A time for strategic autonomy, building up national strength

Rather than seeking an outsize role abroad, India should do what is most important: make possible a safe, prosperous, and dignified life for every citizen

August 15, 2021 01:17 am | Updated 01:17 am IST

Larger picture: Jawaharlal Nehru had a grander, more expansive and more ambitious view of India’s role in Asia than other Indians who thought of these issues. Picture is of Pandit Nehru, President Nasser and Marshal Tito, founders of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Larger picture: Jawaharlal Nehru had a grander, more expansive and more ambitious view of India’s role in Asia than other Indians who thought of these issues. Picture is of Pandit Nehru, President Nasser and Marshal Tito, founders of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Spare a thought for Jawaharlal Nehru and the leaders of Independent India. Between September 1946, when Nehru took over the interim government of India, and 1950, when the country became a republic, many tasks awaited: to build a country by combining British India with 564 or so sovereign or semi-sovereign princely states; deal with the horrendous consequences of Partition, including the greatest mass migration in history until Bangladesh was created in 1971; begin changing the abject condition of the people of India; fight a war with Pakistan in Kashmir; and build new instruments of state such as the Indian Foreign Service and repurpose old ones like the Indian Army, the Intelligence Bureau, and the police. Even Indian Standard Time was only introduced on September 1, 1947. Before this, different provinces and princely states had their own times, and reading an Indian railway timetable was a complex skill.

Frontiers and boundaries needed to be established and administration extended to every corner of the new state of India. Those involved in the transition had to draft a Constitution for the new republic; suppress an armed communist revolution in Telangana; and deal with China’s occupation of Tibet — for the first time in history, China had become India’s neighbour.


Nehru faced all this simultaneously and without the experience of ever having run even a municipal government. That so much of what was done in those initial days has stood the test of time and has been carried on by the leaders’ successors, not all of whom shared their ideas and preferences, says a great deal about those men and women, their ideas, and their understanding of India. They managed to accomplish much despite disagreements among themselves, largely because of the leadership that Nehru provided.

Nehru had a grander, more expansive and more ambitious view of India’s role in Asia than other Indians who thought of these issues. Nehru sought nothing less than a radical and complete reworking or remaking of Asian and global geopolitics. Three overarching causes impelled him to do so. The first was the need to transform India. The second was the threat of nuclear annihilation after the atom bomb gave nations the power to destroy human civilisation. And the third was the need to free Asia and Africa from the colonial yoke. Nehru saw these as interlinked. Almost all his international initiatives through the early 1950s were intended to further these goals.

Grand goals

Was Nehru reasonable to seek such grand goals? For Nehru, that was a secondary question. He saw that power, military and economic, was not enough without legitimacy. He was also realist enough not to underestimate the difficulty of what he was trying to achieve. To those who thought he should concentrate on India’s internal development and not the world, he would answer that world peace was essential for India’s development. Besides, he believed strongly that India, with her civilisational legacy, was the natural thought leader of global processes despite her limitations of hard power. One must admire the boldness of Nehru’s world view. But Nehru’s ideas, prioritising legitimacy over power, also led him to ignore real threats and ultimately to failures, as in his dealings with China.

However, three of Nehru’s goals were actually achieved in large measure, although not by the means he envisaged or entirely by Indian agency. First, India’s and Asia’s economies today have been transformed beyond expectations, but not following Nehru’s chosen economic path. Second, a nuclear holocaust has been averted, thus far. Third, Asia and Africa have been decolonised. In little more than 15 years following India’s Independence, the regional international system was transformed from one dominated by empires to one populated by sovereign states. Decolonisation in the Indian Ocean region was a far more fundamental shift than even the end of the Cold War. Rather than just a shift in alliances or a change in power distribution, or the entrance and departure of new states, it changed beliefs about the legitimacy of empire and replaced empire with sovereign states. For the first time in centuries, the constituents of the regional Asian order were essentially identical in the Indian Ocean, maritime Asia, Europe, and the rest of the world.

