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Opinion » Lead

Updated: April 16, 2013 00:39 IST

Great power ambition sans the attitude

Raja Menon
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Although there are people and institutions capable of articulating a strategic vision, bureaucratic lethargy and turf battles prevent them from executing it

A reputed international weekly recently devoted a cover article to arguing that India’s quest for greatness would be stymied by the absence of a strategic culture. Ever since George Tanham’s seminal essay on Indian strategic thought, published in 1992 by RAND, suggested the absence of strategic thinking, many writers and commentators have weighed in, both supporting and contradicting Tanham. Interestingly, what Tanham suggested was that India was indeed a “strong” cultural entity, but somehow the nature and characteristics of that culture either prevented or avoided strategic thought. The article in the Economist (April 5, 2013) goes much farther, and says there are many in India who write and comment on the absence of institutions capable of giving the country strategic direction. But those in power have deliberately taken decisions to deny the country those institutions out of departmental jealousies, lethargy or plain wrongheadedness.

Criticism of our strategic culture is not new, and to those who have worked in South Block for decades, the history of trying to put in place procedures and institutions are most often a case of one step forward, two steps back. Paraphrasing Rahul Gandhi’s speech at the CII recently, he said what is wrong in India is that as few as 5,000 people take all the decisions for a billion Indians. Are there really as many as 5,000 is the first question that comes to mind because the number of people crippling this country’s strategic culture is less than 10.

Defence Planning Group

Between the publication of Tanham’s essay in 1992 and the weekly’s justifiably disparaging remarks, attempts have been made to build institutions. The earliest attempt goes as far back as 1986 when a Defence Planning Group was set up under a rotating three star officer with vacancies for scientists and diplomats. Since the absence of a military input is one of the chief complaints of both Tanham and the Economist, it is bizarre to note that the Defence Planning Group was eventually allowed to wither by the armed forces themselves and inter-services rivalry. So the blame has to be shared pretty widely. Tanham was so bemused by the absence of thinking beyond continental and territorial defence that he blamed both history and culture.

Historically, India was just a part of the greater British Empire, the defence of which was strategised in Whitehall. Within the folds of the empire, India had two roles — one, as provider of troops and, secondly, as a continental command under an army Commander-in-Chief. The C-in-C therefore often saw himself as an independent commander who chafed at the bit at being ‘directed’ by a Viceroy, who according to the C-in-C, was merely the civilian head of government. A classic instance is the creation of the present state of Iraq after the First World War when the troops and government administration departments were sent from India, the political direction came from Whitehall and the naval element from the C-in-C of the Far East Fleet in Singapore. The air force element was under the land force commander. This arrangement was repeated every so often, as to disable New Delhi’s independent strategic thinking and limit Indian army HQ thinking to territorial defence. So crippling was the empire’s straitjacket that in 1939, in the absence of any strategic directive, New Delhi’s first operational order for the Second World War was the digging of defences in the North-West frontier against a Russian attack — a replay of the great game of the previous century! Culturally, Tanham ascribed the absence of forward planning to abstruse theories of Hindu concepts of tomorrow and time.

Since Tanham’s time, India has become a nuclear weapons state, China has risen astonishingly and Pakistan has ceased to grow and turned into a state at war with itself. The Indian armed forces have grown exponentially, but no civilian leader, according to the Economist, has the faintest idea of how to use India’s growing military clout. The army seems most of all to be structured for a blitzkrieg against Pakistan while the navy is preparing to counter China’s ‘blue water adventurism.’

The services appear to have their own strategic plans and the organisation that would centrally direct strategic thinking — the Ministry of Defence — is the most distrusted by the armed forces. A ministry that could provide a centralist view on world affairs and geopolitical initiatives — the Ministry of External Affairs — is described as ridiculously ‘puny’ in numbers. The sanction for larger numbers already exists but the foreign services mandarins refuse to laterally recruit suitable candidates to get on with the job. Vacancies for foreign service officers in the Ministry of Defence to augment their ‘woeful ignorance’ go repeatedly unfilled. The Economist has ignored the six months of happy times after George Fernandes, the Defence Minister, was retired due to a TV sting operation, and replaced temporarily by Jaswant Singh. He inducted Arun Singh, a former Minister of State for Defence, to head a committee to restructure higher defence management. More was achieved for reforms during those few months than in a half century before or a decade since. The crucial reform of integrating the service headquarters under a Chief of Defence Staff failed due to opposition from just three individuals.

