Delhi's Strategy Deficit

Delhi's Strategy Deficit

A new Indian security strategy comes up short.


Does India have a grand strategy? To answer this question, India’s national-security adviser, Shiv Shanker Menon, two of his predecessors and several independent analysts of considerable stature gathered in New Delhi in late February. They were there to observe and comment upon the launch of a new, seventy-page report entitled “Nonalignment 2.0.”

The document purported to chart a new course for India’s foreign and strategic policies. But immediately after the launch, it was off to an inauspicious start. According to press reports, two of the erstwhile national-security advisers sought to distance themselves from some of the key conclusions of the report. Their disagreements ranged from the continued viability of the concept of nonalignment to the severity of India’s internal-security threats. As might befit a serving official, Menon made noncommittal comments on the document—but he notably failed to publicly endorse it.


Menon’s reluctance to stand by the report was probably an astute choice. Given its title, “Nonalignment 2.0,” any reasonable commentator or analyst must wonder why its authors are attempting to resurrect a moribund set of principles. Does India need to harp on a doctrine that may well have served its interests in the 1950s but is singularly ill-suited to the needs of today’s vastly altered global order?

The authors might argue that the cardinal element of nonalignment, India’s commitment to pursue an independent foreign policy, remains as relevant as ever. In its latest guise, the document refers to this obligation as the quest for “strategic autonomy.” In practical terms, this injunction translates into urging India’s policy makers not to cast their lot with either the Western world in general or the United States in particular. Yet nowhere in the tract is a compelling rationale spelled out for the avoidance of such a strategy.

Indeed, what is striking about the analysis is its deafening silence about India’s burgeoning relationship with the United States. During the entire Cold War, the two states were mostly at odds. However, in the post–Cold War era they have not only significantly narrowed their differences but also have managed to forge a multifaceted relationship, one which covers a gamut of issues ranging from nonproliferation to trade and investment. Despite the transformation of this vital relationship, the authors of “Nonalignment 2.0” choose to refer to Washington only in passing, mostly in connection with concerns about the future behavior of the new Asian behemoth, China, or India’s nettlesome neighbor, Pakistan.

Some Strengths

In contrast, the report’s discussions of policy choices toward China and Pakistan, India’s two principal adversaries, display a degree of imagination and even verve. For example, the authors forthrightly confront the policy conundrum of a nuclear-armed adversary’s continued dalliance with the use of terror as part of its asymmetric war strategy. But their suggestions for responding are mostly unexceptional. That said, the authors are to be commended for forthrightly stating that the one viable option that India must implement is a strategy of denial. As the memories of the horrors that visited Mumbai in November 2008 fade, the importance of this approach cannot be adequately underscored.

On dealing with China, the authors demonstrate both boldness and imagination in the discussion of possible policy options—especially in the security realm. Cognizant of the limits of India’s conventional military options, the report actually calls for the development of asymmetric capabilities, including the ability to provoke guerrilla warfare if China were to seize disputed territory in India’s troubled northeast. It also emphasizes the need for the continued development of India’s maritime assets in a variety of offshore islands in the Indian Ocean.

The analysis of India’s internal security threats in “Nonalignment 2.0” also shows a degree of candor and common sense. The authors carefully spell out how the Indian state suffers from self-inflicted wounds, with the collapse of governance in parts of India have enabling various armed organizations to step into the breach and engage in predatory behavior; on occasion the Indian state itself has become a predator, ruthlessly suppressing human rights in the quest to maintain order. Couched in clinical and anodyne prose, they also argue that the Indian state has not always been an impartial arbiter when confronted with ethno-religious tensions. Such failures, combined with other shortcomings, have contributed to a range of domestic social fissures that have precipitated violence.

Nuclear Strategy

Sadly, the resourcefulness that “Nonalignment 2.0” displays when it comes to dealing with both internal and external security threats is noticeably absent when it turns to a discussion of India’s nuclear strategy. Here, the authors fall back on hoary propositions that are meaningless in the practical realm. They allude to the ostensible significance of the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan of 1988, which called for a phased, time-bound plan for global nuclear disarmament. The authors do not seem to recall that when announced, the plan elicited virtually no interest on the part of nuclear-weapons states, and the plan and the quixotic vision it embodied have subsequently been ignored.

Nor, for that matter, is their call for a global no-first-use treaty likely to find any real traction. Even if some states did, in mostly self-serving gestures, embrace the concept, would it really have operational significance? Proposing antediluvian ideas of this sort raises serious questions about the reflectiveness of these key members of India’s strategic community.

Brain Drain

The report’s discussions about emerging global norms and institutions are also less than inspiring. For example, when alluding to the incipient norm of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine, the authors highlight its significance. Yet they feel compelled to state that R2P should not become a cloak for the feckless pursuit of great-power interests. It was precisely this form of reasoning that led India to sit on the sidelines during the recent UN Security Council deliberations on the use force in Libya.

The document’s obvious unevenness and some of its more bizarre policy recommendations suggest a paucity of intellectual ripeness within India’s foreign- and security-policy establishment. Such a lack of sagacity is especially disturbing as India is increasingly called upon to assume responsibilities commensurate to its economic and strategic heft in the global arena. But “Nonalignment 2.0”underscores how India remains unable to readily shoulder the demands being placed on it—and how far it has to go in demonstrating leadership, both in its region and beyond.

Sumit Ganguly is a professor of political science and holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Image: Antônio Milena