In Why India Is Not A Great Power (Yet), Bharat Karnad’s majestic breadth of national ambition surpasses even the wildest interpretation of Machiavelli’s The Prince.
Karnad, Bharat. Why India Is Not A Great Power (Yet). New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2015. 564 pp
If India were to ever look for a Kautilya in the 21st century, Bharat Karnad would undoubtedly be at the top of a very short list. Some have compared him to Niccolo Machiavelli, the Renaissance Florentine political thinker, but that would be a grave injustice to Karnad, whose majestic breadth of national ambition in Why India Is Not A Great Power (Yet) surpasses even the wildest interpretation of The Prince. In his latest book, now marginally over a year old (but reviewed again because it simply has not got the attention it deserves), Karnad asks the question a whole new generation of young Indians are also wondering – why is their country not counted as among the major powers of the world?
The question is not the fatuous pretension of a strategist born in the wrong country or era, but a potent one. Consider, for example, that India has detonated nuclear devices, sent missions to the Earth’s closest neighbours, the moon and Mars, developed missiles that can strike anywhere from Japan to Austria, built nuclear-powered submarines, satellites, and once the first jet fighter outside the West, and has an advanced nuclear energy programme that includes an indigenously designed and built fast breeder nuclear reactor that is about to go critical as well as a thorium reactor in the wings. Yet Delhi also appears to lack the power to dissuade its tiny South Asian neighbours such as the Maldives, Nepal, or Sri Lanka from adopting policies that potentially put Indian national security in jeopardy; India has generally shied away from ever taking a clear stance on world issues, even when its own interests are at stake, such as over Iran or joint training operations in the Indian Ocean and its environs with friendly navies; and Delhi just cannot learn to use its increasing economic clout to influence bilateral trade terms or global commercial regimes in its favour.
The root of this problem, Karnad argues, is that the Indian republic’s leaders have never thought strategically. This echoes RAND analyst George Tanham’s famous 1992 report, Indian Strategic Thought: An Interpretive Essay, a much reviled essay in many Indian circles but with more truth than they care to admit: after all, if one has to think back 2,300 years to recall the last great strategic thinker in one’s culture, it might be prudent to concede the point. Karnad cites several public intellectuals and officials – Nobel laureate and economist Amartya Sen, historian Ramachandra Guha, former prime minister Manmohan Singh, former national security advisors MK Narayanan and Shivshankar Menon, Congress minister Shashi Tharoor – explicitly stating that India should not even attempt to become a great power in the traditional sense of the term. What makes India great, the argument runs, is its soft power and ancient civilisational values imbued with rich diversity that have much to offer the world by way of example – in essence, an Indian version of Puritan John Winthrop’s city upon a hill. What little progress India has made in recent years in asserting itself on behalf of its national interests seems to be primarily at the urging of friendly powers invested in the idea of a normal India, with hard and soft power commensurate with its geographic size, location, population, and economy.
Karnad lays the genesis of such woolly thinking – bovine pacifism, he calls it – at the feet of Jawaharlal Nehru. Interestingly, his is not the simplistic assault on India’s first prime minister that one has become so accustomed to from the Indian “Right” in recent years, but a more nuanced understanding of the man. Karnad’s Nehru is an intellectual giant but a practical pygmy: according to Karnad, Nehru rightly saw the latent threat from China, envisioned a world order that would not leave three quarters of the world torn between American capitalism and Soviet communism, and articulated an important place for India and her interests on the world stage. Unfortunately, this was coupled with abject incompetence in implementation: Nehru abandoned his idea of an Asian Monroe Doctrine with India at its helm for fear of upsetting other newly independent third-world countries who only remembered the Indian military as agents of British imperialism, did not embrace the countries flanking China’s southern rim in a geopolitical and defensive association in an arrogant condescension towards geopolitics, rejected a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council over ideological vacuity, and failed to cross the nuclear Rubicon when the opportunity first presented itself in February 1964. Future leaders ossified Nehru’s vacillations much to India’s detriment.
