New Delhi: India’s absent strategy for a post-Cold War world has left it stranded in Afghanistan and befuddled in respect of containing China, made peace even more elusive with Pakistan, and it has severely limited dividends flowing from the country’s rapid economic growth since the 1991 reforms. Jawaharlal Nehru’s policy of Non-Alignment brought undeniable benefits to India. After his death, India persevered with Non-Alignment even though the 1962 war with China had revealed the dangers of confusing Non-Alignment with pacifism. Non-Alignment was a convenient fig-leaf for Indira Gandhi’s object to partition Pakistan pitting Soviet and United States great power against one another. But the failure of the Simla talks with Pakistan to settle the ceasefire line as a border and not merely a Line of Control, the fraught nature of the India-China frontier especially after 1962, and India’s inability to grapple with the complexities of the Soviet occupation of and withdrawal from Afghanistan clearly foretold the dangers that lay ahead for the country. Even in the last decades of the Cold War, Non-Alignment as strategy was fraying. When the Cold War ended, the black hole in India’s foreign policy was finally revealed. Military nuclear power, which Indira Gandhi had inaugurated in 1974 more to pre-empt regime change by the United States after India’s Bangladesh War victory, was sought to be utilized by Atal Behari Vajpayee, through another round of nuclear tests in 1998, to plug post-Cold War strategic gaps in India’s foreign policy. Military nuclear power, however, has failed for India as a standalone force, while Pakistan has cleverly and successfully integrated it into its strategy of harassing India over Kashmir through proxy and low-intensity wars.

Strategic policies for states do not form by themselves; nor are they low hanging fruits. Creative minds have to formulate them based on a realistic assessment of the country’s political, social, economic and military strengths and weaknesses and an all-important second factor called national will. Nearly pauperized at the time of independence, Nehru realized the country could not afford to choose sides in the Cold War when its priorities were sovereign security, industrial development with little private capital, and poverty eradication. India’s sterling role in the anti-colonial movement also had a basis in hard-headed pragmatism. Colonies were unnatural products of successful power projection by a few West European states and Britain was both a Great Power and the greatest colonial power for one hundred years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The anti-colonial struggle not only desired to right a historical wrong but aimed to restore the natural order to the world. It was very important for Nehru to be part of this engine of change because India stood a better chance to rise and prosper with the destruction of colonies and independence of greater number of states in Asia and Africa.

Before the anti-colonial struggle could bear fruit, the Cold War picked up pace, although the United States, as the inheritor of Britain’s Great Power position, professed to be anti-colonial in spirit and orientation. Non-Alignment was designed to be a temporary measure to insulate India from artificial divisions of the world. Successors of Nehru did not apply their minds to craft a strategy for a world restored to natural order. Indira Gandhi was too taken up by the military inadequacies of her father to concentrate on strategy. After Nehru, truly only P. V. Narasimha Rao had the intellect to construct a post-Cold War strategy that built on the strengths of Non-Alignment while being also classically different. Narasimha Rao again, however, was thrown into the maelstrom of the collapse of the Soviet Union which stoked intense separatism in Punjab and Kashmir. His energies were drained in keeping India together. Even so, Rao and Manmohan Singh let loose India’s business-economic animal spirits through the well-designed 1991 reforms which have made up for some of the deficiencies from India’s absent post-Cold War strategic masterplan. But the absence of a plan is checking the full flow of benefits of economic reforms to India and impeding its benign and untrammelled rise.

Sadly for India, the absence of a considered, cogent post-Cold War strategy is not even felt in power circles. The ministry of external affairs was never competent to craft grand strategy and the national security council modelled on its US counterpart cannot make out the difference between tactic and strategy. It considers “surgical strikes” strategic when it is tactical with serious limitations. The absence of strategy is being felt in Afghanistan where the United States and the Taliban are going through the motions of talks when both sides know that Washington has no stomach to expend more blood and treasure in a country rightly called the “graveyard of empires”. If India had any strategic sense, it would quietly seek to convince the United States to move to partition Afghanistan (See commentary, “here ,” 4 January 2019) and limit the poison of Pashtun/ Taliban terrorism to southern and eastern Afghanistan for Pakistan to contain any which way it could. A coherent post-Cold War Indian strategy would also devise covert and overt means to contain China and to exploit in full -- but without making a noise – the US-China trade war which is slowly killing China as an economic power. Instead, in the absence of a strategy, China taunts Narendra Modi as he faces general elections without having created the two crore jobs a year he promised. Perhaps a new government elected this year (provided it is a non-Modi one) will get serious about India’s absent post-Cold War strategy.