Indian strategic thinker K. Subrahmanyam passed away on February 2, 2011. This article is the first of two adapted by Dhruva Jaishankar from four of Subrahmanyam’s unpublished essays on grand strategy, Indian foreign relations, defence policy and nuclear deterrence.
India is unusual in having had a grand strategy at Independence to meet the external and internal challenges to its growth in order to become a major international actor. The Constituent Assembly’s oath in 1947 implied that India would promote world peace for the welfare of mankind, including its own population, and it would assume its rightful global position by developing itself to the standards of the industrialised world. This was the strategic goal. It had to be achieved in a world recovering from a war-ravaged economy and entering the Cold War. At Independence, India was a downtrodden former colony with 80 per cent poverty, a life expectancy of 31, food shortages and low literacy. India’s grand strategy during the second half of the 20th century, therefore, involved a policy of non-alignment to deal with external security problems, the adoption of the Indian Constitution to address governance challenges, and a partly centrally planned development strategy to accelerate growth.
Non-alignment, while a strategy, is often mistaken for ideology. Nehru first articulated it as a means to safeguard Indian security in 1946, after Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech, but before independence or Partition plans had been decided. But Nehru was not enthusiastic about a non-aligned movement. He favoured remaining in the Commonwealth and procuring defence equipment and licences from the UK, France and the US. It was only when the Soviet Union emerged as a more reliable provider of cheap but adequate military equipment against an increasingly hostile China that India’s security interests aligned with Moscow’s. Even then, India made defence deals in the 1970s and the 1980s with France and the UK, and also with the Reagan administration for jet engines. Non-alignment was therefore pragmatic, and meant that India could get support from a superpower if its national security was threatened.
While campaigning against nuclear weapons, India’s leadership from Nehru onwards also kept the nuclear option alive. India was compelled to declare itself a nuclear weapon power in 1998, only after the international community legitimised nuclear weapons by indefinitely extending the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and China armed Pakistan with nuclear weapons to balance India. Once India declared its nuclear capability, the attitudes of major powers changed.
The other aspects of India’s grand strategy related to governance and development. No other country is comparable to India in terms of its diversity of religions, languages and ethnicities. Consequently, unity is only possible under a secular, pluralistic, democratic and quasi-federal constitution. Although India’s Constitution implied accountable governance and the delivery of goods and services by the state, grave deficiencies emerged. Inadequate justice and law enforcement, unacceptable poverty and widespread illiteracy all persist, but universal adult franchise has empowered the previously disadvantaged to a level incomparable to elsewhere in the decolonised world. Although the record of the Election Commission is something to be proud of, deteriorating governance remains a serious internal security threat.
By century’s end, India was a pluralistic and secular democracy on the path to becoming the world’s third largest economy, with 62 per cent of the population above the poverty line despite its having grown fourfold. India had also dismantled the licence-permit-quota raj, demonstrated its technological prowess, and developed sizeable foreign exchange reserves. Despite such positive trends, poverty and illiteracy have still regrettably not been eliminated. Many have wondered whether India’s development could not have been expedited by following another model, such as China’s. They forget that Chinese communism allowed 30-40 million deaths from starvation. Independent India, by contrast, has never experienced that thanks to its democracy. Moreover, China benefited from Soviet assistance in the 1950s and external investments in the 1980s. Nor were many US allies significantly better off than India. It was only after the rehabilitation of Western Europe and Japan that available capital enabled the development of the Asian Tigers. India (along with the US) is unusual for democratising before industrialising. The emergence of most major nations — Britain, France, Russia, Japan and Germany — was viewed with concern by others, often resulting in war. While China’s rise causes concern today, India’s emergence does not.
The 21st century is vastly different from the 20th century. The number of states, their populations, their productivity and their standards of living have all increased manifold. The transportation and information revolutions have globalised the international system. Humanity as a whole has become more sensitised to gender, racial, and religious inequality and inequality of opportunity. Migration and demographic trends mean that pluralism will be required for peace and domestic stability. Violent conflict between great powers is becoming ever more unthinkable, and major states are today competing in peace, not war. There are many reasons for this: the existence of nuclear weapons, the establishment of the UN, powerful military alliances, decolonisation, the success of armed insurgencies and the spread of democracy. In this century, knowledge — not weapons — will be the currency of power and will determine the international hierarchy.
However, there are still challenges and threats to peaceful human progress and the preservation of pluralistic and democratic societies, including terrorism, failed states, one-party rule, pandemics and organised crime. The 20th century world order is unable to adequately address these challenges. The NPT cannot address terrorism resulting from acquiring nuclear weapons, old military alliances cannot deal with challenges such as Afghanistan, and the UN is not designed to defend pluralism, secularism, and democracy.
India’s gravest security problem is jehadi terrorism, centred in Pakistan. Pakistan has been using terrorism as a state policy since it acquired nuclear weapons with Chinese help and American acquiescence in the 1980s. The United States’ motives at the time were anti-Soviet, but China’s were anti-India. India, of roughly equal population to China, has proved that a developing country can grow rapidly without sacrificing either democracy or pluralism. Along with American influence, India’s rise threatens China’s hegemonic ambitions in Asia, and Pakistan serves as a convenient springboard by which to counter both.
Thus the real question about the future world order is whether it is to be democratic and pluralistic, or dominated by one-party oligarchies that prioritise social harmony over individual rights. If the US remains the world’s predominant power, and China is second, India will be the swing power. It will therefore have three options: partnering with the US and other pluralistic, secular and democratic countries; joining hands with China at the risk of betraying the values of its Constitution and freedom struggle; and remaining both politically and ideologically non-aligned, even if against its own ideals. Many Indians worry about an unequal partnership with the US because they do not appreciate the full potential of India as a knowledge power. In the years ahead, the US will require a reservoir of skilled manpower, and India will require green energy and agricultural technology to grow faster. The emerging Indo-US partnership is not about containing China. It is about defending Indian values from the challenges of both one-party rule and jehadism, and realising a future in which poverty and illiteracy are alleviated.