If time is available, I suggest listening to the podcast of the interview in extenso in the above URL. You’ll avoid some of the mistakes in transcription that have crept into the published Swarajya version of the interview.
Will India Ever Be A Great Power? Here’s What Bharat Karnad Has To Say About It
Excerpts from Swarajya’s interview with Bharat Karnad, in which he speaks at length about India’s equations with China and Pakistan; Jawaharlal Nehru; Narendra Modi, and why India is not a great power. Political discourse in India has become highly polarised. The sharp division of ideas in the country has caused a radical reduction in nuanced thought.
This is where Bharat Karnad stands out. He is a research professor at the Centre for Policy Research and a national security expert. He was a member of the first National Security Advisory Board of the National Security Council. He had also served as an adviser on defence expenditure for the tenth Finance Commission, and has authored many books on national security.
This combination of a true-blue researcher with a strategic mindset and forthright demeanour led to one of Swarajya’s contributing editors dubbing him “21st Century India’s Kautilya”.
Swarajya sat down with Karnad to get his take on India’s strategic resolve, the “great power” status, the civil services, arms manufacturing, Nehru, China, Prime Minister Modi and, of course, Pakistan to get a nuanced understanding of India’s potential, its weaknesses and the methods the country can take to correct its course as it embarks on the path to becoming a “great power”.
Here are edited excerpts from the interview:
In your book, Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet), you’ve lamented the lack of a strategic vision, ambition and resolve shown by the Indian state throughout its independent history. Why do you think we should be a great power in the first place? How do we benefit? How does the world benefit from having India as a great power? Aren’t there more important issues to solve first?
I think we tend to usually confuse the more important issues with the issues of security. The first task of any government, in any system or polity, is to secure the polity. If you do not make that polity or country secure, nothing else matters. And therefore, when you talk about these “other things”, by which I presume you mean development and social welfare of the people and so on and so forth, the question is, is that relevant? It’s very important. But how does this impact our quest for security? We should be clear about our priorities.
When you ask, what does the world get from India becoming a great power, it’s the wrong question to ask. What does the world get from any country’s assertion of their “great power” status? If they have the attributes (for said status), they should assert it. The Maldives, Pakistan, Belgium cannot expect to become great powers no matter what they do. India, China, America and Russia – they’re the only ones in the running.
One needs certain attributes (to even aspire to that status). One needs the territorial size, the economic vibrancy and size, the population. One should have resources of other kinds – material, human and natural. Thus, this status is not available to any country. Therefore, because there are so few countries, the more the powers, the more stable it is in the international system. That way, the international order is not pivoted to one or two powers dictating things or becoming adjudicators of developments anywhere in the world.
Many of our governments, in the past and present, have talked about “great power” as if it’s an entitlement. No one is going to give us great power. We must take it. It is not a concept generally understood in India. Those who have it are not going to willingly surrender the power. We need to take it from them, and that won’t happen if we are not militarily strong. That won’t happen if we are not diplomatically assertive and expansive.
We do not necessarily need to stomp on other people’s toes, but what we need to do is assert ourselves and set up an ecosystem for us to exercise our power for our good, principally, as a start. If it benefits the neighbours, good. If it benefits countries in a larger context, even better. If we can ensure the larger global order, that doesn’t hurt our interest, best of all.
That’s how I assume we are progressing to where India will go. Perhaps, not anytime soon by my reckoning, because of our failures, our flaws and our weaknesses, but this is where India will eventually get to if we have a strong-minded government that can see things clearly. If we have the leadership that can envision India’s place in the world, not in other people’s terms, but in our own terms – that is very important.
Since you’ve established that India does lack that strategic vision, is that more to do with our inflated bureaucracy and structure that the civil services come in with, or is it more to do with the political unwillingness to go too far from Nehru’s non-alignment?
Again, I think you have framed the question slightly narrowly. But, let’s go with your own parameters. The fact of the matter is that the administrative system, the system of the Government of India, is a colonial legacy. It hasn’t changed.
People don’t recognise it, but it was Vallabhbhai Patel who retained the system. He was primarily responsible. Nehru was for throwing everybody out. He said that the ICS (Indian Civil Service) are imperial stooges. They are the handmaidens of the imperialists. They help the British overlords rule India and Indians. They should be thrown out. Nehru was for that. Vallabhbhai Patel, a more practical man, realised if you throw all these people out, how can we maintain order? Thus, we retained the system as it was then. Unfortunately, no government thereafter has changed the system for it to become more receptive and sensitive to the people.
