India needs a national vision

Only then will there be coherence in multi-sectoral and multi-ministerial policymaking and execution

Updated - January 25, 2022 12:56 am IST

Published - January 25, 2022 12:15 am IST

“All the world knows, gentlemen, that we are building a new navy... Well, when we get our navy, what are we going to do with it,” asked Alfred T. Mahan, the great Naval strategist, in 1892 at the U.S. Naval War College. This is a question we can ask in India where piecemeal announcements are made in various sectors without a stated national vision. There is no overarching official document to guide policy and decision-making.

Lessons from China

What do other nations do? In 2015, China released a ‘Made in China 2025’ document that envisaged a 10-year plan for development of 10 key high-tech industries, the larger aim being to reduce dependence on foreign technology. The target is to be 70% self-sufficient by 2025 and to achieve a dominant position globally by 2049, the centenary of the People’s Republic of China. China’s 2019 defence white paper stated that by 2035, the armed forces would complete the “modernisation of national defence and the military” and by 2049, “fully transform the peoples armed forces into world-class forces.” The fifth plenum of the Chinese Communist Party re-emphasised China’s goal of becoming a modern socialist society by 2049.

Western nations, too, periodically release vision documents — defence reviews, security strategies et al. Shell-shocked by the advances made by the USSR in space exploration in the 1950s and early 1960s, U.S. President John F. Kennedy enunciated in May 1961 the American vision to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Scientists were given a 10-year time frame, were supported financially and they met the national goal. In August 2018, India announced its aim of sending astronauts into space by 2022. Where are we? India carried out only two space launches in 2021 (of which one failed) while China set a world record of 47.

India must learn from China. While unleashing his path-breaking economic reforms in the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping asked his countrymen to “hide your capability and bide your time.” With single-minded conviction and a national vision of regaining China’s lost glory, all policies and actions were focused towards first augmenting national power by accretion in economic capability. This central direction, and monitoring, is visible even now as Beijing goes about its Made in China 2025 plan, a long-term space exploration programme, and a military technology enhancement vision.

India seems to announce a programme first and then go overboard with it. And even as the Aatmanirbhar campaign hogs the headlines, it would only be nationalistic to ask whether everything needs to be 100% Indian. Is it even possible in this era of niche technologies being protected by nations, which makes international cooperation the way out? For sure, a number of projects are indeed being developed indigenously. For instance, advancements in the UAV and drone industry, in the private sector, are truly riveting; and radars and missiles are achievements of the Defence Research and Development Organisation. But while there are success stories, it is dangerous for the environment to be pushed into a make-believe world of faux grandeur and equally hazardous that a feeling of being powerful allowed to creep in. Being powerful is having the ability to create and sustain an outcome. This requires depth in a nation’s capacity to not only be self-sufficient in focal spheres necessary for daily subsistence but to buttress steps undertaken to project national power to safeguard national interests. We announced that India was the world’s vaccine capital, but when it came to delivery, New Delhi reneged on its promise to supply COVID-19 vaccines; our ‘power’ became suspect in the eyes of our friends.

Three-step process

If we continue in an unplanned manner, we are doomed to doing jugaad . The very fact that every emergency, without exception (Kargil, Mumbai 26/11, Doklam, Uri, Pulwama), has resulted in the despatch of high-powered teams to make emergency purchases of arms and ammunition shows that the lack of a national vision is costing us dearly; no wonder we get fleeced in such transactions. So, the need of the hour is to formulate an all-encompassing document to enable coherence in multi-sectoral and multi-ministerial policymaking and execution. Clarity will emerge only when the national vision document is drafted and put through a three-step process. First, adequate time should be given to experts to draft it. Second, the ‘vision’ should be put through an economic and technological analysis grinder to ensure that it is a realistic national dream. Third, the plan should be implemented by a body of experts that has the confidence of the leadership on both sides of the political aisle; a lack of political continuum would be a non-starter for achieving the grand national vision.

Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur is former Addl DG, Centre for Air Power Studies; views are personal

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