The Indian Republic is now a mature 59-year-old. Whether it is a world power in the making or just a large subcontinental State with global power pretensions is a moot question. What is beyond dispute is that India, home to more than one-sixth of the human race, continues to punch far below its weight. Internationally, it is a rule-taker, not a rule-maker.
Among India’s strengths is that it has a long, historical record of being a great power and of playing a mainstream, cooperative role in international relations. In 1820, at the advent of the Industrial Revolution, India and China alone made up nearly half of the world income. But by the time India emerged as a republic, its share of global GDP had shrunk to a mere 3.8 per cent.
Another one of India’s strengths is that it symbolises unity in diversity. It is the most diverse country in the world. Indeed, it is more linguistically, ethnically and religiously diverse than the whole of Europe. India is where old traditions go hand-in-hand with post-modernity. More importantly, India has shown that unlike the traditionally homogeneous societies of East Asia, a nation can manage and thrive on diversity.
A third strength is that democracy remains India’s greatest asset. India is the only real democracy in the vast contiguous arc from Jordan to Singapore. While the concepts of democratic freedoms and the rule of law are normally associated with the West, India can claim ancient traditions bestowing respect on such values. Basic freedoms for all formed the lynchpin of the rule of Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC, who, as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has pointed out, “did not exclude women and slaves as Aristotle did”.
Through forward-thinking and a dynamic foreign policy, India — the world’s most assimilative civilisation — can now truly play the role of a bridge between the East and the West, including a link between the competing demands of the developed and developing worlds. But its manifold weaknesses weigh it down. National security remains its most-glaring failing. Put simply, India has failed to heed the principal lesson from an inglorious history of having been raped, plundered and subjugated repeatedly over more than eight centuries — from the forays of Mahmud of Ghazni to the colonial interventions of European powers.
Nowhere is India’s frailty more apparent than on what historically has been its Achilles’ heel: internal security. Wedged in an arc of failing or authoritarian States that seek, in different ways, to unravel its multi-ethnic, pluralistic character, India confronts a tyranny of geography. As a result, it faces serious threats from virtually all directions. Just as India has been battered by growing trans-border terrorism because of its location next to the global epicentre of terror, its security has come under pressure from its geographical proximity to an overly ambitious China, which trained and armed Naga and Mizo guerrillas long before Pakistan fashioned proxy war as an instrument.
Yet, despite cross-border security challenges now emanating even from Bangladesh and Nepal, India manifests a triple deficit in key aspects of national power — a leadership deficit, a strategic foresight deficit, and a national-security planning deficit. Nothing illustrates this better than the manner in which it has handled the unparalleled Pakistani scripted amphibious terrorist assaults on its commercial capital two months ago. By firing only empty rhetoric and playing victim once again, it is inviting more Mumbai-style carnages.
The best description of today’s India comes from its tourism ad campaign’s themes, including its ‘Incredible India’ slogan. An ‘incredible’ country that has allowed its national security challenges to become so acute as to bring the very future of a united, inclusive India under a cloud. A real ‘land of the Buddha’ that has confronted a continuous Pakistan-waged unconventional war since the 1980s but has, till date, been unable to shed its pacifist blinkers, let alone initiate any concrete counter-action to stem a rising existential threat.
A true ‘land of adventure’ that has no articulated national security strategy, or a defined defence policy, or a declared counter-terrorism doctrine, yet is the world’s only large country dependent on other powers for meeting basic conventional-defence needs. Although the authoritative Grimmitt report of the Congressional Research Service lists India as the world’s No. 1 arms importer during the 2000-2007 period, this ‘incredible’ country has seen its military strength actually erode in the face of such a shopping binge, to the extent that its officials openly doubt that it has the capability to decisively defeat a near-bankrupt Pakistan. It’s clearly a ‘land of the tiger’ where ad hoc, personality-driven actions customarily trump institutionalised, holistic policy-making. A blithe ‘land of festivals’ where the bigger the state failure, the less the republic learns.
In sum, an ‘Incredible India’ that has all the talent, yet displays a paucity of rationality in policy approach. Welcome to the authentic India.
India is incredible in every sense. As if to underscore that, the slogan in the current multi-million-dollar international campaign has an exclamation mark instead of a capital ‘I’ in India. The blunt truth is that India cannot be understood through plain logic. With its spiritual heritage, India transcends earthly reasoning and rationality. Still, if it wishes to be a world power playing a role commensurate with its size, it will have to transform itself from an incredible to credible India.
Brahma Chellaney is a strategic affairs specialist.