Strategic Culture and Indian Self-assurance
Journal of Peace Studies, Vol. 17, Issue 2&3, April-September, 2010.
[*Ali Ahmed is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He is pursuing a PhD
in International Politics at the School of International Relations, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.]
The article examines the realist critique that India lacks a strategic culture. The realist critique is
neglectful of India’s record of strategic behavior predicated on simultaneous resolve and restraint. India’s
normative set carries the influence of its traditions and democratic political heritage. Its operational set
is sensitive to use of force in its national interest, while being alert to the limitations of force. This
reading of India’s strategic culture empowers India to proceed down the route of rapprochement with
Pakistan. Currently, the pace of resumption of the peace process is retarded by the weight of the
realist critique on policy makers, ever apprehensive of being found wanting on defence matters. This
need not be so. Armed with this self-belief, India should engage with Pakistan with greater rigour,
beginning with the expected meeting of the two foreign ministers over the winter.
Critique has it that India lacks a strategic culture. In the realist narrative India is a ‘soft state’
and ‘weak power’. This betrays its lack of an understanding of and felicity in power play
between nations. Critics aim is to mould strategic culture into a more force-friendly direction,
seeing this as better suited to serve Indian security. While acknowledging that India has made
some strides in this direction since the Shakti tests, they critique the pace. Arguments in the
realist mould provide a rationale and public acceptability for a more combative India. Policy
makers, ever wary of being found wanting on ‘defence’, tend to overcompensate towards an
aggressive posture to avoid realist sniping. Therefore, contesting the realist narrative is
necessary for balance in policy making. India’s strategic behaviour negates the understanding
on India’s pacifism. Reappraisal as attempted here gives policy makers the space necessary to
keep from being stampeded into realist inspired costly and risky directions, especially when
other policy choices exist.
The paper looks at Indian strategic culture through the prism of theory and Indian strategic
behaviour. The picture that emerges, contrary to one in the realist narrative, is of an India
cognisant of power and utility of force and experienced in its usage. That the revisionist picture
has consequence beyond the academic is illustrated by looking at India’s Pakistan policy as it is
currently unfolding. Arguing that there is nothing to be apologetic about in pursuing an
agenda of détente, the article encourages Indian policy makers not to be overly sensitive to their
flanks. Instead engaging Pakistan with greater self-assurance can alone take the initiative to its
logical conclusion. The article is laid out in two parts: the first approaches Indian strategic
culture through a theoretical lens while the second applies the findings to India’s Pakistan
Strategic culture in theory
Jack Snyder, to whom the term ‘strategic culture’ is attributed, defined it as ‘sum total of
ideals, conditional emotional responses, and patterns of habitual behaviour that members of the
national strategic community have acquired through instruction or imitation and share with
each other with regard to national strategy’.1
Strategic culture comprises basic assumptions about the strategic environment and the role of
war, about the nature of and threat posed by the adversary, and about the efficacy of the use of
force. The secondary part is of assumptions at the operational level about what strategic options
are most efficacious in dealing with the threat.2
In his book on Ming dynasty’s strategic culture, Alastair Ian Johnston argues that there was
evidence of two strategic cultures: ‘one a symbolic or idealised set of assumptions and ranked
preferences, and one an operational set that had a nontrivial effect on strategic choice….’3 The
former ‘symbolic set’ is to justify behaviour in culturally acceptable terms. The latter
‘operational set’ – or a parabellum or hard realpolitik strategic culture - prefers dealing with
security threats by eliminating them. His finding is that, contrary to the acultural, ahistorical
realist framework, states are predisposed to use of force, not because of prevalent anarchical
structures, but the underlying parabellum strategic culture.4 Parabellum strategic culture is
cross cultural and learned, making realpolitik behaviour a product of a ‘cultural realist’ norm,
the ideational source of state behaviour.’5 This finding has significance in India’s case also.
