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Does India Have a Grand Strategy?

Rudra Chaudhuri
January 17, 2011

Despite the popular rhetoric of “rising India,” a common argument amongst scholars is that India lacks a grand strategy. Elites are said to rely on “ad hocism,” India’s preferred guiding star, on matters related to foreign policy. The absence of strategic thought is not only a given, but re-enforced by the lack of a visible foreign policy template that is seriously discussed, argued, and made available for public consumption.

To be sure, India’s approach to issues of strategic importance – alliances, use of military force, energy security – is marred by both bureaucratic inertia and limited political direction. The dearth of coherence in what might be called the strategic process, fuels commentators’ criticism. However, the question beckons: is it really possible that India has meandered its way to the 21st century minus ideas and strategy?

Rather than prescribing what genus of grand strategy India should adopt, I look at drivers informing policy in given cases. Specifically, I analyze India’s approach to the utility of force in international politics and demonstrate that strategic decisions are not taken in a vacuum. A set of conditions informed by both material and normative factors shape the choices made by the political elite.

Indeed, in the past sixty odd years, there have been only two instances where Indian leaders were forced to seriously think about the utility of force in international interventions outside of their immediate neighborhood: the Korean War in the early 1950s and the Iraq War in 2003. The change and tensions in approach in these two cases provides an insight of determinants that shape policy decisions.

The Korean War: A Cold War Grand Strategy

Much of the literature on India’s early strategic behavior suggests that the hazy prescriptions of non-alignment blinded Indian elites from identifying and dealing with issues of international importance. Non-alignment was seen as a wooly ideological project spearheaded by a Prime Minister who himself was drunk on utopian ideals. The polemics of strategy could hardly be expected to take center stage. However, notwithstanding the popular narrative, there was a design in the way Indian leaders thought through the decision to go to war.

While India supported the UN resolution condemning North Korean aggression, it chose not to contribute troops for three reasons; the first of which was the importance and effect of the memory of colonial rule. The idea of entanglement in an international alliance led by the U.S., the lead actor in one of the two camps that divided the world, was hardly attractive to a newly independent state. Although authorized by the UN Security Council, the intervention was distinguished by the fact that it was U.S.-led at a time the UN was only emerging as a key supranational actor. In the eyes of the world, this was a U.S.-led mission.

Second, the normative strains underlying India’s emerging strategic outlook were reinforced by real political concerns. Unimpressed by the Truman administration as a whole, Nehru was wary about contributing troops to a mission that might well have spilled beyond Near East Asia. What would the Soviets do? Most importantly, what would happen to Sino-Indian relations if China decided to intervene? After all, India could hardly risk sparking a war on its border by aggravating a newly formed Communist China, particularly with the tenuous situation in the West with Pakistan. Hence, material considerations and strategic realities necessitated treading cautiously in this time of crises. Furthermore, unlike Pakistan, which, at least in rhetoric, supported the Korean effort, and thereby volunteered itself to an alliance-like relationship with Washington, Nehru was acutely aware that alliances would increase dependency in favor of the stronger actor. Managing dependency by following what Tanvi Madan calls a "diversification strategy," better served an economically weak nation.

Third, India’s elite was concerned about the impact joining the war might have on its international standing in the Eastern hemisphere. After all, China was not yet a member of the UN. Its premier Zhou En Lai had warned the U.S. that crossing the Yalu River would result in expanding the scope of the war. The fact that the West chose to ignore this warning was hardly China’s fault. A rule-based society required that the considerations of Eastern states were as important as those in the West. India could not join an alliance that was selective in its construction of legitimacy.

The 2003 Iraq War: Engagement as a Grand Strategy

From the outset, the idea that Indian contribution to the Coalition of the Willing was even considered by the U.S. administration is hard to comprehend. Why would Indian elites, often berated as those unwilling to let go of the intellectual strains underlying non-alignment, contemplate sending Indian troops to join an alliance to fight a controversial war vetoed by three out of five permanent members of the UN Security Council? To be sure, in July 2003, the Indian Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), the highest policy-making body chaired by the Prime Minister, announced that India would not contribute troops. If anything, this indicated the continued centrality of a non-aligned foreign policy.

That said, given that it took the BJP-led government five months to reach this decision, all the while unwilling to “condemn” the war but “deplore” it, as well as entertaining a stream of high ranking U.S. visitors to India, indicates that this issue was not summarily dismissed. Options related to joining the alliance were considered; indeed, in hindsight, both American and Indian diplomats concur that rather than posturing, the Indian government gave this serious attention.

Much like the Korean affair, a three-pronged rationale shaped India’s ultimate decision and demonstrated both a pattern of behavior as well as tensions between older and newer sets of ideas. For a majority of strategic advisors and commentators, this was India’s golden moment. Joining the alliance would not only pave the way for so-called great power status, but also allow India to tap into the world’s largest energy markets and break the Cold War ice with Washington.

Yet, the idea of joining an alliance led by the U.S. was hardly attractive. Managing dependency was in the minds of the political elite. Indeed, in the midst of the Iraq debate, the Prime Minister openly stated that “India will never become a lackey of even the most powerful country in the world.” Pro-contribution diplomats and Cabinet members, while excited by the opportunity to join an international alliance, were put off by the fact that the Indian contingent would essentially be subservient to U.S. Commanders. Indian military leaders could not be seen saluting to U.S. officers. The ideational strains embedded in India’s approach to the question of intervention and alliances were clear.

Additionally, Indian elites were also acutely aware that the road to progress and growth required working closely with the U.S. administration; lifting a ban on the technology denial regime and attaining legitimacy for India’s nuclear status made this vital. These material concerns were not sidelined because of the disagreement regarding the Iraq intervention. Hence, a so-called “middle-path” was adopted, whereby India maintained the ability to say “no” while at the same time, strengthening its relationship with the Bush administration.

The question of reputation also mattered. The failure of the U.S. to expand the perimeters of the ominous UN resolution 1483 – authorizing UN member-states to support the U.S.-led mission – to explicitly call for blue helmets had a detrimental impact on even those who supported intervention. Furthermore, apart from the obvious concern regarding the legalities of war, diplomats worried about how Middle Eastern states would react to Indian involvement.

In sum, the Iraq case demonstrated both continuity and change. India was willing to; at least, consider the hard thinking about the use of force. Indeed, the exercise demonstrated India’s approach to grand strategy, which is neither hijacked by the puritanical tentacles of non-alignment or the vague prescriptions of ad hocism. Instead, it is defined by what might best be called a strategy to manage dependency, which involved understanding the need for balance in dealing with super-powers and the imperative of reputation.

Rudra Chaudhuri is a Lecturer in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.He can be reached at rudy_83@hotmail.com


India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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