Over seven chapters, Karnad discusses what it means to be a great power, India’s options in developing a coalition of littoral or rimland states to moderate Chinese aggression, Indian relations with the major powers – Russia and the United States – as well important countries in its near abroad – Israel, the Gulf states, Iran, the Central Asian Republics, the ASEAN, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Japan, the over-cautious, risk-averse nature of the Indian administration and its failure of strategic imagination, the shortcomings of the Indian military services in terms of procurement, silly and detrimental turf wars, silo-based decision-making, slow absorption of the latest technology, preference for short-term, tactical thinking over long-term, strategic planning, and organisational inelasticity, the weakness of Indian industry in not just developing but even assimilating technology, poor governmental policies favouring non-performing defence public sector undertakings, and the low motivation and budget for research and development, and finally the internal factors such as caste-driven politics, illiteracy, centre-state tensions, corrupt civil service, and socialist perpetuation of poverty.
Karnad regales the reader with ample anecdotes of stunted ambition, missed opportunities, and poor planning by Indian politicians, civil servants, and military brass that would make even the most committed teetotaler reach for a generous helping of liquid courage. The failure to become a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the short-sightedness in not taking Vietnam up on developing a naval base at Nha Trang, the docile surrender of Indian national interests to American priorities in Iran, the absence of the armed forces in any higher echelon governmental decision-making, the turf wars between the Ministry of External Affairs and the military, the impossible logistics of the Indian Air Force, the exuberance over soft power in isolation, and the irresponsible comment repeated by senior bureaucrats that nuclear weapons are not weapons of war all make an appearance in this excoriation of seven decades of Indian policy. While it is not difficult to agree with the author’s simpler premise that India must shrug off its timidity and become a Great Power, it is the audacious road map offered to Great Power status that makes this book truly interesting.
Anyone who knows Karnad would not hesitate to peg him for a security hawk. Even those who have heard of him for the first time in this review would have by now probably come to agree with that sentiment. Fascinatingly, unlike most security hawks in India, Karnad suggests a reorientation of Indian military policy away from Pakistan and towards the real bête noire, China. His argument is simple – anything that can dissuade China from having its way with India will likely deter Pakistan too but not vice versa. With 60 percent of the Indian army and 90 percent of its armour deployed against Pakistan, India finds its difficult to come up with the resources for the urgently needed mountain regiments and other requirements along the Line of Actual Control. Karnad even goes so far as to suggest the removal of the nuclear-tipped short-range ballistic missiles pointed at Pakistan as a unilateral gesture of goodwill. In times of war, they are easy targets for the Pakistani air force and the break-away state is anyway amply covered by the Agni family of missiles deployed deeper and more safely in the hinterland. These measures would reassure Islamabad and allow the Pakistani army to save face in following the Indian example. Furthermore, India should incentivise its immediate neighbours, including Pakistan, with generous economic terms to plug into Indian markets and thereby cement the country’s role as a regional security provider as well as economic engine.
Putting China in India’s crosshairs has several layers in Karnad’s grand design, each to be initiated simultaneously. Delhi must reorient its military towards China and order it to prepare for several scenarios, including pushing across the Himalayas and fighting China in Tibet, bombing the fragile ecology of the Tibetan plains and other high value targets such as the Three Gorges Dam, and setting up atomic demolition munitions in the Himalayan passes. Delhi should amplify its capability to prosecute expeditionary missions anywhere from Subic Bay to the Persian Gulf by establishing foreign military bases at Nha Trang, Agalegas, Farkhor, Ayni, Garden Island, and other important locations. This could be achieved in concert with other states of the Indian Ocean Region littoral, dissipating any resentment at India’s rise, increasing confidence in Delhi’s intentions, and forging a partnership for an Indian-led Asian Monroe Doctrine first envisioned by Nehru.
Yet to give its potential partners any confidence in India’s abilities, Delhi must actively seek to set up a defence-industrial complex led by the private sector that would initially absorb technology transfers and later further its own R&D. Defence independence would not only be good for India’s pocket book but it would also improve the Indian military’s operational readiness and psychologically nudge Southeast Asia towards betting on Delhi to balance China. If India emerges as an arms supplier to the Indian Ocean Region littoral, it would build long-term relations with the militaries Delhi hopes to partner to contain China.
