Michael KreponIndia Adrift

US-India relations are not in great shape. One indicator: India’s National Security Adviser, Shivshankar Menon, reacted to the arrest and strip search of an Indian diplomat for visa fraud and disregarding US labor laws as “despicable and barbaric.” In contrast, Menon had difficulty finding his voice when a battalion of PLA soldiers camped out for three weeks nine miles inside India’s disputed border with China. Granted, the strip search was extremely worthy of outrage. But still, the differential in official Indian indignation was telling.

Another indicator: India’s liability laws have so far prevented US corporations from constructing nuclear powers plants on Indian soil. The George W. Bush administration and its backers worked very hard to secure a special exemption for India from the international guidelines of nuclear commerce, hoping to build up India as a counterweight to China. So far, they have little to show for their efforts. Bilateral ties will continue to improve, as evidenced by India becoming the number one recipient of US arms sales. But hiccups are the rule, rather than the exception when two democratically unruly, independent-minded, and exceptional states try to work together.

The malaise in bilateral relations reflects a deeper malaise within India itself. How can a country with so much potential, entrepreneurship, and vitality become so torpid? For a start: tired leadership with an absence of ambition, endemic corruption, and an inability to tackle longstanding, structural pathologies, including those relating to national security.

The Kargil Review Commission, led by K. Subrahmanyam, clarified a laundry list of failings after dissecting India’s intelligence and military deficiencies associated with Pakistan’s surprise initiative along the Kashmir divide in 1999. Failure at the macro level, Subrahmanyam wrote, was one of stasis:

There has been very little change over the past 52 years despite the 1962 debacle, the 1965 stalemate, and the 1971 victory, the growing nuclear threat, end of the cold war, continuance of proxy war in Kashmir for over a decade and the revolution in military affairs.

Fifteen years later, very little has been done to follow up on the Kargil Commission’s recommendations, prompting a spate of new reports and critiques. Here’s a sampler:.

“[S]tagnation of thought hardly serves the national interests.” – “India’s Nuclear Doctrine: An Alternative Blueprint,” Task Force Report convened by P.R. Chari of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, 2012

“Dealing with the challenges presented by Pakistan and China requires several crucial changes to our defence and security structures. First, we should establish a Maritime Commission that will guide the development of India’s maritime capabilities… Second, we need to increase functional efficiency and improve civil-military relations, and this will require the establishment of an integrated Ministry of Defence by populating the ministry with civilian and armed forces personnel… A Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff should head the existing Integrated Defence Staff, which should become the Military Department of the Ministry of Defence. Third, we should establish integrated commands—which will be both regional and functional that includes Special Forces, Air Defence and Logistics. Fourth, the regional commanders should report to a Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff…” — “Nonalignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the Twenty-First Century,” Sunil Khilnani et. al., 2012.

“[T]he nuclear balance in the subcontinent is far from reassuring.” –“Nonalignment 2.0”

“Indian defence spending will touch a 52-year low in 2014-15, in terms of percentage of Gross Domestic Product — 1.74 per cent of GDP this year, and 12.7 per cent of government spending.” —Blog post by Ajai Shukla, a writer for the Business Standard, February 21, 2014

“The naval chief’s resignation came hours after a fire on board the newly-refitted Sindhuratna claimed the lives of two naval officers and injured seven — the third in a series of submarine accidents, including an explosion on the Sindhurakshak which exploded and sank in Mumbai’s naval dockyard in August, 2013, killing 18 crew. Last month, the Sindhughosh ran ground on its way to Mumbai harbour, though without loss of life… The Navy has long complained of delays in submarine fleet modernisation, at a time when regional navies, notably China, are dramatically expanding their fleets.” — News report, The Hindu, February 27, 2014

“The civil-military dissonance is growing, and whether it is tardy planning or prudent fiscal outlays to nurture the military, the last 10 years have been feckless and arid.” — C. Uday Bhaskar, Indian Express, February 28, 2014

On the plus side, India is a thriving democracy, and democracies offer the potential for significant renewal after national elections. Polls suggest a very different government will take the reins this spring, one that promises renewal. India’s renewal will unsettle Pakistan and draw China’s attention.

Revived economic growth is necessary but insufficient to help with India’s complex security challenges. One big missing piece, as Stephen Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta argue in Arming without Aiming: India’s Military Modernization (2010), is a clear sense of “strategic intent.”

Indian governments don’t issue national security posture statements. They don’t put arms purchases into a broader context. Yes, India demands strategic autonomy. But how? Yes, India must adapt to the rise of China. But what’s the strategy? Yes, India seeks to dissuade Pakistan from carrying out attacks through proxies. The Army has plans, but what is the national strategy?

