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India’s strategic policy

March 30, 2012

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WHAT basic principles should guide India’s foreign and strategic policy over the next decade? Eight eminent Indians with expertise in foreign policy met regularly over a year to answer this question.

The result is a 70-page report released this month titled Nonalignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in Twenty First Century. An informed understanding of India’s strategic outlook holds value for Pakistani analysts and policymakers as well.

According to the contributors to the report, the objective of India’s strategy should be to give the country more options in its relations with the rest of the world. The document aims to offer a framework of foreign and strategic policy that is appropriate for the economic development of India. Globalisation provides more opportunities than risks as long as the country uses this window of opportunity intelligently, says the report.

The story of Indian policy is a combination of several unresolved dilemmas. During the Cold War years, geographically distant developing countries saw India as a friendly voice. For its immediate, smaller, neighbours, however, India was a bully that in turn coerced and cajoled. While the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union initially considered India a pesky non-aligned power, for China here was a stubborn neighbour who interfered in its internal affairs in collusion with the US. Some of these perceptions remain intact and India’s strategic thought and actions appear to suggest that future may not be too different.

Pakistan permeates the 70 pages and, along with China, is allotted independent sections. According to the document, India is widely recognised as an emerging power and its economic, military, and political salience will grow in South Asia and beyond; but sensible Indians know it “cannot hope to arrive as a great power if it is unable to manage relationships within South Asia”. The Gujral doctrine of going the extra mile in dealings with neighbours gets a conceptual facelift in this report, while Pakistan remains an overriding, though somewhat misunderstood, concern. The report incorrectly assumes that everyone in Pakistan’s military and the bureaucratic and political elite believe “that it is only cross-border terrorism that compels India to engage with Pakistan and accommodate its interests” (p.18). And, the authors of the report feel that the presence of nuclear weapons imposes constraints on India’s “countervailing strategy”.

Suggestions on dealing with Pakistan constitute a mixed bag that is likely to keep South Asia hostage to India-Pakistan hostility. Indian policymakers realise the importance of “the US handle” in putting Pakistan under pressure over what they term “cross-border terrorism”, but they are mindful of the limited value of this. In terms of positives, the report recommends keeping channels of communication open even in the light of any setback such as the Mumbai attacks, seeking more military-to-military exchanges, and facilitating ordinary Pakistanis in visiting India. On the negative side, it calls for exerting diplomatic pressure on Pakistan by expressing concern over this country’s internal issues.

India has become the world’s largest importer of arms and is set to spend about $40.5bn on defence during 2012-13. It will buy arms worth $100bn over the next five years. The “capture of significant amounts of Pakistan’s territory continues to be the primary military objective underpinning the doctrine and organisation of the Indian Armed Forces” (p.39), notes the report. But it points out that this is no longer tenable owing to the nuclear equation and the document asks New Delhi to review its operational doctrine and structures by putting emphasis on air and cyber power. Equally problematic is the claim that China can opt for a land grab policy through the use of force.

India’s arms splurge constitutes the recipe for a classical security dilemma where its adversaries would view development as a source of insecurity. Under such circumstances, an arms race becomes a distinct possibility.

If Pakistan and China occupy the imagination of Indian strategists for mainly traditional security reasons, the Middle East makes it in because the region is the source of 63 per cent of crude oil for India, with trade worth $93bn and six million Indian expatriates remitting $35bn annually.

India will continue to have warm relations with both the US and Russia, says the report. Shared reservations regarding China will bring Washington and New Delhi closer but the report does not recommend entering into a formal alliance. Nevertheless, it points out that overall, the points of convergence in Indo-US interests outnumber the irritants. A groundswell of goodwill for India in Washington will be a valuable source of strength for Indian policymakers in the years to come. Russia remains India’s main source of arms and the latter’s appetite for these goods mean even closer ties in the future.

The contents of the report’s conclusion and the section titled “Way Forward” are apt reminders to Indian policymakers regarding the value of adopting a holistic view while formulating foreign and security policies. A large military and more weapons aren’t the only ways to counter threats to national security (p.63).

In order to have comfortable relations with other countries, it is crucial for the state to have internal legitimacy, and democracy is the best tool with which to foster legitimacy. The provision of public goods to ordinary Indians will help India become not just a major but also secure power, while lifting millions of citizens out of poverty remains the principal challenge (p.69).

The twin banes of the state authorities’ dubious internal legitimacy and chronic poverty haunt India and most of its South Asian neighbours. No amount of arms, nuclear or conventional, can cure these maladies. If India wants to lead the region and the world by example, its best bet is to work towards an inclusive and equitable society.

The writer is a Canada-based academic.

hnizamani@hotmail.com