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It’s time a national security strategy is published

The absence of a formal national security strategy (NSS) has been a sore point in debates on national security.

It’s time a national security strategy is published

Needed: The new decisive leadership raises hopes for a formal NSS.



Bhartendu Kumar Singh
Indian Defence Accounts Service

The absence of a formal national security strategy (NSS) has been a sore point in debates on national security. Past policy preferences favoured an ambivalent strategy to navigate major wars, uncertain neighbourhood and internal security issues. National security, true to Arnold Wolfers’ hypothesis, remains an ambiguous symbol for the public and social-political elites. Appropriate environmental feedback for assimilation in national security deliverables is often not available. However, contemporary security practices of many great powers, academic research and India’s own profile as a great power candidate make a formal enunciation of an NSS desirable. 

India’s strategic history since 1947 has been a mixed bag of successes and failures under informal security strategies, first coloured by non-alignment and later by multi-alignment since the early nineties. The 1962 defeat could be attributed to the absence of an NSS, amongst other things. Similarly, there are no academic evidences to link the 1971 victory to any long-term NSS (such as bifurcation of Pakistan). Sporadic attempts, like the so-called Indira doctrine and the more formal Gujral doctrine, were piecemeal efforts taking care of only specific national security aspects. 

The issue of publishing an NSS did enter the public discourse many times in last two decades as a single source of strategic inspiration, but could not be churned into public policy. There were plausible reasons for India not coming out with an NSS in public. 

First, India managed to navigate its security problems through strategic restraint and crossed the Rubicon on very few occasions. Strong leadership also meant informal strategies about securing India, thereby relegating a formal NSS to the back-burner. 

Second, India was relatively a small player in global politics, only occasionally hitting above the belt. It used the ideational umbrella to showcase itself since it didn’t have material resources to enunciate a realist and formal security strategy in public. Hitherto, India was mostly boxed within South Asia and had very little material stakes beyond the subcontinent. It was only since the early nineties that India started an outreach programme towards Southeast Asia, necessitating a doctrinal declaration of the ‘Look East Policy’. 

Third, foreign and security practices enjoyed political support across the ideological spectrum since there were few issues on the plate. India was a middle power and could do without an NSS. Today’s economic empowerment, geopolitical outreach and evolving network of relationships and interests were visibly missing until the early nineties. 

The ignorance of NSS documentation has not gone unnoticed. Strategic experts from the civilian, military and academic backgrounds have been unanimous towards a formal NSS. All great powers come out with a documented NSS. So why not India that is a great power candidate? It has emerged as a rank player on many indices of great power matrix like population, GDP, armed forces’ strength and expenditure. 

A 2017 study on ‘Formulating national security strategy’ by a US think tank showcased that informal NSS often suffers from disadvantages such as lack of clear priorities, lowest common denominator emerging as ‘rational choice’, weak objectives — resources connection, and slow response to changes in the national security environment. These could also be applicable to India. 

A documented and well-publicised NSS can help India in numerous ways. 

First, the global audience is interested in decoding what kind of power India would be. India needs ‘relative peace’ on its frontiers and in the neighbourhood to pursue comprehensive national power. The overall target should be to ensure smooth power transition to great power status through short-, medium- and long-term strategies. Perception management, thus, is important and the NSS would be an assurance building exercise to the audience about India’s emergence as a responsible emerging power. 

Second, a formal NSS can emerge as the 'mother' document guiding institutions, policymakers and strategic experts alike and do away with discordant notes amongst various stakeholders on matters of national security. For example, the civil-military perceptions on national security are quite at mutual variance and can be bridged through a formalised NSS. The document can also become a source of building public opinion, educating the futuristic citizenry and raising national security consciousness. 

Third, the NSS may also help us know key security threats and strategically prioritise them. Is it Pakistan with which we have been at loggerheads since 1947? Is it China with which we enjoy ‘relative peace’ but face an uncertain future? Are internal threats like Naxalism and armed rebellions causing maximum casualties in the post-Independence period? The strategic community is presently divided about their pecking order and needs to be guided. An NSS can then facilitate appropriate national security deliverables and public policy formulations. 

Fourth, the NSS can facilitate resource distribution in an age of scarcity and competition between the developmental and defence sectors and further within the defence sector. We can also mobilise our financial resources and optimise them through periodic cost, risk and result analysis. 

Fifth, the NSS can help us get out of a militarised concept of national security (evident in most strategic writings on India’s national security) and make a paradigm shift towards a humanised concept. If India is to be really secure, more investment is needed in education, infrastructure, health, sanitation, skill development etc so that we develop enough material power to feed our military power projection in future. 

There cannot be a better moment for making an ideational movement towards an NSS. We have got appropriate institutions for designing and implementing the NSS; popular will to propel India to its rightful place in global politics and governing institutions; and above all, a decisive leadership to shape our ambitions in the next few years. Hopefully, the NSS would emerge as the torch-bearer sooner than later. 

(Views are personal)

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