Evolution of India’s Geostrategic Calculus: The Diagnosis and Prognosis

Image source: Economic Times

As the first flock of five Rafale jets landed in India from France last month, a visible wave of ecstasy was witnessed not only on electronic, print and social media platforms but also in top government establishments. Notably, this is the first western combat aircraft to join the Indian Air Force after Sukhoi aircraft were imported from Russia 23 years ago.

Over the past two decades, a structural shift has taken place in India’s national security strategy regarding its view of global geopolitics and strategic challenges. This is marked by increasing proximity towards multi-alignment, expanding the outreach in Africa and nations in the Indian Ocean Region and most importantly, taking decisively conspicuous stances on issues that were earlier dealt with a certain degree of ambiguity.

Indian strategic thinking in the 20th century: Strident idealism and Scandent realism

The first phase in the 20th century under the leadership of then Prime Minister Nehru is marked by ideological posturing where India steadfastly supported anti-imperialist and anti-racist ideologies across the globe and propounded the philosophy of Panchsheel and Non-Alignment which are regarded as the greatest contributions of India to the theory and practice of international relations. India not only advocated the liquidation of colonialism in all forms and manifestations but also vociferously supported the liberation movement in many Afro-Asian countries. It even snapped its diplomatic ties with South Africa as a protest against the policy of apartheid.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Yugoslav President Josef Tito/ Image: The Hindu

When the world was getting divided into two ideological blocs led by the US and USSR in the cold war era, PM Nehru along with Presidents Josip Tito and Gamal Nasser of Yugoslavia and Egypt respectively, started the Non-Aligned Movement which was drawn on the principles agreed at the Bandung Conference in 1955- refusing to be drawn to either side and to carve out an independent approach in pursuing a foreign policy. Further, India’s support for Palestine was also driven by its cherished ideals from 1919’s Khilafat movement. Though these stances of idealism and morality created limitations on India’s role in global affairs which were perhaps disproportionate to its military and economic strength, it is this idealism which gave it the stature internationally.

When PM Nehru signed the Indo-China treaty on Tibet in 1954, popularly known as Panchsheel with the Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai and gave the cosy slogan of ‘Hindi Chini Bhai-Bhai’, little did he or anyone in the south block forecasted about the Chinese aggression of 1962.

The 1962 defeat against China which took away Aksai-Chin region of erstwhile Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) as well as a large part of Arunachal Pradesh (then North-East Frontier Agency), outlined a colossal failure of Indian strategic planning as well as external intelligence gathering. This defeat was an eye-opener and for the first time planted the seeds of realism in viewing the neighbourhood. Subsequently, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) was established in 1968 for foreign intelligence gathering. This incipience of realism was also manifested through the decisive military response in the 1965 war against Pakistan and later in 1967 standoff with China in Nathu-La and Cho-La clashes alongside the Sikkim border. The 1971 Bangladesh war is perceived as a decisive shift in India’s strategic thinking towards pragmatism wherewith the overt Russian and covert Israeli help, it thwarted the manoeuvres of then US President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger who were trying to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough in China, with Pakistan acting as the middleman. Further, the 1974 nuclear test under the code name ‘Smiling Buddha’ and later the triumph in Sumdorong Chu standoff against China also corroborate with the reinvigorated confidence in Indian military strategy.

The seeds of realism being watered by subsequent regimes culminated into a tree in May 1998, when India decided to go for nuclear tests and overtly declared to the world that it is a nuclear power. It can be attributed as a testimony to successful Indian diplomacy that in the aftermath of these nuclear tests that India not only faced the sanctions boldly but also made sure these sanctions getting revoked within the next 2-3 years and that also without succumbing to the pressure of signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The first four-five decades after independence were also pronounced for significant military purchases from Russia and even today, despite diversifications, more than 60%-70% of Indian armed forces are equipped with weapons of Russian origin, thereby exhibiting our heavy dependency on Russia for purchases, handling and maintenance of military equipment.

The last decade of the 20th century presented two important pictures for India. Firstly at the global level, with the disintegration of USSR, the world became unipolar with the US being the hegemon and secondly at the national level, the exponential growth in the insurgency in J&K during the early 90s. The former opened new doors of opportunities for wider engagement with nations who earlier were tied to a particular block, especially the Central Asian countries and also helped India in proceeding with economic liberalisation and market reforms. While later gave a persistent headache to India in dealing with the cross-border terrorism from Pakistan and militancy in J&K. The Kargil war of 1999 further strengthened this view of seeing Pakistan through the prism of hostility and hard-handedly dealing with the militancy in J&K. 

