Flawed thesis

Print edition : May 13, 2016
The book puts forth arguments in favour of India’s quest for superpower status ignoring the need to address the most urgent priorities such as reducing poverty.

BHARAT Karnad, a well-known strategic thinker, has argued in this diligently researched book that India has the wherewithal to become a great power but lacks the vision, will and ability to maximise its capabilities in a methodical manner over a period of time in order to reach the desired goal.

To summarise the argument of the author: “Great power status is not achieved easily or by many countries. With a modicum of economic strength, and natural attributes of size, population, and location apart, what separates great powers and would-be great powers from the rest are a driving vision, an outward-thrusting nature backed by strong conviction and sense of national destiny and matching purpose, an inclination to establish distant presence and define national interests within the widest possible geographical ambit, the confidence to protect and further these interests with proactive foreign and military policies, the building up of meaningful conventional forces backed by a proven and tested thermonuclear arsenal, and the willingness to use coercion and force in support of national interests complemented by imaginative projection and use of both soft power and hard power to expansively mark its status in the external realm .” This quotation gives the potential reader a foretaste of his style of writing.

In substantiation of his argument, Karnad points out how the United States, Great Britain, czarist Russia, Prussia and Japan expanded the area of their domination. The reader might ask whether the author has asked himself about the consequences of the search for great power status, for the country in question and for the rest of the world. Japan’s search for greatness led to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Prussia’s search led to the First and Second World Wars. The U.S., as a great power, has attacked and started more wars than any other country in recent history, not to speak of the human toll of Russia’s expansion leading to the empire of the Soviet Union and its eventual disintegration.

The author finds fault with Jawaharlal Nehru for not taking India to the status it deserves. “The policy grooves he etched are the rut India’s foreign and military policies are stuck in to this day.” Nehru’s failure comes from his “moral posturing” without the wherewithal of hard power. Such posturing amounts to pretence, and “the country’s economic and military power” was only embryonic.

Since the fact that Nehru indulged in “moral posturing” in a manner that hurt India is part of the current conventional wisdom, it will be useful to pause for a moment and ask a question about the Korean War (1950-53).

The military casualties in that war are estimated to have been in the range of 438,000 to 867,000. The civilian casualties amounted to 2.5 million. As soon as the war broke out, President Harry S. Truman sent the U.S. Seventh Fleet to Formosa (now Taiwan). Nehru advised Truman, on the basis of a message from China, not to cross the 38th parallel. Truman ignored Nehru’s advice and three years and three million deaths later settled on the same parallel. Between Truman and Nehru, who saw the big picture correctly? Incidentally, the U.S. took more than two decades to follow Nehru’s advice to Truman in 1949 to recognise and talk to China. We have gone into this matter because it is important that younger readers are not misled by the author’s ridiculing of Nehru for his moral posturing.

The author tells us about Nehru’s little known but fruitless attempt to give India a hard-power advantage as he knew that soft power unsupported by hard power would not count. Nehru tried to call an Asian Conference in 1949 to discuss a pan-Asian security system “based principally on the capabilities of the Indian Army”. He, however, abandoned the project owing to resistance from some countries such as Burma (now Myanmar), Indonesia and Vietnam where the British imperial power had used Indian troops to put down the demand for freedom. The argument advanced by the three countries in question was obviously wrong as an independent India could not be blamed for what an un-free India did. The author does not tell us whether Nehru tried to persuade the three countries to modify their approach. The reader would have appreciated a more detailed account.

Turning to the U.S.’ attitude to India, the author says President Dwight Eisenhower’s National Security Council Review (NSC 5701) of January 5, 1957, specifically stressed the importance of “a strong India... [as] a successful example of an alternative to Communism in the Asian context”. The review asserted that “the risks from a weak and vulnerable India would be greater than the risks from a stable and influential India”. Eisenhower wanted a militarily and economically strong India to be the “bulwark of a secure and stable Asia”. It is this thinking, the author reasons, that “resonated” with President George W. Bush to help India “become a major global power” in the 21st century, leading to the mooting of a strategic partnership between the two countries.