So, we have a system that genuinely does not mesh with the country’s aspiration to become a great power. Why? Because this is a colonial system of governors. The colonial overloads, when the British were here, were not interested in making India great except in so far as they ruled it. We were the diadem, the jewel in their crown. By ourselves, we were slaves, we were a slave nation. The administrative system that the British put in place was mainly to ensure law and order. It was not for development. It was not for social welfare of the Indian people. It was to impose their authority.
So, with that very limited agenda, they (ICS) did very well. But it doesn’t do anything else by way of development. That’s why we have what we have. No real development at the grassroots, bad systems of health, education. It is dismal. The privileged can afford anything and they can get it. For the elite, everything is entitlement. Democracy is subverted with politicians becoming part of the elite and laying claim to the entitlement regime – free houses in Lutyens’ Delhi, free cars, free servants and peons and chaukidars and everybody running in attendance of them.
So what have we got? The same old colonial system with some slight tweaking here and there to accommodate the new rulers. Sure, the scheduled tribes, the scheduled castes, the untouchables and everybody have got the power to vote and they are vociferous. But, what do their representatives do when they come to Delhi? How many of them work for the people who elected them? They work for the families or their biradari at most. Who works for the country? These are questions that have not been answered honestly by politicians and the parties. The government is not interested in changing it. The government is manned by the same people. Why would they want to change anything when it benefits them?
You have spoken at various times about the need for India to have an innate arms manufacturing industry, and how that would translate into great power status. Given the global paradigm as it exists today, won’t India be playing catch-up, especially to countries like China? And in doing so, isn’t there a worry that we would get pulled into an arms race that we are not entirely ready for?
Look, I said to you that the first task and brief of government is to secure the nation. How does one secure the nation? With imported arms? An anachronism, is it not? It’s an anomaly. It doesn’t happen in any place else, except in underdeveloped countries and third- and fourth-world countries like India. In 60 years, we are still a third-world country if we are honest with ourselves.
The point about the arms is very simple. We started out in the right way. This is not something usually acknowledged because of the anti-Nehruvianism of today. Nehru was a visionary. He set the foundation for a great republic. The unfortunate thing was, he was also politically a hamlet. He was indecisive. A great visionary. He did all the right things, but when it came to crunch time, he wouldn’t make decisions.
For instance, of the two major things he set in motion, one was the nuclear weapons programme. He had said that India had missed out on the gunpowder revolution and was therefore enslaved. He had said that no matter what happens we were not going to miss out on the nuclear revolution. This is what is so brilliant about his disarmament cry, which is what Mani Shankar Aiyar and all these people don’t realise. They swear by Nehru without understanding him. It’s not acknowledged now by Modi and the BJP. They should acknowledge it. Because they would realise where they are going wrong, perhaps, but this man (Nehru) had vision. He may have talked disarmament, but all the time as the minister for atomic energy, he encouraged, financed and ensured that Homi Bhabha set in motion what he called the Janus-faced nuclear energy programme.
Do you know who Janus is? It’s the god in the Greek pantheon with two faces looking in opposite directions. Janus. Civilian-military. Remarkable! When India didn’t have money in the 1950s, he took money from the military and the Ministry of Defense, which is why in the 1950s the defence budget went down, just to fund the nuclear programme. He said if you have nuclear weapons, you have security. That was the point he was making. And we had reached our nuclear weapons threshold before China in March of 1964. He died in May 1964.
Moreover, the nuclear programme was a secret, the weapons part of it. It was a two-person loop that Bhabha himself had set up because he was afraid of intelligence penetration and Western countries coming to know of the programme and forcibly ending it, which is what has happened since, hasn’t it? The nuclear deal. What’s happened with the nuclear deal? The Americans have come in and we have been hurt.
The point was to insulate the nuclear weapons programme from any external pressures. Do you know that the department of atomic energy is the only department of government that is paperless? There is no paper because Bhabha set it up that way. So far-thinking, so incredibly strategic. He did it so because everything government does is in duplicate and quadruplicate. This could easily have been sold to the Americans, who could have pressurised us to adjourn our nuclear weapons ambitions.
