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FEATURE ARTICLE: India’s ‘strategy’ as an emerging power September 2, 2010

Posted by southasiamasala in : Features, Gordon, Sandy, India, Pakistan , trackback

Sandy Gordon

This paper is a short version of a paper submitted for publication.  It is not to be quoted or cited without the author’s permission.


As India rises to power, some critical questions need to be answered both by analysts of that rise and those in the Indian government determining the strategies to be adopted. The most fundamental of these questions relate to the relationship between India as a rising power, its neighbourhood (South Asia), its region (Asia) and the world. How do these different levels of security inter-relate in the context of a rising power? To what extent does a great power aspirant such as India need to ensure competitors cannot garner undue influence in its South Asian neighbourhood? What strategies might India adopt to deal with the enmeshed nature of dissonance between its domestic and neighbourhood arenas?

A measure of power that includes analysis at different levels of the global structure is somewhat different from, but not inimical to, more traditional measures. These tend to assess power in relation to population and economic strength, while often ignoring the geopolitical and regional circumstances within which a rising power is required to operate. For example, power transition theorists, and for that matter their critics, often tend to look at issues in this way. (Gideon Rose, ‘Neoclassical Realism and Theories of Foreign Policy’, World Politics, Vol. 51, No. 1, October 1998, pp. 144-72, p 146).

A number of analysts – especially of South Asia –  have, however, become interested in emerging powers in relation at least to the regional and global levels, if not the domestic, neighbourhood, regional and global levels we canvass here. This view of power acquisition from the point of view of a power’s region or neighbourhood ipso facto brings the domestic perspective on power acquisition into sharper focus, since the domestic-neighbourhood linkages are inevitably close – a phenomenon strongly evident in South Asia. It thus differs from the perspective of ‘offensive realists’, who claim that factors relating to the international order are always dominant.

India falls well short of a power that can function with ease within its South Asian neighbourhood. Indeed, policy makers in New Delhi are caught in a tightly woven, negative inter-relationship between dissonances within India and dissonances in South Asia. And events in South Asia are, in turn, heavily influenced by global developments. India appears powerless to sever these links.

Pakistan in particular is problematic for India. Pakistan has for years sponsored what India regards as terrorism in the Indian part of Kashmir. Pakistani terrorism groups such as Lashkar-e-Toiba (L-e-T) also seem to operate with impunity in other parts of India. Pakistan is partly covered in its activities directed against India by its relationship with China and partly by its nuclear weapons program, which was in the past actively supported by China (Joby Warrick and Peter Slevin, ‘Libyan Arms Designs Traced Back to China’, Washington Post, 15 February 2004). Pakistan also derives sustenance in its relationship with the US, which views it as a ‘front line’ state in its struggle with global, violent jihad.

China is also actively involved (although not in the ‘strategic’ sense) with most of India’s other neighbours, including Nepal, Burma, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. India is deeply frustrated by these Chinese activities, feeling ‘surrounded’, but is powerless to do anything about it. Thus India’s power vis à vis its neighbours is also closely linked to, and circumscribed by, its power vis à vis China.

This ability of Pakistan to play as it does in the international sphere, along with its nuclear ‘umbrella’, significantly diminishes India’s capacity to react to domestic factors such as home-grown terrorism, supported from across the border by Pakistan. An example is the restrained Indian response to the terrorist attacks on Mumbai of 26-29 November 2008 (called ‘26/11’ in India), sponsored directly from Pakistani soil. This restraint was evident despite development of Indian doctrine relating to ‘Operation Cold Start’ – the idea of a surgical strike.

The lesson here is that even though domestic and neighbourhood problems may be intimately connected (as in the case of terrorism in India), and even though both domestic and international factors are in play in decision making, it may not be possible for a country to shape the neighbourhood issues that play upon its domestic concerns if it is not powerful enough within the broader international system to do so. As a country becomes more powerful, however, it will as a matter of course rise to power vis à vis both its neighbours and those external powers which seek to support them. But India has not yet reached that stage and will meanwhile need to find other ways to mitigate its situation.

