How does India's strategic elite view the world? What are its fears and hopes? What kind of threats and opportunities does it recognize in the international system? Who does it view as its potential partners and allies? What kind of a role does it want to play in international relations?
A study, which I was involved in, sought to understand India's strategic perceptions through the views of nearly 70 decision-makers or potential decision-makers. These conversations with India's strategic elite, mostly formally structured interviews and some free ranging discussions, were carried out from Aug. 1998 to May 2000.
There are three factors that need to be highlighted at the outset. First, India's strategic elite is consciously and fairly systematically thinking about India's international relations and its place in the world. For all those who suggested that the Indian elite rarely thinks about strategic issues, this finding should mark a departure in their analysis. This new awareness and fresh activism on strategic issues seems to be have been provoked considerably by the May 1998 nuclear tests as well the war in Kargil a year later, but is rooted in the developments over the last decade -- including the end of the Cold War, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the troubles in Kashmir.
Second, while the Western electronic media, particularly CNN and BBC, and Western news agencies, including Reuters, AP and AFP remain the principal sources of information about foreign affairs, the opinion and editorial pages of Indian newspapers and Indian television channels are the main sources of analysis (especially on Indian perspectives on international issues) and seem to play an important role in shaping opinion.
Third, there is a remarkable convergence of views, on key foreign policy issues, within what may be described as the core of the strategic elite. This core, which is mostly located in Delhi, with a sprinkling in other metropolitan centers, is quite remarkable in its character. Less than 100 strong, it includes journalists, retired civil servants, former admirals, generals and air marshals, academicians, scientists, politicians and businessmen.
Often, this core group is the main source of advice on foreign policy issues to even the major political parties like the Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party, which continue to have only a few members really interested in foreign policy issues.
If the views of the elite are good evidence, India's strategic worldview is clearly shifting from an emphasis on moral speak to realpolitik based on acquiring and exercising power. In this sense, there is a clear transition in evidence from the Nehruvian view of the world that has continued to dominate the form, if not the entire content, of India's foreign policy for the last 50 years.
Indian interests, it is now felt, have often been compromised because of woolly-headed policies that were out of tune with realities of international politics. From India's decision to take the Kashmir issue to the United Nations in 1948 to the restraint exhibited after the nuclear explosion in 1974, all of this has been viewed as one long saga of "spineless policies" -- in the words of one newspaper editor.
This is one of the strongest trends in evidence. And, in as much as there was an Indian "exceptionalism," based on a less-than-realist foreign policy posture, rooted in Nehru's worldview, it seems to be breathing its last.
Also, precisely because India seems to have come to terms with realpolitik, it is going to be easier to predict its behavior as an emerging power. Bluntly put, the search for military and economic power, rather than attachment to any specific "idealistic" norms will primarily shape its behavior in the months and years to come.
India's strategic elite considers the world to be unipolar and dominated by the United States. The international system is anarchic and based on the cardinal principle of self-help. Nation-states are here to stay and the possibility of a world government -- often stressed by Nehru -- is seen as being negligible.
India's primary quest seems to be to acquire the strategic autonomy that will allow it to be secure in an "unfriendly neighborhood" and give it the capability to make independent, even unpopular, choices in the international system. Deterrence and balance of power are seen as vital instruments for promoting national and international security. Regimes and international institutions, more often than not, reflect great power interests rather than shared norms.
Despite poor governance and mounting internal problems, India's strategic elite is confident that India will emerge as a key economic and military player by the first decade of the new millennium. Order and stability, as Kanti Bajpai, an associate professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, has emphasized in a similar essay, will be a product of a concert of five or six democratic powers, including India that should share responsibility for the management of the international system. As he argues rightly, a genuinely multipolar world structured around a co-operative security system is the best guarantee for peace.
India's strategic elite continues to be suspicious of the U.S., and broadly speaking, Western policies toward South Asia. They are deeply resentful of the manner in which the U.S. and its allies seem to have "hijacked" international institutions, including the U.N., and feel that the "new world order" is little more than an extension of American foreign policy.
However, despite such apprehensions about the U.S., there are few who want a confrontation with the Americans. Instead, there is strong support for engaging the only superpower in a meaningful relationship and for building a strong, pragmatic partnership with it. The term "natural allies," often used for India and the U.S., has a deep resonance with India's strategic elite, and this feeling is strongest in respondents who are less than 50 years old. Shared concern over China's future role and the fight against Islamic terrorism are viewed as key factors that bind the U.S. and India together.
U.S. support for India's position on Kargil has dramatically increased the appeal of the U.S. even within the traditionally anti-American sections. Economically, the U.S. is India's largest trading partner and vital to its recognition as a global player. A modus vivendi with the U.S. is not only desirable, but also a necessity, if India has to translate its aspirations into reality.
It is China that is consistently identified as the most likely source of insecurity to India and the greatest potential threat to Indian interests in the medium-term and long-term future. The principle strategic rationale for the construction of a credible and effective Indian nuclear weapon posture is to provide a hedge -- an insurance policy -- against the possibility of a belligerent China in an uncertain anarchic world.
Many, even within the Left, admit to the possibility of a future clash of interests between India and China over trade and influence in Asia. Few take the idea of a U.S.-China collusion against India seriously. Nor, however, is there much support for an Indian role in an U.S.-led containment of China, although many feel that the U.S. will begin to rely on India as a key balancer in Asia.