Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) Course on ‘Introduction to India’s Strategic Thinking’
Opening Remarks by Dr Arvind Gupta, Director, VIF, 05th Nov 2018

I would like to extend a hearty welcome you all to the ‘Introductory Course on Indian Strategic Thinking’. During the next three days, eminent speakers will speak to you on Indian thinking on critical issues of national security and development.

A lot of information on Indian policies is already available in public domain. This course is about ideas and concepts behind these policies. The speakers will introduce to you the foundation of India’s thinking on crucial subjects.

No country can become great unless its leadership and its people think strategically. India has a lot of problems and a lot of tasks to accomplish. We need to build our comprehensive national power to deal with security challenges. Our per capita income is still insignificant compared to the developed countries or even the countries in the middle income bracket. Overcoming India’s poverty and raising India’s globally will require intense amount of work.

Government’s policies are usually designed for short-term impact and conform to election cycles. Governments are often occupied day-to-day problems which consumes most of the time of the policy makers. Their approaches are often dominated by tactical approaches. Strategic thinking, long-term thinking is often given a miss in favour of tactical approaches. However, governments have the responsibility to be guided by 5-year election cycles, but to think far ahead, keeping in mind the long term interests of the nation. They have to be mindful of the surrounding environment, the regional environment and the global environment in order to formulate policies which have strategic impact. It is not just enough to think of how to deal with the rising oil prices in the short-term, it is equally important to have an energy policy which will take India for the next 30 to 40 or 50 years. This is strategic thinking.

Strategic Thinking

There is no single accepted definition of strategic thinking. Strategic thinking is defined as a “mental or thinking process applied by an individual in the context of achieving success in a game or other endeavor”. General Andre Beaufre wrote in 1963 that strategic thinking "is a mental process, at once abstract and rational, which must be capable of synthesising both psychological and material data.” According to the US Army manual “Strategic thinking is the synthesis of thinking critically, systemically, creatively, and requires historical analysis.” It equips officers how to solve problems in Vulnerable, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) world.

Strategic thinking is long-term thinking. It is macro level thinking. It is about the big picture. It involves thinking about concepts and categories. From strategic thinking emerge strategic planning and durable policies. Strategic thinking emerges when a strategic long-term goal is set. Vivekananda emphasised harmony in diversity. Indian nationalist leaders conceptualised ‘Bharat Mata’. Mahatma Gandhi gave the doctrine of ahimsa and satyagraha. These were strategic concepts which continue to guide us even today. For instance, when Bal Gangadhar declared that Swaraj is his birthright, a long-term goal was set. This was a piece of strategic thinking. After a long term goal has been set up, every policy, every action is required to be aligned with that strategic goal.

India must emerge as a leading power in the comity of nations. This is a strategic goal which requires strategic thinking. How do we meet this goal? What kind of economic growth will require? What should be the quality of economic growth? How will we deal with external factors? And soon.

Many people in the West believe that Indians are poor in strategic thinking. This is not correct. India has a long record of strategic thinking.
Ancient Indian thinking about oneself, the relationship between oneself and the higher power, the relationship between man and nature et cetera are contained in the Vedas and Upnishads. Ancient Indian literature gave birth to Vedantic philosophy in which Hinduism is rooted. This philosophy helps navigate the world. Even today we practice and refer to ancient wisdom. A variety of Indian knowledge systems, Ayurveda, Yoga, music, art, astronomy, mathematics, grammar etc. have emerged from ancient thinking. Indian thinking takes a comprehensive holistic view of developments. Time and space are regarded as infinite. One life time is not enough. This kind of thinking is today encouraged by modern science as well.

The Indian Constitution is a brilliant example of a strategic thinking. It has helped to maintain harmony in diversity while also establishing a system of governance which is democratic. Since 1950, the Constitution has stood the test of times and ticket care of India’s needs. Homi Bhabha spoke about three stage program of nuclear energy. That was also a piece of strategic thinking. Non- alignment guided India’s policy during the cold war years.

