The measurement of India’s National Power involves both tangible and intangible elements. How India perceives power and how it wields it in its strategic vicinity and beyond, is germane to understanding its foreign policy practice. Answers to some of the following questions might add clarity.
How does India’s economic and military power either expand or constrain its foreign policy choices? To what extent, could India partner with other countries to bridge its power deficit? What gives direction to the optimum utilization of resources, to lead India to be, what and where it wants to be in the international system? What role does political leadership play in India’s pursuit to achieve its foreign policy objectives? Putting aside all the epithets like a great power, a rising power, an emerging power, or a leading power and their intermingling parameters and indicators of differentiation, the important question is: how does India amalgamate and project its national power and what is the role of strategy in doing so?
Despite the ebbs and flows of India’s economic performance, there is no denying the fact that it is indeed a consequential economy, and what happens to the Indian economy does mean something for the world. India’s economy has generated the donor leverage for providing aid and assistance to other countries, rather than being just a recipient. Negotiations with other major economies of the world happen in the realm of trade access and investment opportunities. India’s economy and its ability to wield it, is certainly not at par with the US or China. However, unlike projects funded by the Chinese, under its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that have a way of pushing countries into debt traps, smaller-scale projects funded by Indian Lines of Credit in its neighborhood and elsewhere are perceived as people-oriented.
India has also been making its presence felt in a number of multilateral initiatives that bring world leaders together and impact the stability of the global order. India has been a frontrunner among those economies that question the relevance of the current structure and function of the global financial order. As such, India’s presence is being felt, and its voice is being heard in a number of initiatives reflecting 21st-century realities, primarily through forums such as the G20 and the BRICS grouping. India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, speaking at the premier Russian forum for strategic affairs, Valdai Club, commented that the world was entering an era of “strong multipolarity” but “weak multilateralism”. If that is the case, given India’s economic disparity vis-à-vis other economic powers like the US, China, or the EU grouping, it will be in India’s interest to promote a multilateral approach and attitude in the multilateral institutions.
Despite the enduring criticism of India’s military preparedness and readiness in terms of both capability and strategy, there is no denying the fact that India’s technological advances and their military applications do mean something for the world. India’s military capabilities in the land, sea and air domains and in the emerging areas of outer space and cyberspace, despite certain gaps and shortfalls, indeed count among the few nations which are more equal than the others. India faces several threats and challenges in the continental and maritime domain, from state actors as well as non-state actors.
The changing character of war amid technological advances and its implications across the spectrum of conflict means that India needs to beef up its capabilities in all domains, through internal as well as external balancing. There has never been a doubt about India’s capability enhancement in absolute terms, but the relative and relational nature of power locks countries in a situation of the security dilemma. India’s military capability and its ability to project not only a credible deterrence but also to make clear its ability and willingness to fight and win wars when required will always be seen as relative and in relation to other countries, most notably China.
In this context, the discourse on India’s road to technological self-reliance becomes germane to the promotion and protection of the country’s national interest. This will be a rational pursuit for any country that takes pride in its practice of strategic autonomy. However, who will be our major and reliable source of military equipment and technologies remains a matter requiring some dexterity of policy and implementation. While traditional suppliers of military equipment like Russia continue to be an important partner, the share of American equipment in the Indian military hardware has increased substantially. With the signing of a number of critical agreements and initiatives between India and the US, new doors are being opened for increasing sales and purchase, opportunities for co-production, and greater interoperability for the Indian and American armed forces. However, as seen in the case of the Russian made S-400 missile defense system, balancing expectations, while creating traction to maximize India’s gains and minimize losses in the transaction, will remain a task cut out for India’s foreign policy mandarins.
India is indeed a prominent pole of the multipolar world order. In its pursuit to create space to practice strategic autonomy through the policy of multialignment, India has to find new ways of conceiving power and wielding it to its favor. The heft that Prime Minister Narendra Modi brings to India’s engagement with countries across the world has to translate into deliverables to affect tangible political outcomes in India’s favor. Therefore, employing India’s finite capabilities in the pursuit of its regional and global aspirations will require an informed discourse on India’s grand strategy for the 21st century.
*** The author is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE) ***