Most observers agree that a permanent hurdle to structural reforms and financial streamlining remains the Ministry of Defence. The ministry consists of generalists who are invariably in opposition to the military whose officers are educated for a minimum period of three years (a year every decade) on strategic thought before they are posted in billets where they could contribute to strategy. Curiously, both Tanham and the Economist wrote their essays on Indian strategic thought because both were investigating the possibility of India becoming a great power. The inference from both is that the absence of a strategic culture will hamper India from punching its weight. True, its weight is light compared to that of China but with the advantages India has going for it — the English language, democracy, a military culture and tradition, a fine navy, a small but active foreign office — it could, with the setting up of coordinating institutions, punch well above its weight. It doesn’t, largely because of bureaucratic lethargy, jealousies and turf battles, and an indifferent political class.

Non-alignment 2.0

The Economist notes that the nearest that India’s strategic community has come to writing out a vision of how to match foreign policy with the deployment of the armed forces, whose budget today is near $ 46 bn, is the unofficial document, Non-Alignment 2.0, written by people both inside and outside the government. The document proves that people of the right calibre can be called upon at any time to articulate a vision but there are an equal number of incompetents in government who will prevent the former from executing that vision. Sadly many of them populate the Ministry of Defence and have, for instance, batted stubbornly in favour of defence PSUs and limiting FDI in the sector to 26 per cent when it is 49 per cent elsewhere.

The result is that India, which is at the bottom of the heap in HDI, is also the world’s largest arms importer. To paraphrase Manmohan Singh, “the enemy is within.” The latest attempt to restructure higher defence management — the Naresh Chandra Committee — has put in a report full of sensible recommendations. It is not public yet but it is reliably learnt that the overwhelming opposition to it comes from — where else? — the Ministry of Defence.

(Raja Menon retired as Rear Admiral in the Indian Navy)

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Great article with more than accurate on ground happenings. Just wondering of india having the capability of manufacturig and absorbing the latest technologies in the world for nuclear submaries, super critical boilers & turbines,launching satellites around moon and other host of updated technologis, can not the ministry of defence open the defence equipment's manufacturing sector to private sectors with the provision of joint ventures with foreign firms. This would not only add to the GDP and curb on the massive import bills but also stop the middle man culture and is directly related to the corruption in the defence ministry and the government. Things have started rolling in this direction, but has to be fastened so as to make up the lost time for the technology transfers, which can happen simultanously when massive defence purchases are to happen in coming years.

from:  Mukesh
Posted on: Apr 16, 2013 at 22:31 IST


The need for a strong military strategy has been stressed time and again by experts. The Ministry of Defence also needs a Defence Chief from a Military background to provide valuable insights. However, the Economist also points out that India's soft power and its democratic institutions are indeed its unique strengths. So, a strong foreign policy will also call for an effective diplomatic strategy in addition to the military strategy. The Tatas and L&T's can contribute more with quality and quantity to India's defence in collobaration with Foreign companies if a careful FDI policy could be adopted by the government

from:  Raghuraman
Posted on: Apr 16, 2013 at 22:20 IST

A greatly insightful article. Definitely helped me to understand on how
our vast military resources are being laid waste due the lack of
strategic vision. Like every nation, the purpose of military is to
enhance our strategic bargaining rights in the international politics.
Being assertive and strategic with our resources is the first step. I
wish the people in the North block talk with those in the South block
and back our resources with the strength in policy, both domestic and
foreign.

