Book Review: Crouching dragon, kneeling tiger - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Friday 20 November 2015

Book Review: Crouching dragon, kneeling tiger

Title         :   Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)
Author     :   Bharat Karnad
Publisher :   Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Pages       :   552
Price        :   Rs 875/-

Followers of this country’s strategic and security policy know well that to read Bharat Karnad is to imbibe the most hawkish Indian worldview and perspectives outside the Sangh Parivar. Over the years, Karnad has steadfastly advocated staring down China (India’s real rival, he asserts), ignoring Pakistan (irrelevant to a major power like India), developing, testing and deploying thermonuclear weapons (the final arbiter of power), establishing military bases abroad in areas like Central Asia (to outflank China and Pakistan) and a muscular, outgoing foreign policy (a la Israel) that tells any antagonist that she messes with India at her own peril.

A few lines from the first page of Karnad’s latest book sums up what he throws at you for the next 551 pages: “The United States did not become a globe-girdling country by staying behind the moats of the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans nor Britain ‘Great’ by restricting itself to the Dover Strait; Czarist Russia obtained strategic weight by extending its reach to the Pacific; Prussia was a truculent Central European kingdom until Bismarck used the Prussian Army to unify the Germanic states and elbow Austria and France out of their pivotal position in continental Europe; and Japan would have remained a small group of islands in the Asian Far East but for the Meiji Restoration and the vigorous policies it sparked. Great power-wise, the twenty-first century is no different than the previous ages in that a combination of widely defined interests; an outgoing, agile, and proactive foreign policy backed by economic might and military prowess; and the ability and, especially, the will to power and the determination to use it still matters.”

Those who dismiss Karnad as a right-wing crackpot are usually guilty of focusing mistakenly only on his more outrageous suggestions (more on that later). In fact, Karnad brings to his work a wide-ranging reading of history --- though some would contest his interpretation of it --- a compelling and often elegant writing style, and an unapologetic drive to conclusions that do not seek shelter behind caveats. Karnad’s expertise straddles the fields of strategy, diplomacy, nuclear weaponry and doctrine, and, importantly, defence planning and warfighting. This raises him above the bevy of former diplomats and intelligence officials who lord it over India’s think tank community without any clear idea of the grey realm where diplomacy shades into military coercion. This perspective imbues Karnad’s writing with an certitude that comes out in sentences like: “The problem in a nutshell is that the Indian government, military, and the policy circles are habituated to aiming low and hitting lower.”

Amongst thinkers who relish the notion of a non-aggressive, soft-treading India --- and there are many such, especially in the US and in India --- Karnad’s book will spark a fresh round of tut-tuting. His plans for boosting India’s power include abandoning nuclear “no-first-use” and resuming nuclear testing; placing “atomic demolition munitions” (miniature nukes) at Himalayan passes on the Sino-Indian border to block Chinese invading forces; basing nuclear missile submarines in Australia, from where Chinese targets are conveniently at hand; and arming Tibetan and Vietnamese guerrillas to fight China. India’s grand strategy must be to “meet China’s challenge, rather than… fight yesterday’s wars with a lesser foe (Pakistan)”; and to implement an “Asian Monroe Doctrine”, in which India becomes the sole security custodian of the Indian Ocean and other regional waters.

This is disruptive stuff, especially for conservative New Delhi policy elites whose strategy has traditionally accommodated international sentiments. Yet strategic thinkers should read Karnad’s prescription carefully, knowing they bookend India’s most provocative policy options. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi more inclined than his predecessors to assertiveness (though, so far at least, his policies are characterised more by continuity than transformative change), some of Karnad’s scenarios may well come to pass. A key former policymaker, the previous national security advisor, Shivshankar Menon, noted during the book’s release function in New Delhi that many of Karnad’s prescriptions were already part of the Indian governments policy, excepting, of course, the most aggressive and eye-catching recommendations. For the author, of course, this is not nearly enough! He believes India’s “ambition void” is ensuring that the country “is proving to be its own worst enemy.”