Three additional theoretical points need be made before moving to situating the theory on the
Indian case. First is that strategic culture is subject to change and second that subcultures can
exist alongside a dominant strand. The third owes to cultural theory that has it in the words of
WPS Sidhu that, ‘Strategic culture examines the influence of domestic politics and culture on
India’s strategic culture
With the winding down of the Cold War, India started to recast its approach to the world. In
order to understand India then opening up, the US Department of Defence commissioned the
RAND Corporation to do a project on ‘India’s Future Strategic Role and Power Potential’. The
project leader was George K. Tanham.7 His influential finding, disseminated in an essay, Indian
Strategic Thought: An Interpretive Essay, was that India lacked a strategic culture. Tanham
attributed limitations in strategic thinking to India lacking political unity historically; the Hindu
concept of time discouraging planning; the cultural view of the mystery of existence; the fact
that Indian’s were largely kept out of strategic circles by the British; and, lastly, to little interest
in strategic planning in the elite ever since.8
K Subrahmanyam concurs, writing: ‘Our government, however, has had no strategic culture,
and has never thought and planned ahead and never offensively.’9 His consistent reflections on
this theme over the years comprise his contribution to fostering a strategic culture accounting
for his status as doyen of India’s strategic community. As early as mid eighties, Subrahmanyam
had argued, ‘Usually politicians, diplomats and academics indulge in the normative approach
in the absence of their thinking through what India’s national interests are, what the current
international strategic environment is, what the realities of power are and how India would
secure its interests and values in the current global strategic environment.10 As example of
Indian deficiencies in appreciating force and the instrumentality of power, he cites the Pokhran
decision of 1974 as ‘an ad hoc decision of one person…(and) in equally ad-hoc fashion the
scientists were asked not to conduct any more tests.’11
A significant contribution to the thinking on Indian strategic culture since has been that of
Kanti Bajpai. In his view the observation that India lacks a strategic culture is ‘not altogether
incorrect’,12 since the only exception to India’s absence of central canonical texts has been the
ancient classic, Kautilya’s Arthasastra. Since the end of the Cold War, at least three different
streams of thinking are vying for dominance: Nehruvianism, neoliberalism, and hyperrealism.13
Nehruvians believe that this state of anarchy can be mitigated through international laws and
institutions, military restraint, negotiations and compromise, cooperation, free intercourse
between societies, and regard for the well-being of peoples everywhere. The neo-liberal
paradigm has it that economic strength can substitute for military power. In a globalised world
of complex interdependence, force has questionable utility. Hyperrealists on the other hand,
think that the surest way of achieving peace and stability is through the accumulation of
military power and willingness to use force.14 Currently, in India neorealists are in control of
policy making; though realists dominate in the strategic community, in the security
establishment and in security institutions.
India’s ‘symbolic set’
Kanti Bajpai’s categorization on subcultures finds echo in Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s view of
foreign policy being conducted along two strands: an idealist (Ashokan) one; and, a realist
(Kautilayan) one.15 Cohen uses the terms, Gandhian and Machiavellian respectively, instead.
Subrahmanyam likewise divides the strategic community into two types: the ‘relatively small
but very vociferous’ ‘boy scouts’ who are more comfortable to see India as one of many
developing countries that needs to overcome poverty etc. and the majority that would like to
see India as a civilisationally and culturally befitting major power.’16 It would appear then that
in their political and ideational contention, existing paradigms shape higher order symbolic set
of strategic culture. Thus, privileging realism is not necessary since it is already well
entrenched. This brings into question the origin of the realist arguments to the contrary.
As Johnston finds in his study of China, India’s symbolic set also has reservations on force as
the preferred route to security. Restraint is evident through most of India’s trysts with force. In
the 1947-48 War, India did not proceed with the complete integration of the princely state of
J&K. It took the case to the United Nations instead. It accepted the ceasefire of the Chinese in
1962 instead of carrying on with the war after rearming with foreign help then on offer. It
agreed to a ceasefire in the 1965 War and returned territory captured at the Tashkent
Conference in early January 1966. It did not take the 1971 War into West Pakistan. Even in
internal security operations, its doctrine has been one of considerable restraint in the use of
force. It has not employed higher caliber weapons and the air force in such operations. In the
Kargil conflict its forces did not cross the Line of Control, though at a considerable cost in lives.