In 1962, when we were being beaten by the Chinese in the Himalayas, Bhabha went to Nehru and pleaded with him to test it. He said it will lift the morale of a people that have been defeated and humiliated. Nehru, being indecisive, didn’t say no, nor did he say yes. He kept telling people in the nuclear weapons programme, “Not now, but be ready. Not now, be ready.” And we lost out. By the time we cranked up the machine again for the test in 1974, it was too late. By 1968, the Americans had put up the NPT, Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, meant expressly to prevent India from weaponising. See how things work. Power has to be taken. We never go the full distance. We just do things symbolically. Had we weaponised in March 1964, we would have been the fifth world power, not China. China would have been the sixth in October 1964.
The other thing that Nehru did, where arms was concerned, was instead of importing combat aircraft, which is what we have been doing, he imported the best combat aircraft designer in the world at that time in the 1950s. He got Dr Kurt Tank, who designed the Focke-Wulf war planes for Nazi Germany. Can you imagine this? He imported the greatest designer of aircraft. He was commissioned to design the aircraft in 1957. By 1961, the first prototype was flying in the Bangalore skies. The first supersonic jet aircraft to be made outside of Europe and the United States in the world flew over Bangalore. In 1961. What does this say to you about the subsequent prime ministers? Not being strategic-minded, not being visionary. Dr Tank had designed the HF-24 Marut. That was the great combat aircraft that flew to Bangalore. It is parked in the HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) museum. It was then said to be the finest aeroplane in the world.
During the Second World War, India was called the Arsenal of the East. The entire allied armies’ Middle East command under Montgomery and the Southeast Asian command under Mountbatten were provisioned by India. It was not Europe. Europe was fighting its own battle. It didn’t have the resources. We were doing it. We made everything from guns to lorries to aircraft. We put together Lancaster bombers in Bangalore. So, where have we come from that? We’ve plummeted down to this, to become the largest importer of arms in the world. Look at what we started out with and how we have methodically crippled ourselves over the years. That’s the great tragedy. That’s what I mean when I say, think of Nehru anew. Yes, he was indecisive. Yes. Every great man has a flaw. This was a grievous flaw, but look at what he did.
We have the base. We destroyed it because we didn’t use it. Because we keep importing aircraft, our own base is destroyed. This is what I call mechanical screwdriver technology. Just import it and license production. Modi doesn’t seem to understand. ‘Make in India’ is great, but it is not the main thing. Design in India, develop in India and then make in India. When you design your own combat aircraft, you don’t owe the world anything. You can always buy the components from here and there, but the design is yours. That’s the most important thing. If you can’t design it, then you are at the mercy of whoever sells you whatever he wants to sell you.
A contributing editor to Swarajya magazine on reviewing your book said that if there ever was a Kautilya in twenty-first-century India, it would be you. Going on from there, I would just like to get a sense of Doklam and what’s been happening there and your perspective on it.
On Doklam, the fact of the matter is that the Chinese have been nibbling away at the Bhutanese territory in dispute with China. They know Bhutan can’t do anything. There’s the concept of the creeping tri-junction. The tri-junction is where the three countries meet, but the Chinese have been pushing it methodically and systematically in the southern direction. From the first time, in 2003, they moved the Batangla line – the original tri-junction – south to Doklam, and they have been pushing slowly. Now the thing is that in 1998 and 1999, Bhutan and China signed agreements for maintaining the status quo.
The special representatives of both China and Bhutan, in an agreement in 2015, also said that for anything regarding the tri-junction, India had to be consulted since it is an interested party. And because of our traditional relations with Bhutan, Bhutan’s security is India’s concern mainly because Bhutan is in no position to enforce its will on the Chinese.
So, first, they move the tri-junction from Batangla line at Gyemochen to the Doklam plateau, and they are doing that because then they have a line of sight on the Siliguri Corridor, which means there would be no obstructions in the form of mountains in front of them. When they send off a missile, it’ll go straight on to the target. That’s what Doklam plateau does. If the Chinese come and take it, they will have a line of sight on the Siliguri Corridor, which we cannot allow. No matter what, we will not allow it.
