Why India Is Not A Great Power

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.

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 Afghanistan, arms exports, Asian geopolitics, Australia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Central Asia, China, China military, civil-military relations, corruption, Culture, Cyber & Space, 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 policy -- Israel, indian policy -- Israel, Iran and West Asia, Indian Politics, Internal Security, Iran and West Asia, Israel, Japan, Maldives, Military Acquisitions, Missiles, Myanmar, Nepal, nonproliferation, Northeast Asia, nuclear industry, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan military, Pakistan nuclear forces, Relations with Russia, Russia, russian assistance, russian military, SAARC, society, South Asia, South East Asia, Sri Lanka, Strategic Forces Command, Strategic Relations with South East Asia & Far East, Strategic Relations with the US & West, Technology transfer, Terrorism, Tibet, UN, US., Vietnam, West Asia, Western militaries. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Why India Is Not A Great Power

  1. Bob says:

    @ Mr. Karnad; You have mentioned on a few occasions that India has often turned down opportunities for foreign military bases, including Nha Trang Bay in Vietnam.

    I was wondering where we are in terms of foreign military bases at this time (any recent developments?), and whether the new Government has tried to rectify the previous Government’s monumental mistake of passing up a base in Vietnam?

    • Bob@ — As far as I know the Na Thrang offer is still on, as is the Agalegas and the North Mozambiqan coast. And, no, the Modi government has yet to capitalize on these opportunities.

      • GhalibKabir says:

        Pardon me, That seems too simplistic an argument, why would the Vietnamese, Seychellese, Tajiks agree for a war time deployment? From what I do gather the Russians dont want us using Ayni or Farkhor while I don’t think the Vietnamese would go to the extent of offering to host an Indian naval base. I have read about this Vietnamese ‘offer’ and my immediate sense is ‘too good to be true’. Vietnam has axes to grind with China, sure thing. But making available naval base seems a stretch (the ISRO station etc hush hush thingy makes sense up to a point)… Why would Vietnam agree to host say Indian SSNs or SSKs?

        You might know better…but something about the Vietnam ‘offer’ smells big time.

  2. andy says:

    “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.”

    Second this part of the reviw!

  3. andy says:

    In fact GOI should consider the author for an advisory position on strategic matters to bring some much needed sense to the proceedings.

  4. Sir, Please explain.Sometimes, however, Karnad appears to contradict himself.

  5. ‘Amoral’ is difficult to define. Morality is cultural specific. In Indian culture it is already defined clearly that when dealing with an immortal adversary same rules do not apply as with a moral person. I hope Indian decision makers get over using this moral argument for justification of their own deficiencies.

    Anyways in the eyes of the people Indian decision makers are amoral corrupt to the core.

    The reason why Indians are not able to rethink testing is the down playing of Pakistan China N Korea nexus. India can easily get away from economic sanctions by citing evidence that Pakistan never stopped testing. Their first test was in China and most recent in N Korea. In fact if India tests then so will Pak. Any sanction will be on Pakistan too derailing CPEC and Russia bonhomie at least for the short term.

    But yes we need not test yet if we don’t need it for MIRVs . After all MIRVs don’t require megaton bombs. But we may have to test sooner or later to prove our own deterrence capability.

    • &^%$#@! says:

      @Primeargument: WRT “But yes we need not test yet if we don’t need it for MIRVs …” – NONSENSE!

      • MIRVs are not megaton bombs. Correct me if I am wrong. 400+ KT yield MIRVs with accurate delivery are seen as more effective than megaton Bomb. Other than that I don’t dispute the need to test to establish certainty of deterrence.

      • &^%$#@! says:

        Can you guarantee even 75+KT is the question you should be asking.

      • Testing a bigger bomb can be postponed as long as all windows to test not closed. Building delivery capability seems more important in my layman eyes.

      • &^%$#@! says:

        All windows have been closed. Anybody who tells you otherwise is either ignorant or a liar. The rot has spread too deep.

    • GhalibKabir says:

      It would be nice if we could test a Thermonuke. The ugly Pak-N Korea nexus is reason enough (Google pics of Korean test site resemble Ras Koh uncannily). However, the window was closed in 2005 decisively with the nuclear deal announcement. If we are NSGed in we are even more tightly bound. (in all probability likely in an year or two)

      I have a different opinion on testing though. Even a single 4 MIRV Agni V delivering a cumulative of 100 kT fission devices to Beijing should deter the Chinese enough if things come to that pass. If fission bombs capable of targeting Beijing, Shanghai, HK etc do not constitute ‘deterrence’ then nothing does IMHO.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.