It did not use the parliament attack in December 2001 as a casus belli to launch a war against
Pakistan. Though it has gone nuclear, it has an NFU doctrine, a unilateral moratorium against
testing in place and is pursuing minimum deterrence by abjuring a nuclear arms race. The
actions have not only contributed to a culture of restraint, but also reflect the same.
To Subrahmanyam ‘India’s defence policy is essentially reactive….17 ’ Pratap Bhanu Mehta
elaborates in the same vein, noting that ‘almost all of India’s security policy, whether nuclear or
conventional had been driven by a deeply defensive idea, formulated in the context of
defending territory.18 To him, the ‘only incontrovertible conclusion one can come to is that
India is, to put it mildly, skittish, about using force as an instrument for foreign policy
objectives.’19 This explains why India is not having a tradition of thought that thinks of ‘power
as an objective’ of foreign policy.20 The realist framework is constrained as a consequence of its
military, social, and political ‘incapacity’ .21 His accounting along ideational and normative lines
finds echo in Bajpai: ‘National interests as articulated by the state, national power, and the
ability to coerce are very much part of India’s security conception, but so, broadly, are
institutional and non-coercive means that aim to accommodate or change through peaceful
means the views of enemies and rivals, both external and internal.’22 One reason for this is
expediency, in that, material factors as deficiencies in power or ability to use it makes India rely
on accommodation. The second is ideational, in the form of a norm against power-seeking
based on the logic that pursuit of power gives rise to the outcome that one seeks to avoid.23
It emerges that the restraint in the symbolic set is not only norms based, but the norm is itself
a result of calculations of power. Realists press on both counts: one for creating power through
their emphasis on capacities, and, secondly, against the norm in favour of a greater readiness to
employ these capabilities. This has been the direction India is embarked on as changes over the
past two decades suggest, though not at a pace that placates realists.
India’s ‘operational set’
Insight on India’s parabellum culture or the ‘operational set’ can be had from India’s record
of resort to force or threat of force. The very first instance was within a few months of
Independence. This included military action in integrating princely states of Junagadh and
Jammu and Kashmir, soon followed by police action against Hyderabad. The last operation was
planned for six month prior to its execution in September 1948. India evicted the Portuguese
from the peninsula in 1961. A ‘forward policy’ was followed in respect of tackling the Chinese
threat across the Himalayas since 1959. It culminated in Nehru ordering the eviction of the
Chinese in 1962. India expanded the scope of the 1965 conflict that was initially in Kashmir to
the plains in Punjab. It intervened in the internal conflict in East Pakistan in 1971 and executed
a meticulously planned and prepared military operation in November-December that year. It
similarly carried out the occupation of Saltoro heights in Siachen in 1984 and has maintained its
occupation since. In internal security, it deployed the Army in the North East in the fifties and
sixties and later in Punjab in the eighties. Its peace keeping operation in North and East Sri
Lanka turned into an enforcement action in 1987. It has used military exercises for signaling its
resolve in the eighties to both Pakistan and China in the form of the Exercise Brasstacks and
Exercise Chequerboard. The former turned into the crisis of 1987. Through the nineties the
Army was deployed in J&K under laws permissive of the use of force, the Armed Forces
Special Powers Act. The military evicted Pakistani intruders from Kargil in 1999. India has since
the mid sixties evolved into a nuclear power with second strike capability. It numbers among
the foremost arms importers. It is opening up its defence sector to private companies and to
The findings of Johnston on parabellum strategic culture appear validated in the existence of
the same in India. The operational set predisposes India to use of force. As in Johnston’s case
study on China, while India’s symbolic set strategic culture does not prefer force, its
operational set is not averse to force. That force when employed is restrained indicates
existence of a symbolic set alongside. Realists not only willfully neglect this record on use of
force but also over emphasise the constraints placed without reference to the strategic
underpinnings of restraint.