In the Doklam plateau, what has happened is that the Chinese did not expect Indians to come in with such speed and stealth. This has happened for the first time since 1987, during the Sumdorong Chu incident, where we came in heavily and said, “If you want to fight, lets have it.” And we brought in artillery and the Chinese didn’t believe what was happening. They thought of 1962 and felt that we were people that could be intimidated. That didn’t happen. The Chinese have not learned the lesson of 1987. They keep harping back to 1962.
We also have IMTRAT, the Indian military training mission in Bhutan. We have an infantry brigade there. So, when the Bhutanese complained in writing to India, the infantry brigade immediately moved and came into Doklam plateau and said, “No, you can’t construct, end of story.” The Chinese didn’t know what to do. So, they thought that by issuing more threats and fulminating, they can pressurise an Indian withdrawal.
The more they talked, the more they threatened, the more India played cool. We didn’t respond in the same way. No to and fro, no nothing. Just keep talking, we will not allow you, simple. So, they were getting more and more worked up. Now the situation is such that they have pushed themselves into a corner. Now Xi Jinping has a real problem backing down. What is he going to do? Say we’ll back down to the Indians? Sushma Swaraj said it in Parliament. She said, no preconditions. They said, no precondition is the first withdrawal. There are no preconditions. And they must withdraw. We will also withdraw simultaneously when they withdraw, so I think this is ultimately the solution.
I think what’s really bugging the Chinese is that they are losing face. For the Chinese, that’s very important. For us also, it’s important. But, we have lost face so many times that we apparently don’t care that much now. So, when we have occasion to regain our face, we are doing a pretty good job. They are playing it really cool. This is high-class diplomacy, and for the first time in a very long time.
Nothing is going to happen as far as the military is concerned. But China’s pretensions to enforce its will on its periphery are gone. Everybody in Southeast Asia is watching, the Americans are watching. We now have a psychological edge over the Chinese. They thought they had it. They have lost it now.
The One Belt, One Road project is China’s attempt to re-stake it’s self-perceived hegemony over Eurasia. It’s essentially Silk Road 2.0. Given that Medieval India benefited a lot from the Grand Trunk Road, which connected to the Silk Road, should India not leverage the economic potential? I mean, rather than finding ways to oppose it. I can understand the opposition the military side of things, but there is an economic potential in being linked to Central Asia and Europe through the One Belt, One Road initiative.
Okay, but the thing is, again, if OBOR (One Belt, One Road) is ultimately going to be militarily disadvantageous to you because it creates infrastructure for easy Chinese ingress into the subcontinent and into our part of the world, then should you not oppose it? Because what is the overarching thrust of our concerns? Is it to have economic benefit, or is it to secure ourselves against China? And they are a marauding power now. Why? Just look at the Chinese name for their country. It is Zhongguou, the Central Kingdom. That’s what they call themselves.
So, the point to make about OBOR is that we have been mindful because of the military implications of its infrastructure; that is, infrastructure that will be militarily useful for the Chinese to encircle. This brings you to the Chinese notion of geo-strategic spaces. What is the game that most illustrates our classical history and culture? Chess, right? Shatranj. It’s a two-person game. But, what is the Chinese game? It’s something called “Weiqi”. What is Weiqi? Think of the same chess board with all the squares. While Shatranj or chess says go for the king piece and the game is over, Weiqi says occupy as many squares as possible. What is the idea? We don’t need to rule for the adversary to move and occupy all the space.
This is exactly what the Chinese are doing in the Indian Ocean, Hambantota, Myanmar, Djibouti, Africa and Gwadar, right? Central Asia, OBOR, CPEC. This is Weiqi! This is the problem and we don’t even seem to realise it. We should go to Africa, to Oman. Place an army in Oman. Place a navy in Chabahar. We have all the opportunities. The Mozambican government in the year 2000 asked the Indian Navy to found their navy, the Mozambican navy. They said, “You found it, and you lead it,” officered by the Indian Navy. We said no. When such opportunities are let up, we can’t blame the Chinese or anybody else for disadvantaging us because we don’t have the strategic sense or overarching strategic vision for our country.
What is the United Kingdom? A small country. You can travel all over, even walk the damn thing virtually. They conquered the whole world. And Indians never felt shame about it. Humiliation is something that Chinese have used to build up their nation and national identity. Even now the Communist regime in China uses what they call the “Century of Humiliation”. Have we ever felt humiliated enough to say, “No, it will never happen again?” Everything we do is to ensure that something will happen again.