Strategy in India takes a back seat to inference. Inference helps fend off external pressures and facilitates maneuvering through the thicket of India’s domestic politics. Even India’s nuclear doctrine was inferential — unveiled as a “draft” prepared by a quasi-official body. Inference allows Indian governments to muddle through, but inference is hard to update and risks magnifying weakness. The non-governmental reports excerpted above were prompted by frustration with muddling through.

India’s revival will require the opening of many spigots — procurement bottlenecks choked by corrupt practices, for a start. New Delhi will also be obliged to speed up arms acquisitions and increase defense budgets. Even then, India will punch well below its weight until civil-military relations become more cohesive and military service plans and operations become more integrated.


  1. pappu (History)

    India doesn’t need to spend more on defense budget. India’s foreign policy aim is to stay independent and avoid conflict at any cost. India has numerous chances at solving Kashmir issue permanently but due to a peaceful and non interventionist foreign policy India Voss not to do so.

    India is a status quo power. India needs funds for economic growth and buildup of infrastructure. It can’t spend money on US weapons to fill coffers of US businessmen. India should maintain friendly relations with US and China and stay away from wars. That’s the best strategy.

    • Raj (History)

      Mr Krepon’s superficial thrust is appearing to be concerned about India and its welfare.
      The real agenda is whining about India not being a pliable stooge of American Imperial designs.

      The malaise in bilateral relations DOES NOT REFLECT a deeper malaise within India itself. But it reflects the racist, supremacist mindset with which our diplomat was abused.

      Granted, Mr Krepon has some decency (unlike State Dept thugs) in admitting the strip search was “extremely worthy of outrage”.

    • krepon (History)

      I rest my case.

    • Ricki (History)

      Agree with MK here that the point is supported by the above comment.

      I’d have recommended this post for deletion except that it does actually contribute to the discussion by showing the first reaction of hypernationalists.

      Still, the degree of uncivility tolerated in the post will make it hard to justify the removal of other similarly uncivil posts in the future.

      From a broader context, if the idea of inference was “re-branded” as purposeful ambiguity… would that change in connotation lead down a different conclusion? I don’t think so, but its worthy to consider. After all, the US was seen as the shoot-from-the-hip-don’t-need-no-calculations-we-vote-crazy-people-in to a lot of the Soviet Union in the cold war. Even with a fairly well maintained strategy (containment), were we not seen by the USSR as you have assessed the Indians?

    • tobias piechowiak (History)

      Accusing Michael of racism is laughable.
      I deem the comment a very precise description of
      india’s challenges.

  2. AB (History)

    Oh lord. I think what Krepon is getting at is that there’s no grand unified strategic direction for India, just a loose assortment of various policies and goals but without and underlying strategic aim.

    Not saying that the US or the West in general are very good at strategy, but just seeing a better articulation of why India does what it does (or what it doesn’t) would help.

  3. Bradley Laing (History)


    Residents of five villages in Bhavnagar district, Gujarat, in which a 6,000-MW nuclear plant is proposed to come up, have joined hands to raise their voice against the ₹60,000-crore plant.

    The local leaders (sarpanch) and the gram sabhas of the villages – Jasapara, Mithivirdi, Mandva, Khadarpar and Paniyali – have signed a resolution declaring the Mithivirdi-Jasapara area as “nuclear-free zone.” The gram sabhas also indicated their resolve to fight the setting up of the nuclear plant, to be built by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL).

    The resolution passed by the gram sabhas, which was put up in public domain, said the villagers would not allow production of nuclear weapons or nuclear power in the area, nor would they allow equipment, components, supplies or substance that can be used for such production in the area.

  4. Madhur (History)

    India under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh government is adrift.India’s foreign policy reflects the current regime’s dysfunctional and policy paralysis. On the other side “chalta hai” attitude of US State Dept underlies the disappointment that America feels towards their newly acquired pet.You need to understand that India is not Pakistan that will roll over and play dead when offered a bone to chew.

  5. Anon (History)

    People in India need to understand that most Americans do not see India as some sort of pet. Most Americans, frankly, do not think of India at all. It just isn’t that important.

  6. AEL (History)

    Krepon bemoans torpid India and looks forward to a victory by the Hindu nationalist party who favour much greater “defense” spending and a more assertive policy stance.

    Frankly, I like my great powers “torpid”. I also wish the U.S.A. and other great powers foreign policies were more “torpid”.

  7. Bradley Laing (History)

    WASHINGTON — Failings exposed last spring at a U.S. nuclear missile base, reflecting what one officer called “rot” in the ranks, were worse than originally reported, according to Air Force documents obtained by The Associated Press.


  8. krepon (History)

    An important question raised in this post, only in a glancing way, is whether India’s inability to transform its national security capabilities is good or bad for regional stability. This question is worthy of analysis, maybe in a subsequent post.

