A Shift in India’s Grand Strategy on Security?

A Shift in India’s Grand Strategy on Security?

by Aayush Mohanty and Avni Sharma

Twelve days after India launched surgical strikes on suspected terror launch pads across the border with Pakistan in September, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated that India will show zero tolerance towards those who “support and provide sanctuary to terrorists.” While delivering a bold message to its neighbor, Modi emphasized that India’s foreign policy is a balance between war and peace, and that it references the peaceful teachings of Buddha as well as the strategic advice of the Arthashastra, an ancient Indian text about war and diplomacy. The recent strikes into Pakistani territory, however, signal a change in Indian foreign policy from non-intervention in the region to a more aggressive and confrontational stance that could prove dangerous to the Indian government.

When the Pentagon asked the RAND corporation to review the Indian security strategy in 1992 it concluded that India did not have a cohesive strategy because its foreign policy since 1947 was loosely based around the teachings of Buddha and Gandhi. Later in 2006, the United States government ordered another review of India’s strategic culture, which ultimately outlined both the Buddhist and Gandhian moral foundation of Indian foreign policy and the guiding political framework of the Arthashastra.

According to Kautilya’s Arthashastra, a country’s capabilities, relations with its neighbors, and timing all influence policy decisions about going to war. The decision to go to war must be a careful calculation; “having ascertained power, place, time, profit and danger of loss of men and material, march with full force; otherwise [the King] should keep quiet”. This is the calculation that India makes before it engages in risky retaliation— unless the situation is clearly advantageous to India, it will favor the status quo.

Although India has a nuclear arsenal along with one of the largest armed forces in the world, it restrains itself because irresponsible action could lead to sanctions and loss of face in the international community. Pakistan has ostensibly been the launch pad for recent terrorist attacks in Pathankot and Uri, and has undermined the peace process in Kashmir by violating ceasefire agreements. These actions are a result of Pakistan’s belief that India will just talk, warn, and threaten action but do nothing.

India’s strategic weakness lays not in its inaction but the miscalculations made in the past by the previous administrations. India’s foreign policy elites have lacked the will to drive hard bargains when the country has the upper hand. One example is the Simla agreement in 1972, when India won a decisive victory and only pressed for the return of 90,000 captured Pakistani soldiers and a fast tracking of the Kashmir process. The Prime Minister of Pakistan at the time Zulfikar Ali Bhutto assured then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that Islamabad would work towards recognizing the Line of Control between India and Pakistan. This never materialized and Pakistan later started a nuclear program in response to India’s nuclear test in 1974.  It has been 45 years and Kashmir is still burning with both countries equally responsible for the situation today. One could even say that the Indian delegation at the time suffered from the “Versailles syndrome”- never treat an enemy as harshly as the allies did with Germany.

The assassination of Osama Bin Laden by U.S. Special Forces in Abbotabad, Pakistan led citizens to wonder why India could not act similarly with the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks in 2008. Since India’s military equipment is on par with Pakistan's, it makes an operation like the one in Abbotabad improbable to succeed. As suggested in the Arthashastra, to undertake a mission with such a low likelihood of success would be inadvisable. Following this advice, the Indian government would again maintain a policy of restraint.

While India has conducted surgical strikes across the Line of Control in Pakistan in the past, this is the first time the government, army, and media have publicized the incident so much that Pakistan has threatened nuclear war. This step away from the Arthashastra’s principles of strategic restraint is dangerous for the Modi government. In this era of nuclear weapons, India cannot be sure of victory and should therefore be less public with their operations.

Any untoward decision by India could lead to criticism from the international community. Modi’s doctrine of retaliation, although appreciated by the public, is an uncharted path. This path is not simply retaliatory surgical strikes but the overt politicization of the strikes. This decision leads to questions about the operational capabilities of the armed forces. If the operations of the armed forces are manipulated by political parties and news media seeking sensationalist talking points and headlines, there is a risk that the military could become a political tool instead of the defence force it has traditionally been.

While many Indians are tired of this politically correct attitude with countries that are hostile towards its boundaries and interests, they should remember Kautilya’s prognosis that “friendship should be amongst equals” and Buddhism teaches that everyone is equal. Modi’s security strategy can be aggressive but it should be covert and wary of politicization. To politicize attacks like these would go against the principles of the Arthashastra, which has proven to be a helpful resource in the guiding of Indian foreign policy until now, and could potentially further destabilize relations with India’s neighbors.

Image "IAF Jaguars at the Republic Day Parade, New Delhi" Courtesy Antônio Milena/CC BY-SA 2.0 (Wikimedia commons)


About the Authors


Aayush Mohanty is a post graduate student at the Nelson Mandela Centre for Conflict Analysis and Peace building at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, India.

Avni Sharma is a former WHO youth leader and health advocate from India, currently pursuing law at Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, Delhi, India. 

An Interview with Ambassador Björn Lyrvall

An Interview with Ambassador Björn Lyrvall

In Transition: Sustaining American Leadership and the Global Commons

In Transition: Sustaining American Leadership and the Global Commons