Great Power: a ‘bridge too far’ for India?

Think of it. India was there when the Pharaohs ruled Egypt. It interacted with the Ancient Mesopotamian empires on the Tigris and the Euphrates. India was the mystery Alexander of Macedon set out to conquer. Indian spices and precious stones, finely woven cottons and silk, and peacocks, were the luxuries and the exotica craved by Imperial Rome in the age of the Caesers. Much of Southeast and offshore Asia had Hindu kingdoms, and absorbed Indic values and culture, even as Tibet, Central Asia, China, and Japan came under the thrall of Buddhism emanating from the subcontinent. The Ramayana lore so forms the cultural core of countries in this “Farther India” that the 800-year old Thai monarchy still has its historic capital of Ayuthhaya, an ancient form of Hinduism is still practised in Bali, Indonesia, and the adventures of the great Monkey King with mythical powers journeying to the “Western Kingdom” – India – remains the stuff of traditional stories dear to the people of China. So, India is and has always been a civilizational presence and cultural magnet. Alas, that is a far cry from being a great power in the modern age.

Except India, its civilizational imprint aside, has all the attributes of a great power. It has prime strategic location enabling domination of the Indian Ocean, supplanting the Atlantic Ocean as the most strategically important waterway. India’s peninsular landmass jutting out into the sea is, as many have noted, like the prow of an immense aircraft carrier, permitting Indian naval assets and land-based air forces to maintain a grip on the oceanic expanse and choke off adversary forces foraying into “the Indian lake” at the Malacca, Lumbok and Sunda Straits in the east and, in the west, the eastern ends of Hormuz and Suez, and prevent a land power such as China from accessing these proximal seas.

India has a burgeoning economy and the largest, most youthful workforce in the 18-35 age-group, promising the manpower to make India both a manufacturing powerhouse — the “workshop” to the world — and the richest, most extensive, consumer market. Further, the country has been a “brain bank” the world has long drawn on – an endless source of talented scientists, engineers and financial managers from institutions, such as IITs, IIMs, and IISC that are now global brands, helping India to emerge as a knowledge power (in information technology, pharmaceuticals, engineering research and development, and “frugal engineering”). India, moreover, is a stable if raucous democracy, and boasts of one of the largest, most apolitical, professional and “live fire”-blooded militaries anywhere. So, why isn’t India a great power yet?

India is bereft of national vision and self-confidence. It has the will to security but not the will to power. This is manifested in the absence of strategy, policies and plans to make India a great power. An over-bureaucratized and fragmented system of government unable to muster policy coherence and coordination hasn’t helped. The resulting incapacity to think and act big has led New Delhi to take the easy way out and emphasize soft power, when historically nations have become great by acquiring self-sufficiency in armaments and using military forces for strategic impact.

But the Indian Army, that during colonial times won an empire for the British and sustained a system of “distant defence,” with its ramparts extending seawards in the arc Simonstown-Hong Kong, and landwards from the Gulf, the Caspian Sea to the Central Asian khanates, has been reduced to border defence becoming in the process as stick-in-the-mud and passive-defensive minded as a strategically clueless government.

The irony is that an impoverished, resource-scarce, India of the 1950s, strode the international stage like a giant – leading the charge against colonialism, racism, and championing “general and complete disarmament”, assuming leadership of the Third World-qua-Nonaligned Movement, and emerging as the balancer between the super power blocs during Cold War. It was also the time Jawaharlal Nehru articulated an “Asian Monroe Doctrine” backed by Indian arms and, by way of classical realpolitik, seeded a nuclear weapons programme and a cutting edge aerospace industry that eventuated in the Marut HF-24, the first supersonic combat aircraft designed and produced outside of Europe and the US.

Just how far India has fallen off the great power map may be gauged by the fact that some 50 years after the Marut took to the skies the country is a conventional military dependency, relying on imported armaments and with its foreign policy hostage to the interests of the vendor states. And, far from imposing its will in Asia, New Delhi has become a pliant and pliable state, accommodating US interests (on nuclear non-proliferation, Iran, Afghanistan) one moment, adjusting to the demands of a belligerent China the next.