The author’s contention is that the U.S. wanted to help India become a great power and it was India’s reluctance that stood in the way. He is mistaken in his assessment of the U.S.’ approach to India. He bases his argument on a narrow textual approach ignoring the context, and fails to take a holistic view.

Let us see how the U.S. under Truman and Eisenhower dealt with India, covering a period from 1945 to 1961. Truman was President from 1945 to 1953. The 1945 monsoon in India was weak, and it was feared that there might be a famine in 1946/47. The British government of India sought food from the Combined Food Board consisting of the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. British Prime Minister Clement Attlee wrote a letter to Truman supporting India’s case. Truman’s reply was that the U.S. policy was to give preference to liberated peoples and to those who have fought beside it, but it would do its utmost “ to prevent famine among former enemies” (emphasis added).

The reader might wonder whether Truman was aware that India was one of the Allies. He refused to meet Sir Ramaswami Mudaliar, the leader of the Indian delegation to the meeting of the Combined Food Board, until some pressure was put on him by the Indian Famine Emergency Committee. The meeting was brief and fruitless. One of the first letters Nehru wrote as Vice President of the interim government in September 1946 was to seek food aid from the U.S. Truman relented to give some food aid only in 1951 and that, too, because he wanted manganese, a crucial metal needed to make steel, which the Soviet Union stopped exporting to the U.S. following the start of the Korean War.

Eisenhower, who succeeded Truman, remained in office until 1961. In 1954, he made a decisive move to arm Pakistan when Nehru was looking for an eminent person from a neutral country to serve as Plebiscite Administrator as envisaged in the Security Council Resolution on Kashmir. Nehru abandoned the search for an administrator, and the Kashmir dispute was aggravated by Eisenhower’s action. If Eisenhower had not armed Pakistan, the course of the subcontinent’s history might have been different.

In short, Nehru did not have an option of aligning with the U.S. even if he wanted to. If it is the author’s contention that Nehru should have begged the U.S. to adopt India as the regional policeman of the U.S. and should have sent troops to fight in Korea, he is completely mistaken in reading the historical context.

Three schools of thought

With the Government of India not taking the lead in a debate about India’s need to be a great power, the author points out that three schools of thought have emerged. “The first school believes in soft power as the country’s passport to greatness, the second school believes that morality and morally-oriented policies will ensure the country’s greatness, and the third school is of the view that India is faced with too many internal problems, social and economic disparities and underdevelopment to be distracted by the search for great power.” Indian diplomats prefer postings in the West and, as a consequence, neglect the countries within India’s cultural orbit.

The author finds fault with the 123 Agreement with the U.S., which, he says, deprives India of the possibility of emerging as a great power by conducting additional nuclear tests. Obviously, he is making the unwarranted assumption that India will be able to deal with the international outrage and sanctions that will follow the tests.

Karnad has found fault with Nehru for not grabbing the opportunity when India was offered a permanent Security Council seat “separately by United States and the Soviet Union in the 1950s [to replace Kuomintang China, or Taiwan].” In support of his contention, he has quoted a book review in Frontline by this reviewer. But, he has got it wrong. No such offer was made by either superpower. There were only some feelers. It is a categorical error to say that Moscow wanted to seat India in place of China. Equally, it is wrong to say that when Russia offered it even as a feeler, the U.S. would have agreed to it. Similarly, we do not know whether the Soviet Union would have concurred if the U.S. had made an offer. It is wrong to denigrate Nehru with historically unsound arguments and mislead readers in the process.

Let us take a look at the author’s style of arguing his case. “The Indo-Pacific region has six nuclear weapon states: U.S., Russia, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea; five choke points: Suez, Hormuz, Malacca, Lombok, Sunda; four major players: India, U.S., China, Japan; three rogue, pariah, failed, or seriously troubled countries: North Korea, Iran, Pakistan; five disputed land and maritime borders: India-China, India-Pakistan (in Kashmir), China-ASEAN states in the South China Sea, China-Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.....”

