This week’s unveiling of the budget finds India hiking its defense budget by 19 per cent, with 40 per cent as capital outlay. The rationale is defense modernization, since India, with sufficient money in the coffers, is replacing equipment bought in the last bout of defense profligacy back in the eighties.
However, behind the spending is also the contest between the two perspectives on strategic culture. One has it that India is not comfortable with power. The second is that this is an unfair criticism. The former, more popular position, keeps the government on the defensive. Unwilling to be distracted by criticism that it is ‘soft’ on the ‘holy cow’, defense, it prefers to play safe. Fear of criticism makes the government overcompensate. Under present conditions of political uncertainty, triggered recent election results unfavorable to the ruling Congress party, this tendency can be expected to be more in evidence.
Revealing the critique of India’s strategic behavior as unfounded would help prevent the government go down the ‘armament culture’ route, avoid creating a military-industrial complex Frankenstein and triggering the security dilemma in neighbors.
In the first perspective India does not have a strategic culture. India does not understand power and its uses and does not know how to create and employ power. Given this, India is disinclined to view force as an instrument of policy. It consequently has a predisposition for accommodation. This is taken as the ‘weakness’ that incentivizes the security challenges India faces, both internally and externally. The prescription in this understanding is for India is to create the sinews of power, acquire the hardware for its exercise and the software in terms of policy, doctrine and strategy. The resulting felicity with employment of power and the instrumental use of force is both necessary for India’s rise and the best indicator of such rise.
The second perspective insists that India has instead not been found wanting in the use of force. India’s use of force dates to right after Independence. India employed its military speedily in response to a call from the Maharaja in 1947. It adopted a forward policy against China. It opened up the Punjab front in the 1965 War, dissected Pakistan in 1971, and preempted it at Siachen. It sent its troops for peace enforcement action to Sri Lanka. On the internal security front, it has militarily tackled insurgencies in Punjab, North East and Kashmir.
This proves that India has used force with resolve, but with restraint as its hallmark. Such restraint cannot be taken as weakness, but of sensible strategy that takes into account vulnerabilities, limitations and relative strengths. India’s exercise of power has been with ‘resolve and restraint’.
Instances include India stopping short of Muzaffarabad in 1948. This had the very sensible intent of basing a ceasefire on an ethno-linguistic divide over which negotiations for a trade off could take place. At the end of the 1965 War, yet again India created the conditions for a long term settlement of the Kashmir issue by demonstrating its goodwill by returning Haji Pir. In the 1971 War it returned the prisoners of war as it was duty bound to do under the Geneva Conventions. India’s peacekeeping force did not overstay its invitation in Sri Lanka. It has been circumspect in using force in internal security, for instance, by avoiding use of air force and area weapons.
The advantages for India have been in the embedding of the military instrument appropriately. It has relegated the military to a position in which civil-military relations in India have been different than from the rest of the developing world. Secondly, despite its GDP figures of late, India continues to be a developing country. India’s development indicators are not very much above those of sub Saharan Africa in certain respects. Clearly, attention to defense cannot be at the cost of distorting the balance between the sectors. Thirdly, strategically, India does not face any existential threats. It does not need to create and exert power to the extent as to constitute a threat for its neighbors, that can only eventuate in insecurity for itself under the ‘two front’ threat, partnership between China and Pakistan.
Lastly, salience of the military instrument is not required beyond a point to make India a great power. India’s record in terms of democracy, autonomy, responsible diplomacy, management of its diversity and economic growth with equity are more significant for India’s potential as a great power.
In face of these advantages of India’s strategic culture of restraint, the otherwise more popular critique suffers in comparison. The disadvantages of the latter include, firstly, its imagining of India as a partner in the great power game. It aims at nudging India towards the Western camp, thereby placing it at odds with its neighbors and risking its autonomy. Second, it shifts the bias from development to defense. This bespeaks for an outward orientation that is unremarkable in ‘normal’ states. However, India is a subcontinent. It will have to arrive at its own balance in which the precedent and example of other powers has limited relevance.
Lastly, the push for a muscular India is impelled by domestic politics to an extent. The better known domestic facet is in conservative political formations that subscribe to realist policies presenting themselves as more strategically able and, infused with cultural nationalism, are attuned to India’s authentic strategic culture.
The other little known facet of political economy of defense is in the economic advantages that ethnicities associated with the defense sector tend to derive from higher defense spending. Since 60 per cent of the budget is in revenue expenditure, this advantages ethnic and social groups over-represented in India’s military. A correction is in order, but sensitization to this as an issue distorting India’s defense sector needs first to be fostered. The question arises as to whether and to what extent do their representatives in the strategic community and security institutions, wittingly or otherwise, feed the discourse on an insecure India?
Rehearsing these arguments is necessary to counteract the Goebbelsian refrain in strategic commentary that India is insecure because it is not doing enough on the defense front. Infusing self-confidence in the government thus can help with India’s rise as a great power with a difference.