Far from earning great power status the old fashioned way by being disruptively proactive and, in Bismarck’s words, by “blood and steel”, the Indian government sees it as an entitlement, as recognition bestowed on the country by friendly big powers. Never mind that such position gained at the sufferance of other countries is reed-thin, as the recent move by a supposedly friendly US to join another friendly state Russia and China in opposing India’s entry into the UN security Council showed. The fact is India, albeit elephant-sized, remains a marginal power with a small footprint and, in real terms, commands little respect in the world. For such a recessive country, great power will always be “a bridge too far.”
Published on the OUPblog September 30th 2015 at

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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 Africa, Asian geopolitics, Central Asia, China, Culture, Defence Industry, domestic politics, DRDO, Europe, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian democracy, Indian ecobomic situation, Indian Navy, Indian Ocean, Indian Politics, Iran and West Asia, Japan, Northeast Asia, Pakistan, Relations with Russia, Russia, SAARC, society, South Asia, South East Asia. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Great Power: a ‘bridge too far’ for India?

  1. Atul says:

    Will your book come on Amazon ? Is there any possibility to buy its e-copy? Hardcover will take ages to be delivered..

  2. Shail says:

    Spot On !
    Lack of a Strategic Culture and a Stranglehold of a bureaucracy schooled in the ways of Delay, Denial, Obfuscate and avoid transparency and accountability. All added up with successive generations of ministers unschooled in Geo-Politics ( but masters of “LocalPolitiK” ) with little or no interest in defence matters and trapped by the need for populist decisions for re-election. Add ” Mr Clean” for last 8 yrs whose inaction will yet ” Clean us out” in case circumstances call for large scale action.
    The last but not the least : DPSUs and OFBs

  3. Shaurya says:

    Will try to get a copy of your book, before we meet. However, a long winded question, at root is one diagnosis that some of us have ventured on why India falters and at least one aspect points to a lack of organic institutions that know how to scale – from our history. Any of our institutions and its associated philosophies were squashed in the colonial and islamic experience, leading to the fragmentations of Indian society and unlike say China, who’s legacy institutional structural memories stayed alive, even as they reformed and formed new institutions, such as a single party.

    The lack of a single or dominant state, the lack of reform in our own institutions of laws and structures that did exist, the decline of Sanskrit as a uniform language and the corresponding rise of prakrits all contributed to create fragmented nations and hence a fragmented polity with no united common purpose – at an ideological / political level.

    Hence our borrowings of ideas and political structures from the colonial legacy, which has helped to lay the foundations of a new republic but hampers in its own native articulations that can size up risk and opportunities in light of its views of its self interests and act accordingly. Your thoughts?

    I know in the past you have alluded to “what has happened to our roaring Vedic culture?”

    • The point about vedic strategic culture centered on the Rg Veda is not to abide by its simplistic, geometrically determinant, hugely flawed ‘mandala’ model of geopolitics (when compared to China’s strategic statecraft revolving around wei qi, which is analyzed in my new book), but rather to applaud its strategic imagination, which I have argued, Indian foreign and military policies lack. As revealed in my first tome — Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security, now in its 2nd edition — the fact that our forbears could even imagine WMD of the most modern and devastating kind — is astonishing enough and reveals a strategic bent of mind absent in our official thinking. Unfortunately, too many Vedic references are taken literally. Instead of that strategically imaginative bent of policy mind, the BJP govt has expropriated the thought of the Hindu fringe. Some of these tilts are reflected in the public statements of PM Modi (to wit, that Lord Ganesha’s transplanted elephant head indicates surpassing plastic surgery skills in the days of yore) and his ministers and their ilk. This leads to the PM, the Indian govt and the country being perceived as a collective running joke.

      • ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

        Not convincing enough Bharat Sir. There is a reason why so many people love dwelling in the mundane – big bombs imagination of yore. Because they are unable to understand what the Vedic Mandala model of thought. You will first have to produce some mathematics of your own to be able to see if your ideas have some confirmation in the theory over at that end.

        And as you rightly pointed out the BJP govt. having been taken over by fringe guys (add overseas interests also to it) there is no hope for strategic imagination to ever grow beyond the tentative prodding and tasting, that it is threatening to grow into.

        May be just as well. Probably India has to wait a little more for some a clean break – a yug parivartan.

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