A nation that aims low and hits lower

Reproduced below is the review of my book ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’ by Air Marshal BD Jayal (Retd), former Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Eastern and South-Western Air Commands, Indian Air Force, published in the Telegraph (Kolkatta) Nov 13, 2015, and is available at http://www.telegraphindia.com/1151113/jsp/opinion/story_52771.jsp#.VlHgu2SrTZu

A nation that aims low and hits lower

Brijesh D. Jayal

WHY INDIA IS NOT A GREAT POWER (YET) By Bharat Karnad, Oxford, Rs 875

The study is a factual narrative-cum-historical analysis based on extant literature and interviews and discussions with politicians and senior civil and military officials involved in decision-making in the last few years. According to the author, this, in effect, acts as a sort of a post-mortem on the performance of what he terms as, “the lost decade” in terms of economic reforms and strategic outreach of the last government. As such, it is also a primer for the new government on what not to do.

The author identifies the criteria that separate great and would-be great powers from the rest and is of the opinion that India can have a huge impact if it thinks and acts big; its foreign policy is friskier; its armed forces are organizationally sprightlier and strategically geared, and the defence budget is used judiciously to secure capabilities for distant contingencies and to meet China’s challenge, rather than to fight yesterday’s wars with a lesser foe (Pakistan). For the present, India has all the attributes, but is not a great power.

In the context of what kind of great power should India aspire to be, the author notes that India believes that it will secure a great position of power by goodwill and deft diplomacy unlike others, who have done so by sheer will, strategic vision and show of force. It is the troika of absences – the absence of a national vision, of the political will to realize it, and of the understanding of the utility of hard power – that has kept India down.

The author discusses in some detail the systemic constraints, which include a passive-defensive mindset, narrow perceptions of national interest and a strangely diffident view of India’s capacity to impact the external world. He concludes that the Indian government, the military and the policy circles are habituated to aiming low and hitting lower.

He points out that it is in India’s interest to make sure that the international system trends towards multipolarity so that India is not swamped by China in Asia. He also feels that Indian diplomats, scarred by the 1962 military defeat, are fearful of leading a collective security scheme in Asia, such as an Indian Monroe Doctrine to keep China in its place. He deals in depth with the geopolitical scenario and argues that a coalition of littoral States can blunt China’s aggressive posture. He also discusses the States that are pivotal to India’s interests.

According to the author, India overemphasizes its soft power with little attention to the hard-power deficit. At the heart of this infirmity are flaws in what he terms, the software component of hard power, namely the absence of a strategic vision, political will, credible threat perceptions and appropriate strategy and plans. Consequently there is little clarity in India about the kind of power it should be and considerable confusion about the role that hard power can play.

From the military standpoint, the chapter on the military strengths and weaknesses, has many messages, primarily with regard to organizational weaknesses, resistance to technology-related transformation, reluctance to unified command and integrated forces and a general preference for short-legged weapon platforms, tailored for short tactical operations such as those against Pakistan. For nuclear deterrence to carry weight, a case is made for the resumption of thermonuclear testing, revising and introducing opacity into the nuclear doctrine and the placement and public announcement of atomic demolition munitions to counter China’s itch for map changing, and thereby transferring the onus of tripping over the nuclear wire to China.

Allied to the above chapter is a vital discussion on the fatal weakness of the Indian armed forces, that is the dependency on external sources, which itself will prevent the achievement of a great-power status. The author suggests a revisit to an ambitious proposal to completely reorder the defence sector that was drafted for the first National Security Advisory Board, as a part of the first Strategic Review, which called for dividing all defence related research and development and manufacturing under two leading private sector firms.

Finally, the author covers the severe internal barriers of a corrupt and malfunctioning administrative system that runs on “silo based” decision-making and a foreign service resistant to the idea of hard power as hindrances to progress. Undoubtedly, both will need a radical overhaul.

The author notes that the young and aspiring India is different from the past and may now be impatient for India to become a great power. He closes on a mixed note. He sees the prime minister, Narendra Modi to be more direct in addressing adversaries, in the exercise of power and more confident about India’s place in the world, but sees the national vision and appreciation of hard power still missing. Moreover, rather than remaking the system, the prime minister is relying on the same old establishment to deliver on a new agenda. India would then have missed yet another opportunity.

In the field of geopolitics and national security, the author offers refreshing and innovative prescriptions that will prepare the ground for India to move towards its legitimate place of power and influence in the international community. Many in the Indian establishment, however, would be tempted to view these as hawkish and would want to bury this very incisive analysis through such clichéd stereotyping. This soft State mindset is precisely what this book highlights and attempts to redress. It should add greatly to the debate amongst both policy makers and practitioners on ways to steer India to its rightful place within the international community. If as a result, the policy makers and practitioners shed old mindsets and think innovatively, a new beginning can be made. Equally, it will be studied with great interest by the international community that sees the obvious potential of a rising India, but must wonder at its reluctance to exploit it.

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.
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2 Responses to A nation that aims low and hits lower

  1. Shail says:

    umm ..and if one may add..a deep seated mistrust of the Armed forces by the bureaucracy, which orchestrates delays, denials and degrades the “Hard Power”component at each stage is surely another reason why we will never become a Great Power. Surely the disastrous state of no frank and pragmatic military participation at any meaningful level in governance and a penchant for elevating CAPFs with Hard Power must be a major nail in the Great Powers Coffin.
    Diffidence in all that matters is also a result of woefully inadequate knowledge of defence related issues at all levels, and an uncanny ability to piss off allies, smaller neighbours, and own citizens whenever the going is good. i.e. Snatching defeat from the Jaws of victory.
    (Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka come in-exorably to mind)

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