Published in ‘Seminar’, Issue 679, March 2016 at http://www.india-seminar.com/semframe.html. (Go to the left margin on the page and in the column ‘Seminar web edition, click successively on 2016 and March.)
Bharat Karnad’s latest offering, tantalizingly titled, Why India is not a Great Power (Yet) makes for compelling reading, because even those who disagree with his passionate advocacy will admit that he propagates the
national cause far more effectively than do our effete policy-making elite. Sweeping in scope and provocative in content, the book is written in Karnad’s usual forceful and cogent style.
The author makes skillful use of history and Indian politics to bolster some powerful, and often bombastic, arguments. For a scholar living in the sheltered ‘groves of academe’, I would rate his knowledge of defence planning, strategy, doctrines, and weapon systems as ‘above average’. However, it is certainly not enough to warrant repeated excoriation of the
military leadership – past and present – that he frequently presumes to indulge in.
For an average Indian, engaged in struggles with issues of roti, kapda, makan, bijlee, pani, sadak, corruption and rising prices, one suspects that any talk of great power status would be akin to a slap in the face.
At the same time there are other Indians who would insist that further discussion on this topic is redundant because we are already a great power by virtue of our geography, demography, rising economy and, above all,
superior 4000 year old culture.
Karnad, clearly, takes a different view. On the very first page of the book, he lists out ten criteria for great powerhood that include attributes such as a ‘driving vision’, ‘outward thrusting nature’, ‘a sense of destiny’, ‘inclination to establish distant presence’ and ‘a
willingness to use coercion and force in national interest’, to list a few. Regrettably, in my 45-years in the Navy and Ministry of Defence (MoD), I have never detected the slightest sign of any such ambition in the Indian state or any of its functionaries – political, bureaucratic or
So it would be fair to question the author’s quixotic inquiry into India’s ‘great power’ quest, when we know that a dysfunctional Parliament, lack of
vision in the government and the country’s decrepit, bureaucracy-driven security structures preclude any prospect of attaining it in the foreseeable future.
The book’s leitmotif is essentially a lament that India has missed every opportunity to rise to its potential. Karnad sets out manifold reasons for this: a diffident and risk averse polity which has consistently held back its punches, a stove-piped and over-bureaucratized government, absence of an articulated national vision, hollow hard power, over-emphasis on soft power and finally, a military which remains trapped in an industrial age mindset. He is right on every count, and renders a valuable service by dwelling, in great detail, on these national shortcomings.
What strains the reader’s credulity is Karnad’s radical prescription for putting India on track to achieve its ‘destined glory’. His grandiose plan is rooted in an ‘Indian Monroe Doctrine’ and involves India defining
a vast security perimeter, extending from the Caspian Sea to Antarctica and from East Africa to SE Asia. Having bound this area together with security, trade and economic ties, he wants India to act as a maritime ‘security provider’.
However, it is when dealing with China that Karnad takes one’s breath away. Choosing to ignore the very handicaps he had pointed out earlier, and the incongruity of a poor and struggling India donning a hegemon’s
mantle, Karnad recommends that Pakistan be downgraded as a security threat and eventually won over economically. At the same time, he recommends that
China be confronted head-on, in Tibet as well as at sea.
Some of the unorthodox measures he suggests to contain China are guaranteed to rattle the diplomatic and military communities alike. Apart from an unrealistic and ambitious scheme to establish Indian bases in
the Pacific and Indian Ocean as well as in Central Asia, he recommends that India should resume thermonuclear testing and arm Vietnam with nuclear weapons. Resurrecting a discarded Cold War concept, he suggests
the planting of nuclear demolition charges on Himalayan ingress routes to deter the Chinese. His most utopian suggestion involves the basing of an Indian ballistic missile submarine in Australia to deter China!
Countering historian Ramachandra Guha’s list of objective reasons why India will/should not become a superpower, Karnad points out that the straitened economic circumstances of Elizabethan England and
Bismarckian Germany did not prevent them from attaining power and dominion. History, however, seems to point the other way, because Queen Elizabeth’s reign was known as the ‘Golden Age’ of affluence for England
and a prosperous Prussia, under Otto von Bismarck, was the world’s first welfare state.
Having offered a critique, I must resile somewhat, and focus on the book’s true worth, which lies elsewhere. As highlighted below, along with a comprehensive analysis of why India has ‘flattered to deceive’, Karnad also offers rare and valuable insights into India’s post-independence security decision-making and evolving security postures. I would strongly commend this book to a broad spectrum of readership interested in contemporary Indian history, defence, security, strategy or international relations.
India is a nuclear weapon state with conventional forces that count amongst the largest in the world. For the year 2015-16, Parliament voted 40 billion USD for defence. To this figure, if we add expenditures incurred on the nuclear deterrent, on ‘special projects’ and on the Home Ministry’s million strong central armed police forces, India possibly spends about USD 100 billion on internal/external security.
As Karnad describes in detail, India has rarely been able to leverage its economic or military might to deter or dissuade any country – Pakistan, China, Sri Lanka or even tiny Maldives – from undertaking actions inimical to Indian interests. While the international community may applaud India’s apathy in the face of grave provocations such as the 26/11 Mumbai terror
episode, the taxpayer is entitled to ask whether annual expenditures of the order of USD 100 billion are not too heavy a price to pay for merely demonstrating ‘strategic restraint’. Most of the answers to this conundrum
can be found in Karnad’s book.
The author casts a sharp beam on India’s national security domain to unerringly pick out its shortcomings and flaws. He also, unflinchingly, points out the price that we are paying for this gross mismanagement, in
terms of a half-empty arsenal, a military-industrial complex that has failed to deliver and a higher defence organization that may not be able to cope with 21st century conflict.
One wishes that some of the educated few in India’s political establishment spare time from electoral politics to read this book. They would realize the truth of Karnad’s words, that ‘the lack of a comprehensive vision, strategy, game plan and primarily, political will,
and a scatter-shot approach to marshalling national resources… give the impression of a country clueless about what it wants and how to get it…’