Indian needs to develop a strong strategic culture

India has major power ambitions. A strong strategic culture must be developed to guide India to fulfill such ambitions, writes Aneek Chatterjee for South Asia Monitor

Aneek Chatterjee Aug 12, 2020

Strategic culture is an issue not much popular in the discourse of Indian foreign policy because those who believe it existed are unsure of the form and content through which it existed; and those who believe it was never there, are ambiguous about how it should operate. 

For the uninitiated, the concept of strategic culture refers to a nation’s attitudes, values, symbols, traditions, practices, and ways of adapting to the environment for solving problems with respect to the threat or use of force. In simple words, strategic culture refers to a nation’s attitude towards threat or use of force. Such an attitude should not be bereft of a nation’s traditions, values, and cultural aspects. Strategic culture involves mainly three areas related to the threat or use of force: 

* Security outside national borders or external security; 

* Security of the national borders; 

* Security within the country, or internal security. 

Indian beliefs, attitudes, and ways of dealing with these security issues refer to a strategic culture in India. Foreign policy is more concerned with the first two types of security, although the third is important for achieving goals of national interest. Strategic culture refers to warfare strategy, and also, security issues during peacetime. 

In search of warfare strategies in India                  

The most pertinent question, as far as the existence of strategic culture in Indian foreign policy is concerned, is do we have a warfare strategy or any strategy to meet security concerns during peacetime? Do we need a grand strategy in Indian foreign policy to deal with these security issues? Answers to these questions will be searched in this article.  Strategic culture encompasses traditions, cultural history et all Now if we look at traditional documents, we find important treatises of warfare in ancient India like ancient Indian philosopher Kautilya’s Arthaśāstra, and the two epics Mahabharta and Ramayana. Arthaśāstra talked about the covert war, open war, and silent war; how to engage in war; and what to do in case one is a target of a covert or silent war. Although the actual author and time of Arthaśāstra are debated, there is no doubt that the treatise comprises an important document of diplomacy and warfare in ancient India. In epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana, references to strategies of warfare could also be traced. Therefore, ancient India provided us with valuables sources to look at in our search for a strategic culture in India. 

These sources, especially Arthashastra, did influence diplomatic and military strategy for a long time. But medieval India actually lacked in warfare strategies.  Historian A.L. Basham believed that interstate relations and war were the weakest aspects of Indian polity during the medieval period. There were large kingdoms, enormous armies, individual heroes, but no alliances or strategies to thwart the aggressor or for empire building. As a consequence, these kingdoms could not withstand foreign aggressors like the Turks. Therefore, history teaches us the need for war strategies to thwart the aggressor and for securing peace for the country.

Moving from the pre-colonial period to the post-colonial era (because during the colonial period, India was not sovereign to decide its own course, although Indian thinkers like Swami Vivekananda or Mahatma Gandhi, to name a few, provided significant strategic thoughts), the reigning question persists: Can India develop its own strategic culture?

Scholars, practitioners of diplomacy and military analysts hold divergent views over the nature and existence of strategic culture in India after independence. While some refer to the development of strategic culture during the premiership of Jawaharlal Nehru and its continuity by subsequent governments, others think that India lacked a coherent strategic culture during the Nehru period. 

Indian academic-analyst  Kanti Bajpai found three streams of strategic thought in independent India: Nehruvian, Neo-liberal and Hyperrealist, while former Natonal Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon believes that independent India had always possessed some kind of strategic culture, and military analyst like Lt. Gen S.C. Sardeshpande lamented the lack of a strategic culture in postcolonial India. Foreign scholars like Ian Hall saw the continuity of Nehruvian strategic thought in subsequent governments, up to the premiership of Narendra Modi, while George Tanham, drawing mainly from ancient Indian epics referred to fatalistic and moral characteristics of Indian strategic culture, which lacks realism and activism.    

The invisible and visible strategic culture in India

In the sense of warfare strategies, Indian strategic culture did not develop during the Nehru period, believes this author. Nehru developed an autonomous course for Indian foreign policy, away from the influences of the superpowers. But he had no military strategy, not even any inkling of it. He preferred political solutions to security problems. But the world was getting militarized, covertly and overtly. Finally, when the Chinese attacked us in 1962, Nehru had no answer, and India faced a humiliating defeat. So it is improper to assume that Nehru developed some kind of strategic culture. He was a pioneer of Indian foreign policy, minus any security strategy. His daughter, Indira Gandhi deviated from his visions, although unofficially, and tested India’s first nuclear device in 1974. During her tenure as prime minister, India inflicted a quick and resounding defeat on Pakistan in the 1971 war, and established itself as a regional power. 

But no grand strategy on security or strategic culture could be visible during her tenures as prime minister. P. V. Narasimha Rao was credited with initiating economic diplomacy for India in an era of globalization during his tenure as prime minister, but strategic culture was still invisible. It was during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s last tenure as PM (1999-2004) that India had a Nuclear Doctrine, the first of its kind since independence. After the 1998 nuclear tests (during Vajpayee's second tenure as prime minister for 13 months), India also boldly claimed that nuclear options were necessary for India to safeguard its security, a departure from a rather ambiguous ‘test for peaceful purposes’ as proclaimed by India after the 1974 test. 

Security consciousness but no strategic culture 

While a security consciousness developed in India during the Indira Gandhi period and sustained thereafter,   strategic culture actually started developing from the later part of the Vajpayee's tenure as PM. In a coherent sense, strategic culture is still in the process and is yet to be developed. Whether we adopt a grand strategy or not, like China or the US, an inquisitive mind would tend to ask whether we have strategies for wars, or border security strategy when sudden attacks like in the Galwan Valley happened recently. 

Is India ready for prolonged covert wars, happening in the border areas in the west, north, northwest, and northeast of India? Open wars may not happen in the near future, but covert wars will continue along India’s vast borders. 

Do we have one grand or separate strategy to deal with such undeclared wars? The answer has to be provided in the negative now. While the strength of our military is known, our foreign policy establishments suffer from inadequate manpower. 

It is the need of the hour to strengthen our foreign policy establishments. India also needs to have well-articulated strategies for war, open or covert, border security policies, and internal security policies. India has major power ambitions. A strong strategic culture must be developed to guide India to fulfill such ambitions. Our long tradition of strategic thoughts needs to be converted into a well-visible strategic culture in the shortest possible time.      

(The writer, an international relations analyst, was professor and head of political science at Presidency University, Kolkata. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at


A.L. Basham, “The Wonder That Was India”, Rupa, 1991, p. 137   

Kanti Bajpai, ‘Through a Looking Glass: Strategic Prisms and the Pakistan Problem’, “India International Centre Quarterly”, 28, no. 2, 2001, pp. 127–29)

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