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An influential paper, Nonalignment 2.0, written by a galaxy of strategic thinkers is doing the rounds of the seminar circuit in New Delhi. A product of their collective opinion, the document was intended by its authors Sunil Khilnani, Rajiv Kumar, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Prakash Menon, Nandan Nilekani, Srinath Raghavan, Shyam Saran and Siddharth Varadarajan, to set off a debate on the direction and content of India’s foreign policy and strategic orientation. In this the document can be said to have succeeded, with the authors, in defending their argument, making it more visible.
Though the group’s activities were administratively supported by the reputed National Defence College and Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, a disclaimer has it that the views expressed in the document ‘are the product of collective deliberation by an independent group of analysts and policy makers’ and does not ‘represent the views of either of these institutions.’ The paper was preceded by a collaborative net assessment between an economist, Rajeev Kumar, part of this group, and a strategic thinker, Raja Menon, The Long View from Delhi: To Define the Indian Grand Strategy for Foreign Policy (2010). It is soon to be followed by a similar document by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. The cumulative effort seems to be to push the government towards making its own strategic doctrine clear in a white paper or strategic review; the absence of which has been a long standing critique in India’s strategic literature of its strategic culture.
However, it is unlikely to succeed since the government would then have to contend with a storm of critique, much more than has greeted this document. Given the divisions in India’s polity and its weak government at present, the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), that would have the task, would unlikely be able to sustain a defence of such a hypothetical paper. The national parties, if their respective manifestoes are anything to go by, promise more of everything. The centrist ruling party does so out of fear of being taken as ‘soft’ on defence and the right wing nationalist party to buttress its credentials, earned in blasting India’s way into the nuclear club. Therefore the NSCS will continue in its self-effacing style, drawing on such documents for inspiration in its deliberations in the absence of an over-arching strategic doctrine.
This is not to imply that there is no movement in the security field. An empowered task force under a bureaucratic heavyweight, Naresh Chandra, has overshot its timeline of deliberations on the second round of post Kargil War national security reforms. However, more significant change can be brought about in case India emulates the United States in passing its own version of the Goldwater-Nichols Act. The Act mandates a set of periodic reports to be tendered by the administration on various issues such as strategic review and nuclear posture review.
In India, precedent has it that Indian defence reforms have been initiated only when buffeted by external, such as the 1962 War and the Kargil War of 1999. Alternatively, they have been occasioned by internal political storms, such as were the reforms in the acquisition process, regularised in wake of scandals related to acquisitions such as the Bofors guns scandal of the late eighties and the sting operation, Operation West End, by a media group, Tehelka. The strategic circumstance compelling parliamentary initiative is not nigh given India’s relatively comfortable security indices at present. In other words, India’s pachydermic progression, that some regard as strategic adhocism, will continue.
It is for this reason that documents such as Nonalignment 2.0 gain in importance. They compensate for lack of transparency in India’s governmental processes on security. The realm being placed outside of the transparency related laws, such as the Right to Information Act, the thinking within the establishment is difficult to gain access to, leave alone fathom. In a society that culturally views knowledge as power, that the information space in the security domain has been jealously guarded by its minders is understandable. Therefore, when eminent strategists ventilate their concerns, it helps inform the democratic debate on issues of security.
For instance, it can be surmised that the section on hard power and its utilisation in the document has had the input of the general, Lt Gen Menon, who as head of the National Defence College provided the impetus to this exercise. He is currently Military Adviser in the NSCS. Therefore, while acknowledging the limitations of an individual’s influence in India’s national security system that is better interpreted by bureaucratic politics, access to his views in this document can provide some clue to India’s approach to hard power. This, though meagre, is better than having nothing to work on.
The hard power discussion is in Chapters 3, 4 and 5, covering conventional, subconventional and nuclear domains respectively. A significant parameter for the use of military force is given out as, ‘The challenge for the military establishment is to shape our hard power capabilities in tandem with India’s political objectives, while remaining within the ambit of the political and strategic logic imposed by nuclear weapons.’ This owes to the logic of nuclear thresholds and the escalation possibilities that the paper recognises, clear-eyed. The problem arises when the paper goes on to suggest that, ‘we will have to shape our capabilities so that we effectively expand the range of practical options available under the nuclear overhang.’ This is self-contradictory.
The nuclear overhang instead suggests that usable military options are passé. India’s pursuit of these in the perception of facing a ‘two front threat’ can result in the phenomenon of a security dilemma engulfing the three states: India, Pakistan and China. While this is currently being played out in the form of arms races, there is potential of inflamed nationalisms transforming future crises into conflict. The belief that doable options exist, that rumination such as this present in order to avoid being marginalised, comprises the first step up the escalation ladder.
The graver problem is that the government does not know any better.