Domestic-neighbourhood linkages and their implications

Independent South Asia inherited a difficult set of borders that were drawn up with scant regard to ethnic, religious or economic factors. Today many borders consequently remain porous and contested and separatist movements are manifest throughout the region. Added to these problems, decolonisation caused severe economic discontinuities that continue to trouble the region to this day.

Since the end of the colonial period, the South Asian sub-region has also been closely and often negatively linked to global pressures. During the Cold War it became a major focus of superpower competition. With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, this competition intensified. After 9/11, the region again suffered, becoming the proving ground for the ideological-religious struggle between the West and militant Islam.

Partly because of these negative influences, South Asia has failed to reflect the successes of East and South East Asia either in terms of alleviating poverty or building a sense of cooperative community with a capacity to mitigate the dissonances of the region. Although other factors are also in play, the antagonism between India and Pakistan has vitiated any capacity that the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC – founded 1985) may have had to provide a cooperative framework.

In part as a consequence, South Asia remains one of the poorest and most troubled regions of the globe. The 2010 United Nations Millennium Development Goals Report notes that the proportion of undernourished people in South Asia is again growing and is now on a par with that of 1990. Pakistan is especially at risk. Struggling with violent jihadi terrorism, it has a population of 170 million that is projected to grow by 85 million over the next 20 years. It suffers from chronic environmental problems, poor literacy rates and a stagnated demographic transformation. In its latest report on failed states, The Fund for Peace ranks Pakistan as eleventh last in terms of fragility and failing states in the world.

In addition to these negative colonial legacies, a host of governance and environmental problems contribute to poverty and cross-border instability throughout the region. A few examples of the many available will have to suffice. Although the Asian Development Bank cites poor governance of ground water as the fundamental cause, farmers in Pakistani Punjab widely attribute their problems to the fact that the upper riparian power, India, is taking more than its fair share of water (ADB: see report of the study as a power point, as cross-linked above, penultimate slide) ; Andrew Bunscombe and Omar Wariach, ‘India is stealing the water of life, says Pakistan’, The Independent, 26 March 2009). In addition, environmentally and economically induced migration from Bangladesh to India upsets the ethnic and religious balance in India, contributes to political and separatist dissonance in the Indian North East and damages India-Bangladesh relations.

In today’s globalised setting, the ‘24/7’ reporting enabled by light video cameras and other technologies provides a crucial transfer mechanism for trouble and tension. (But equally, it also provides a mechanism for greater transparency). The riots in Gujarat in 2002, in which up to 1000 people, mostly Muslim, were reportedly killed, have since had a wider impact on Muslim sensibilities through these mechanisms and were a significant factor in recruitment and revenge attacks by jihadi terrorist groups in the following years.

This range of negativities within the region has resulted in a situation in which dissonance in one country is often perceived in term of the ‘other’ across the border.  For example, relations within India between Hindus and Muslims are often portrayed as manifestations of Pakistani ‘interference’. Mrs Gandhi was fond of referring to the ‘foreign hand’ as metaphor for machinations by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Division (ISI) and the CIA. Similarly, Pakistan today blames its troubles in Balochistan and elsewhere on Indian ‘interference’. While such accusations can in some instances have a measure of truth (which makes them all the more plausible), in part also the tensions they relate to arise from pre-existing sets of difficulties that are locally generated and that cannot wholly be attributed to the neighbour.

As well as factors emanating from within South Asia, two major geo-strategic shifts are now affecting the sub-region. The idea of global, violent, jihad, aligned as it is with a growing tendency towards an erosion of syncretic versions of Islam within South Asia, has provided a religious-ideological basis for groups to link up across borders, such as the conspicuous linkage between the Student’s Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) in India and L-e-T in Pakistan.

A second, geo-strategic shift affecting South Asia has been the rise of China. China’s presence has given a ‘Kautiliyan’ option to the smaller nations surrounding the regional ‘giant’, India. A cashed-up China is also able to meet their development needs in ways that India has not yet found the means or methods to match. Added to this, a US that is experiencing growing concern about the rise of China in Asia is increasingly viewing its relationship with India as a possible long-term hedge against China’s rise.