The offensive turn
Engelmeier notes the shift in India’s strategic culture, stating, ‘While the ideal of a peaceful
world is still upheld, it no longer stands in the way of pragmatic politics which point in the
opposite direction. The justification for the nuclear bomb is a prime example of this. There has
been a significant shift towards pragmatic foreign policy unimpeded by ideological or idealist
considerations.’24 The offensive turn to Indian strategic culture can be seen in its conventional
and nuclear doctrines. The Kargil War and the near war situation of 2001-02 have been
landmarks in their respective evolution. On the conventional level, India adopted a policy of
compellence based on limited conventional war.25 This can be inferred from ‘Cold Start’
envisaged proactive offensives.26 The nuclear doctrine also reflects changes in strategic culture.
Firstly, is the use of the term ‘massive’ to indicate the nature of nuclear retaliation. The term
first found mention earlier - twice over - in Jasjit Singh’s discussion of nuclear doctrine.27
Second, was expansion of the nuclear deterrent to cover a major attack by chemical and
The offensive turn has three drivers. One is that economic advances over the past decade
have made it possible to make up for the incapacities. The second change has been in political
culture, specifically rise in nationalist-conservative politics. Stephen Cohen writes that the
Nehruvian perspective has been credibly challenged by ‘a renascent conservative-realist
perspective and second a more ideologically driven ‘Hindutva’ (or Hindu revitalist)
viewpoint.’28 According to Cohen, revitalists subscribe to a culture driven view of the world.
They are inclined to stress the active nature of conflict between civilizations. India, being nonaggressive,
is taken to be weak and submissive.29 The impact on strategic culture is in political
ballast to the realist position. Much of the inspiration for the strategic vision of revitalists has
origin in domestic politics.30 Lastly, the movement in the conventional and nuclear doctrines,
formulated towards the fag end of BJP led NDA dispensation, has served as ‘strategic
communication’ to Pakistan to desist. This is in keeping with Cohen’s thesis that interaction
between foreign policy and domestic pressures is a factor shaping policy.31
he combination of a change towards a more force-permissive ‘symbolic set’ and the already
force-friendly ‘operational set’ is already making Indian strategic culture as realist envision it.
Engelmeier writes, ‘Indian foreign policy is becoming increasingly more pragmatic, driven by
strategic considerations based on realism, while an idealist inflection (the conflation of ideal
and interest) still exists at a reduced level.’32 Therefore, there is little reason for India to be more
muscular than necessary in order to continue placating realists. This conclusion has policy
implications, best illustrated in the brief analysis below on India’s Pakistan policy at the current
Implications for India’s Pakistan initiative
The initiative launched in a meeting of between President Zardari and Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh at Ykaterineberg on the sidelines of the SCO summit a year ago is reaching
culmination. The delay since Ykaterineberg owed to the backlash in India on the conciliatory
Sharm-es-Sheikh joint statement that followed. This signified the tussle between the neoliberals
and the realists. Finally, at another meeting, this one on the sidelines of the SAARC summit in
Thimpu, the two prime ministers have mandated their foreign ministers to arrive at an
understanding on how to bridge the ‘trust deficit’. Consequently, the Indian foreign minister
arrived in Islamabad in mid July 2010 to discuss the possibility of resumption of the composite
dialogue. The outcome was predicated Pakistani sincerity against terrorism. Since Pakistan’s
internal constraints prevent it from taking the necessary initiatives with the required gusto,
date for yet another meeting in December has been set. The interim could be usefully utilized in
setting the stage for progressing the peace agenda.
This section argues that India’s reluctance to proceeding purposefully down the peace route
owes to political weakness in fending off realist sniping on India’s lack of will to power. The
foregoing section argued that such criticism is ill founded. It is therefore not from a position of
weakness that India would be reaching out to Pakistan, but from a position of self-confidence
were it to do so.
