Lax India

In defining the Indian national interest, there are verities, which foreign policy must either promote or at least not undermine

Amongst the most over-used and poorly-understood terms in foreign policy discourse in our country are “national interests” and “national security”. It should go without saying that every country needs a foreign policy that is linked to national interest, concretely defined.

To meet this test, the Indian government should have been able to develop and possess a view of the national interests in regional and international affairs, and to apply it in practice.
The “national interest”, in this formulation, should be a concept transcending the mere enunciation of foreign policy principles. It is worthwhile to advocate peace and good neighbourliness as a national principle, for instance, but such advocacy becomes irrelevant if there is a belligerent Army marching across one’s borders; national interests then demand capable military self-defence.
This may seem self-evident, but the distinction has been blurred in less clear-cut situations over the years by the makers and articulators of India’s foreign policy. Indian diplomacy has often been seen by close observers as more concerned with principles than interests — a tendency that infects Indian negotiating strategies as well, making New Delhi less likely to compromise since principles are usually immutable, while interests can be negotiable.
In defining the Indian national interest, there are fundamental domestic verities that constitute our fundamentals, which foreign policy must either promote or at least not undermine: India’s liberal democracy; its religious, ethnic and cultural pluralism (a term I prefer to the more traditional Nehruvian “secularism”); and its overriding priority of pulling its people out of poverty and ensuring their economic well-being. These are as fundamental to our national interest as preserving an effective, well-trained and non-political military that will secure and protect our borders, as well as security forces that will deal with domestic sources of conflict, from misguided Maoists to secessionist insurgencies.
If all of these elements and objectives constitute India’s core national interests, New Delhi must maintain the domestic structures and capacities to pursue them, as well as strive to ensure the shaping of a world order that permits, and ideally facilitates, their fulfilment.
This requires, as Jawaharlal Nehru presciently noted half a century ago, that priority be given to success on the domestic front: “I do not pretend to say that India, as she is, can make a vital difference to world affairs,” he said. “So long as we have not solved most of our own problems, our voice cannot carry the weight that it normally will and should.” His words remain true 50 years later, though India’s recent economic successes have already given its voice more weight than it has possessed for some time, and this process should continue unless India slips backward drastically at home.
In tying this idea of national interest to India’s national security, India’s basic approach in international affairs goes back to the days of the Constituent Assembly. As the doyen of Indian strategic studies, the late K. Subrahmanyam, put it, India’s grand strategy during the second half of the 20th century “involved a policy of non-alignment to deal with external security problems, the adoption of the Indian Constitution to address governance challenges, and a partly centrally planned development strategy to accelerate growth”. This was fine in the initial years, but seems very much in need of updating in the second decade of the 21st century.
Few countries face quite the range and variety of security threats that India does — from the ever-present risk, however far-fetched, of nuclear war with Pakistan or China, with both of whom we have unresolved territorial disputes, to Maoist movements in 165 of our 602 districts, secessionist insurgency in the Northeast, and terrorist bombs set off by Islamist militants in metropolitan markets. And yet we have not yet evolved a comprehensive national security strategy to cover this entire spectrum of threats. As a democracy, India needs to undertake a strategic defence review that brings in all elements of the security services, the public at large and elected representatives in Parliament, to produce a national security strategy. But such an exercise has not even been attempted.
Among India’s most important strategic challenges is that relating to nuclear strategy. India has had to acquire its nuclear literacy the hard way: it is confronted on two of its borders by nuclear armed states, China and Pakistan, with whom it has fought several wars; both still maintain claims against Indian territory and both have a history of nuclear cooperation with each other. At the same time, India has been described by Subrahmanyam as “a reluctant nuclear power” and by strategist Verghese Koithara as “saddled with a nuclear force management system that is seriously inadequate for the work it needs to do.”
The reasons for this go back to Independence. Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were horrified by Hiroshima; both wanted India to strive for a world free of nuclear weaponry. But despite several Indian initiatives for nuclear disarmament, that goal proved a chimera, and India gradually came to the conclusion that as long as some states possessed nuclear weapons, India could not afford not to, especially once it became clear in the late 1970s that Pakistan was well on the way to acquiring nuclear weapons.
India’s doctrine of no-first-use, and its principled opposition to nuclear proliferation, is consistent with its view that nuclear weapons are an abomination and their possession is intended only to deter. However, Pakistan’s refusal to sign on to a similar pledge means that the threat remains of Islamabad resorting to the use of nuclear weapons if it found itself emerging second-best in a conventional conflict. This has undoubtedly inhibited India’s possible responses to terrorist acts emanating from Pakistan, for instance. The need to develop an assured second-strike capability is immense and vital. This should be allied to a significant maritime nuclear capacity and the possession of an effective missile defence system. It is by no means clear that all these are in place; instead it is widely believed that India has fallen seriously behind Pakistan in the race for nuclear credibility.
Our national interest lies in not having to go to war with Pakistan. Our national security requires us to prepare for it — even, unthinkably, for nuclear war. That is why not being prepared is not in our national interest either.

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