ADM Arun Prakash reviews ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’

Published in ‘Seminar’, Issue 679, March 2016 at (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…’

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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4 Responses to ADM Arun Prakash reviews ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’

  1. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    The prime problem as I see it, is an acute inability across the board to question established mores and thought patterns. The need for weaponry and by extension the strategic heft acquired through threatening the order (or the flip side, that of being the globocop), is designated by somebody deeply interested in the perpetuation of a certain first world viewpoint and then this line is faithfully followed by people in the third world.

    In such a situation all you get is a job worker faithful to his daily beat. You will never get a Rani Abbakka. And the subsequent systems will obviously grow accordingly.

    To some extent even the globocop realizes the sheer imbecility of this hierarchy and consequently has established a DARP ,A which despite its adherence to the hierarchy can still make contributions to the globocops future course in history.

    Just yesterday the US ,NI site has published results of the greatest Naval weapon/application waghera-waghera and obviously its a Carrier (truth be damned). And this took 3000 votes for the Carrier to be so consecrated. But what this shows is that there is strong propaganda machinery that is driven towards hiding things & promoting first world view among the followers/laggards.

    The question ‘Why India is not a Great Power (Yet)’ should have bothered our politicos, our militarymen and our business community nearly every single moment. But this is something they at best find ‘tantalizing’. Yup, like an item song. This is the real bane of India.

    And mind you, we should actually be thankful to the ex-officer for calling it so, because the rest of those who matter will not even read the book. And if you get these people to give a lecture on fine living and shero-shayari, they will promptly deliver one with all the depth of how these less appreciated aspects of life have held back India.

  2. Edelbert Badwar says:

    This Prakash is the same guy who just last year advocated that we should have an air force of only 200 jets as do England and France. His views are symbolic of a defeatist mentality that pervades much of Indias elite.

    • Shaurya says:

      source? ACM, CSC Arun Prakash’s above critique is more about the processes and structures in India and questions Bharat on who will listen to him? It is a fair question. Bharat;s prescriptions are deeply transformative and hence controversial in our establishment. Change does not happen quietly. Unless one argues that change is not required. One can disagree on the pace and tactics.

      Also a note, please use the ranks of the officers, where you can and their names with respect, they have earned it.

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