Does India have a strategic culture? If strategic culture is defined narrowly in the context of the nuclear age alone, then India, as a recent entrant to the nuclear club and still in the process of acquiring minimum nuclear deterrence, evidently lacks one. If the meaning of strategic culture is broadened to include a country’s approach to national security in general, then the question can be debated.
The pre-requisites for the existence of a strategic culture in this sense are sovereignty over territory and decision making on national security issues over a long period of time. It means direct experience of defending frontiers, building national military strength, advancing economic and commercial interests abroad, understanding geo-political strengths and vulnerabilities and accordingly leveraging or neutralizing them through diplomacy.
Strategic culture has to be distinguished from state craft or strategic thought and decisions. All sovereign authorities are expected to deal with the outside world in a manner that serves the country’s interest best. They have to deal with longer term opportunities and challenges and take strategic decisions accordingly. Global developments have to be studied, projections about the future made and the rapport of forces assessed in the years to come. All this is part of governance, though individuals and institutions can and do contribute much to strategic thought in a country.
Thus, strategic culture would be a product of a country’s thinking and actions on security matters over a long period, to the point that it marks and reflects its personality and its reflexes while dealing with them. Strategic culture in this sense is part of a country’s deeply embedded tradition. Naturally, a country’s national culture contributes to its strategic culture.
Now, we were not in sovereign control over our territory and armed forces during the period of British rule. The British took decisions on India’s security driven by their strategic culture of empire building, protecting their colonial possessions and maintaining a balance of power. The threat of Czarist Russia and a territorial modus vivendi with China provided the rationale for their Afghan and Tibetan policies, for instance.
Before that the Muslim conquerors ruled large parts of India for centuries. Just as the Hindu princes showed little strategic sense in dealing with the Muslim invaders, the Afghans could not strategically ward off the Mughal threat.The Muslim rulers failed to properly assess the European sea-borne threat. The way the rulers of that period allowed an English trading company to steadily conquer large swathes of Indian territory speaks volumes about the lack of any strategic culture in the India of that period.
Independent India could imbibe virtually nothing in terms of strategic culture from centuries of Muslim rule, especially as Islam became the basis for India’s eventual division and its theology as practised by Pakistan presents an enduring threat to India’s security today.
Similarly, independent India could not inherit the British strategic culture as India no longer needed to be defended as a British possession. The Indian decision makers had to make their own assessments of India’s security needs, evaluate independently the source of short and long term threats and frame policies accordingly, but all this without any direct experience of handling India’s affairs for centuries. There was no fount of their own strategic culture from which they could drink.
But strategic decisions had to be taken and the inadequacies of our strategic thinking became apparent. We failed to properly evaluate Pakistan’s challenge as well as British machinations of the period and took the Kashmir issue to the UN. We did not evict Pakistan from the parts of Kashmir it had forcibly occupied, with the result that today Pakistan has a common border with China and we don’t have a common border with Afghanistan- a huge geo-political blunder on our part.
We misjudged the security threat to us from China’s military takeover of Tibet and recognized Tibet as part of China without making this conditional on a settlement of border differnces. We courted military defeat in 1962 at China’s hands because our assertive political positions were not backed by credible military strength.
If these early errors occurred because of inexperience, what would explain our unwillingness to recognize the depth of these threats even today and take appropriate steps to build our defences politically and physically? Pakistan uses the instrument of terrorism against us but we think that we can bring this to an end through dialogue. We let Kashmiri separatists meet Pakistani leaders in Delhi and Islamabad as if Pakistan, with its obsessive territorial claims over Kashmir, would give them wise counsel.
We let China dictate the management of our bilateral relations. China allows itself to question India’s territorial integrity, but we hesitate to respond to its provocations. We have procrastinated in building adequate defence capability in the north. We are concerned about Chinese activities in our neighbourhood and its entry into the Indian Ocean, but we say we have to accept the reality and the legitimacy of Chinese presence in our periphery and we favour maritime cooperation with it in the Indian Ocean.
We have been inordinately slow in developing our strategic programmes. Our failure to build an indigenous defence manufacturing base shows the fragility of our strategic thinking. We have reduced our defence expenditure to 1.7 % of GDP in the last budget.
If our strategy is to transform ourselves internally in a peaceful environment- the same as China’s- then the domestic management of our polity and our economic decisions have to show that sense of purpose. On the contrary, we are becoming more fractious internally, with strategic consequences.
That we produced Chanakya almost 2400 years ago is not sufficient ground to claim that today’s India possesses a strategic culture.