Planning without a strategy
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Following the Kargil war, a taskforce on defence reforms had emphasised the vital need for a national security strategy to enable meaningful and long-term defence planning. Yet, even after a decade no such document is in evidence, at least not in the public domain.
Its absence may have two explanations. Either a national security or grand strategy does exist but its disclosure is not considered desirable. Alternatively, there may be a view that an exercise to debate a national security strategy in the public domain is quite unnecessary. It is simply impractical, according to this view, to expect democratic governments of different dispositions to adhere to some master document on national security strategy. They have to take sequential, practical decisions on issues as they arise, and a formal articulation will only restrain their freedom of action.
Since India does not have a grand strategy or a national security strategy or even a white paper, perhaps it is desirable to consider whether we need to have one and what would an exercise to formulate such a strategy entail.
It is not unusual sometimes to hear even some knowledgeable people say that a grand strategy is relevant only for countries indulging in great power politics.
India — a non-aligned country which won its freedom through a non-violent struggle — did not need one. To dispel such notions it needs to be clarified that grand strategy is simply an academic term, referring to plans and policies undertaken to balance national ends and means at the highest possible level. Grand strategy includes strategies dealing with the military, economic and diplomatic resources of a country, as well as trade-offs across those domains. It thus encompasses all elements of national power — military, economic, technological, diplomatic, social, cultural and even psychological.
Influential elements within government, political parties and the strategic elite believe, justifiably, that India's non-alignment, crafted by Jawaharlal Nehru, was itself a grand strategy. In a bipolar world, Nehru had correctly reasoned that India's national interests would be best served through non-alignment and the leadership of the newly independent countries. That strategy gave India a stature and influence well beyond its economic and military weight.
But six decades later, India and the world have transformed in fundamental ways. India's economy has opened up and has seen an unprecedented dynamism; the world economy has been rapidly globalising; Asia is becoming the new theatre of geopolitical and economic action; new powers are rising in a multipolar world; and power is increasingly being diffused among non-state actors. Can a strategy designed for a different era be effective today? Or does the ongoing transformation at least call for a fresh look at our old assumptions? At the very least, a vigorous debate is needed to revalidate the relevance of the non-alignment strategy in a changed world order.
What can one expect from such an exercise to review India's grand strategy? First, it will help us reassess how the global and regional security environment has changed; which emerging strategic trends are shaping the future; and what the principal challenges are to our national interests and objectives. It will also help us determine priorities among competing objectives. As resources are finite, not all goals can be attained simultaneously. Without inter se priority among competing objectives, all interest and threats would be treated as equal. That would be a fundamental flaw in the strategy. As Frederick the Great had aptly observed: "He who attempts to defend too much defends nothing." Once core interests and objectives are determined, a strategy can be formulated to apply to all elements of national resources to secure those interests and achieve those objectives in the most effective manner. The exercise will involve trade-offs between competing ends and available resources.
The process of strategy formulation, especially in a democracy, is not easy but essential. A strategy developed through an open debate will impart legitimacy to the process and its outcomes. It will promote greater awareness of the rationale behind policies and key decisions. The process will help develop a strategic vision, a long-term view on core issues and minimise knee-jerk reactions and ad hoc decisions.
Second, a national security strategy, once placed in the public domain, would facilitate inter-agency coherence in the government and within the Central and state governments in effectively dealing with the country's complex security challenges. Not too long ago, in handling the Naxal problem, discordant voices were heard from the home ministry, the army, the paramilitary forces and the state governments.
Third, the process will help involve India's political parties in debates concerning strategy more actively. National security and foreign policy are not particularly important in determining electoral fortunes. In an era of coalition politics, regional parties may influence foreign-policy making, but so far they have been indifferent to issues of national security and foreign policies. It is vital that they are connected to the process and participate in the debates. Their marginalisation can result in ad hoc approaches when they happen to be in the driving seat.
Fourth, in the theatre of international politics, a state has to interact with many actors, some of them competitors and others potential adversaries. In the absence of a sound strategy, other actors can choose the space on which competition takes place. Those who wait to make decisions may be forced to accept the choices made by others.
Finally, is a grand strategy valid for all times to come? It must be emphasised, especially in the present context, that grand strategy is not a mechanical exercise but a dynamic process, which requires constant adaptation to shifting conditions and circumstances. Strategists should examine assumptions when necessary and modify them, if warranted. Grand strategy debates thus never end, they resurface in different forms and different shapes. In making their strategic decisions leaders may not follow a master document on grand strategy, but their decisions will be made in the backdrop of informed debates.
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