    For now, this passage from Steve Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta in Arming without Aiming is worth considering:

    “Can a state that is characterized by well-functioning anarchy ever acquire and deploy, let alone use, a modern military establishment in the service of a coherent national strategy? If strategic restraint and technology are the driving principles of the Indian state, then the answer must be no, especially if the system remains highly bureaucratized and permeated by the fear of reform.”

    Steve and Sunil conclude that, on balance, strategic restraint has worked for India, and that dysfunction has had a stabilizing effect.


    • P (History)

      I have to agree with Steve and Sunil on this point, but I would like to add a few remarks in support on this view.

      First, the army is only a component of the state; and the goal of the state should be to serve its population. However, in a democracy, having the army take a backseat in the conduct of affairs, and only be an afterthought, is actually a very sane situation. Case in point : Costa Rica, who went so far as to dissolve its army (in 1948), has never had any military coup since (duh), which brought it a particularly stable and continuous development, thanks to which it is now the richest state in per-capita GDP in its region.

      Lest we forget it, India and Pakistan are culturally very close, and the far higher place Pakistan affords to its military does not seems to have exactly brought it notable benefits. An author, which I don’t remember, pointed this out in relation to Argentina : if you teach a population that the army is the savior of the nation, when a military coup happens, the population will support it… And then comes the trouble.

      Second, India can afford to punch well below its weight, because its weight is not exactly light. In fact, if it truly tried to have a military strength as strong as it can get, all its neighbours would be severely afraid of it. Case in point : the BRICS that start with ‘R’ and ‘C’. India, however, seems to inspire no fear from any of its neighbours, save for Pakistan (and I suspect that in this case, it is more an example of a state that tries to create a sense of unity through the hatred of a common ennemy than the result of honest geopolitical analysis).

      Finally, if India started to build a stronger military, nothing says it would make use of it in a stabilising way… The Indian democracy is still maturing, and states that use their military against their own interests abound; thus, this could genuinely turn out very wrong for India.

      For all these reasons, I think that India should continue to concentrate itself on its own internal development, and only reinforce its tools of external strength, including its military, either when external developments force it to (a situation that I hope won’t arise), or when it has reached the status of a developped state (a situation I hope WILL arise).

  9. Anjaan (History)

    The article starts with the following two points to argue that India is adrift :

    1. India’s response to the diplomat’s arrest in the US was sharp, in contrast to its patient response to the Chinese incursion into Indian territory.

    2. India’s Nuclear liability laws have not been conducive to promote nuclear commerce with the US companies, an opening made possible due to the hard work of the Bush administration.

    Although from an American point of view, the arguments may seem reasonable, the Indian point of view differs considerably, due to the following reasons :

    1. It is widely recognized in India that the US-India nuclear deal, which came laden with a number of poison pill amendments, is actually a trap for India that seeks to get India into the NPT through the back door.

    India’s Nuclear liability laws is the tit-for-tat response to the American deceit, in a subtle and civilized way, after all the “so called” hard work by the Bush administration.

    2. The author mentions in this article, quote ” The George W. Bush administration and its backers worked very hard to secure a special exemption for India from the international guidelines of nuclear commerce, hoping to build up India as a counterweight to China” unquote.

    The whole assumption of the Bush administration was flawed, because India never signed up to be the counter weight to China, it perhaps never can in the near future, and it never would, even if it had the economic capacity and the military muscle.

    India would never give up its strategic autonomy for anything on earth, a fact most loathed by Stephen P Cohen and his fellow Americans, whose book on India arming, has been referred to in this article.

  10. Nasser (History)

    From ambassador M K Bhadrakumar’s latest blogpost:

    “In their zest to safeguard the US-Indian strategic partnership from scandal, the FoA [Friends of America in India] refused to recognize that this has been a case of espionage. That’s only to be expected.
    But the US decision to press fresh charges against Khobragade underscores that some Indians need to make up their mind whether they have a sense of shame at all. Plainly speaking, what the US did to the Indian diplomat was abominable and it is hard to get over the sense of humiliation — for those of us, at least, who are not Green Card holders.
    The latest twist to the tale reconfirms that the US’s despicable action in subjecting an Indian diplomat to ‘cavity search’ has been all through very deliberate and with a purpose. If some Indians don’t get the point, it is either because of their naivete or their lack of integrity.”

    – India definitely shot itself in the foot by sabotaging her ties with Iran at US urging. India shouldn’t expect much from their relationship with the US because the Americans aren’t looking for a partner but rather a servant. It is definitely not in India’s interest to take a needlessly confrontational approach to China at America’s behest. Indians would do well to keep in mind that Washington props up Pakistan as a counterweight to India in the same manner that China does. Lastly, I would advise India to do its utmost to maintain their close ties to Russia because it is they that have always been the true friend of India and source of most important technical and military cooperation.