Between eras

Any prognosis based on the present geopolitics of Asia can only be tentative. That is because we are between eras, when the old order no longer works and does not reflect the balance of power, but the new one is not yet fully formed. We live in a paradoxical world. There is little comfort here for those who wish the world to return to the trajectory it was on before. Nor is there much comfort for those who wish for a clear unipolar Asian order, one with a clear hegemon and the certainties that come with that, whether they are partisans of China or the United States. I believe that neither China nor Asia is ready yet for a China-centred order. China may have the will and desire but lacks the objective power, and the United States seems incapable of exercising the will, though it may have the power. Nor is a bipolar order the likely result in Asia. Instead, the facts of geography and history — the basis of geopolitics — will probably result in separate arrangements and fragmented orders in the subregions of Asia, in East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, the Levant, and West Asia. Each of these areas has local or regional powers that will determine political and military outcomes, rather than relying on great-power rivalry and cooperation.

For India, if there ever was a time for strategic autonomy, for building up national strength and hard power, and keeping a cool head, this is it. In confused times like this, it is essential to keep one’s enemies close and friends closer — keep the periphery pacified, stay out of blocs, and work with coalitions of powers wherever India’s interests coincide. This is not a time for drama, showy events, and the pursuit of status. India’s power and capabilities have yet to peak, and no other power shares its interests. Influence, like power, is a means to an end. For the conceivable future, the purpose of India’s external policies is to assist its transformation, creating an enabling environment for that task. That requires doing what successful powers did at similar stages of development — China in the 1980s and 1990s, the United States from 1880 until the end of the Second World War, Tudor and Stuart England — namely, not to overextend ourselves abroad and to build ourselves at home. India faces no existential external threat today. If there is a threat, it is internal. Letting others carry a costly or heavy burden is also a strategy. Rather than seeking a grand and outsize role abroad, India should do what is most important, that is, to make it possible for every Indian to live a safe, prosperous, and dignified life with the opportunity to realise his or her potential. That is the only goal worthy of a great country such as India.

National confidence

India’s future resides in the hands and heads of all of its citizens. How we as citizens perceive our situation and choose to build our narrative deeply affect our future. Free India inherited national confidence from the freedom movement, untouched by false pride, hubris or ego. We sought no apology or reparations from Great Britain for what that empire had done to us. Instead, we set out to build our own future in our own way. When Nehru chose non-alignment, it was with confidence that India was entering a new era and would grow into a modern, secular, prosperous, and safe country for all Indians. That confidence was bound in a national narrative that accepted history for what it was, without ridiculous claims, manufactured enemies, or exaggerated boasts. We need some of that confidence and objectivity now, combined with logic, reason and clarity, if we are to deal successfully with the world as it is, building a better India that is true to itself and its people.

Today, more than ever we need to strengthen our autonomy while working with all the major powers and cooperating harmoniously with our neighbours. Instead, some Indians are so worried by the uncertain world that they suggest India go cap in hand seeking security in alliance with others, chasing status, glory, and approbation instead of the welfare and security of the people. As a result, relations with our neighbours have seldom been as difficult as they are now. China and Pakistan have no compunction in acting together against Indian interests and sovereignty, and India is being reduced to a bit player on the international stage. We have lost five years. Our national confidence has been replaced by bravado and extravagant statements.

We need to get back to our roots, to the clear well springs of our will and our confidence. India is the country of Kautilya, Chandragupta Maurya, Charvaka, Kalidasa, Panini, Ashoka, Kanishka, Harsha, Akbar, Gandhiji, and Nehru. All of them threw open the windows of our home to the world. We should accept no less, no simulacrum of leadership, no prejudices masquerading as ideas. Some of us have lost the ambition to think big of ourselves, of India’s role in the world. Dread and hate replace reasoned thought, leading to destructive social conflict in and around India. We are offered two pictures of our national destiny. One vision is born of fear and polarisation and the other of national self-confidence and ambition. The former excludes many Indians and is based on a narrow, intolerant, and false sense of nationalism. The latter is a proudly patriotic, tolerant, modern, progressive, and secular vision of a confident nation that respects all its citizens. The former is inward-looking and diminishes India in the world. The latter is a confident India that stands for something with universal appeal. It is time we rejected the former and rededicated ourselves unambiguously to making the latter real.

Shivshankar Menon is a former National Security Adviser. This essay is derived from his latest book, India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present

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