New Delhi: There is a premium in being seen as a reluctant world power. Strategic reluctance does not indicate cowardice or even a lack of ambition. The unwritten code is that, in times of necessity, the country will overcome reluctance and close any gaps that may arise from time to time most naturally, with minimum exertion, and zero fanfare. With some exceptions represented by the Bharatiya Janata Party governments of Atal Behari Vajpayee and, presently, Narendra Modi, India has conducted itself as a reluctant power. India’s considerable status in the world owes to its naturally modest disposition. This ties with India’s ancient civilizational history and has a moral connection with M. K. Gandhi’s non-violence.

Strategic reluctance in the modern context does not mean diffidence or showing the other cheek. It does mean that India has its priorities right. Whatever is possible for a poor country to contribute to national security will be provided. The contribution will be made in a scientific manner. Based on a well- researched and tightly-formulated grand strategy, defence appropriations will be made. The emphasis would be on local weapons’ production. The services would not be permitted to throw tantrums to acquire the latest war toys with kickbacks flowing to officers spearheading purchases.

With national security tailored to the demands and limitations of a poor country, a reluctant power can concentrate on rapid poverty elimination programmes aided by the surpluses produced by a market economy. India’s biggest strength is the 1991 reforms. They have provided a roadmap for growth. Growth, development and the rapid rise of India to become a middle income country would secure the nation in more ways than simply having a large standing army would. Only that state will survive and prosper that is ruthless about resource allocation. More than two-thirds of all investments would have to be social and productive investments. The rest may be devoted to both internal and external security, and this includes Central and state government expenditures, covert funding to assets, facilities and operations, and so on. Unless the society and the productive climate are strong, no amount of national security expenditure can bring adequate benefits.

A reluctant power must not be confused with a pacifist state. Strategic reluctance rather approximates the trait of personal individualism. Countries may be as individualistic and distinctive as people. It is not a coincidence that some of the most distinctive states in Modern history have also been -- or remain -- Great Powers. Russia, the United States, Britain, Germany, China and Japan fall in this category.

Jawaharlal Nehru gave India a most distinctive -- and distinguishable -- start. The social, community, civil, scientific, industrial and strategic infrastructures that he established have not been equalled in the several decades since his passing. His vision remains unique. It was Nehru who imbued India with the sentiment of strategic reluctance when it became independent and entered a new world split into two ideological blocs. Being focused on India’s growth and development, he was perfectly aware that the country would suffer by taking sides in the Cold War. So with rather odd fellow travellers like Josip Tito and Zhou Enlai, Nehru co-founded Non-Alignment, which Abdul Gamal Nasser subsequently found useful in dealing with the Cold War rivals, the United States and Soviet Russia. Nehru, unfortunately, confused strategic reluctance with pacifism, and it was left to his daughter, Indira Gandhi, to correct the picture. But she retained India in the image of a reluctant power, and brought it considerable return benefits.

For example, she prosecuted the Bangladesh War as one of last resort. She focused world attention repeatedly on the Pakistan army genocide in East Pakistan and the refugees pouring into India in consequence. While the refugees wouldn’t be turned back, she pleaded that India couldn’t endlessly sustain them being itself a poor country. Having to factor for an uncaring world, she reluctantly prepared for the military option, and vital to its success was the mutual assistance pact with the USSR. That was by no means all. When the 1974 nuclear test was conducted, her government deliberately called it a “peaceful nuclear explosion”. The explosion was meant to deter the United States from regime change. It succeeded admirably in that object. Although the United States did not forgive her, she still chose, in the larger national interest, not to show the red rag to the bully. People who criticize the euphemism “PNE” do not appreciate the background enough. A second factor to consider is that it provided no opportunity to Pakistan to conduct a rival test for nearly a quarter of a century, and it further gave no cause to China to vehemently protest.

It is something of a tragedy, then, that the 1998 nuclear test got so wildly out of hand. This writer would not blame Atal Behari Vajpayee for this as much as his political subordinates but the buck nevertheless stops with him. The necessity for the test apparently arose from fears of a universalization of the CTBT which never occurred because of, ironically, internal US politics. If the Vajpayee government had stayed with the “necessity” without necessarily publicizing it, not made the test a “prestige” issue for India, and not further linked it to Chinese and Pakistani hostilities in a letter to the then US president, Bill Clinton, which was promptly leaked, Pokhran II would have been far more manageable than it proved. For that duration, India shed its image as a “reluctant” power and behaved disastrously as a state on anabolic steroids. It needed all of Jaswant Singh’s diplomacy with the Americans to mend matters: the very same Jaswant Singh who became persona non grata to the present BJP leadership.

But this was not before Pokhran II and the manner of its handling produced a second disaster in the form of a rival military-nuclear equal: Pakistan. L. K. Advani and Madan Lal Khurana jumped with joy saying that having become a nuclear power, India had got the upper hand on Pakistan and Pakistani terrorism. Really? All because an upstart political party wanted to expand its mass base, it sacrificed the beneficial cover of strategic reluctance and compelled India to a most unnatural embrace of machismo. Did it impress India’s chief adversary in the region, China? Not in the least. China’s formal position is that it wants both India and Pakistan to denuclearize.

Because the Vajpayee government concentrated on the political optics of the Pokhran II test and not its strategic dimension, India has gained strategically little from the test. China won’t recognize it as an equal nuclear power, and Pakistan’s nuclear parity gives China a superior cat’s paw to employ against India. Worse for India, the thermonuclear test of Pokhran II proved a fizzle. Since deterrence is about credibility established beyond a doubt, India’s thermonuclear weapons such as there are suffer a credibility gap. China’s rival thermonuclear deterrent faces no such credibility problems; but, then, it is in the race against the United States and Russia, not India. If India had conducted the Pokhran II test with manifest reluctance, and kept a tight rein on triumphalism, it may well have played out differently.

Triumphalism has also destroyed the sanctity of the anti-satellite test conducted this week. At least Pokhran II had a purported necessity of a looming universalization of CTBT. The anti-satellite test manifestly serves only to shore up Narendra Modi’s sagging political fortunes. This is scandalous beyond belief. The regime has not even bothered with a strategic justification for the test. There is loose talk that India can destroy foreign satellites at will. Satellites are extensions of sovereignties. What India can do would be revenged multiple times by other powers, chief of them being China. This is suicidal talk. Anti-satellite weapons are, for the most part, unusable like nuclear weapons. India goaded Pakistan into counter-testing after Pokhran II and courted disaster. If the Modi regime fuels the ASAT machismo further, history could nastily repeat itself.

In the end, all regimes are transitory. India has to choose the best first principles to move on to a bright and prosperous future. A stance of strategic reluctance gives India the best of several worlds: Ambition is clothed in gentle modesty, aggression plays no part, and all the while, capabilities and capacities are quietly, regularly and routinely built with no doubts raised in foreign quarters about India’s peaceful intents. China never advertised its ASAT test. It was not vulgar. Did it diminish its power or enhance it? The truth is known to strategists worldwide.

Editor’s Note: The country’s “most honest” political party has set a price for its Lok Sabha ticket. It is worth Rs 15 crore in cash. Rs 5 crore is the cost of preliminary assessment of a candidate. It is not refundable. If the candidate is approved, the remainder has to be promptly deposited. Of the large sums coming in from party tickets sold, sixty per cent is earmarked for party use. The rest goes into private pockets.