The author unconvincingly asserts that India is “well-placed to control the five ‘choke-points’ in the Indian Ocean”. Iran will not let India “control” the Straits of Hormuz. The book was published in 2015 and we do not know when the text was finalised. But, there were enough pointers in early 2015 that a U.S.-Iran deal was on the cards and that Iran would cease to be an outcast state in the near future. Will Egypt permit India to control the Suez?

Turning to India’s nuclear war doctrine, the author takes a rather aggressive position. He wants India to immediately revise, in secrecy, its nuclear doctrine that includes no-first-use and emphasises “minimum credible deterrent” and makes an announcement later that the policy had been revised without spelling out the revised one to “create counter-uncertainties to hold China strategically in check”. He wants “massive enlargements of the inventory of nuclear MRBMs (medium-range ballistic missiles), IBRMs (intermediate range ballistic missiles), ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles), and cruise missiles and their forward deployment in protected shelters, to prevent Indian conventional forces from being stunned by the Chinese strikes by short-range missiles massed in Tibet.”

India should place automatic demolition munitions (ADMs) just behind the “prepared defence line along the likely ingress routes of the PLA [People’s Liberation Army], a line beyond which Chinese intrusion is deemed unacceptable.” ADMs are small yield, portable nuclear weapons. China will not know where ADMs have been placed and will be confronted with the dilemma of choosing when to cross the nuclear threshold. Is the author’s contention correct? First of all, by choosing a new undisclosed nuclear doctrine, what are the advantages India is going to gain? Secondly, if the idea is to place ADMs without making it public, is it not clear that on first contact with an ADM, China might conclude that India has escalated the war from the conventional to the nuclear? What should prevent China from publicly threatening India with a nuclear retaliatory strike unless India withdraws all the deployed ADMs in 48 hours? It is obvious that the author has not thought his proposals through.

In the concluding chapter, the author gives a recipe for attaining great power status. The 10-point agenda includes “disruptive action” in Asia and the rest of the world without bothering about the likely reaction of Washington or Beijing “because that’s what great powers and would-be great powers do—they break eggs to make great power omelette for themselves”. India should resume nuclear testing to acquire fusion bomb and also sub-kiloton warheads and weapons; declare an Indian Monroe doctrine; establish naval bases in Mauritius as the third leg of a strategic tripod, the other two legs being at Nha Trang in Vietnam and at the Andamans; arm Vietnam with Brahmo missiles; put Indian SSBNs (Hull classification of a nuclear powered ballistic missile-firing submarine) in Australia and take a few more similar actions. The Ministry of External Affairs should stop kowtowing to China.

Great power

Karnad hopes that under Prime Minister Narendra Modi India will take the road to great power status, though he notes with concern that the importance of hard power is not fully appreciated. He is worried that the country might miss yet another opportunity and might remain “a nation of small strivings”. India needs a “Meiji kind of spirit that catapulted Japan in the latter half of the nineteenth century”.

The author does not explain why India should seek great power status ignoring its people’s low living standards. He forgets that India is a superpower in poverty, accounting for more than 50 per cent of the underweight children in the world. The author was a member of the National Security Board, but his concept of security is lamentably narrow. National security should include the human security of the nationals.

Will the decision-makers adopt the author’s thesis? They might not adopt it in toto, but they might adopt a less reckless version of it. There is an unstated assumption of the author, which is shared by some in the government of the day, which needs to be stated explicitly: The U.S. has a nursery for growing great powers, and India should get admitted to that nursery at any cost and as early as possible.

The present government has been moving consistently and incrementally in the direction advocated by the author as far as the U.S. is concerned. Reflection will show that it is better to have a warm handshake with the U.S. rather than a tight embrace that can become asphyxiating over time.

It must, however, be stated that Karnad has made a significant contribution to the literature on national security and that this book should be read not only by scholars and decision-makers but also by the general public.

We all want India to cease to be a superpower in poverty and become a great power able and willing to ensure that its citizens live in dignity and freedom in a many-splendoured India.

K.P. Fabian is the author of Diplomacy: India Style, published in 2012.

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