A Grand Strategy for India
by Bhaskar Menon on 10 Sep 2014 8 Comments

A recent book review in The Hindu of “India’s Grand Strategy: History, Theory, Cases” presented such a muddle of views on the topic that I did some research and made the frightening discovery that our leading lights in the field don’t know what they are talking about. India's best and brightest seem to think that “Grand Strategy” is some form of intellectual soup into which they can toss anything they fancy.

Some of the scholars even seem unable to distinguish the strategic from the tactical: one is the pursuit of lasting interests and long term goals, the other of the short-term and the immediate.

A Grand Strategy takes stock of history, makes an assessment of national experience, encapsulates all vital interests, and looks to the future. It reflects national character, defines the nature of the State, and is accepted as a common frame by all shades of political opinion in the country.

Indian civilization is the result of a Grand Strategy established by the Saptarishis and pursued over millennia by the country’s intellectual elite. It began with the Saptarishis assembling the sacred lore of all the tribes in the Vedas, which thus became a unifying object of common veneration. Intense discussion of the hidden meanings of the Vedas yielded the worldview of the Upanishads. The consensus that emerged was that an immortal and changeless essence underlies the endless mutations of the Universe, holding it in order with the force of Truth (Satyam/Ritam/Dharmam).

As that essence exists in living things, our ancient Grand Strategists postulated that death is but a door to another life; they envisaged the individual soul, of the same substance as the Universal Soul (Paramatma), passing in a series of lives to the end of Creation. In that scheme of things tribal differences shrank into insignificance and allowed different groups to settle into interdependent castes.

The Ramayana, authored by the low caste Valmiki and setting forth the ideal of a just King, Ramrajya, marked the next step in India’s ancient Grand Strategy. It promoted the evolution of caste federations into unitary kingdoms.

The schema of the rishis foresaw society passing through cycles of corruption and virtue, and many millennia later, when the ideal of Ramrajya was trampled down in struggles for imperial power, the Mahabharata laid down the rules for the survival of the virtuous in a time of predominant evil.

Modern history covers the final phase of that age of predominant evil, with Mahatma Gandhi marking the turning of the tide with his opposition of racism in South Africa and colonial rule in India. With those he initiated the modern human rights revolution and the movement for national self-determination that transformed the world in the second half of the 20th Century.

A Grand Strategy for India now must take up where Gandhi left off but our latter-day claimants to the role of rishis seem oblivious of the need for that continuity. For instance, the Introduction to Grand Strategy for India: 2020 and Beyond, a book published in 2012 by the New Delhi based Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, makes no mention of Gandhi as it notes that India after independence had a role in world affairs disproportionate to its power. In fact, none of the 25 essayists in the book gives any indication of being aware of the traditional Grand Strategy that forged Indian civilization.

The book reviewed in The Hindu does consider Gandhi, but weirdly. To quote the reviewer (Suranjan Das): “Siddharth Mallavarapu uncovers the Gandhian notion of grand strategy that proposes substitution of Western values with principles of truth, nonviolence and a decentralized polity that should convince other societies that India does not pose a threat.”

The broader background of Indian civilization is missing entirely from the IDSA book and makes a hunchbacked limping appearance in the other one (published by Rutledge). If the reviewer accurately reflects the views of the essayist (Swarna Rajagopalan), on the history of Indian Grand Strategy she relates our contemporary lack of a coherent world view to the “ancient Indian maxim that rulers were required to be driven by principles which were ‘context dependent’ and ‘not absolute in application’.”

Another essayist who looks to the past (Jayashree Vivekanandan) is equally whacky: she believes the Indian State’s “accommodative strategies” in meeting external and internal threats traces back to the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s policy as he expanded his domain.

The gaping omission in the IDSA book and the ludicrous theories in the other volume indicate a failure to make even the skimpiest historical connections, and it is scary that this disconnect extends to contemporary affairs.