The fact that so many internal and external factors troubling India are tightly enmeshed greatly complicates New Delhi’s efforts to alleviate both areas of dissonance. For example, it cannot solve pressing domestic issues such as terrorism without solving the ‘problem’ of Pakistani interference and support; and it is difficult to solve the ‘problem’ of Pakistan while the latter is so closely enmeshed with wider global concerns like Beijing’s ‘strategic’ relationship and the role of Pakistan in the global ‘war on terrorism’.

Indian ‘strategies’

Given the closely interwoven sets of domestic and neighbourhood problems explored above, two approaches would seem to suggest themselves as a ‘minimum’ of a viable ‘strategy’ – recognising that ‘strategy’ may be either implicit or explicit – for India’s rise to power. India would firstly need to consolidate its domestic polity in terms of resolute government action to assert democracy and internal security and thus make itself less vulnerable to external interference; and it would need to find a way at least to ‘neutralise’ the South Asia region as a security factor.

Given the fluidities of a large, heterogeneous and democratic state such as India and the fact ‘strategies’ may be implicit rather than explicit, we require a proxy with which to test the policies of the Indian state. How the state chooses to dispose of its available financial resources would appear to provide such a proxy, if a somewhat crude one.

One indicator of the desire to acquire force projection over time is the percentage of available money that is spent on conventional defence, as opposed to other heads such as internal security, development, education, health and welfare. It is in the budget context that real priorities must be thrashed out by the respective interests within the government. (But we would also note the substantial role of the Army in maintaining internal and border security, which effectively means that the figures quoted below are only partly indicative of the emphasis on internal security over force projection).

In these terms, Indian defence spending has been remarkably constant across the tenure of several governments over the last 17 years, ranging between lows of 12.9 per cent of total spending in 2007-08 and 2008-09 and a high of 15.9 per cent in 2005-06 (Calculated from Government of India, Budget Papers, Annexures, ‘Trends in Expenditure’). By way of comparison, expenditure on defence as a percentage of US central government total expenditure is typically in the region of 23 per cent.

Another interesting development within the overall category of security spending is the progressive increase in internal and border security costs in relation to traditional military spending. Since 9/11, the percentage share of homeland security (not including the Coast Guard, state police or Army) in relation to defence spending has risen from 11.76 per cent in 2000-01 to 18.5 per cent in 2009-10 (Indian Budget and Economic Survey). Union Government spending on its own as opposed to state police forces also rose by 126 per cent in nominal terms over the same period (Ministry of Home Affairs, Annual Report, 2008-09) and concentration on close-in coastal defence also rose dramatically following 26/11.

New Delhi’s increasing re-allocation of its over-all security spending towards internal and border security and ‘continental’ defence against near neighbours like Pakistan tends to detract from military modernization and development of force projection capability. The share of defence spending on the ‘blue water navy’ – the classic tool of force projection – has remained in percentage terms fairly constant over the last few decades, shifting only from 13 per cent of the defence budget in 1994 to 14.5 per cent today. This percentage share is low for a power seeking a force projection capability: it compares with a percentage share for the US Navy of 26 per cent.

India is also intent on facing internal challenges of poverty and development in preference to ardent power seeking behaviour. This has been particularly pronounced under the UPA government, in office since 2004. The UPA has issued a number of documents attempting to chronicle its successes. Although some of this work consists of hagiography, it may tell us something of value. For example, in its document, Report to the People 2004-2008, the government emphasised the ‘growth with balance’ mantra. Plan expenditure on health is claimed to have more than doubled in nominal terms between 2003-04 and 2008-08; and Plan expenditure on education has increased nearly five times over the same period. Heavy emphasis is placed on uplifting minorities, with special sections on Muslims, the North East and Kashmir. The Eleventh Five Year plan document also emphasises “inclusive growth”.