In its international relations, Karnad argues that India jettison the loaded vocabulary of non-alignment but actually behave in a manner Nehru had intended that term to describe. To this end, Delhi should side with the United States, Russia, Southeast Asia, East Asia, and Australia against China when it comes to curbing Beijing’s adventurism in the Himalayas or the Nine-Dash Line. However, India should also align with Iran, Russia, and China against the United States and its Western allies in matters of international trade pacts, environmental norms, labour agreements, and other structural treaties that prop up the status quo favouring the victors of World War II. As part of both groupings, India would become the balancer.
Finally, in what will certainly be considered the most outrageous policy recommendations, Karnad suggests that India resume nuclear testing to attain the thermonuclear grail as well as to make credible its fission designs. Further optimisation on existing designs to yield weapons of various payloads, from tactical to megaton-strategic would give India a richer nuclear palette of responses to an incoming attack. Furthermore, most egregious to prevailing nuclear morality, the author also advocates that Delhi arm Vietnam with nuclear weapons in a tit-for-tat policy to pay China back for supplying Pakistan with nuclear weapons and missile technology.
Karnad considers the argument that India’s best foreign and defence policy for the next two decades is nine percent annual economic growth. As he points out, past Great Powers did not become so once they became the industrial engines of their times but their military and economic trajectories complemented each other. Elizabethan England, Bismarckian Germany, and one might add the Soviet Union, Catherinian Russia, the Ottoman Empire, or Rome did not become empires after attaining economic hegemony but their military muscle supported their economic wherewithal and vice versa. Even China, though its rise has been noticed by the West only since Deng Xiaoping, was a military power not of little consequence before it embarked on a programme of economic rejuvenation.
Sometimes, however, Karnad appears to contradict himself. For example, he lambasts the set of treaties the United States has been pressuring India to sign, known as the Foundational Agreements, for coercing India into an American military geopolitical as well as operational order but at the same time admits to India’s own individual abysmal failure in these respects. Not only is communication between the different branches of the Indian military difficult, Karnad tells us, but even within the same service! Different procurement policies, short-term fixes, and the tendency of the different branches to exist in isolation from its sister services has necessitated several jugaads to make possible joint operations. India has also failed to take up offers to establish military supply stations on foreign soil on its on and working with Washington provides a medium-term fix. Similarly, Karnad is leery of the United States as a provider of military technology. Yet he also admits that Indian DPSUs and industry have been spectacularly unsuccessful at indigenous development of required equipment in quality or quantity. The Americans offer a route to plug the gaps in Indian defence more immediately that bringing domestic capability up to speed and then doing so indigenously.
While Karnad is undoubtedly correct about the necessity for credibility of the Indian nuclear deterrent, he does not consider the ramifications of renewed nuclear testing. India will most likely come under sanctions from at least some of its major economic and military partners – the United States, Japan, Britain, Germany, Canada, Australia – and that could effectively scuttle military modernisation and retard economic growth. Again, the lesson to learn here comes from China – economic indispensability provides a great cover for many sins.
Moreover, arming Vietnam with nuclear weapons is easier said than done – true nuclearisation of Vietnamese defence would require indigenous thinking on technical as well as geopolitical and strategic aspects of nuclear weapons, something Hanoi will need time to develop. In addition, nuclear arms are financially unviable for Vietnam in its current status. It is not even clear if Vietnam perceives any need for its own nuclear arsenal. A case in point is Japan – despite its proximity to China and the regularity of anti-Japanese rhetoric in the Middle Kingdom, Tokyo feels comfortable even under an unsure American nuclear umbrella. Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has had an uphill battle in convincing his countrymen to make even the smallest of amendments to the constitution to allow a healthier defence outlook and there is great public opposition to all things nuclear.
It is not the purpose of Why India Is Not A Great Power (Yet) to explore every policy option – for example, terrorism and cyber security are given short shrift – but to emphasise the lack of ambition in the Indian ruling elite, whence all other problems arise. Karnad’s heartwarming embrace of amoral machtpolitik is not for everyone. Yet notwithstanding the provocations, disagreements, and the quibbles, the import of his argument should not be lost. This is a most important book anyone interested in Indian security policy should read; in fact, were the Indian prime minister, defence minister, and foreign minister to consider just one book in their entire term, this ought to be it.