategy” circa 1962 by another name, and we know how that ended. In the face of a major Chinese offensive, the report recommends going majorly maritime in retaliation. Meaning, they take Tawang, and the Indian Navy sinks a few Chinese merchant ships in the oil SLOCs. This is supposed to put the fear of god into the Chinese PLA? I reckon Beijing will happily exchange a fleet of ships with India for Tawang, which if forcefully taken will not be returned, unlike in the 1962 War. Other two prongs of this asymmetric strategy is to train Arunachal Pradeshis to wage guerrilla war behind Chinese lines, and building up transport and telecommunications infrastructure –which is mostly now missing – along the disputed border. This three-pronged plan is half-baked and amateurish. A far more effective strategy that I have been fleshing out over the last two decades – first contained in my classified report to the 10th Finance Commission, India, when I served as its adviser on defence expenditure is for India, on a priority basis, to raise 9-13 Mountain Divisions able exclusively prosecute offensive warfare across the border in Tibet. These forces have to be equipped with light armour, light howitzers, integral heli-lift and base transport for operations out of the Demchok Triangle and along the northern Sikkim plains. Taking the fight to PLA is what is going to give PLA pause for thought, not some rinky-dink operations to take a post here and a machinegun nest there. And this report which, predictably, says nothing about it, India should begin mobilizing the Tibetan exile community, train its youth in guerrilla actions deep inside Tibet, and generally be the Fifth Column aiding and abetting Indian offensive efforts in war by destroying PLA logistics hubs, the Qinghai-Lhasa and the Lhasa-Xigatze railway lines, etc. . Nor will it help to have only 2 plus 2 Mountain Divisions raised and under raising. These are too few to do other than beef up the defensive posture, which last is precisely what this Report suggests the Indian army restrict itself to doing (pp. 34-35), forgetting the lesson from the 1987 Somdurongchu skirmish, that general offensive-mindedness fetches better military results and a positive political fallout (remember Dengxiaoping’s “long handshake with prime minister Rajiv Gandhi!) than the defensive, stay-put, strategy the Indian govt, the Indian army, and the authors of this report subscribe to.

7)   Versus Pakistan, the Report junks the strategy of capturing territory. Bye, bye, Cold Start! This is fine, it is a theatre of minor wars. But it does not go on to assert — as I have argued in my writings —  that the personnel-heavy three strike corps establishments be thinned out to fill the 9-13 Mountain offensive Divisions. It instead advises an “ingress” denial strategy, because it fears anything emore forceful will eventuate in Pakistani escalation to the nuclear level (p.34). This is nonsense. Will not repeat here the arguments made at great length and in great detail in my books – ‘India’s Nuclear Policy’ and ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Strategy” now in its 2nd edition, as to why Pakistan simply cannot afford to escalate to a nuclear exchange no matter what the Indian provocation. But suffice to state just one fact: the improbably skewed exchange ratio – the loss of two Indian cities for the definite extinction of all of Pakistan.

8)    Other than this there’s no mention anywhere else in this report of anything nuclear, certainly not in the strategy dealing with China. If one has to adopt a purely defensive strategy, and even as backup for an offensive strategy, why not, as I have been suggesting, place Atomic Demolition Munitions in mountain passes through which the aggressor Chinese units will likely pass and fairly forward of the present defensive pre-positioned line. The triggering of only one such device will halt the advance of all PLA units everywhere. With a large enough Chinese force allowed in before the ADM brings down the mountain sides burying most of them, the surviving troops and units can be eliminated in detail. China will have to seriously consider if nuclear escalating will help them, considering these ADMs will be going off on Indian territory after the Chinese are well inside it. This is the sort of hard options the Indian government and armed forces better begin preparing for, instead of the default option of kowtowing to the Chinese and bullying Pakistan that the Indian govt and military is habituated to realizing.

At the release function on Feb 28th evening Vajypayee’s NSA, Brajesh Mishra had had about enough with all the moral posturing in the report and by some of the writers at the podium – all the hoo-ha about Indian values as the soft power lever to get India great power status. His somewhat meandering speech ended by his destroying the central pillar of this report. Mishra’s dismissal was devastating:  “What values?” he said. “We have no values.”

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian Navy, Indian Ocean, Indian Politics, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, Strategic Relations with South East Asia & Far East, Strategic Relations with the US & West. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Roadmap for Second-rate Power Status for India: Response to Quasi-official foreign policy document– ‘Nonalignment 2.0’

  1. Jagdish says:

    >>In a nutshell, ‘Nonalignment 2.0’ is an exercise to force the present into a conceptual policy straitjacket from the past.

    +1 to the above. I share the same view. Really uninspiring read.

    Having said that, we need an alternate view 🙂 IMO, it should start not with foreign policy but should start with core convictions of India and how Indian and Indians see the world.

    The 1935 colonial derived deracinated views of who we are will not do. We have far deeper and richer sources to understand what makes us a nation.

  2. Jagdish says:

    >>China will have to seriously consider if nuclear escalating will help them, considering these ADMs will be going off on Indian territory after the Chinese are well inside it.

    For the above, If I am a Chinese, it is a sure sign that India is weak and does not have the capacity or will to retaliate in kind and will simply move forward to annihilate Indian cities in a counter strike. In a serious war with PRC with high stakes on the table, not a border skirmish, this is exactly what the Chinese ought to do. Why assume, they will show mercy to the weak?

  3. Jagdish says:

    This response is important and you should convince CPR to publish it. CPR in its best traditions should present both views.

  4. jaggadaku says:

    Bharat Karnad Sir,

    I may have strong differences with you on how to view Pakistan. I certainly don’t consider it a communal riot with tanks.

    But I do very much like your recipe on how to deal with China, especially the bit about giving Tibetans military training and raising several Mountain Strike Divisions.

    First and foremost however I feel, India has let go of Nepal. We need to pump a lot of money there not just on development but to build pro-India militias and more importantly to nurture an army of pro-India journalists.

    Nepal is the route for getting more Tibetans to India and back for military training.

    • The trouble is the Maoist-dominated regime in Kathmandu, under presure from China, is turning back Tibetans escaping the Chinese or apprehending those Tibetans who have managed to avoid Nepalese border police and handing them back to the Chinese authorities.

      • jaggadaku says:

        Exactly that is the reason, why I said, that in order to pose a credible danger to China in Tibet, we would have to reclaim Nepal as an Indian protectorate. Why doesn’t India make a push in Nepal before dreaming of Tibet?
        The fascination with taking on world powers, is stopping us from seeing the deep trenches that have been dug all around us to prevent us from progressing in any direction.
        Let’s win Nepal first!

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