Tejas fighter jet performs during an air show on the last day of Aero India 2023, at Yelahanka Airbase, in Bengaluru Image Credit: ANI

Sunanda K Datta-Ray in Looking East to Look West: Lee Kuan Yew’s Mission India (2009) recounts the heady days when Singapore’s founder tried to persuade then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, to step into the power vacuum left with Britain’s retreat from Asia.

Lee pitched for “a possible future role for India as guardian of South-east Asia ... in ten years, time when the British ‘policeman role’ came to an end” (p. 132). In fact, he believed that India was “the only possible Asian power that had the potential to stabilise the region against China and the Communists” (ibid.).

India, mired in its own troubles and worries, not to speak of Indira Gandhi’s decisive tilt towards the Soviet Union, was not even close to considering Lee’s proposal.

As noted foreign policy expert C. Raja Mohan puts it, “If [Lee] saw India as the successor to the British Raj in providing security to smaller states of Asia, he was deeply surprised by Delhi’s lack of a strategic ambition and its inability to engage in regional realpolitik. Lee was also critical of India’s policy of non-alignment and its steady drift towards the Soviet Union from the 1970s” (“Lee Kuan Yew and India’s Turn to Pragmatism”).

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Lost decades and opportunities

After the dismantling of the licence-permit-quota raj and India’s decisive turn towards liberalisation in 1991, Lee, after what he believed were lost decades and opportunities, once again bet on India’s rise.

According to Raja Mohan, “If India in the past, had no time for Lee’s suggestion that Delhi must claim the mantle of the Raj in securing Asia, Delhi now declares itself as a ‘net security provider’ in the Indian Ocean and the Asia Pacific. Although India would never move at a pace that Lee would have liked, it has begun to advance thanks to its adoption of strategic pragmatism that the founder of modern Singapore never stopped recommending for India” (ibid.).

Though Lee passed away in 2015 at the age of 91, his legacy of pragmatic nationalism has influenced many in India’s top echelons.

I wonder if Lee’s prognosis for India finally coming close to fruition. I ask this more specifically in the context of the enhanced allocation in India’s 2023-2024 budget for Defence. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a 13 per cent hike in India’s military spending to Rs. 5.94 lakh crore from Rs. 5.25 lakh crore last year.

Indian Army fighter tank Arjun Mark-I passes through the Kartavya Path during the full dress rehearsal of the Republic Day Parade 2023, in New Delhi Image Credit: ANI

Though in US dollar terms, the figure remains similar, about $72 billion dollars, what will surprise many is that India is the world’s third largest spender after the United States ($800 billion) and China ($293 billion).

In fact, for the last few years, if we go by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)’s Yearbook on Armaments, Disarmament and International Security, India’s defence budget shows as consistently higher than major nuclear world powers such as United Kingdom and France, higher in fact than even the erstwhile superpower, Russia.

What exactly does this mean?

Is India the third most powerful military power in the world? No. Because spending is not the only factor that matters. Technology, training, the quality of weaponry, not to speak of the size and skill of a nation’s armed forces must all be taken into account.

Even more important, perhaps, is the country’s GDP and its ability to exert strategic clout and force, not only in its region, but around the world. By these parameters, India is at best a rising regional power. But I believe that this is about to change.

In fact, India is in the process of making major arms purchases and capital investments including shoring up its aircraft, warships, weaponry, radar, and military technology. It has an ambitious drone programme as well as plans to produce indigenous defence equipment.

In addition, it is building roads and infrastructure on its borders. The Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) has announced its intention of “creating strategically important assets” like Sela Tunnel, Nechipu Tunnel and Sela-Chhabrela Tunnel on the borders so that it can withstand high altitude eyeball-to-eyeball face-offs with China.

More airports, helipads, water aerodromes, and improved air connectivity are also on the anvil. The make in India push means additional funds for domestic manufacture of defence machinery and equipment.

Smart decision-making

Yet, according to defence experts, India still lags far behind the US and China despite being the third largest defence spender in the world. What is therefore required is a lot of smart decision-making and strategic leadership, in addition to an overall technological upgrade of our armed forces.

For this to happen, India needs to revise its fundamental goals and aims as well as its self-image by moving beyond its Gandhi-Nehru ideals of non-violence, non-alignment, and renunciation of the will to power. Being meek and modest is not the way forward for a country of India’s size and potential.

Instead, the time has come for India to move from being merely defensive in its strategic posture to actually becoming proactive in multiple theatres both to safeguard and advance its interests.

The Ukraine war has demonstrated that battlefields of the future will be very different from the past. Behemoths with huge armies and older equipment will not fare well. India has one of the largest standing armies in the world, second only to China, with 1.5 million military personnel in uniform.

What is more, India’s soldiers are also some of the most battle-hardened and disciplined in the world. With the world’s largest population, immensely important strategic location, and as the only country in the world with an ocean named after it, the time is ripe for India to play a bigger role in the world.

In a rapidly changing global scenario and a new heteropolarity, India’s role as a peacekeeper and power-balancer is ever more significant. Perhaps, this is what a truly pragmatic defence policy, free of ideological baggage or sanctimonious piety, demands of us.

If the new resolve of its leadership is also taken into account, India’s military might is definitely set to rise.