India: A Middling Power

Image result for pics of India -- middling power

[Fountain Ink, a monthly published from Chennai, asked 10 persons in public life and, in its words, “from different stations with varied experience [to briefly answer a set of questions about] what time has wrought, how each relates to time and goings-on, of what gnaws at them even if their own individual lives are on an even keel and what inspires them.” The responses were collated and published in a piece entitled “The Story of us”, in this periodical’s January issue, at My take is reproduced below.


As a think-tanker, I have tried my damndest to influence Indian foreign and military policies specifically and the national security policy generally, with my contrarian hard power-realpolitik views. This I have attempted to do over the last 35-odd years via appointments in government and constitutional bodies (as member of the 1st National Security Advisory Board, and as adviser, defence expenditure, to the 10th Finance Commission), through books and writings, consultations with political leaders and with armed services’ chiefs and their senior advisers, and through lectures at the National War College, Army War College, Naval War College, College of Air Warfare, College of Military Engineering, College of Defence Management, and other senior military training forums, by participating in seminars and conferences, and by reaching directly to the people via public lectures, videographed talks on the net, and the less frequent TV news shows and newspaper op-eds. 

Despite the severe flux in global power politics and the international correlation of forces the essential inertness of the Indian government’s thinking and policies (through the decade) was simply astonishing.

India’s inert foreign policy is the bane of this country and prevents it from exercising its prerogatives and becoming a great power. Consider that Indian policy switched from leaning on the Soviet Union during the Cold War decades to tilting in the new millennium towards America. It started with the Narasimha Rao regime and continued unaltered in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and now Narendra Modi governments, notwithstanding the ideological differences between the left-of-centre Congress party and the right-of-centre BJP.  

The trouble is whatever their rhetoric, no leader or political party seems convinced about India’s big power bona fides, but seems united in seeing the country as a secondary, subservient, power that can only rise without giving offence to rivals (China) and on the backs of friendly great powers. Whence India’s “creeper vine” foreign policy, which is geared to winding India around some big power as support in order to rise like the creeper vine that needs a pole, a tree, or a lattice to climb. 

It is a tragedy starkly illustrated by the persistent scandal of importing arms, making foreign defence industries wealthy and affording supplier states diplomatic leverage, rather than trusting in indigenous talent and capabilities, which are abundant and of high worth and readily available especially in the private sector. So, as far as I am concerned, it has all been lose, lose, for India, ensuring the country remains in the new century what it has been for long—a middling power of little real consequence.   

It has been frustrating to see piddling states like North Korea and even Pakistan display the guts and gumption to be disruptive—which is what I have long argued India should be to earn the world’s respect, instead of what it has been doing—acting “responsible”, pleading to join clubs (UNSC) and cartels (MTCR, NSG) on their terms, treated with disdain, and getting sidelined and kicked in the shins for its troubles.  

I have become more impatient, not less, with age, impatient for India to amount to something in my lifetime which, sadly, won’t happen. 

On the personal level, it is pleasing to see my many books and views that have consistently advocated ways to make India a great power by pursuing this status the old fashioned way—by unwillingness to compromise on expansively defined national interests, by the wise use of national resources and, in Bismarck’s famous phrase, by blood and steel, being appreciated in policy establishments and strategic enclaves at home and abroad.

Unfortunately, starting with Nehru our leaders have sought great power the easy way—as entitlement, by popular international acclaim, and by pushing abstract goals, like India becoming a vishwa guru (whatever that means)!

The vibe I get from the decade is of little meaningful change in India’s national security policies and plans. India seems to be steadfastly marching in place and getting nowhere fast. As the Queen said to Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, if you don’t know where you are going, any path will get you there. 

As an Edmund Burkean conservative, the hopes and expectations I had for a diminished role of government in national life and in the lives of the people (that Narendra Modi promised) have not panned out. As a realist strategist, I am appalled at how diligently our leaders and the government have frittered national resources and squandered opportunities to raise India’s stock as an independent nodal power and China’s premier rival in Asia and the world.  

Despite just about everything going wrong and the country stagnating, I still have absolute conviction that India will make good, become  a great power in spite of the government, not because of it. In fact, the political class and the government are, I have come to believe, the biggest liability for the nation, a millstone round the country’s neck, relentlessly dragging it down.

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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10 Responses to India: A Middling Power

  1. Brijesh says:

    I whole heartedly agree with the view that we, in India, have never aspired for greatness for this country. It is here that my disagreement with Bharat Karnad begins-namely that he has always pussy footed around the basic underlying reason for that. As he says, that he has aged, like all of us, and therefore he should logically therefore should have lesser personal ambitions of aggrandisement but that does not seem to be the case.
    One day, I hope that he does and then and only then will he really count.
    But until then, his is one of the few voice seeking a more outward bound policy than hitherto and therefore he has my support.

  2. PRATIK KUMAR says:

    Hi Bharat sir…..I have being following your views regularly, in newspapers, your books, youtube, articles and such like….After knowing all your views, I can definitely say that ” you are modern day CHANAKYA for India”.

    What our political class thinks, I don’t know……but as a common citizen of this nation, I can simply say “THANK U VERY MUCH FOR YOUR CONTRIBUTION TO THIS NATION”.

    May god keep u safe and healthy…

    And regarding your last paragraph, I also have a good feeling that this nation will definitely become a great power one day with real politik sense….and whenever this will happen, your contribution will always be on top..

    Thank u sir….

  3. vivek says:

    i think first thing india has to do is MIRV and one last successful TN test , saying world that its deterrence against china

    • Just “one last successful test” won’t do; for credible weapons the testing has to be open-ended, which will also emphasize India’s freedom of action and recover for the country its lost sovereignty (vide the 2008 nuclear deal with the US).

  4. Mubashir Hassan says:

    You are an optimist but your contributions are a lot.I have learned a lot from you. Your words are plain truths about realpolitik but they are too chilled for those who only know social engineering of caste society.

  5. Rupam says:

    Out of all the gloomy news, the good news of NLCA is something to be proud of given the treatment it got. Hopefully this will translate into further commitment by our forces to homegrown platforms. Although given the order size of Tejas Mk1A and its promotion and AFAIK no presence of it in Republic Day fly past, it seems IAF is still stuck in tactical mindset and not going for strategic mindset.

  6. Kumar says:

    Hi sir
    Read your books why India is not a great power, staggering forward. Both are great, do plain speaking on what we should do. Learned a lot from you. Wish for you healthy and long life. Keep doing the great work that you are into and that is what separates you from the rest and makes us read your blog.
    Thank you..

  7. Mr.Mister says:

    “Despite just about everything going wrong and the country stagnating, I still have absolute conviction that India will make good, become a great power in spite of the government, not because of it. In fact, the political class and the government are, I have come to believe, the biggest liability for the nation, a millstone round the country’s neck, relentlessly dragging it down.”

    If not for the corrupt and evil politicians, who exactly will guide the nation to this “greatness,” you envision so pompously? The illiterate unwashed dedhs who are so in thrall of the evil at the top?

  8. Shaurya says:

    @Mr. Mister: When we get a powerful leader at the top again.

  9. Philip says:

    Well put,tragically. The desire to play second fiddle to the US in the last decade,hoping it will bail us out against Pak perfidy and Chinese creeping military expansionism ,has been revealed to be an abject failure. The current drastic reorganising of the MEA speaks for itself.
    Pak has not been punished for its proxy war of terror against us , and China continues unabated with its relentless maritime ambitions for the IOR while strengthening its military infrastructure in Tibet.
    The miserable defence budget will cripple our modernisation and combat capability too.

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