All these things come together when you say OBOR. Yes, there might be some economic benefits to it, but you can also argue that the British Empire in India was good for us economically because they built the railways and the telegraph. There is something radically wrong here, in such thinking.
You mentioned CPEC briefly. India’s opposition, at least the stated opposition, primarily rests on the premise that Gilgit-Baltistan is North Kashmir and we have claims to that land. First, do you believe that stated position has any merit in today’s day and age, and second, isn’t this conflict vis-à-vis Pakistan regarding Kashmir holding India back? Most of our troops are still deployed across the LOC (Line of Control). We’re still not playing the Chinese game. We are still focused a lot more on Pakistan.
Absolutely. I’m turning into a one-tune canary on this because I have been saying Pakistan is a nuisance. It is a pest. It is not a threat. Please understand the difference. Pakistan is a small, little country on our flank. Its greatest success has been to reduce the very big India on its side to its level. Everybody in India is jumping around Pakistan whether it’s to taunt them or complain about them. What is the point? [The GDP of] Pakistan is one-eighth of our GDP. In relative terms, it’s one quarter of the market cap of the Mumbai stock exchange.
I say it to my military audiences that when we talk of Pakistan as a threat, we should be ashamed of ourselves. We misread the threat. China is manifestly the threat. Three times our size and how far has it progressed and how quickly. In 1979, when Deng Xiaoping, the great helmsman took over China, do you know that economically we were slightly ahead? And within 30 years, they are almost four times our size. So, understand the threat. Pakistan is not a threat. So, what do we do? How do we deal with Pakistan? We have to co-opt them.
Can we, though? Now that the Chinese have already co-opted them?
We can co-opt them even now. You talk to Pakistanis. When I go there and talk with their general staff, they say, “Yeh saazish hai, Hindu-Brahmin saazish hai (This is a conspiracy, a Hindu-Brahmin conspiracy.)”. I say no. If you want coal, you are importing it from Australia, paying a fanciful price for each tonne of coal to run their thermal power plants and their factories when you can run a freight train from India, from the Jharia Coal Fields in Bihar all the way straight into the Karachi factory yard at a fraction of the cost. Do you think the Pakistanis won’t jump at it? Please ask the Karachi Chamber of Commerce & Industry what they would say.
But would the military in Pakistan jump at it as well?
This is the point. Give the military a role. We have demonised the Pakistani military. Look, let me just say it clearly – they are a very professional military. It may help us to say they are warmongers. They are doing what they have to do as they see it, to ensure their security.
Once we denature the Pakistani threat, we need to unilaterally win Pakistan’s trust. It’s the most difficult thing between nations. We need to unilaterally withdraw all nuclear-armed, war-headed missiles from our western border. I say this to our military audiences; if I was a Pakistani military strategist and I saw what India was doing and its force structure, I would do exactly what Pakistan is doing.
Okay. Could you elaborate?
Yes, because we have a three-strike corps – 1, 2 and 21. We have something called the “Cold Start” doctrine, and none of it is practical. It’s a nice phrase, “Cold Start”, but it’s a no start. But try telling it to the Pakistanis. They won’t believe you, and why should they believe you? We have 3,500 tanks there. I see their point. Most of the tanks are mothballed.
So, I’ve stated, rationalise the three-strike corps into one composite corp. One composite corps is more than enough. With independent armour brigades, it’ll be more than enough to deal with any Pakistan contingency. If the Chinese are not going to take you on, do you think the Pakistanis are going to take you on? Please. We have to have some sense of perspective in all of this.
What do we do with the material and human assets? When we de-mob such a big formation, what happens then? What do you do with the people? What do you do with the material? We need to create offensive mountain corps. With them, we can take the fight to the Chinese on the Tibetan plateau. It’s a flat high-altitude desert. Perfect terrain for tank warfare. But not the tanks we have. Our tanks are optimised for plain warfare, desert warfare. For high-altitude warfare, we have to redesign our tanks. That’s what we should have done all this while. We should have lighter tanks, high-velocity guns, etc. The idea is to have more appropriate tanks for high-altitude warfare. When you have a three-strike corps, you can take the fight to the Chinese and look what happens. Even when we don’t have them, the Chinese are apprehensive. A three-strike corps can offer remarkable offensive power. We have to reorder our military priorities and reorient our military from the West to East and the North East.
