You are here: Home » Beyond Business » Books
Business Standard

Crouching dragon, kneeling tiger

The author's provocative prescription for an ambitious foreign policy could be disruptive for conservative New Delhi elites

Ajai Shukla 


Author: Bharat Karnad
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi

Pages: 552
Price: Rs 875

Followers of this country's strategic and security policy know well that to read is to imbibe the most hawkish Indian world view and perspectives outside the Over the years, Karnad has steadfastly advocated staring down China (India's real rival, he asserts), ignoring Pakistan (irrelevant to a major power like India), developing, testing and deploying thermonuclear weapons (the final arbiter of power), establishing military bases abroad in areas like Central Asia (to outflank China and Pakistan) and a muscular, outgoing (a la Israel) that tells any antagonist that she messes with India at her own peril.

A few lines from the first page of Karnad's latest book sum up what he throws at you for the next 551 pages: "The United States did not become a globe-girdling country by staying behind the moats of the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans nor Britain 'Great' by restricting itself to the Dover Strait; Czarist Russia obtained strategic weight by extending its reach to the Pacific; Prussia was a truculent Central European kingdom until Bismarck used the Prussian Army to unify the Germanic states and elbow Austria and France out of their pivotal position in continental Europe; and Japan would have remained a small group of islands in the Asian Far East but for the Meiji Restoration and the vigorous policies it sparked. Great power-wise, the twenty-first century is no different than the previous ages in that a combination of widely defined interests; an outgoing, agile, and proactive backed by economic might and military prowess; and the ability and, especially, the will to power and the determination to use it still matters."

Those who dismiss Karnad as a right-wing crackpot are usually guilty of focusing mistakenly only on his more outrageous suggestions (more on that later). In fact, Karnad brings to his work a wide-ranging reading of history -though some would contest his interpretation of it - a compelling and often elegant writing style, and an unapologetic drive to conclusions that do not seek shelter behind caveats. Karnad's expertise straddles the fields of strategy, diplomacy, nuclear weaponry and doctrine, and, importantly, defence planning and warfighting. This raises him above the bevy of former diplomats and intelligence officials who lord it over India's think tank community without any clear idea of the grey realm where diplomacy shades into military coercion. This perspective imbues Karnad's writing with a certitude that comes out in sentences like: "The problem in a nutshell is that the Indian government, military and the policy circles are habituated to aiming low and hitting lower."

Among thinkers who relish the notion of a non-aggressive, soft-treading India - and there are many such, especially in the US and in India - Karnad's book will spark a fresh round of tut-tuting. His plans for boosting India's power include abandoning nuclear "no-first use" and resuming nuclear testing; placing "atomic demolition munitions" (miniature nukes) at Himalayan passes on the Sino-Indian border to block Chinese invading forces; basing nuclear missile submarines in Australia, from where Chinese targets are conveniently at hand; and arming Tibetan and Vietnamese guerrillas to fight China. India's grand strategy must be to "meet China's challenge, rather than … fight yesterday's wars with a lesser foe (Pakistan)"; and to implement an "Asian Monroe Doctrine", in which India becomes the sole security custodian of the Indian Ocean and other regional waters.

This is disruptive stuff, especially for conservative New Delhi policy elites, whose strategy has traditionally accommodated international sentiments. Yet strategic thinkers should read Karnad's prescription carefully, knowing they bookend India's most provocative policy options. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi more inclined than his predecessors to assertiveness (though, so far at least, his policies are characterised more by continuity than transformative change), some of Karnad's scenarios may well come to pass. A key former policy maker, the previous national security advisor, Shivshankar Menon, noted during the book's release function in New Delhi that many of Karnad's prescriptions were already part of the Indian government's policy, excepting, of course, the most aggressive and eye-catching recommendations. For the author, of course, this is not nearly enough. He believes India's "ambition void" is ensuring that the country "is proving to be its own worst enemy".

After deploring India's namby-pamby strategy and diplomacy in his initial chapters, Karnad moves on to an equally hard-hitting critique of India's military planning, structuring and war-fighting plans. These later chapters - with titles like "Hard Power and the Deficit of Strategic Imagination" and "Military Infirmities and Strengths" - analyse in detail India's defence forces and the military-industrial complex that should be backing it with weapons and material. Karnad laments that India's navy, air force and, especially, army, "haven't implemented systemic changes to make them capable of obtaining decisive results fast…" Milder observers have been irritated by this comedy of errors; the irascible author, predictably, tears apart the subject with relish.

Amid this carnage, Karnad raises key issues. He dissects the viability of India's "theatre switching" strategy - or New Delhi's option to retaliate against Chinese land strikes into, say, the sensitive Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh (where Chinese invaders would enjoy important advantages), by imposing a naval blockade on Chinese ships in the Indian Ocean (where the initiative and advantage would lie with India). Though this is a comforting thought for New Delhi policy makers, the author questions the viability of such a strategy: asking whether the navy could react quickly enough, and "is the sinking of a few Chinese warships and the apprehension of several merchantmen the equal of, and enough recompense for, the loss of valuable territory to China for good?"

A strategically and militarily educated reader will both enjoy Karnad's book and be exasperated in equal measure by the certitude of his pronouncements. Even so, as one of the first studies of India's security dilemmas to include a keen study of the military apparatus and the industrial backbone that undergirds it, this book will find a place in every strategic scholar's library.

First Published: Sat, November 21 2015. 00:28 IST