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Asia Program May 4, 2010 P o l i c y B r i e

Asia Program

May 4, 2010

Policy Brief

Summary: India is in many re- spects the world’s most globalized society, having both absorbed and exported traditions and ideas over the centuries. This dynamic has also given Indian society an exceptional level of continuity. Consequently, India continues to live its past as it grapples with the responsibilities and challenges of its future.

The divide in India’s foreign policy between globalization and insular- ity is accentuated by its democratic politics, with Lord Curzon’s expan- sionistic vision of India’s interna- tional presence in competition with the inward-looking non-alignment associated with Nehru. While there is a broad consensus on issues such as terrorism and India’s presence in multilateral institutions, the contest between these two visions will continue to define how India sees its place in the world.

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Understanding the Duality in Indian Strategic Thinking

by Manvendra Singh 1

A security seminar involving Indians

and Chinese should, logically, focus on

borders, territory, war, and peace. But at the end of a security seminar in Beijing

a couple of years ago, a colonel from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) asked

a question that went completely against

the grain of proceedings. He inquired, with genuine concern, about how India had globalized as a society and economy,

and yet kept its cultural moorings intact. While it can be debated whether the concern expressed by the PLA colonel delved into China’s condition as much as

it probed India’s, there was clearly more

than neighborly envy in the question.

India and Bharat

Analyzed dispassionately and historically, India could quite conceivably be thought

of as the most globalized society in the

world. The country has been in the busi- ness of globalization for more millennia than much of the world has been inhab- ited. In economic terms, it boasts a very long history of trade with Mesopotamia, eastern Africa, the Mediterranean, and East Asia. That is an impressively large footprint by any standards in any era. What, however, is as extraordinary is the

global movement of thoughts and ideas from and through India. It is from this essential fact that an understanding of India begins. In parts of the country, people like to believe that the first Chris- tian proselytizer arriving on Indian shores was a contemporary of Jesus, while the first Muslims came during the lifetime of the Prophet (by which time, of course, there was already a thriving Indian Jewish community).

The idea of India existed long before geographical boundaries and centralized governance appeared to give it its structure and physical contours. Conceptually in existence prior to the consolidation of political power, India

and its civilization are rooted in ideas and the perpetual quest for knowledge. India

is unique among countries in that it was

not created by a family, a feudal authority,

a faith, or a war. Despite many repeated

attempts to change the nature of India, the strength of its ideas and thoughts have allowed it to experience a continu- ity that is also exceptional. A 21 st century visitor to the town of Varanasi, for example, would describe the experience in a language not dissimilar to that used by Chinese pilgrims centuries earlier.

1 Manvendra Singh is editor of the Defence & Security Alert, and formerly a member of the Indian Parliament. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Asia Program

Policy Brief

India continues to live its past as it grapples with the responsi- bilities and challenges of the future.

It is this duality that poses the greatest challenge to understand- ing India. The country and its people are divided between those completely globalized in thought and response, and those who continue to carry the past with them. Commentators have long described the two groups, both inhabiting the same geographi- cal space, as India and Bharat. Bharat is the traditional historical name for what constituted India in the era when it lacked both political unity and exact boundaries.

The essential psychological contest within India, therefore, is between its globalized and insular parts. What is worrisome, though, is that the distance between the two groups is ever increasing. While the purpose of democratic practices is to bring unity and consensus to decision-making, the very exercise of democracy in India also shows up differences. Indian politics and policymaking is replete with examples that underline this fact. This struggle for the soul of India gets manifested in the functioning of the state.

Curzonians and Nehruvians

If there are two individuals who best represent the competing visions of India’s position in the world, they would be India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the former British viceroy, Lord George Nathaniel Curzon. Some might contest these choices, but the philosophical influences of the two remain evident even today.

The vision of Lord Curzon, who represents the “expansionist” vision, was best captured in his seminal 1907 Romanes lecture, entitled “Frontiers.” From his concept of India arose an effort —still underway—to define what constituted India’s natural space. In his exposition on frontiers, Curzon set the benchmark fairly high, arguing that the Indian political footprint should be covering more space than it had for many centuries. In indepen- dent India, his strain of thinking has influenced how the state has worked to enforce its boundaries.

In the foreword to his 1977 book Pakistan’s Western Borderlands, which discusses the same area making headlines today, the emi-

nent historian Ainslie Embree captured this Curzonian perspec- tive. He argued that it was futile to have assumed that Indian interests in Afghanistan would wane after independence; in fact, they were as deep as during the British colonial period.

In contrast, Nehru, despite his Western civilizational ethos, elucidated a policy that pulled India from its inherently global- ized form of thinking and clubbed it with a set of insecure and inward-looking countries. This was best reflected in the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement. India’s natural interests in a flexible foreign policy were jettisoned in favor of membership of a club that believed in the virtues of poverty. Moralizing became the mantra of governance. This strain is still evident in India’s policymaking and politics today, in some ways more than the expansionist view. The contest between the Curzonian and Nehruvian visions produces the intellectual questions that today confront the Indian state and its society.

Finding a consensus

As with almost every other democracy, there are some aspects of policy that unite the two schools. One particularly promi- nent issue is India’s presence at the global level. Despite India’s emergence in recent years, there is a continuing disquiet about multilateral agreements and arrangements. The Curzonians and Nehruvians share the belief that the major multilateral arrange- ments and institutions arose out of political maneuvering in an age when India was supine and vulnerable.

Another issue that concerns most Indians is the question of terrorism, in its various manifestations across the country. This may be the single most important issue confronting Indian policymakers and the government. Indians believe that their country is the one most often in the crosshairs of terrorists, whether international jihadists or the homegrown extreme left-wing variety. But in the tackling of terrorism, the various strains of thinking in India again display their differences. While more lives and more money have been lost as a result of terror- ist activity than in almost any other country, there is no national consensus on a strategy to deal with it.

Therefore, no understanding of India, not even on multilat- eral negotiations or international terrorism, can be considered


Asia Program

Policy Brief

complete without appreciating the importance of thoughts and ideas. Returning to the security seminar in Beijing, a staff mem- ber at a local university made another insightful intervention, noting that India had occupied China for about a thousand years without firing a shot or sending a soldier. Instead, it had occu- pied China’s mind, with its export of ideas and philosophies.



About GMF’s Asia Program

The German Marshall Fund’s Asia Program addresses the implications of Asia’s rise for the West—in particular, how Asia’s resurgence will im- pact the foreign policy, economic, and domestic challenges and choices facing the transatlantic allies—through a combination of convening, writing, strategic grants, study tours, fellowships, partnerships with other GMF programs, and partnerships with other institutions. Led by Senior Fellow for Asia Daniel Twining and Transatlantic Fellow Andrew Small, the program’s initiatives include the Stockholm China Forum and India Forum, seminars and other activities in Japan, a Japanese fellowship program, Asia-related panels at GMF’s flagship events at Brussels and Halifax, and a paper series on transatlantic approaches to wider Asia and on deepening cooperation between democratic Asia and the West. For more information see

About GMF

The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting greater cooperation and understanding between North America and Europe. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working on transatlantic issues, by convening leaders to discuss the most pressing transatlantic themes, and by examining ways in which transatlantic cooperation can address a variety of global policy challenges. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Bratislava, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, and Bucharest.