After deploring India’s namby-pamby strategy and diplomacy in his initial chapters, Karnad moves on to an equally hard-hitting critique of India’s military planning, structuring and warfighting plans. These latter chapters --- with titles like “Hard Power and the Deficit of Strategic Imagination”, and “Military Infirmities and Strengths” --- analyse in detail India’s defence forces and the military industrial complex that should be backing it with weapons and material. Karnad laments that India’s navy, air force and, especially, army, “haven’t implemented systemic changes to make them capable of obtaining decisive results fast…” Milder observers have been irritated by this comedy of errors; the irascible author, predictably, tears apart the subject with relish.

Amidst this carnage Karnad raises key issues. He dissects the viability of India’s “theatre switching” strategy--- or New Delhi’s option to retaliate to Chinese land strikes into, say, the sensitive Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh (where Chinese invaders would enjoy important advantages); by imposing a naval blockade on Chinese ships in the Indian Ocean (where the initative and advantage would lie with India). While this is a comforting thought for New Delhi policymakers, the author questions the viability of such a strategy: asking whether the navy could react quickly enough, and “is the sinking of a few Chinese warships and the apprehension of several merchantmen the equal of, and enough recompense for, the loss of valuable territory to China for good?”

A strategically and militarily educated reader will both enjoy Karnad’s book and be exasperated in equal measure by the certitude of his pronouncements. Even so, as one of the first studies of India’s security dilemmas to include a keen study of the military apparatus and the industrial backbone that undergirds it, this book will find a place in every strategic scholar’s library. 


  1. Mr Karnad must be SMOKING some very GOOD stuff

    He should at least tell us that what he smokes ; may be AFGHAN weed
    Now on Topic

    1 First Get the 126 RAFALES
    2 Then get 150 PAK FA

    3 Throw out the Mig 21 and Mig 27

    4 Get the SU 30 Fleet to upto 400

    5 Get thousands of Brahmos ; Nirbhay ; Shaurya ; Agni Missiles

    6 Get TWO More Carrier Battle Groups

    7 Get DOZENS of more submarines ; frigates ; destroyers ;
    Let us have A 300 SHIP NAVY


    And Finally SEND the bill for all of the ABOVE to Mr BHARAT KARNAD

    He will SOBER UP in a MINUTE

  2. Always a pleasure to read somebody who has clear ideas right or wrong. Others sound like stock market analysts who will never commit on which way the market or stock will move.

  3. Ajai,
    The exasperation that you repeatedly allude to is born out of an Orientalist outlook that is imprinted on the brains of our Anglicised elite. It is a result of deliberately downplaying Raja Raja and Samudragupta by the Nehruvian narrative. The non-violence that our history teaches us is not the non-violence of Gandhi or else Jain kings wouldn't have gone to war. The classical understanding of non-violence is avoidance of needless violence for its own sake. We never had the equivalent of the Mongol or the Arab hordes; all that anyone initiating a war wanted was to replace the establishment, not augur in anarchy. This truth jars with the self image of our elite and shows up in their response to this book. Even allowing for the author's rather dramatic style, his approach is reflective of what a big power and an old civilization should think like.

  4. The point he makes is valid. However, Indian mind is utterly timid. A country that did nothing after Mumbai attack (see how France responded to Paris attack) and to its parliament being attacked is simply not in the reckoning in the power game.

  5. @Vijay,

    Your comments just underline and magnify Mr. Karnad's point. The big gaping hole in India's strategic vision is not the toys - though they have their own place. It is the lack of an overarching vision and a sense for our civilization's (not just the 68 year old republic) place in this world. Everything else flows from that. Our leaders sorely lack that; for the mainstream ones, history begins in 1857 or 1526 while the loony right wants a 5 millenia old narrative. The rootless left with its monopoly over institutions would rather change world history clock to being in 1917. Unlike the Chinese, we don't have a sense of the continuous fabric of what constitutes "us" so we would rather have wet dreams about UNSC membership rather than behave in a way that makes the world come knocking with the membership on a platter. Is any Indian PM, including Modi, courageous enough to put boots on the ground in Afghanistan or openly join the war against Daesh?