The UPA program has involved two substantial, flagship social uplift programs – one a food for work program under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA – now with the prefix Mahatma Gandhi NREGA) and the other a rural dept forgiveness program. By 2009-10, MGNREGA had evolved into a massive, demand-driven scheme costing about US$8.4 bn. Although plagued by corruption and incompetence, the scheme has been closely audited and is slowly growing in transparency and effectiveness. Parliamentary reservations for women, the passage of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act and a number of other measures introduced by the UPA also signal an interest in diffusion of internal tensions through social and economic reform.

Following the security débâcle represented by the attacks on Mumbai of 26/11, India also entered into a comprehensive reform of its governance and internal security apparatus under the vigorous Home Minister, P. Chidambaram. This process is far-reaching in terms of expenditure and initiatives but still incomplete in two important respects: reform of the ramshackled, state-controlled police; and reform of governance mechanisms (Gordon, India’s Unfinished Security Revolution).

Governance remains parlous and adds a substantial risk to strategies of the central government to ‘spend its way’ towards a more equal and stable society. As the Ministry of Home Affairs noted in its 2008-09 Annual Report: “Naxalites [Maoist insurgents] operate in the vacuum created by functioning inadequacies of field level governance structures …”

Moreover, sub-regional security problems, such as in Kashmir and the North East, mean there has been an uneven spread of benefits and human rights and democracy. In the North East and Kashmir, populations are under the sway of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). There are also problems with the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), even though it is an improvement on the Act it replaced (POTA) (Amnesty International Public Statement 3 March 2008, AI Index ASA 20/003/2008). In addition, there is evidence of use of torture by police and ‘encounter’ killings throughout India (Gordon, op cit, pp16-29).

Although India’s democracy is flawed in some respects, the domestic components of a ‘grand strategy’ are discernible in the activities of the UPA. Such a strategy, while not necessarily consciously pursued or explicit, involves internal security and governance consolidation and reform, along with measures designed to include all elements of Indian society in the development process, while deferring allocation of significantly greater shares of available resources on power acquisition. This kind of approach of deferring power acquisition in favour of development broadly mirrors the strategy initially followed by that other mega-population power carrying a significant burden of poverty – China.

But in India’s case, there is a second broad area of risk that needs to be addressed. India’s strategies in South Asia are not being pursued with the same determination and vigour as the domestic strategies.

Some assert that India is doing all it can in respect of SAARC and South Asia and that time will be needed “for liberal-rationalism in other [non-Indian South Asian] states to find favour.” (Ali Ahmed, ‘South Asia at the CrossRoads’, South Asian Survey, Vol. 16, No. 2, 2009, pp. 335-345, p. 345). An example of resistance to India’s good intentions is trade flows between India and Pakistan, which remain low despite the fact that under the South Asia Free Trade Area (SAFTA) arrangements introduced in 2006, tariffs between the two are nominally low. Although India has granted MFN status to Pakistan, this has not been reciprocated, and meanwhile, Islamabad has signed a FTA with China.

Others argue that despite these manifest difficulties, India as the bigger power should act towards its neighbours and SAARC with “strategic altruism”. (Peter Jones, ‘South Asia: Is a Regional Security Community Possible?’, South Asian Survey, Vol. 15, No. 2, 2008, pp. 183-193, p 191). One area in which ‘strategic altruism’ could operate is the aid program.

It appears on first glance that India’s aid contribution to South Asia is relatively handsome given its own high levels of poverty. Of the total aid program of 1704 core (US $ 360 million) for 2007-08, 94.6 per cent was earmarked for South Asia. Two countries that could be considered ‘special’, however, make up the lion’s share of this amount. Aid to Afghanistan was Rs 434 core and to Bhutan was Rs 731 crore. A case can be made to discount most of these amounts: Afghanistan is a venue for India’s strategic struggle with Pakistan, and Bhutan is a tiny, landlocked, strategically important mountain kingdom (population 687,000) that exists on heavy subsidies from India. If these amounts were subtracted, then the remaining sum is quite modest – Rs 539.03 crore (US$114 million) (MEA Annual Report 2007-08). To put the aid program further in context, India’s total aid program of US$360 million compares poorly with China’s aid program, which the World Bank estimated at up to US$2 billion in 2007. Even accounting for the fact that China’s economy is over thrice the size of India’s, the proportion spent by India is not nearly as great, and deducting the ‘special’ expenditure in Afghanistan and Bhutan, the expenditure elsewhere in South Asia is minimal. It would seem from these data that there is considerable scope for additional Indian aid to South Asia.