The policy of non-alignment, adopted in the earlier years was a strategic move. It kept India out of military blocs and provided it space for manoeuvre. In the early years of India’s independence, a number of new institutions were set up. Although India was poor, it realised the importance of modern technology. The setting up of the Planning Commission, CSIR, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, the Indian Space Research Organisation, the IIT’s, the IIMs, the universities et cetera have been strategic decisions. Going nuclear was also a strategic decision. Helping in the emergence of Bangladesh was also a decision of great strategic importance. The opening up of the Indian economy in 1991 was a strategic move which has completely turned India’s destiny. In recent times premise is program of Swachh Bharat, financial inclusion, GST, the demonetisation etc. are decisions of great strategic importance.

Thus strategic thinking is not uncommon to Indian people. India has managed to hold together its vast diversity and has not broken up like some other countries. This is an achievement of mammoth magnitude. This is because the Indians were able to put together a system of governance in which everyone had a role to play. The provision of fundamental rights to each and every citizen is also a piece of strategic thinking.

Sometimes there is too much of talk and too little of action. There is still massive poverty in the country even after 72 years of independence. However, there have been notable failures of policy and policy implementation. Not everything that was thought was right. The inability to make a cost benefit analysis of policies is a failure.

India is in great need for strategic thinking looking ahead; this is because the world is changing very rapidly. Many of the developments in the world are not in our control. The competition for scarce resources is becoming acute. The threat of climate change on mankind’s existence is huge. The instability in the world’s increasing. Economic globalisation has brought a lot of prosperity but not all of it is well distributed. Our neighbours are not necessarily well disposed towards India. China is a challenge to India. The rising population of youth would require quality jobs and quality life. This is a huge challenge at a time when the crisis in the forum sector where farmer’s suicide is an issue. Our education system and health system are not geared towards meeting our needs. Corruption remains a big problem in India. We need reform in how political partys function. Judicial, criminal justice and police require thorough reforms. To deal with these challenges, we will require to think strategically while improving our implementation.

We can take many examples from other countries of strategic thinking. After the death of Chairman Mao, Deng decided to modernise China by giving a totally new interpretation to socialism. Leninist type of socialism was jettisoned and market reforms were introduced in China. That was a brilliant piece of strategic thinking.

America, the most powerful country in the world, has also produced many examples of strategic thinking. The American leaders in the 18th century decided not to get entangled into European affairs and instead focus their energies on building America’s powers. Thus it was not until the First World War that America got involved in global affairs. It was only during the Second World War that America became a truly global power. Keeping America out of the global entanglements and conflicts among European powers was a wise move on the part of American leaders.
America also dealt with the Soviet Union, its arch rival, in a strategic way. It undertook several policies aimed at containing the Soviet Union and thus isolating it and we can get. The Cold War was a strategic move by the America to weaken the Soviet Union by involving it in a massive arms race which the latter could not afford. However, America has also made many mistakes. Getting involved in Iraq in 2003 was a massive mistake which has led to many problems for America.

Strategic thinking does not come easily. Sometimes it is difficult to extinguish between strategic and tactical. Governments, faced with day-to-day problems, or often compelled to attend to the urgent rather than what is important and long-term. Nevertheless they cannot be exaggerated from thinking long-term and strategic. Think tanks and universities are the natural places where strategic thinking takes place and should take place. The government should maintain a close interaction with these institutions. There should also be freedom of thinking in the country so that all ideas can be expressed and the most important the strategic ones can be taken.

India’s history and culture provide many examples of strategic thinkers. Krishna, who piloted the Pandavas through the Mahabharata war was indeed a strategic thinker. His discourse to Arjuna in the Bhagwad Gita is finest piece of strategic thinking one could ever envisage. It tells a person how to do his karma without being allured by the fruit of action is strategic thinking. Kautilya’s Arthasastra is a strategic thinking in state craft. The Mandala theory, the six attributes of foreign policy and the four upayas are all strategic advice.

Sun Tzu was a great strategic thinker. His advice of winning without fighting is excellent. You win the war in mind. Fighting is the last resort.
Many Western Indian analysts feel that India lacks grand strategy in foreign and defence policies. Unlike other countries, India has not come up with any foreign policy doctrine on a national security strategy defining its long-term vision. This is only partially true. Prime Minister Modi has time and again articulated his vision of India. India sees itself as a rising power which would contribute to global peace and harmony. The Indian military has also come up with Army, Air Force and Navy doctrines. The NITI Ayog is charged with thinking through initiatives which would transform India. What is lacking over as a clear implementation strategy.

We hope that you will enjoy the course and also come out with fresh ideas which would help us further improve the course.

Thank you.

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