Skip to main content

Reviewed by Jon Dorschner


Why India is not a Great Power (Yet) by Bharat Karnad, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, India, 2015, ISBN 978-0-19-945922-3, 552 pp., $59.95 (Hardcover).

Bharat Karnad is a substantive Indian intellectual with a strong pedigree. He is a professional analyst with the prestigious Indian think tank the Centre for Policy Research, who specializes in military/security affairs, particularly nuclear weapons policy. The Indian government and military frequently relies on Karnad to provide lucid policy recommendations. His two previous books concentrated on nuclear arms policy. His current work goes a step further.

In Why India is not a Great Power (Yet), Karnad presents a specific research thesis. He first makes the case that while India has for some time possessed the potential to become a great power, it has to date failed to do so. He then provides a number of reasons for this failure, and concludes with a list of specific policy recommendations to end this impasse.

Karnad is an unabashed and self-proclaimed conservative, who is proud to assert his right wing credentials. As such, he is a strong believer in traditional International Relations principles and has little patience for left of center IR scholars trying to break out of the traditional matrix and devise a new paradigm. This well-written and well-documented work resembles the classic IR books of Henry Kissinger and Karnad shares Kissinger’s ideological orientation. For Karnad, 19th Century realism has lost none of its ideological and explanatory power, and remains the only viable international relations system. The book is valuable because Karnad systematically applies these principals to his thesis, opening up a serious topic for debate.

Karnad is a committed Indian nationalist. As such, he is suspicious of the United States. He does not want to see India allied with the U.S., which he characterizes as a duplicitous and self-interested power that is inherently unreliable. Instead, India should assert its independence and become one of the poles in an emerging multipolar world. He asserts that India “cannot afford to be detached from the international system which is tending towards bipolarity—after the short interregnum of U.S. dominance—with China the other pole. To make sure the international system trends towards multipolarity instead and India is not swamped by China in Asia, New Delhi will have to utilize its hard power more strenuously.”1

As a doctrinaire realist, Karnad sees no reason why liberal concerns such as the environment and human rights should play a role in Indian policy formulation. Therefore, while quick to reject close ties between India and the U.S., he advocates that India work closely with Iran and Russia to achieve mutual ends, despite the fact that these two countries have ties to terrorism, human rights abuse, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

As a classical realist in the Kissinger mode, Karnad rank orders the world’s nation states, with the “great powers” at the top. In this worldview, every state should maximize its potential and strive to reach the highest rank. To such realists, every state seeks power, and the two principal determinants of power are economic success and a strong military. For Karnad the purpose of prosperity is not merely to raise living standards, but to fund the powerful military that is the prerequisite for national success.

Karnad contends that India failed to harness its economic and military potential because Indian governmental and military elites lack assertiveness. To achieve great power status, he argues, India must embrace aggression. “India will have to discard its tendency to please Washington and Beijing, and become more disruptive in Asia and globally because that’s what great powers and would-be great powers do—they break eggs to make the great power omelette.”2 Karnad attributes India’s failure of will to its colonial legacy and the subsequent domination by the left wing Congress Party and its leader Jawaharlal Nehru.

As an unabashed right wing ideologue, Karnad wears his views on his sleeve. He lays India’s failures on the doorstep of the Congress Party and its leftist allies and supporters. He firmly rejects the underlying principals of Congress foreign, security, and economic policy, and sees the ascent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a breath of fresh air that could potentially reverse decades of wrong policies.

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh epitomizes everything wrong with the Congress Party in Karnad’s eyes. Karnad criticizes Singh and his government for their inherent unwillingness to meet the threat posed by a resurgent China, reluctance to embrace nuclear weapons as a foreign policy and military tool, strong belief in the efficacy of “soft power,” and willingness to be a “free rider,” accepting the tacit protection of an American nuclear umbrella, while skirting the need to develop sufficient military force for self protection. He also derides India’s Nehruvian legacy and heaps contempt on Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi, who he believes emasculated India with his fuzzy headed promulgation of non-violence and rejection of industrial capitalism.

This work is not a nuanced exposition that tries to look at issues from all sides. There are no shades of gray. The world is black and white. To become a great power, India must embrace military power. It must reject its current obsession with Pakistan and realize that a military confrontation with China is all but inevitable. If India is not strong, Karnad asserts, it is inviting Chinese domination. Karnad contends that China is pursuing a clever policy of continually asserting its power, while reassuring India of its good intentions. “Indian foreign policy is also handicapped by a beguiling naiveté of seeing the world in terms of friendly powers and states such as China that are geostrategic adversaries but who can be won over by the soft touch.”34

Economically, Karnad has overwhelming faith in capitalism and the power of the markets. Like so many policy analysts and much of the world’s policy elite, he believes that economic liberalization will unleash unlimited economic growth. “Once the reverse thrusters are taken off, as promised by Modi, a surging Indian economy will increase government revenues, making more funds available for education, skilling and social welfare programs, and for discriminate expenditures to gain a consequential military.”4 He asserts that once India totally rejects its Nehruvian socialist inheritance, (strong labor unions, planned economy, regulation, public sector) and gives free rein to capitalism, it will set off a prolonged period of unprecedented economic growth that will provide sufficient resources to not only eliminate Indian poverty once and for all, but pay for a totally restructured and powerful military equipped with state of the art military technology.

