Firefighting and fireproofing as national responses to crises are concepts that merit serious study in the emerging global geopolitical, geo-economic and security landscapes. Firefighting attaches itself to reactive responses to crises that arise from a lack of preparedness, lack of capacity, lack of national will and cohesion between different instruments of statecraft.
These are among several other factors that could act singly, or coalesce together to dent national power significantly. Notwithstanding its measured success and steady growth in several areas, India is no stranger to firefighting in domains as diverse as fixing societal fault lines, plugging economic fissures and scrambling to recover from national security setbacks. In some cases, governments in power have ridden on the resilience of the Indian people to mitigate the adverse effects of the crisis. In others, good leadership, albeit reactive in nature, has often stopped the spread of the fire and initiated measures that have helped in ensuring better preparedness for future contingencies.
Specific issues and strategies
It is now time to reflect on whether a transforming India with visions of a five trillion dollar and a 10 trillion-dollar economy in the decades ahead, needs to reflect hard on developing fireproofing strategies to insulate itself sufficiently from the plethora of crises raging across the world, all of which have the potential to slow down or even derail India’s rise in the decade ahead. While globalisation essentially led to widespread economic prosperity, it also forced countries to peel off some of the inbuilt insulation that existed within the international economic order and created several vulnerabilities.
While extremism, hyper-nationalism, the unequal distribution of wealth, migration and the adverse impacts of climate change are fissures that have impacted the whole world and need to be addressed globally, there are specific ones that individual nations need to develop strategies to counter. If ‘stormy seas’, repeated references to security challenges and Black Swan/Grey Rhino events and winning local wars dominated Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s discourse during the recently concluded 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, it is evident that there is a tacit acceptance within the second most powerful nation on the planet that difficult days are ahead.
Two races to handle
How does India go about navigating the next few years? Does it have the capacity to run two races simultaneously: the first one being the long distance one of achieving the status of a developed country by 2047, and the second one being the more daunting middle-distance run that has already begun in the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine crisis and growing Chinese power that seeks undiluted regional hegemony and power-parity with the United States at the global level? Fireproofing is one such strategy that India needs to consider across the Diplomacy, Information, Military and Economics (DIME) paradigm, with an added S that encompasses Society and creates a DIMES challenge for India to navigate.
While strategic autonomy in a multi-polar world may be an aspirational outcome, with balancing and hedging emerging as key Indian diplomatic strategies, the limits of Indian national power in the face of an exponential rise in China’s national power cannot be hard to perceive. Hard choices will have to be made on the recalibration of existing strategic partnerships and exploring alliances.
While there is optimism on the economic front that India is resilient enough to weather a global energy crisis or a financial depression, there is still considerable distress at the bottom of the pyramid. This is where the fireproofing of the economy in the medium term must concentrate on poverty alleviation on a war footing; universal education and health care; creation of jobs and raising the other parameters of the human development index. This is where India’s economic insulation lies.
From globalisation to heightened securitisation is where the world is headed. Deterrence has always been at the heart of India’s fireproofing against both internal and external threats since Independence. However, the flavour of deterrence has largely been reactive and rarely kept pace with the rapidly changing character of war and mechanisms of internal dissent. There have been attempts in recent times to migrate to a more proactive and even preventive strategy of deterrence, though a lack of capacity and doctrinal guidance will hamper this in complex situations. It is considered that credible coercive capabilities against external threats and better strategic communication to plug internal fissures and cracks should form the heart of fireproofing strategies in the security realm.
Notwithstanding the resilience of the Indian people, significant fireproofing is needed within Indian society and the information domain to stand firm in the face of multiple fissiparous vulnerabilities. Evolving societies are subject to periodic churn, and in India’s case this churn has coincided with several events on the global stage such as the weaponisation of the information domain and social media.
With its large and ethnically diverse population, multi-religious, multi-cultural and multi-lingual demographic profile, staying cohesive will present the biggest challenge to India’s leaders. And this demands sagacity and statesmanship of the highest order if India is to stay the course over the next decade.
Fireproofing will not be easy; it will demand greater discipline from the Indian people. However, this will be a small price for India to pay for staying on track in pursuit of its core national interests.
Arjun Subramaniam is a retired Air Vice Marshal and President’s Chair of Excellence at the National Defence College, New Delhi