Strategic Thought

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STRATEGIC THOUGHT Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831), modern Europe's great strategist, considered the purpose of war to be the imposition of the victor's will over the enemy (strategy), and the destruction of the adversary's main force in decisive battle (tactics). Clausewitz also postulated that strategy was neither an art nor a science but an act of human intercourse. Furthermore, he emphasized that successful war was waged by the trinitarian structure of the state: its government, its people, and its armed forces. India, as a dependency of the rising British Empire, had a government that was alien and an army that was selectively recruited. Accordingly, neither was representative of the people of India. Earlier, the Mughals had understood the strategic significance of India's mountain passes in the northwest, but were oblivious to sea power. Even the great Mughal emperor Akbar remained unmindful of the Portuguese embargo of his main seaport, Surat. Though the fatal weakening of the Mughals followed the invasion by the Turcoman adventurer, Nadir Shah (1739), the coup de grâce was rendered by a British mercantile company that took control of the Indian sea trade. By its conquest of India, Britain became a great power, and London used India's central position and resources to control "any point either of Asia or Africa," as asserted by the Viceroy Lord Curzon.

The Artha Shāstra

Ancient India's greatest strategist, Kautilya (also known as Chanakya or Vishnugupta, c. 320 b.c.), prime minister to Emperor Chandragupta Maurya, wrote his great work on statecraft, the Artha Shāstra, which focused on the duties of a king and military affairs. Kautilya considered the dharma (sacred duty) of a king to expand the resources of his state by employing varying combinations of sam (amity or treaty), dam (rewards), dand (retribution), and bhed (discord). However, if war became necessary, Kautilya considered employing the following seven principles and three "controls" before hostilities were undertaken: an efficient system of governance; capable royal councilors and other officials (amatyas); firm control over one's own territory ( janapada); a fortified city (durg) within the king's domain; a full war-chest (kosha); an adequate army (danda); and allies, either equals (mitra or sandhi) or stronger ones (samasraj). The three "controls" were equally timeless: to examine the morale and motivation of the opposing leaders; to calculate the material resources, numerical strength, and level of training of the two states; and to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the two kings' advisers, generals, ministers, and diplomats.

As his overall strategy, Kautilya based vijigishu (victory) on the concept of the mandala (circle), whereby one's neighboring state was always a real or potential enemy, and the state next to one's immediate neighbor was a natural ally. Among other related topics, the Artha Shāstra covered battlefield dispositions, tactics, peace treaties (a weak enemy should be crushed, whereas the stronger one should be negotiated with), and methods of combat, ranging from coercive diplomacy to clandestine warfare.

Kautilya used legends and mythology to buttress his analysis. For instance, he quoted Brihaspati, the legendary sage of sages, as saying that "three to one" superiority over the enemy was necessary for victory. This still widely quoted maxim (without attribution to either Brihaspati or Kautilya) was to make caution the strategic imperative in India, since such overwhelming military superiority was rarely achieved. Kautilya also prescribed responsibilities of the navadhyaksha (superintendent of ships) and analyzed sea trade but paid little attention to maritime strategy. Perhaps it was his North Indian outlook and the influence of another Indian epic, the Rāmāyaṇa, in which Lord Ram invades the island of Sri Lanka by building a bridge, not ships, to cross the sea. Kautilya also limited his wars of conquest to the Indian subcontinent. Hence, over the next millennium, his towering but flawed work created a defensive and introspective Indian military mind-set. Muslim invasions and conquests from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries consigned Kautilya to obscurity, only to be resurrected after 1907, when his Artha Shāstra was first published in English.

Independent India

Forty years after the rediscovery of Kautilya's Artha Shāstra, India became independent. However, freedom was accompanied by South Asia's partition and the destruction of the geographical unity visualized by Kautilya. The leadership of newly independent India had little experience in governance, foreign policy, or strategic planning, and was wary of the military, as postcolonial armies seized power in most newly independent states. Moreover, India's new leaders considered British India's military, which had remained aloof during the struggle for freedom, as little more than mercenaries. The organization and mindset of the army (by far the largest of the defense services) was based on static, not operational, considerations. Hence, a few high-ranking Indian officers had some administrative experience, but little knowledge of strategy. Furthermore, India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was determined to avoid entangling foreign alliances and believed that Indian security was enhanced by reduced militarization of the planet. These perspectives were in consonance with the Gandhian strategies of nonviolence and economic self-sufficiency. The latter stifled modernization of the military, as the country's industrial base was small and imports were restricted. Consequently, senior officers, busy husbanding scarce resources, had little time for prospective planning or post-colonial strategy. The Gandhian precept of nonviolence had its own ramifications on the military. For instance, the navy was discouraged from acquiring submarines, since they were perceived as offensive warships and therefore unsuitable for a country advocating disarmament and nonviolence. The electorate, too, was little concerned about defense issues. Accordingly, few members of Parliament wished to serve on the forty-four-member Standing Committee on Defence. Even forty years after independence, fewer than half of the committee's members attended its meetings; apart from the chairman, only seven others were present at all its sessions. Not unexpectedly, strategic thought evolved fitfully, yet incrementally under the influence of the following major factors.


