Although India doesn’t have a formalised plan for acquiring great power status, the outlines of a consistent grand strategy have been clear for some time—strategic autonomy through interlocking networks of interests with world powers, and the building of military capabilities based on growing economic prowess.
This intuitive two-pronged approach, enunciated by the nation’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, is likely to be in place at least until 2050, when India is expected by some projections to be vying with the United States for the position of world’s second-largest economy after China.
Nehru introduced the principle of strategic autonomy so that India wouldn’t be sucked into or trapped by the opposing ideologies of an intensifying Cold War. Understanding that India’s stance would be unappreciated unless it built a vehicle for its position, Nehru mooted the Non-Aligned Movement, a bloc scorned by both Cold War powers (although both sides were privately grateful for Nehru’s brokering efforts in the Korean War).Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Yet the bloc survives today—toothless it may be, but it still occasionally provides India with a moral compass. Meanwhile, India has kept up its studiedly ‘neutral’ position, contributing unflinchingly to UN peacekeeping efforts, while staying out of non-UN-sanctioned endeavours such as Iraq, and ensuring its contribution to Afghanistan has been purely humanitarian and developmental.
The limited brokering success of the Korean War prompted some Indian commentators to suggest a bridging role for India between rival great powers as a key component of its grand strategy—back then the United States and Soviet Union, and now the US and China. Yet India’s own strategic competition with China makes such a role far-fetched, and India anyway has no great taste for, nor skill at, brokering, a reality that has apparently solidified its strategic autonomy policy.
But read between the lines, and it’s clear that India’s autonomy policy has anyway actually morphed from its Cold War incarnation with the changing international environment, and is now geared instead at making it a great power in a non-polar world.
The key to understanding India’s strategy is the so-called Mandala approach to geo-strategy and the theory that Indian security lays in concentric circles. The most immediate of these circles radiates from its centre to its neighbours, the second touches the Gulf of Aden and Singapore on either side, and the third circle reaches around the rest of the globe to embrace the great powers. This theory suggests that India cannot truly be secure until all three circles are pacified.
Such a theory is nothing new—indeed it has prevailed continuously from the third century BC, when Chanakya—India’s own Machiavelli—propounded it. But recent decades have shown India may now be on the path to mastering these circles.
The critical change that has allowed India to continue to move forward was the end of the Cold War, from which it emerged both territorially intact (many had predicted India would go the way of the Soviet Union) and with a newly-opened economy that has since grown at an average rate of about eight percent a year. This growth has been mostly based on its domestic market, unlike the export-oriented economy of China, thus shielding India from the brunt of the recent global recession.