I’ve argued that, sure look, if there is a gnat buzzing around, and it comes and bites you, you can do two things – one, you can take an elephant gun and try to kill that gnat. If you fire the elephant gun, there’ll be collateral damage on yourself. What is the better way to do it? Roll up a newspaper and slam the damn thing. So how do you deal with Pakistan? The idea is not to destabilize Pakistan. Ultimately, the overarching aim is co-option.
I believe that if there were no Pakistan, we would have to invent it. Because see what it does geopolitically. What is Pakistan for us? It’s a buffer state. It’s always good to have a buffer. What’s the buffer against Islamic extremism? See, what’s happening, Pakistan is suffering from Islamic extremism. You can see it. It’s a buffer state. When we had Tibet as a buffer, there was peace between India and China. We didn’t do anything when the Chinese took over Tibet. The Indian agent in Lhasa pleaded with us to bring in our army. But Nehru said no. We are the two great Asian giants. We are going to rule Asia cooperatively. That didn’t happen. We have to be more strategic-minded in our approach to security. Once you come to that, you will see that China is the real problem, not Pakistan. Ultimately, what is the solution with Pakistan? It is the 2007 Musharraf resolution that he brought forth but Manmohan Singh didn’t take.
Why do you think he didn’t take it?
Because he was afraid the BJP will jump up and down and then attack him from the right. Very simple. Short reason why. It’s important to understand what Musharraf offered us. First, he was the army chief. When you have the Pakistan army on board a solution like that, then it’s the end of the story. The idea is to deal with the military. A fig leaf for him was a mechanism to oversee the affairs of Kashmir. No big deal. The mechanism would have been like the Indus River Commission, where we would meet and exchange data and the like. Musharraf would have had that story to tell which he would have got from India on involvement in our part of Kashmir. That’s fine, but in real terms, he got nothing. Even in that document, what was envisaged was that any Kashmiri going from here to that side of Kashmir would have to still produce documents. Once you have documents, what does that mean? You’ve formalised the border.
Economic intimation can be the easiest thing in the world because you talk to the Pakistani and they cannot empathise with the Chinese. They are very different people. How many Pakistanis can speak Mandarin? How many Indians can speak Mandarin? The proportion is relatively the same. They don’t understand the Chinese. The Chinese are as inscrutable to them as they are to us. So, would they rather not deal with us? You go to Pakistan, it’s virtually India there. For God’s sake, all their shelves are full of Dabur hair oil, aata and Palmolive oil, all from India. Why? How do they come to India? Not smuggling but via the switch trade. So, the ships leaving India to, say Dubai, anchor at Karachi and smaller boats come in from the Karachi port, unload the consumer items and take them into the city and distribute them all across Pakistan.
This is how the Pakistani consumer economy works. The trade is going on. The government has not been able to stop it. Do you think the Pakistan army is going to stop this trade? They all use the same Palmolive oil and Colgate and all of that comes from these boats. It’s a sham. Sometimes when you look at the whole thing, it seems silly.
We need to approach Pakistan with the attitude that they’re a small country. Let’s be generous. This is the whole point of Arthashastra also. You should not rile a small country that is critically placed vis-à-vis you. This is what is said by Chanakya and we have completely violated the basic axiom of great power, which is a pacified neighbourhood. If you have a pacified neighborhood, that’s the foundation of a great power. If in your own neighborhood everybody is jumping up and down and no one likes you, then most of your energies will be taken up just to deal with the neighbours, and there will be no effort and energy left to deal with the outside world. This is our real problem. And we don’t seem to realise it. We are quite happy beating Pakistan in wars and cricket.
On this note, the last question. India has been demanding a UN Security Council (UNSC) seat for some time now. Arguments usually range from India is a responsible power to how can you neglect one-sixth of the world’s population. Does India, which rarely takes any position externally, even deserve a seat at the UNSC given that it has one of the highest rates of abstention as a non-permanent member?