The assimilation of non-Hindu cultures and religions is integral to the modern Indian identity. Hence, symbols of the Indian Republic are of Ashokan Buddhist origin, the link-language of the country remained English, and the Muslim Mughals epitomized Indian cuisine and many forms of the arts and architecture. History also reminded India that the country's lag in military science had led to repeated defeats in the past. Therefore, independent India made a conscious effort to keep abreast of modern technology. The sudden emergence of India as a powerhouse in the software industry may be an unintended but fortunate consequence of this commitment.


India's continental geographical contours were drawn 2,400 years ago by Kautilya. Indians were largely isolationist, for they considered their land secure behind the mountain chains stretching along their eastern, northern, and western borders. The ocean toward the south was not understood in military terms but only as a means of trade, travel, and proselytization. Neither the limited Chinese foray through the Himalayas in the seventh century nor the successive raids from the northwest altered the Indian perception of living in a safe, insular, and prosperous continental nation, though given to fissiparous tendencies that led to piecemeal conquests of the country. Hence, national consolidation of the country was a major security issue for New Delhi, whereas the legacy of insularity contributed to India's attempts to minimize the presence of outside powers in the six-country subcontinent of South Asia.


Though concerned about divisive tendencies, New Delhi considered the distinctive Indian culture compelling enough to keep the country united, despite the centrifugal effects of well-defined regional subcultures. Furthermore, the Hindu concepts of dharma, karma, and reincarnation were integral to this belief. Dharma, as Kautilya instructed, was sacred law, requiring all members of society to perform their various duties. Karma enjoined that individual action and performance was the basis for future incarnations. The concept of reincarnation gave Indians a cyclical rather than a linear perspective on time. Hence, as the universe itself goes through the phases of birth, growth, decay, and rebirth, so must individual countries and living beings. Therefore, in a sense, Kautilya's India was basically eternal, going through cycles from birth to rebirth. Accordingly, Indians appear to possess a capacity for timeless endurance and tolerance.


During the colonial period, strategic responsibility for the defense of India shifted to London. Hence, Indians had little say or understanding of those issues. The net result was material poverty and numerous other losses, including confidence and management skills.


To Indians, the geographical unity of the country was torn by the creation of Pakistan, a hostile neighbor, across a newly created border that was devoid of natural barriers. Consequently, India was preoccupied by the defense of this new frontier and paid scant attention to its ill-defined border with China. In addition, New Delhi was concerned about the further instigation of Indian Muslims by fundamentalists. Accordingly, internal security became another issue. The conflict over Kashmir became India's major security and diplomatic challenge. Three Indo-Pakistan Wars were fought over Kashmir. Furthermore, the Pakistani-supported, though indigenous, insurgency (since 1987) in Indian Kashmir remains an ongoing conundrum for New Delhi.

Nuclear weapons

Despite the abhorrent nature of nuclear weapons, there was clear recognition in New Delhi of nuclear weapons as a deterrent against aggression or coercion by other countries, especially Pakistan and China. In addition, nuclear weapons came to symbolize political maturity, ultimate sovereignty, and technological prowess. Foreign military interventions in Yugoslavia and in the Gulf have added further relevance to the importance of nuclear deterrence.

Strategically, some of these factors led India to focus on the subcontinent and on its immediate neighbors. The neighbors were dealt with as minor "enemies," whereas the transneighbors, especially the Kingdom of Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, were treated as natural allies. The United States became an incipient opponent, an outsider intruding into the subcontinent as Pakistan's partner in collective security arrangements and with its own military base on the British-owned island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

India had, perhaps intuitively, followed the mandala theory as visualized by Kautilya, antagonizing its neighbors, accommodating the strong (China on Tibet), and over-whelming the weak (Nepal and Bhutan). Buffer states, a European concept, were overlooked. Ironically, it was the loss of the largest buffer state, Tibet, that compelled India to move from vague strategic concepts to threat assessment and defense planning, especially after the reverses suffered in the border war with China in 1962. However, it took another thirty years before the factors mentioned above led India to form a cohesive national security perspective. The stimuli were many: the collapse of the Soviet Union with the attendant rise of the United States as an interventionist sole superpower; the global rise in Islamic fundamentalism; the ongoing Sino-Pakistani collaboration, especially in nuclear weapons and missile technology; cross-border terrorism as part of an insurgency in Indian Kashmir; and a compelling study by an American think-tank, the Rand Corporation. Rand's main inference was that India had no long-range strategic perspectives, as evidenced by the country's reactive approach to international affairs and the absence of the military's participation in policy making. The study had its shortcomings, the most obvious being its failure to recognize the sense of mission and commitment of the scientific community to the successful development of nuclear devices, chemical weapons, and missile systems. The unusual group of scientist-strategists received such high public acclaim that one of them, Dr. K. Santhanam, was appointed director of the Ministry of Defence's leading think tank, the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis in New Delhi. Another eminent scientist, Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, was elected president of India in 2002.

