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April 14, 2011

Rising to the occasion

At a seminar in New Delhi last December, an influential Indian strategic commentator issued a clarion call to his assembled peers. While collectively lamenting the lack of strategic thinking by India’s political elites, he noted that Indian experts had not adequately appreciated the fact that successive prime ministers had made bold strategic decisions—from outreach efforts to Pakistan by the Vajpayee government to improved relations with the United States by the Manmohan Singh government that ensured an end to India’s nuclear isolation. In all these cases, the strategic community’s assessments had been pessimistic, with nay-saying often passing for informed analysis. Most of those present at the seminar could be seen nodding their heads in grudging agreement.

Although caricatures about India’s lack of a strategic community, a strategic culture or even any real strategic thought still predominate, the validity of such stereotypes is questionable today. For the first time in its history, India has a sizable, dynamic, and reasonably well-informed strategic community. It is home to more think tanks (292 by one recent count) than any country other than the United States and China. The seminar circuit, particularly in Delhi, boasts a full schedule. And one need only scan the opinion pages of India’s many English-language newspapers to sense the vibrancy of political and policy debate in the country. However, while at some levels the structure and capacity seems to be in place for India’s strategic community to rise to the occasion presented by India’s growing standing in the world, much still has to be done for it to realise its full potential.

The first challenge for the strategic community is the absence of a common vocabulary. As Ludwig Wittgenstein famously concluded, “The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.” Without widely-accepted terminology, how can India’s strategic community expect to articulate itself, foster debate, and make its presence felt? A second challenge is to shift from the personalisation to the institutionalisation of policy formulation and implementation. Far too much today hinges on the individual opinions, biases and influence of a handful of officeholders and opinion-shapers. Third, although institutions are sometimes in place, they still have to be adequately resourced and empowered. Despite the proliferation of Indian think tanks, most of them are still under-resourced.

Fourth, the focus of India’s strategic community is unevenly distributed. Leading strategic experts have spent considerable time on matters of nuclear strategy and non-proliferation, as well as bilateral relations with the United States and Pakistan. More recently, expertise on Afghanistan has developed, and there are glimpses of a new wave of Sinologists. But generalism—rather than regionalism—predominates, and while India’s generalists are on par with the best in the world, its regional expertise in most areas is still wanting. Important avenues for topical or functional scholarship are also under-explored, whether defence economics, law enforcement or intelligence reform, international institutions or bureaucratic politics. Fifth, quality control remains a challenge. At present, assertions go unverified, form lags far behind substance, and research is too often descriptive rather than analytical or argumentative. Threats and challenges are not always overtly and accurately defined, and as such accurate policy prescriptions remain elusive. Vital social science research practices are not always heeded.

Finally, the strategic community often acts without the necessary involvement of the political classes—and for this, the blame must be shouldered by both groups. Other than a few notable exceptions, India’s politicians, including the next generation of party leaders, betray little interest and sometimes even active disdain, for matters of strategic importance. Consequently, political opportunism usually wins the day. Both major political parties have recently been guilty of this. In June 2004, External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh floated the possibility of India’s sending troops to Iraq, a move that his party had made a “principled stand” against only one year previously, to use the words of then-spokesperson Jaipal Reddy. Similarly, the BJP, which worked hard to secure a civilian nuclear agreement with the United States during its tenure in office, proceeded to lead the opposition against such a deal once it had been voted out of power.

Image: Shreyans Bhansali

Solutions to these challenges may be found organically and accidentally, rather than deliberately, but retaining a consciousness of the task ahead for India’s strategic community is critical: It must chart its own future if it is to chart its country’s. For example, as more students strive to become foreign policy and security scholars and practitioners, there is a dire need for authoritative and comprehensive Indian text books. Most book-length studies on international relations and national security in India tend to be some combination of subjective, narrow in scope, technical, ahistorical and time-sensitive. International experience is also badly needed, and in the absence of university exchange programs, the establishment of an institution modeled loosely on the Peace Corps in the United States would be critical for ensuring that future generations develop the necessary international linguistic and cultural expertise.

By virtue of their numbers and their readership, India’s newspapers play a central role as a forum for debate, one that is not entirely analogous to print media sources in most other countries. Although fact-checking for daily publications may not always be possible, a system of informal and anonymous peer review and criticism may be in the best interests of both the publications themselves and the larger strategic community. In the long run, other venues—online journals and academic presses—should parallel newspapers and blogs as venues for intellectual debate and discussion. However, in the short term, newspapers could do themselves a service by exercising such forms of quality control. Lastly, the political parties could establish their own think tanks, which can serve as training grounds and sources of education in niche policy issues for future leaders. By effectively detailing younger leaders to the strategic community, the parties can ensure that they are better informed about critical strategic issues. They also may be able to test their own policy proposals in the marketplace of ideas.

Funding, of course, remains the critical variable, and in the absence of government resources, the Indian strategic community will have to rely upon the growing private sector for support. This in turn will require educating corporate leaders on the importance of international relations and national security for their own business practices, a final area in which the Indian strategic community has fallen short. India’s future economic growth prospects cannot be seriously contemplated in the absence of Indian strategy—and it is all the more reason for India’s strategic community to deliver.

Image: Shreyans Bhansali


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