Short answer. India doesn’t deserve it. We have done nothing to deserve it. We are not a great power. We have not made ourselves responsible for anything in the world. We just ride everybody’s coattails and we think United Nations Security Council is an entitlement. Why? Because, as you say, we are one-sixth of the world’s population. That doesn’t mean anything. I told you at the very beginning, great power must be taken from somebody who has the power. Do you think someone is going to just give it to you on a silver platter and tell you to come and take the security council seat? No, it doesn’t happen. It is not a charity business. Strategic affairs of the world, of different countries, they are not indulging in charity. It’s hard business. What did Bismarck say? He said that to make a great Germanic state, we will have to expend blood and steel.
What was the great thing about Elizabethan England? Elizabeth I of England had a choice between social welfare and funding the Royal Navy. All her ministers asked her to focus on the discontent at home, with the poverty and hunger prevalent then. She said no, fund the navy. Once we fund the navy, we secure our approaches to our island, then we can get out and seek our fortunes in Europe. In 1812, Battle of Copenhagen, it was the first time the British ventured out. The continental strategy had begun. The British became the adjudicators, the balancers of the European balance of power system. Why? Because it ruled the seas, it became the basis of their Pax Britannica.
India, for its part, can afford to do both social welfare and security. But we cannot afford to misuse our resources, which is what we have been doing, even in military terms. Because we have a military force that is completely inappropriate for the twenty-first century. Our military is in the 1940s. We still have cavalry. Our military doesn’t keep up. Our government doesn’t keep up. The government is what it is, a colonial system. We have not rechecked it. It’s not efficient. It’s not effective. Resources are routinely misused in the military as well. When the resources are misused for this kind of buildup, for the upkeep of this kind of a force structure, then the real threats don’t get addressed naturally.
And in economic terms, had we followed Rajaji, progenitor of your Swarajya, and his suggestion to free the entrepreneurial genius of the people, it might have been different. Precisely what Modi had once promised. The government has no business in business. I’m a right-winger. I believe I’m an Edward Burkian conservative. I believe in ‘lesser the government, the better’. The government is the great obstacle to everything, not just to individual aspirations but even to the nation’s growth and aspirations. So, I said the smaller it is, the better it is for everybody. This is what Modi promised.
So, as a right-winger, how would you judge Modi’s three years in office?
He has persisted with the old system. The administrative system, the system of Government in India is a real liability for the people because it is old and rickety. It is not competent with its generalist civil servants. But nowadays everything is specialist in nature. The level of sophistication and specialisation required today is immense, and we have generalised civil servants instead. We have a rural electrification secretary the one day, and the same fellow is later drafted to become the defence secretary the other. What would he do? I know defence secretaries who have been honest and said Bharat when I was there for two years, I didn’t know what was happening. They are honest enough to admit it. This is something where our government, our rulers, our elected rulers seem not to understand. The other thing is, it’s left to the bureaucracy to come up with policy options. As I have argued in my book, that’s not the brief of the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy is an implementer.
You have to take the decision. You have to tell the bureaucracy this is what I want. Do it, but no. So, you have the old system of government. And they’ll therefore function at the old pace. How do we expect the old system to produce different results? What is the definition of madness? The definition of madness is you keep doing the same thing over and over and expect different outcomes. So, we are in difficult straits and we think we are okay, which is even worse, when you don’t even recognise your problem but everybody knows there is a problem.
Is this the Lutyens’ effect? That once you come down to Lutyens’ Delhi, you get used to the lovely roads that the Brits made?
Of course! Yes, I call this Disneyland. I have told foreigners not to be taken in by Delhi’s Disneyland. The Disneyland isn’t the reality of the world. It would be lovely if every village were like this, but it isn’t. But those who enter Disneyland don’t want to leave it. It’s so nice. Everything is catered for. Nice green lawns, lovely parks. It’s the entitlement syndrome.
In a column that received a lot of heat, I argued against giving Bharat Ratna to Sachin Tendulkar. You give him the Bharat Ratna, but a nuclear scientist who began the thermonuclear weapons project, Dr P K Iyengar, just gets a Padma Bhushan. When the country is so wrong in estimating who its heroes are, what do you expect of such a society? I am sorry. But these are just illustrative examples of why India is not a great power and will never be.
This is an abridged version of the interview. You can listen to the entire interview on our podcast, Swarajya In-depth.