    In summary, Mr. Karnad isn't smoking something; your coconut Indian sensibilities - brown on the outside, white on the inside - can't understand that while the true measure of शौर्य: is धैर्य:, the true measure of धैर्य:is शौर्य:. I wouldn't be surprised if you don't understand the Sanskrit context of these words, not the narrow modern Hindi interpretation. It just proves my point anyway.

  6. Ajai sir,

    Any plans to write on how Sun Tzu's principles influence the bahaviour of our neighbours to the right?


  7. A minor point: Shukla cautions against the liberal establishment types dismissing my views as those of a “rightwing crackpot”. Many have described me as “Ultra-hawkish” or “ultra-nationalist” but no one has dared call me a crackpot, because it implies nonrigorous analytics which, surely, there’s no evidence for. Or, they’ll have to produce the evidence — and my writings of some 30 years are all there in the public realm for them to try and mine!

    Re: @Vijay -- It is precisely the sort of acquisitions he has listed that I have over the years excoriated as wrong and inappropriate oriented towards the wrong threat for the changing strategic scenarios in my writings over the past 30 years. But then he seems unaware of my writings (books, op/eds, blog -- Bit when has that stopped people from sounding off?

  8. The value of Bharat Karnad's book lies in it melding of military and operational capabilities with a larger vision for India. There are arguments for and against a more assertive, even aggressive, Indian profile in the region and beyond. But there are very few (actually none!) studies of how to back a planned profile with military power.

    Laundry lists, a la @Vijay, are not the answer. Instead, we need to think: (a) What do we want our diplomatic-military capability to achieve; and (b) To achieve that, what structures and capabilities we need to have in place.

    For me, that is the best part of Karnad's book --- the critical study of Indian military power, and whether or not it is geared to supporting India's broader strategic and foreign policy objectives

  9. If BK is reading this, it makes sense to wipe out the weaker of the two first. Pakistan is weak and won't last even a week against the military might that Bharat has now attained.

    We have precision guided munitions, cruise misiles, and IRNSS for satellite navigation. They have one goat. We can beat them in 24 hours. I'm not denying the fine fighting prowess of that goat, but that is no substitute for firepower.

    It makes more sense to eliminate one enemy and then sink all our resources against facing off against the bigger stronger enemy. This is a classic military tactic of when two armies are split up to beat the smaller one first and then fight the larger one. It would also help the Army focus, because traditionally it has always trained to fight against Pakistan. With no Pakistan, they can only train to fight against one enemy.

  10. @Raahul Kumar -- The US and China will prevent by all the means at their disposal India from "wiping out" Pakistan, because that country is useful to them individually for different but important reasons mainly to manage the regional dynamics. So, unless India, as I have long argued (as also in this book) makes peace by incentivizing Islamabad to lower their enmity level by unilateral measures -- such as removal of forward deployed nuclear SRBMs, and paring the three strike corps down to one composite corps and using the excess manpower and materiel to form two additional offensive mountain corps, the Indian military will be stuck at the present capability threshold, which can neither overwhelm Pakistan nor help stare down China.

  11. The US and China will prevent India from wiping out Pakistan, which is geostrategically useful to each of them. So, unless Delhi, as I have long argued (and also in this book), incentivizes Islamabad to enter upon a genuine rapprochement by GOI undertaking unilateral measures, such as, removing the forward deployed nuclear Prithvi missiles from the western border, and paring the 3 strike corps down to a single composite corps (with excess manpower and materiel shifted to forming two additional mountain offensive corps), and thereby seeding trust, Indian military capability will stay frozen at the present capability threshold -- unable to overwhelm Pakistan or stare down China.


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