Another feature of India’s South Asia aid program, however, is that Pakistan does not feature in it at all, except for the contribution to the recent floods. Probably this is a result of mutual choice. But even were Indian assistance to Pakistan feasible in non-sensitive areas, it is doubtful such assistance would do a great deal to untangle the knot of suspicion between the two. For India and Pakistan, a political breakthrough has to precede an economic breakthrough.

India’s problems with Pakistan should not, however, be taken as an excuse not to be more actively engaged elsewhere in South Asia. Strategically, India could adopt the tactic of ‘going around the edges’ of Pakistan in South Asia, in order to produce an area of prosperity in which Pakistan would have no option but eventually to participate.


The UPA government has a broad approach to India’s emergence as a regional and global power but has never articulated it in terms of a strategy. In essence, it is to delay some of the instruments of power projection while India achieves economic development and growth with balance, in an effort to uplift all the Indian people. The focus of this policy is on the welfare of the people and consequent benefits of political consolidation, while not unduly constraining the reforms and growth needed to pay for them. Prominent risks to the strategy include the interlocking problems of security and governance. India has made some significant advances on these fronts in recent years but has much more to do. Another risk relates to the stalled program to be more actively and positively engaged in South Asia, so all can ‘rise on the same tide’ along with India. Although India has articulated the desire to be more comprehensively engaged with its South Asian neighbours, it has not yet found a way to ‘go round the edges’ of Pakistan in order to do so. This component of the ‘strategy’ will be very difficult but deserves a great deal more attention.


1. Md Golam Faruque - September 3, 2010

I must appriciate Mr Sandy Gordon being so straight forward in pointing out India’s predicaments it its pusuit of power. I cannot but agree with every aspects of the article. Certainly India needs to look inward first. It must be able to see the fault-lines in its demography; socio-political setting; exclusiveness of state policies both on domestic and regional stage; economic realities; so and so forth before it attempts to realize its ‘wishfull dream’ of becoming regional and global power. Can India rationalize its aspirations to be a regional power with its current relations with and attitude towards all its neighbour? I cent percent agree with Mr Gordon’s conclusion that India has a long way to go. The sooner the Indians understand this point the shorter would be their journey along that way. Thanks

2. RajeshA - September 2, 2011

Mr. Sandy Gordon is proposing a strategy for India to raise the whole neighborhood on an economic tide. He even considers it useful to help Pakistan economically.

This is standard thinking of how problems are solved. India’s problems have been that foreign powers have tried to contain India by increasing the entropy and insecurity in India itself. Pakistan does that. India does that.

The solution is to do the same to others as others are doing to India. Pakistan is on the way of collapse. Once Pakistan’s ability to foment trouble in India decreases, one would see that a lot of developmental energy would be released in India, allowing India to consolidate its strength both domestically and in the neighborhood.

India has to concentrate on breaking Pakistan first, and not helping it. It is simply logical.

3. pratyush - September 3, 2011

I would agree with the author of the article that India has a long way to go. Not because of the issues concerning near abroad nations. But more due to domestic disagreements and weakness. The state power will remained focused on domestic affairs till their resolution.

The state is likely to abdicate the responsibility of cultivating relationships with foreign societies & economies to Pvt. sector enterprise. With very little overt involvement with the efforts of the pvt enterprises. The area where the state will support the pvt enterprise wild be restricted to providing security guarantees when & where needed by the pvt enterprise.

It is in this way India is likely to proceed in the future.