Here’s A Close Look At India’s Emerging Strategic Culture

by Swarajya Staff - Oct 1, 2016 05:51 AM
Here’s A Close Look At India’s Emerging Strategic Culture

  • Any public discourse on strategic culture will only be meaningful when a nation reaches a minimum level of economic prosperity and citizenry, at large, do not have to worry about basic subsistence.

    India is on that cusp with a vibrant middle class and a huge educated youth bulge that will soon be interested in more than just politics, sport and basic entertainment.

In the backdrop of the recent surgical strikes by Indian Special Forces on terrorist camps across the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan, there is a need to assess whether India’s strategic culture is finally emerging from the closet. What then is strategic culture from a common citizen’s perspective in a democracy like India? Put rather simply, it is what a nation and its people collectively feel about myriad issues that affect their immediate, medium-term and long-term existence and evolution.

These feelings are then structured around ideas, thoughts, writing and oral articulation to form what can be loosely called a ‘culture’. When this culture is given direction and purpose, first by the strategic community and then by the apex political authority, it becomes ‘strategic culture’ and gets focused towards the attainment of core national interests.

For long India’s post-independence strategic culture has been searching and struggling to define itself, handicapped as it was significantly, by the absence of competing positions on various issues that gradually leads a nation to decide what is best for its people. The US grappled for many decades in the first half of the previous century to choose between an ‘isolationist’ and an ‘expansive’ strategic culture; it finally settled for an expansive one as it assumed the role of a torch-bearer in the struggle between Capitalism and Communism. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its expansive strategic culture resulted in the US assuming leadership of the global war on terror. Expansiveness manifested itself in other facets of the US strategic culture too – it enabled the US to attract talent from all over the world, which then went on to contribute significantly to the spectacular rise of its comprehensive national power. It manifested itself in the scale of infrastructure development in the 1950s and in the scale of the expansion of institutions of higher education. Expansive development of intellectual capital and innovation also reflected the strategic culture that contemporary US had chosen and nurtured.

Modern China provides an interesting but gradual and sure metamorphosis of strategic culture that evolved from being purely driven by the state and the party in the Mao era, to one that gradually amalgamated the aspirations of the people in the Deng era. Though Hu Jin Tao did initiate the process of adopting an ‘aggressive and revisionist’ strategic culture, the final touches for an enduring contemporary Chinese strategic culture is being given by President Xi Jin Ping as China seeks to challenge US ‘expansiveness’ in pursuit of its primary strategic objective of reversing a ‘century of humiliation’. If one goes back a few centuries, one can clearly see that colonial strategic culture was pretty much the same – it was a culture that looked at overcoming the handicap of size and geography through conquest and exploitation.

The common thread that runs through these national expressions of strategic culture down the ages notwithstanding the very visible dimension of economic drivers in each one of the above examples is the critical use of force, or the intent to use force to establish and reinforce this strategic culture. To put it very bluntly, rarely have altruism, goodness or pure economic imperatives been critical drivers of enduring strategic cultures down the ages. History has proved that few civilisations have just faded away, or been decimated by acts of nature. They have almost always declined because of an inability to sustain a strategic culture beyond a point. A case in point is the collapse of a highly prosperous and reasonably egalitarian, tolerant but complacent ancient and early medieval Indian strategic culture in the face of an ‘expanding torrent’ of disciplined Islamic strategic culture that for most of the time relied on brute force as tool for propagation. If one can attribute the one single cause of this capitulation, I would attribute it to the abandonment of Kautilyan principles of statecraft, which thankfully are slowly re-emerging as principal drivers of Indian strategic culture.

What of contemporary India? Dominated largely by Jawaharlal Nehru and challenged in the early years for strategic space only by Sardar Patel, Indian strategic culture veered like a wind-sock through much of the 1950s and 1960s, alternating between altruism, idealism and even misplaced aggression. Backing China for a seat in the UN Security Council, widely propagating Panchsheel as a panacea for all evils that plagued the world, and moving ill-equipped troops to support the forward policy were but a few examples of this tentativeness. Many assumed that after the spectacular military victory in the 1971 war with Pakistan, there was finally emerging a strategic culture within India that looked hard at realpolitik and national interests only, but such aspirations were dashed by the surrendering of strategic gains at the Simla Agreement of 1972.