Consensus on the country's strategic imperatives was reached by the new millennium during the several years of the rightist coalition government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The process was invigorated by nuclear tests, accelerated missile development, and military ties with the United States and Israel. Under these circumstances, bureaucrats, scientists, politicians, and perhaps military officers set the strategic vision for the country. Hence, the contours of New Delhi's nuclear policy were already in the public domain before a draft nuclear doctrine, framed by eminent strategic thinkers, declared that India would maintain a minimal credible and survivable deterrence, based on a triad of delivery systems (missiles, aircraft, and submarines) with adequate command and control facilities. The draft also affirmed a no-first-use policy and a commitment not to threaten or use atomic weapons against a nonnuclear country.

The army, bearing nuclear weapons in mind, posited the operational strategy of a limited "hyperwar." The limits were defined as time, geographical area, force levels, and war objectives. Hyperwar meant the use of intense firepower, long-range sensors, precision-guided munitions, and the elimination of the front and the rear of battle. Such a battle could be fought continuously, regardless of day and night, and through all weather. The air force preempted the others by publishing its Air Power Doctrine in 1997. The doctrine gave equal priority to both offensive and defensive operations, and accepted the possibility of reduction in force levels if compensated by induction of high technology equipment and acquisition of force-multipliers like airborne warning and control systems, multirole war planes, and midair refueling capabilities. By implication, it distanced itself from the subsidiary role as the tactical air arm of the army. Its doctrine acquired greater relevance, as it was the only service with the means to deliver nuclear weapons. Hence, it automatically became the preeminent strategic force in the country. The smallest service, the navy, potentially has the largest strategic role through sea-denial, sea-control, power projection, management of the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone of 1.08 million square miles (2.8 million sq. km.), and as a part of the triad of nuclear deterrence. Like other navies, it acquired land-attack missile capabilities. However, its sea control and blue-water potential remains limited. The pursuit of a nuclear submarine arm as a part of the triad of nuclear deterrence, raises concerns among some admirals, as they fear that nuclear submarines would divert funds from the surface ships necessary to fulfill the navy's other tactical and strategic ambitions. Like the rest of India, the armed forces are engaging with the world. Indo–U.S. cooperation ranges from joint exercises to Indian political support for various U.S. ballistic missile defense programs.

In general, India's wider strategic goals remain constrained by an inadequate indigenous military-industrial complex, the constricted strategy of managing domestic conflicts and insurgencies by attrition and co-option, and sudden outbursts of ethnic and communal violence in the country. Furthermore, for forty years, Indians were Pakistan-centric and reactive in the acquisition of weapons and military systems. Submarines, supersonic fighters, and reconnaissance and support battalions were Pakistani initiatives with India following suit. In addition, American strategists continue to find that serving senior Indian military officers still had little exposure to the outside world and insufficient training in such strategic subjects as geopolitics, military history, and patterns of organization.

Nevertheless, the 1990s brought economic liberalization and an unfolding of talents, self-confidence, and more pragmatic international relationships. India was no longer the hungry country of the 1943 Bengal famine trying to keep Nehru's "tryst with destiny," by espousing global peace, prosperity, freedom, and social justice. Instead, newly confident of its ancient civilization, and a vibrant, stable democracy, India sought new paradigms: self-reliance rather than self-sufficiency, and participative growth instead of a command economy. As India has no territorial ambitions, the pattern of past politico-military engagements is likely to persist. Hence, India will militarily intervene only at the request of a friendly government and withdraw its forces as soon as possible, as in Sri Lanka (1971, 1987), Bangladesh (1971), and Maldives (1988). At present, for the uniformed services and security-related establishments, the new imperatives are greater integration of command, control, modernization with triservice compatibility of acquisitions, and intelligence sharing. Still, fourteen different ministries and departments in New Delhi exercise overlapping authority over the country's maritime affairs. Howsoever slowly, a holistic approach toward strategic affairs appears to be evolving in New Delhi as India develops tangible political, economic, and military ties with countries in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East (including Israel), Africa, and the United States. Hence, India's strategic perspective appears to have completed yet another cycle of reincarnation, from Kautilyan back to Curzonian concerns.

Rajesh Kadian

See alsoArmed Forces ; Artha Shāstra ; Civil-Military Relations ; Pakistan and India ; Wars, Modern


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Curzon of Kedleston, Lord. The Place of India in the Empire. London: John Murray, 1909.

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Sengupta, Prasun K. "India's Armed Forces in the New Millennium." Asian Defense Journal 26 (June 2002): 13–16.

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Strategic Thought

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