Having laid out his basic thesis, Karnad provides a plethora of specific policy recommendations. This makes the book particularly valuable. I found some recommendations to be dangerous if not ludicrous. These include, immediately testing thermonuclear weapons, planting nuclear mines in the Himalayas, and providing state of the art military technology to Asian states as part of a China containment policy. Particularly disturbing is Karnad’s casual rejection of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) and his chilling descriptions of the tactical use of nuclear weapons. He seems to see no inherent danger in the continuing spread of nuclear weapons to more and more countries. He sees no reasons why India should embrace nonproliferation or try to work to stem the spread of nuclear weapons. Karnad also casually recommends that India reject participation in worldwide efforts to stem climate change, and that India abandon environmental regulations if they in any way impede India’s untrammeled economic development.

I applaud Karnad’s willingness to present a long list of policy recommendations, even when some appear outlandish. This shows a great mind at work and is a principal task of policy analysts.

I also find some of his recommendations refreshing and worthy of serious consideration by policy makers. For example, Karnad’s analysis of the failings of India’s military procurement policy is spot on. Karnad wonders why India spends huge sums purchasing military hardware from other countries, when it is perfectly capable of self-sufficiency. He points out that India has successfully produced sophisticated satellites, missiles, and aircraft, and asks why it continues to buy tanks, airplanes, and artillery at great expense from other countries. He rightfully asserts that not only does this make India dependent on other countries for spare parts, ammunition and maintenance; it hobbles the Indian economy and wastes valuable resources that could better be spent elsewhere. Karnad is correct. India should be self-sufficient in military research and production. It should integrate its public and private sectors and harness its talent and resources to create almost everything required by its armed forces. It is also true that India’s defense sector could then produce military hardware much cheaper than that produced by other countries that would be very attractive to militaries of other developing countries.

Karnad also calls for India to once and for all end its military obsession with Pakistan, dismantling two of the three “strike corps” deployed along the Pakistan border and reorienting them into mountain forces that could defend India against Chinese incursions along the contested Himalayan border. Karnad is correct in asserting that this could reassure Pakistan that India has no designs on its national integrity and perhaps inaugurate a much-needed era of bilateral cooperation between these two contending states.

Karnad also calls for the creation of three adjoining “Monroe doctrines” designed to hedge in China and defend the rest of Asia against Chinese territorial expansion. India would be responsible for policing the Indian Ocean, while ASEAN and Japan would look after East Asia. As part of this concept, Karnad wants India to formally ally with Japan and the countries of Southeast Asia (most particularly Vietnam) to include basing rights for the Indian navy, training, joint exercises, and the provision of Indian manufactured military hardware to these friendly states on bargain terms. This would certainly end India’s “free rider” status and would amount to India stepping up to the plate and assuming its fair share in the construction of an indigenous Asian defense system not reliant solely on American military power and the American nuclear umbrella. This is a concept with some merit and deserves serious discussion and consideration.

One aspect of Karnad’s ideological orientation that I find refreshing is his refutation of the BJP’s Hindu nationalism. Karnad is an Indian nationalist. He does not differentiate between Indians of differing ethnicities and religious orientations. He looks at all Indians the same. He has no patience for the Hindu nationalists’ pejorative characterization of Muslims, Christians and other non-Hindu minorities as second-class citizens or not real Indians. This is fully consistent with Karnad’s realist orientation, which sees no role for religion in the formulation of foreign policy and views religious nationalism as antithetical to the national interest.

This book is a valuable addition to the literature on modern India and sketches out in great detail a possible foreign policy approach. It is certainly intriguing to see what foreign policy decisions India would take if its policy elites were classical realists. It provides real food for thought.

While the book is well written and well documented, it did not need to be this long. There is considerable repetition of basic points and American readers could find it overly wordy. The Indian drafting style does not emphasize conciseness to the same extent as the American. An American editor would have cut the book by up to several hundred pages. I suspect that the book’s length and repetition is at least partially due to the fact that Karnad mined his many published articles and did some cutting and pasting while preparing the manuscript. white star

1. Page 518

2. page 520

3. page 516

4. page 517


American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.

imageA native of Tucson, Arizona, Jon P. Dorschner earned a PhD. in South Asian studies from the University of Arizona. He currently teaches South Asian Studies and International Relations at his alma mater, and publishes articles and books on South Asian subjects. From 1983 until 2011, he was a career Foreign Service Officer. A Political Officer, Dr. Dorschner’s career specialties were internal politics and political/military affairs. He served in Germany, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, the United States Military Academy at West Point and Washington. From 2003-2007 he headed the Internal Politics Unit at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India. In 2007-2008 Dr. Dorschner completed a one-year assignment on an Italian Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Tallil, Iraq. From 2009-2011 he served as an Economic Officer, in Berlin, Germany.

Comments are closed.