Scholar-strategists like K Subrahmanyam started looking at issues like core national interests and national power and even fiercely contested Western analysts like George Tanham, who were scathing in their indictment of India’s lack of focus in creating a robust strategic culture for itself. Unfortunately, Subrahmanyam’s enthusiasm for creating an awareness of the need to develop a strategic culture that was consistent with India’s core values and core national interests was not backed with enough state capacity or capability to convert his ideas into processes or policies. To be fair though, it did provide a platform to build on and there were doctrines that were enunciated. The greatest stumbling blocks that have impeded the development of strategic culture from the mid-1970s till very recently have been economic insecurity, political instability, lack of intent and ambivalence regarding the utility of force as a tool of statecraft, absence of meaningful public discourse on critical issues related to national interest and lastly, an inability to orchestrate all tools of statecraft in pursuit of single/multiple objectives, both in time and space.

While it is too early and premature to attribute the emergence of a coherent and enduring strategic culture from one action, there is very little doubt that it is a defining moment in its evolution. How it is followed up in the months ahead will reveal whether this was a ‘one-off moment’, or an orchestration of statecraft in pursuit of one single objective of making Pakistan realise the futility of waging a proxy war against India. Many sceptics have remarked that such actions have been executed in the past too, however, what they fail to accept is that such actions were taken in isolation and kept under wraps because of a reluctance to embrace concepts of ‘hot pursuit’ or ‘surgical strikes’. The ideas always existed, but were never openly endorsed because of either one or a combination of reasons that have been made above.

Many will say that strategic culture is too vast a domain to straightjacket; it is, however, possible to give it some form and consistency by looking at it as a loop very similar to what fighter pilots call the OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide and Act) that helps them take air combat decisions in a matter of seconds. If one keeps the time factor aside, strategic culture encompasses five clear components that can be arranged in a loop, which needs to be closed at a particular juncture in a nation’s history for it to enter into the DNA of a nation and proliferate as a robust, flexible and enduring strategic culture. These components are mutually interdependent and comprise ideas, capabilities, strategies, intent and execution.

Any public discourse on strategic culture will only be meaningful when a nation reaches a minimum level of economic prosperity and citizenry, at large, do not have to worry about basic subsistence. India is on that cusp with a vibrant middle class and a huge educated youth bulge that will soon be interested in more than just politics, sport and basic entertainment. It is therefore essential that in the best traditions of a vibrant democracy all tools of statecraft from a contemporary Indian perspective are geared up to develop an inclusive strategic culture that mirrors the aspirations of the people. Lest I be accused of a heavily theoretical discourse, let us transpose the current situation in India since Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office and benchmark it against his primary tools of statecraft.

This would then allow us to assess whether it has resulted in a course correction in India’s emerging strategic culture. It is my assessment that Modi’s five pillars of statecraft are sustained economic growth, good governance, nimble diplomacy, robust national security and technological self dependence. It is not that these broad pillars are new; it is just that as a detached observer, I can now see these pillars running as tracks that will converge in the near distance, rather than run as parallel tracks into the distant horizon, as they did in the past. While sustained economic growth and genuine attempts at improving governance have had their positive impact on large sections of polity, focus on technological independence has resulted in the Make in India campaign that will undoubtedly gather steam in the years ahead. All this is bound to impact our emerging strategic culture. However, this article will focus on the two main pillars of statecraft in the backdrop of the Uri attacks and the ensuing response, diplomacy and national security.

After shaping the environment with well orchestrated and rapidly sequenced economic and diplomatic efforts, India realised that it would need to display intent to back a number of stern pronouncements with action and close the loop. While there has been a misplaced sense of triumphalism on social media, the government has been quick to emphasise that the strikes were more of what I would term as ‘punitive deterrence’ and that escalation control was a key objective.

Therefore, what has emerged in the escalation ladder is proactive deterrence with restraint – a situation that is significantly different from the past where ‘restraint’ was seen as the sole cornerstone of response. If this is not an indication of a calibrated attempt to steer strategic culture, I wonder what it is then. It is too early to assess whether Indian statecraft can stay the course, but the overtones are right to transit with confidence from a strategic culture based on status quo to one based on assertiveness with an Indian flavour of expanding non-hegemonic influence.

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