The realist position is that India requires leveraging power to operationalise a compellent
strategic doctrine. Deterrence having failed is evident from Pakistani intransigence. Credibility
of a compellent doctrine would be only when backed by the requisite military wherewithal.
This implies higher defence budgets and acquisitions. The material dimension of capability
demonstration has also been catered for by India in Exercise Yodha Shakti and the firepower
display at Pokhran. India is already in the midst of doing more for defence, with allocations of $
50-80 billions slated over the next five to ten years. At a national conference acquisitions
conference at IDSA on 27 Oct 2009, the Defence Minister, in his keynote address, said, ‘we have
made a provision for approximately US $8.5 billion for capital acquisition in our Defence
Budget for the current financial year. Over the next five to six years, the total budgetary
provision is likely to reach US $50 billion.’33 Given this military growth trajectory, there is little
reason for India to talk meaningfully. In any case, India is pledged only to talk, not to arriving
at an outcome through talks.
Past Pakistani behavior belies the assumption that it would remain static. It has lent its
strategic location for great power interest, thereby helping redress the conventional imbalance
with India. It has innovatively tied down Indian military power in unending counter
insurgency, beginning with the Punjab problem and continuing in Kashmir. It would continue
to do so, particularly in external balancing through the support of China. Clearly, ‘live’
problems and the mutual ‘security dilemma’ of the two nuclear armed states, compels caution.
The future could spool out in this fashion, but for balance in policy making conferred by the
symbolic set. Normatively, negotiations imply a certain play in positions. The Prime Minister
has acknowledged as much stating, ‘But I recognize that the key to the problem is a political
solution that addresses the alienation and emotional needs of the people. This can only be
achieved through a sustained internal and external dialogue. We are ready for this. We are
willing to discuss all issues within the bounds of our democratic processes and framework.’34
This intent needs to be followed through in both its internal and external dimensions with
respect to the people in Kashmir and with Pakistan.
The search for a position of military advantage has been damaging for Pakistan as witnessed
from the backlash it has been subject to. It cannot but be so for India also, if only on a different
level. Military advantages gained by India through additional military spending can be
imaginatively neutralized by the nuclear card. Pakistan has already stepped on the nuclear
accelerator.35 Compellence would only result in higher costs and risks, with no guarantee of
recompense. Continuing, and perhaps additional, internal security complications, both in
Kashmir and in ‘hinterland’ India, can only be expected.
Then, ‘What holds up India?’, is a fair question. The fear in policy makers is of being accused
of a sell out to Pakistan or to Kashmiri separatists in case policy approaches envisaging
accommodation are followed. It is no wonder then that the recommendations of the five
working groups from the Prime Minister’s three round table conferences on J&K through 2006-
07 remain substantially unimplem-ented. Politically, the government fears the right wing
criticism of being ‘soft’ on terror. Given the protective initiatives taken in wake of 26/11 and the
promise of Cold Start doctrine in case of another terror attack, the government has covered its
bases. Higher military credibility through investment in armaments for Cold Start can result in
the ‘security dilemma’ in Pakistan. Chinese reaction, in terms of greater focus towards its south
from its current Pacific orientation, could attenuate India’s ‘security dilemma’ with respect to
that state. In effect, military growth does not have ready answers. It mostly helps partially cope
with the problem and not resolve it. India’s symbolic strategic culture indicates restraint and
sensitivity to India’s limitations. It balances emphasis between external and internal security.
The implication is that India’s potentially compellent strategic posture needs to retract to its
traditional deterrent strategic orientation.
Therefore, India needs to seize the opportunity coming up in December. This it can only do
in case it prepares public opinion prior. Countering the criticism that it is not sufficiently
cognizant of defence compulsions needs be done as attempted here. Movement cannot be
expected without talks and India has the requisite power to back its position at the talks.