The IDSA book is, in fact, actively and massively misleading. In its Introduction, the editors (Krishnaappa Venkatshamy and Princy George) write that Europe’s role in our strategic thinking “has diminished in recent years … despite India’s strong relations with individual European countries such as Britain, France and Germany.”

The essayist on that matter (Dhruva Jaishankar) is described as urging “India’s strategic planners to recognise Europe’s potential as … a political partner with shared values, and leverage for building India’s relations with other countries, particularly China, Russia and the United States. Europe can also be a significant target for India’s multi-polar engagement strategy - one that does not bring with it the complications associated with India’s other bilateral relations, such as with the United States and China.”

It is mind-boggling that anyone can think Indian relations with Europe are uncomplicated when we can look back on several nasty colonial encounters, more than a century of oppressive British rule, two European world wars, the cynical British manipulations that brought on Partition, decades of British-proxy Pakistan’s terrorist war on India and the European Union’s arrogant critiques of Indian policies on a whole range of issues!

None of the other writers in the book achieves quite that level of idiocy, but some come close, among them Manu Bhagavan who is noted in the Introduction as suggesting that the reform of the United Nations could lie in a return to Jawaharlal Nehru’s plan for “a global government to which all the world’s States would cede some of their sovereignty.”

Many essays, especially those on Left Wing extremism and terrorism, civil-military affairs, and relations with neighboring countries, are not about strategy at all but tactics. Even the late lamented K. Subramanyan makes that confusion in noting that India in the first phase of independence had a Grand Strategy in Nonalignment and centrally planned development!

These are not abstruse academic criticisms. If the best thinkers in the country on a whole range of critically important issues cannot tell the difference between strategy and tactics, it is small wonder that India is in such a discombobulated mess.

So, what should an Indian Grand Strategy involve? The groundwork has been laid in the Indian constitution; it is left to bring the directive principles to life and envisage a new role for India in world affairs. There must be four essential elements to that effort.

The first is to clear the cobwebs from our minds about industrialization. It is not progress. It is a deadly combination of false values, destructive policies and wasteful practices that is killing the planet’s life systems. Those eager to have India follow China as “workshop to the world” need to consider the pollution it will bring to land, air and water, and the consequent spiking of all degenerative diseases, especially cancer.

Secondly, we need to be clear about the nature of international relations today. The world order has been intensely criminalized over the last seven decades because imperial European Powers have not given up their exploitative and oppressive policies but have merely taken to pretending that they no longer exist. Britain, primarily, has been responsible for building a global money laundering system and promoting every form of organized crime, including drug trafficking, terrorism and the illicit trade in arms.

Thirdly, we have to be prepared for a wave of change over the next generation that will transform the world more radically than it was by the industrial revolution. The Internet, Worldwide Web and mobile telephone connectivity are only the thin end of the wedge: other new technologies will require us to reimagine manufacturing and trade. The age of carbon-based energy is over, and with it, the era of giant tankers, transcontinental pipelines and manufacturing for mass markets. The future belongs to off-grid renewable energy. With the capacity of small scale manufacturers to reach niche markets cost-effectively, the artisan can take on the factory and win; as 3 D printing matures a village craftsman can produce the same quality of product as the largest corporation.

Fourthly, the power structures of the industrial era are beginning to crumble. The old power elites cannot control the new information technologies without killing the creative power of their own societies and falling behind their democratic peers. Nor can they continue controlling the world through conflict if there is an effective effort to inform a global audience of their machinations. An Indian Grand Strategy must involve such an information effort, not through government propaganda but by seeking to promote a world order based on community-based networks. The goal must be peaceful transition to a prosperous world order protective of individual freedom and creativity.

The overall goal of ancient Indian Grand Strategy was unity in diversity. Modern India must look not only for such a global dispensation but to the deeper unity captured by the term “global brain.”

System scientists say that the evolution of a supra consciousness is inevitable once global connectivity passes a certain as yet undetermined threshold of activity; it must be the overall aim of an Indian Grand Strategy to have it governed by our broadest ideals of Nara Narayana. 

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