The first decade of the 21st century: New paradigms, New partners

With the onset of a democratic government in Afghanistan in 2004, India started to engage proactively in Afghan-rebuilding with a strategic angle to counter Pakistan’s tactics. The Mumbai attacks of 26/11 drastically changed India’s security paradigm at the national level. This resulted in an increased focus on maritime security and naval modernisation. The 2008 Civil Nuclear Deal with the US was a crucial moment in Indian strategic journey as it had given India the historic waiver from the Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG), making India the only country being so. Today India has Civil Nuclear Agreements with 14 nations including the US, Russia, Japan, Australia etc. These agreements have been pivotal in giving credibility to its status as a responsible nuclear power.

Photo: DNA

India post-2014:- Shedding past inhibitions and Painting high ambitions

After the change of regime in 2014, a renewed thrust has symbolised India’s security paradigm. Driven by intense realism, the ‘New India’ no longer hesitates in harnessing its considerable national capabilities to protect larger and more complex interests. Filled with high aspirations, India’s continental and maritime strategy have greatly transmuted and its domain of interest has expanded substantially. The creation of the post of the Chief of Defence Staff is expected to bring unified thinking in the military brass.

There are four major contours which broadly encompass the Indian security strategy post-2014. Firstly, the assertiveness in the manner it dealt with Pakistan. The open proclamation of the Surgical and Airstrikes in the aftermath of Uri and Balakot attacks respectively provide testimony to this. India has upped in lobbying the world against terrorism (read Pakistan). The continental and maritime domain for India has increased considerably and the reinvigorated Indo-Pacific plays a crucial role in this. Security strategists in Delhi feel that the abrogation of article 370 from J&K has given India an upper hand in managing Pak manoeuvres in Kashmir.

Secondly, after a longstanding equivocalness, India has finally realised and is acting against the strategic threat from China. The Doklam and the recent Galwan valley incident have been a major push in this. India has retaliated in both economic as well as military ambits. From banning 59 Chinese apps and tightening regulations for Chinese investments to the shibboleth of an ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’, India also intensified the talks of Quad and the possibility of permanently including Australia in the Malabar exercise. However, at the same time, it also understands that China is not Pakistan and India requires a comprehensive long-term strategy to counter China.

Thirdly, it has implemented its own ‘Monroe Doctrine’ in the neighbourhood as far as its regional security strategy is concerned. With Pakistan being the obvious exception, it has considerably increased its investments in countries like Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar as well as Nepal to counter Beijing’s influence in these countries. It has increased its military presence in Maldives and Mauritius and is coordinating closely with countries in Indo-Pacific. In its extended neighbourhood especially in West Asia, India has successfully tried to keep its strategic cooperation with countries across the aisle. Israel and UAE have emerged as major security partners for India while US sanctions on Iran have temporarily dented its pursuit of utilizing Iran to connect to Afghanistan and Central Asian countries, bypassing Pakistan.

Fourthly, the increased bonhomie with the US also marks a new dimension in India’s continental as well as maritime strategy. It gives India the much-needed leverage and support that it requires to effectively become a net security provider not only in South Asia and South-east Asia but also in the Indian Ocean region. The signing of agreements like LEMOA and COMCASA with the US has aided in its quest to do so.

Cooperation and Convulsion: The road ahead

With a new ‘cold war’ beginning between the US and China, India must ensure to maintain its long-cherished ‘strategic autonomy’ as it gives India unique flexibility at times. However, that should not be interpreted as being risk-averse. As France gradually becomes a new Russia to India as far as India’s military purchases are concerned, India should also learn to ingeniously harness France towards realising its strategic goals which include NSG and UNSC membership, expanding presence in the Pacific islands as well as bonding with European nations inter alia.

From a security perspective, India should continue its realist orientation and intensify its quest to increase its influence in the neighbourhood and in the extended neighbourhood. For this, it requires a clear regional security strategy and a ‘Semi-Blue Water Navy’. It also needs to forge stronger military bonds especially with countries in the IOR to contain its strategic threats. India should gear up to face new challenges and operate in a turbulent sphere as new paradigms will emerge in the Post- COVID world, marking a significant departure from the past as well as the present.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Suyash Verma

Suyash Verma is an Independent Foreign Policy Researcher. He can be reached at suyash1503@gmail.com | Twitter: @SuyashVerma01

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