However, I beg to disagree with one of the comments posted here which
says private investment in our defence infrastructure is bad. If we had
effective policy makers, then I do strongly believe that the private
industry can accomplish things at better rates and costs than the white
elephants like DRDO and HAL.

from:  Bala
Posted on: Apr 16, 2013 at 22:04 IST

(1) Leaders of our main political parties and the regional outfits
have one common goal-that of seizing power and retaining it at all
costs. They rarely think seriously about finding solutions of economic
problems created, partly by our huge population and mainly on account
of lack of unity of purpose and infighting in the parties. (2) As a
democratic nation of 21st century we have shown ignorance about
advantages of strategic thinking and the need to bury differences for
common cause of economic progress of the entire country. (3) Just
consider benefits of a implementing a simple decision of streamlining
the public distribution system, and of revamping of storage, and
transportation of huge stocks of wheat and rice. There is hardly any
strategic decision making in this activity but both our Central and
State governments have conveniently ignored it and the below poverty
line families poor pay heavily for this lapse.

from:  Narendra M Apte
Posted on: Apr 16, 2013 at 18:38 IST

Good analytically written and at the same a wake up call before alarming situation.

from:  Rudra Prakash
Posted on: Apr 16, 2013 at 18:05 IST

It is in the best interests of India to avoid US in the area of defence cooperation. The failure of LCA Tejas is a US conspiracy.

from:  Shyam
Posted on: Apr 16, 2013 at 16:27 IST

great article... insightful...

from:  Jiya
Posted on: Apr 16, 2013 at 15:06 IST

Need for strategic thinking is understandable. But sneaking in FDI or massive private investment in defence under the guise of "strategy" in itself is a bad strategy for those who advocate it. One cannot be blamed for suspecting hidden agenda behind this article. Eisenhower had warned US against private participation in defence. He foresaw that such a thing would bring up a military-industrial complex would which would seek war to make itself a profitable venture. In India-Pak, context this is going to be disaster. Also with a large number of former Chiefs of services being under the investigation for being middlemen in arms deals, India must assiduously avoid any kind of private sector involvement in defence equipment. India must build up its own weapons research and manufacturing in public sector. Until it fructifies we must import from countries like Russia with where defence industry is almost fully public sector, thus avoiding precipitous warmongering and corruption.

from:  Madhu
Posted on: Apr 16, 2013 at 12:25 IST

I have read the article in the Economist. But the insights that the writer has given us in this article have strengthened my understanding.
My grateful acknowledgement to Admiral Menon. I think we see him on TV on occasions; but the cacophony that our anchors love to provoke deter us from knowing the true worth of people like him. I request him to write often

from:  P K Sengupta
Posted on: Apr 16, 2013 at 12:21 IST

A country of hypocrites such as india can never become a super power.
Wealth(that too ill-gotten acquired cheating its own citizens)alone cannot make it.A strong culture must translate at least half of that into a workable thing in a democracy.India is a proven banana republic.
A few indians forming a chain of command at the helm of affairs in any country is a danger to that nation.

from:  ramachandrasekaran
Posted on: Apr 16, 2013 at 10:44 IST

The Economist got it right as has Raja Menon. Our politicians are not strategists except for themselves. Jaswant Singh was a great Defence Minister as well as Foreign minister. Look at BJP - they expelled him from the party. Inter and intra party scuffles has left the country without a sense of direction. There should be a unified command in the armed forces. To get some idea of the disharmony between the Army and the Air Force just read 'Operation Safed Sagar' an independent account of Kargill from AF's perspective.

from:  Manjit Sahota
Posted on: Apr 16, 2013 at 10:41 IST

We need to INVEST more in basic Infrasturcture (Employment Generation-
Vocational Training Centres, Education-School, Colleges; hospitals)
instead of importing arms. Focus upon people-to-people cultural contact
between different countries & Trade. Conflict will reduce automatically.

from:  Sourab Ranjan
Posted on: Apr 16, 2013 at 07:58 IST

strategic thinker's like MOD (ministry of defense) need's to be amicable
in what we call listening the view's of armed forces,not always look in
opposing manner to better functioning of country as a whole. as rightly
pointed out by writer of the article.

from:  krishan kumar
Posted on: Apr 16, 2013 at 06:53 IST

We first need to put our house in order.

Massive ports, railways, power stations, fantastic cities.

We need to develop our human capital-Everyone with army training,
educated and capable.

Then we will win anyway and develop our own strategy.

Shri Kuthuru

from:  mahesh kuthuru
Posted on: Apr 16, 2013 at 06:24 IST

Brilliant article. The sad part is that the 'Babus' in MoD still call the shots and the defence chiefs are trying to protect their turf and budgetary allocations instead of giving one stream of input in the defence of the country.

from:  mani sandilya
Posted on: Apr 16, 2013 at 05:24 IST
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