India has forgotten its own realist strategic thought

India’s tradition of realist strategic thought is probably the oldest in the world. Yet India has forgotten its own realist strategic thought, as propounded before Christ by the strategist Kautilya (also known as Chanakya). So, despite growing realism in foreign policy, quixotic traditions from the Nehruvian era still persist to this day. 


Brahma Chellaney, DNA, January 26, 2018

Madeleine Albright famously said that, “The purpose of foreign policy is to persuade other countries to do what you want or, better yet, to want what we want.” How has Indian foreign policy done when measured against such a standard of success?

In this century, India’s growing geopolitical weight, impressive economic-growth rate, rising military capabilities, increasing maritime role, abundant market opportunities, and favourable long-term demographics have helped increase its international profile. India is widely perceived to be a key “swing state” in the emerging international order. Yet Indian foreign policy offers little clue as to whether India is a world power in the making or just a sub-regional power with global-power pretensions.

India has yet to resolve an underlying tension in policy between realism and idealism. The struggle between idealism and pragmatism has bedevilled its diplomacy since independence, imposing serious costs. For example, Jawaharlal Nehru, the idealist, rejected a U.S. suggestion in the 1950s that India take China’s vacant seat in the United Nations Security Council. The officially blessed selected works of Nehru quote him as saying that India could not accept the American proposal because it meant “falling out with China and it would be very unfair for a great country like China not to be in the [Security] Council.” The selected works also quote Nehru as telling Soviet Premier Marshal Nikolai A. Bulganin in 1955 on the same U.S. offer that “we should first concentrate on getting China admitted.”

Such have been the national-security costs for future Indian generations that just in the first seven years after independence, India allowed Pakistan to seize and retain one-third of Jammu and Kashmir; looked the other way when the newly established People’s Republic of China gobbled up the large historical buffer, the Tibetan Plateau; and tamely surrendered its British-inherited extra-territorial rights in Tibet without any quid pro quo, not even Beijing’s acceptance of the then-prevailing Indo-Tibetan border. The 1954 surrender of extra-territorial rights in Tibet included India shutting its military outposts at Yatung and Gyantse in Tibet and handing over Tibet’s postal, telegraph and public telephone services that it had been running to the Chinese government.

India thought that if it sought peace, it would get peace. In reality, a nation gets peace only if it can defend peace. This reality did not sink in until China humiliated India in 1962.

The 1962 invasion, however, did not change another characteristic of Indian diplomacy — it has been driven not by integrated, institutionalized policymaking but by largely an ad hoc, personality-driven approach. This remains the bane of Indian foreign policy, precluding the establishment of a strategic framework for pursuit of goals. The reliance by successive prime ministers on ad hoc, personal initiatives and decisions has helped marginalize the national security establishment and compounded India’s challenges.

This needs to be corrected. The ministry of external affairs, for example, must play its assigned role in the formulation and execution of key aspects of foreign policy — a role that has increasingly been usurped by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Today, India confronts a “tyranny of geography” — that is, serious external threats from virtually all directions. To some extent, it is a self-inflicted tyranny. India’s concerns over China, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and even Pakistan stem from the failures of its past policies. An increasingly unstable neighbourhood also makes it more difficult to promote regional cooperation and integration.

With its tyranny of geography putting greater pressure on its external and internal security, India needs to develop more innovative approaches to diplomacy. The erosion of its influence in its own backyard should serve as a wake-up call. Only through forward thinking and a dynamic foreign policy can India hope to ameliorate its regional-security situation, freeing it to play a larger global role. Otherwise, it will continue to be weighed down by its region.

While India undoubtedly is imbibing greater realism in its foreign policy, it remains intrinsically cautious and reactive, rather than forward-looking and proactive. And as illustrated by Narendra Modi’s unannounced Lahore visit or by his government’s reluctance to impose any sanctions on a country it has called “Terroristan,” India hasn’t fully abandoned its quixotic traditions from the Nehruvian era.

India’s tradition of realist strategic thought is probably the oldest in the world. The realist doctrine was propounded by the strategist Kautilya, also known as Chanakya, who wrote the Arthashastra before Christ. This ancient manual on great-power diplomacy and international statecraft remains a must-read classic. Yet India, ironically, has forgotten Arthashastra.

© DNA, 2018.