Is India punching below its weight? It’s the mother of all questions for contemporary practitioners of statecraft and diplomacy, and the country’s strategic thinking elite.
One can go on debating this proposition endlessly, and the country’s diplomatic-strategic establishment can delude itself into comforting clichés about the emergence of India as a major power in the shifting global geopolitical landscape. But National Security Adviser Ajit Doval is a staunch realist, and he has rearticulated what has been spoken often in the strategic circles – yes, India has been underperforming when it comes to leveraging its growing economy, its status as the world’s most populous democracy, and its indubitable soft power strengths.
“India has a mentality to punch below its weight. We should not punch below our weight or above our weight, but improve our weight and punch proportionately,” Mr Doval said in his address entitled ‘State Security, Statecraft, and Conflict of values’ at the 21st Lalit Doshi Memorial Lecture in Mumbai.
Mr Doval must be commended for shunning clichés and diving straight into the heart of the dilemma facing India’s strategic establishment when confronted with the perennial and ever-present threat of terror flowing from a difficult neighbouring country. He has given an overt expression to endless prevarication that has marked New Delhi’s approach, cutting across regimes, to cross-border terror and the sense of confusion and helplessness that permeate New Delhi’s response when faced with pure barbarism masquerading as jihadi terror. “If you make a provocation, you are partly responsible. But if you are not able to exercise power, it is as good as not having it… There is no point of having Rs 50,000 in your pocket if you starve to death.” Precisely. At the end of the day, it’s not about power, but what you do with it and how you do it. But there is really no point in trumpeting India’s rising power narrative if it’s not backed by well thought-out decisive responses to forces and structures that hold back the emergence of the world’s most populous democracy and the flowering of its 1.2 billion people from attaining their full potential.
Power can be defined variously, but timely and appropriate action is one of its attributes. In his typical straight talk, Mr Doval has rightly emphasized action against procedural niceties. Alluding to his decision to call the Pakistan High Commissioner instead of India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj after the flare up of tensions at the border on July 15, Mr Doval said, “There is a conflict between important and immediate. But when there is convergence of important and immediate and there is still bureaucratic interference, you do not deserve to be where you are.”
Pakistan will be carefully scrutinizing Mr Doval’s blunt speak, but his assertions were not just a veiled warning for a neighbouring country coming to terms with the monsters it has unleashed in the exercise of power. Mr Doval’s comments should hopefully kindle an impassioned debate about the nature of power and India’s capacity to harness it to shape a conducive international environment to achieve its core national interests. If power is about shaping desired outcomes, then the power-wielders should know how to use it effectively, and proportionately.
- Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.
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