Chasing an elusive position of strength in order to dictate terms is not how talks are
approached. Pakistan, already convinced of the growing and irreversible asymmetry in light of
India’s growing power credentials, would settle for incentives on offer. Political assertion is
required in backing the neorealist strand in its strategic culture that has it that reaching out
would firstly protect and secondly with resulting regional integration further the economic
miracle underway in India.
Indian strategic culture exists. Its operational set or parabellum strategic culture is sufficiently
mindful of power and the utility of force. Realist arguments for a realpolitik orientation are
illogical, since this is already the case. The policy implication of immediate consequence is on
India’s current reaching out to Pakistan. Bridging the ‘trust deficit’ requires self-assurance in
policy makers. In so far as the gap requires making good by India, policy makers need not look
back over their shoulders. India’s realpolitik orientation to its strategic culture has brought
about in part India’s Pakistan predicament. It can be predicted that, at best, the peace process
could resume, but negotiated outcomes will be far and few. While Pakistani obduracy would be
singled out justifiably, introspection would suggest it to be result of the inordinate drag of
realism on Indian strategic culture. In the nuclear age it is not unreasonable to pitch for
alternative outcomes. The prerequisite is in bringing balance, lent by the symbolic set that
emphasises restraint, back into the policy reckoning.
1 Alan I. Johnston (1995), “Thinking About Strategic Culture”, International Security , 19 (4): p. 36.
2 Ibid, p. 46.
3 Alan I. Johnston (1995), Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Ming China , Princeton:
Princeton University Press, p. x.
4 Ibid, p. 2.
5 Ibid, p. 31.
6 WPS Sidhu (2007), “Operation Vijay and Operation Parakram” in Sreedharan, E. (ed.), The India-Pakistan
Nuclear Relationship: Theories of Deterrence and International Relations , New Delhi: Routledge, p. 233.
7 K. Subrahmanyam with A. Monteiro (2005), Shedding Shibboleths: India’s Evolving Strategic Outlook , Delhi:
Wordsmiths, p. 3.
8 George Tanham (1992), Indian Strategic Thought: An Interpretive Essay , Santa Monica: RAND, p. 50.
9 K. Subrahmanyam with A. Monteiro, Shedding Shibboleths: India’s Evolving Strategic Outlook , p. 16.
10 K. Subrahmanyam (1986) (ed.), India and the Nuclear Challenge , New Delhi: Lancers, p. 258.
11 Ibid, p. 259.
12 K. Bajpai (2002), “Indian Strategic Culture”, in Chambers, M. (ed.), South Asia in 2020: 23 Ibid, p. 195.
24 Tobias F. Engelmeier (2009), Nation Building and Foreign Policy in India: An Identity-
Strategy Conflict, New Delhi: Cambridge University Press India, pp. 246-47.
25 S Paul Kapur (2005), ‘India and Pakistan’s Unstable Peace: Why Nuclear South Asia is not like Cold War
Europe’, International Security, 30 (2), p. 148.
26 S Paul Kapur, (2008), “Ten Years of Instability in a Nuclear South Asia”, International Security , 33 (2), p. 89.
27 Jasjit Singh (2001), “Nuclear Command and Control”, Strategic Analysis, XXV (2), p. 148.
28 Stephen Cohen (2001), India: Emerging Power , New Delhi: Oxford University Press, p. 43.
29 Ibid, p. 45.
30 Ibid, p. 46.
31 Ibid, p. 63.
32 Tobias F. Engelmeier (2009), Nation Building and Foreign Policy in India: An Identity-Strategy Conflict, p.
34 PM’s opening remarks at the meeting of All Party Delegation from J&K, August 10, 2010
New Delhi, http://pmindia.nic.in/speech/content.asp?id=947
35 The latest figures (July/August 2010) have it that Pakistan has 70-90 weapons to India’s figure of 60-80. See Rob
ert S. Nori s & Hans M. Kri stensen, ‘Global nuclear weapons inventories, 1945–2010’, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists ,