Very few countries have been in the position that India is now in, when almost the whole world, except China and Pakistan, would like to see it succeed.
The Indian subcontinent has clear geographical logic. Impassable Himalayan ranges to the north and north-east, deserts Kharan (Balochistan) to the southwest, Karakoram mountain ranges to the north-north-west, Hindukush ranges to the northwest, large water bodies in the south, and dense impassable jungles to the east surround the subcontinent. The modern Indian state is in a large part of this ancient subcontinent, but in several directions its geographical boundaries are not anchored on natural barriers. This is particularly relevant to the northwest, where there is no natural barrier in the current India-Pakistan border for a gap of about 300 km above the Thar desert and below the Shivalik ranges, and the plains here enable movement of large armies. Peninsular India is surrounded by the Indian Ocean, Arabia Sea and Bay of Bengal, affording protection due to the “stopping power of water”. The East India Company did not invade from the sea but gradually expanded its influence after first landing as merchants. In contrast, the United States is surrounded by a great ocean each to the east and west, and one country each to the north and the south. National power of the US overwhelms that of its neighbours, resulting in secure geographical boundaries. India has been unable to achieve this, thus requiring significant national energies to be directed towards securing itself within the Indian sub-continent.
A nation well-endowed in resources, ancient India was defeated by invaders but was not conquered, as the ancient culture absorbed and imbibed various incoming influences by keeping itself “aloof” from all military developments. The US has grown outward from the original 13 founding states, with waves of subsequent immigrants settling far away from their original cultures. Han China, which comprises 90% of the population of China currently, has grown outward from its origins along the Wei river. This affords a high degree of coherence within these nation-states. (Russia has grown outwards from Muscovy, but constraints have been different). In contrast, India has had large tracts of arable land with several major river systems, enabling the birth and growth of several sub-cultures. The modern Indian nation-state thus reflects a mosaic blend of several “home-grown” and “incoming” cultures. The nation-state thus is not as strong as some other nation-states like the US, UK or Japan. When blended well the combination has resulted in a powerful nation. Modern India has been reasonably successful in this blending, underpinned by a vibrant democracy which many of its contemporaries have not been able to sustain. This blending requires expense of significant national energy.
In any analysis of the grand strategy of India it is important to consider China and Pakistan. In their long histories, ancient China and India have effectively been walled off from each other due to the Himalayas. With the fall of Tibet in 1950 (and the fall of Xinjiang in 1949) China and India now have a very long common border, and fought a border war in 1962. China has put in place programs like the “string of pearls” in the Indian Ocean and the “one-road one belt”, thereby boosting its capabilities all around India. Several rivers in India originate in the extended China and with the dam building programs it will be in a position to control 30% of water flow into India. China continues to play a key role in boosting the conventional and nuclear capabilities of Pakistan, in working to restrict India to the subcontinent, and spending 400% more on defence than India does. China continues to act to keep India off-balance in the sub-continent, and its growing all-round capabilities, national imperatives and actions combine to form the most serious external threat to India. If it were to ever succeed in crossing the Himalayas into Nepal to the north, or through the area of Kashmir currently controlled by Pakistan (POK) to the north-west, or into the north-east near Myanmar, China would pose a grave existential danger to India. This is not imminent as China does not possess the capabilities currently. China has extended its program to penetrate foreign media, think-tanks and academia into India with some success, and its overall national power is much more than that of India. Given the absolute control of the Communist Party, China does not possess the checks and balances inherent in a democracy. Pakistan broke off from India into a separate country when India gained independence from Britain in 1947. The two nuclear power countries have fought wars and the conflict continues in other forms. Over the last three decades Pakistan has steadily fallen behind India in overall national power. This disparity is likely to increase. Given the state of the country, the persistent efforts at rivalling India would appear to be unreasonable, until examined using the lens of Structural Realism. As defined by Dr Mearsheimer, a country has to make a choice to “buckpass”, “bandwagon”, or “balance”. “Buckpassing” is not practical in the case of a neighbour with a long common border. While “bandwagoning” would appear to be logical, making such a choice would itself present an existential threat to Pakistan given its geography, history and creation. International relations need not be a zero-sum game and hence Pakistan could choose a combination of “bandwagoning” and “balancing”. This would, however, fundamentally alter the DNA itself of Pakistan, and would not be acceptable to any foreseeable dispensation in Pakistan. The only option for Pakistan then is to “balance”, and its long-held stance towards India has had strategic logic (but with serious errors). Though India is increasingly well positioned to cope with this rivalry, it results in significant diversion of national power and partly inhibits its ability to act beyond the sub-continent.
KEY ELEMENTS OF INDIA’S GRAND STRATEGY
The strategic culture in India is not as well developed as in the US, and the grand strategy has been more implicit. The key elements of the grand strategy for India are:
1. Maintain the unity of India: Reasonably successful so far, this will continue to require nurturing and balancing, expending national energy, and resulting in inward orientation, with India punching below its weight in the world. The Maoist insurgency, which at its peak affected almost 30% of the total districts, is the most serious among many such threats. Immigration into borderlands is resulting in the political boundary increasingly not coinciding with the cultural boundary. There are other persistent internal and externally driven threats. While no threat by itself would be a grave danger, a combination of such threats could be. A united India is an increasingly powerful country, while a divided India has always been vulnerable.
2. Lift millions out of poverty: Significant progress has been achieved, with 415 million individuals able to escape multidimensional poverty from 2005 to 2021, with the incidence of poverty dropping from 55.1% to 16.4% (MPI by UNDP). The Gini coefficient of income inequality and D9/D1 ratio remain reasonably low compared to other large countries like the US, China and Brazil. The sustainable development goals of the UN envisage that absolute poverty will be eliminated by the year 2030. India already has the 3rd largest economy (PPP), and is on track to become the 3rd largest in nominal terms by 2032. With the potential of the demographic dividend, India has a window of opportunity up to about 2055. A lot needs to be achieved in the “amrit-kal” up to the 100-year anniversary of Independence in 2047, but the “middle income trap” appears likely as rapid economic growth was deferred for a long time.
3. Securing Asia: This needs to be considered through two distinct thrusts: (a) Securing the sub-continent: India cannot “buckpass” with respect to neighbouring China, and will need to choose between “bandwagoning” and “balancing”. “Bandwagoning” presents the risk that a potential challenger will eventually not be acceptable to China (capabilities are more important than intention, which can change overnight) on its own southern borders. China is likely to prefer infiltration and subversion over full-fledged conflict, and India must prepare to manage both hard and soft infiltration. India does not have the capabilities to “balance” China by itself, thus necessitating partnerships with the US and closer alignment of the Quad. The choices made by India and their consequences will be one of the defining features of the global system in the first half of the 21st century. Pakistan will continue to pose a dilemma for India. A stable and peaceful Pakistan could be in the interests of India. However, a powerful or even unitary India will be construed as an unacceptable existential threat by Pakistan. Though Pakistan will not be an existential threat to India in the foreseeable future, it could re-emerge as one in several decades. The increasingly serious turmoil in Pakistan, whose possible failure and implosion in this decade will be very painful for the subcontinent in the medium term, and India will need to continuously re-calibrate and adopt a multi-pronged approach. The possibilities of instability in China later in this decade will compound the situation. The internal boundaries of the sub-continent have been in flux over millennia and India will need to prepare to manage this flux when it happens. For other neighbours in the subcontinent, “bandwagoning” with India is a win-win possibility. (b) Rest of Asia: The region expressed geographically as South-East Asia has culturally been called “Indo-China”. Waves of culture, not armies, have rippled outward from a powerful India in the past, which is organically connected to South-East Asia and Central Asia. Given the alignment of interests with ASEAN and Japan, a vigorous “Act East” policy will be a win-win, and the American “pivot to Asia” can be synergistic. Though access to Central Asia has been blocked by PoK, there is an alignment of interest with Central Asia which has responded well to the outreach. Ensuring stability and the absence of a hostile power in Afghanistan is of high importance, particularly to manage the consequences of failure of Pakistan. There are significant changes underway in West Asia with prospects of instability with its not natural nation-states. For the long-term India needs to position itself, particularly if American interest declines, to exert a moderating and stabilizing influence in a region of high importance for its interests. This is again a win-win scenario for India and the world.
4. Securing the Indian Ocean: Peninsular India is accessed through the Indian Ocean, which has been called the highway of international commerce in the 21st century. More than 85% of the trade of India, including import of crude oil in a deficient country is through this ocean. India will not have the capabilities to dominate this ocean, it cannot let a hostile power dominate it either. No nation can be secure, leave alone become a superpower, with so much dependence on imports combined with inability to control the trade routes. Managing China and Pakistan diverts resources towards land borders. Given the multifaceted rivalry with China, it is important to balance its growing capabilities in this ocean.
5. Growing soft power: An eclectic mix of the largest global diaspora, yoga, Bollywood, IT hub, diversity of fine arts and culture, spirituality and gurus, meditation and extensive use of English, this is an area in which India is potentially well ahead of any of its rivals. Soft power will be an increasingly critical component of overall national power, and will be increasingly threatened by rivals. India needs to nurture and grow its soft power, while being mindful of the fact that soft power is power only if it is underpinned by hard power.
Very few countries have been in the position that India is now in, when almost the whole world, except China and Pakistan, would like to see it succeed. At the same time, two out of the profound changes in the coming decades will concern two regions very close to India: West Asia and China/Pakistan. As Asia heads into a period of geopolitical challenges, India will need to be much clearer in formulating its grand strategy and proactive in its implementation.
Vivek Joshi is an Advisor with A-Joshi Strategy Consultants Pvt Ltd, and has more than 25 years of international management experience.