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National security won’t wait for economic development — Modi should learn from Nehru’s mistakes

India’s security policy cannot be based on the highly risky assumption that it will face no security threats till it becomes wealthy and strong.

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The juxtaposition of economic development and national security has been a staple item in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speeches on foreign policy. This came up again when he visited Indian troops in Ladakh. While sending a strong message against Chinese expansionism, he said that “today the world is devoted to development”.

This is similar to his other speeches, such as the one at the Shangri La Dialogue in 2018, in which he had contrasted cooperation with rivalry.

This binary of development and national security has been a standard assertion in Indian foreign policy strategy since the time of Jawaharlal Nehru.

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Development or defence?

Of the many myths that populate India’s security policy thinking, none has been more enduring or as mistaken as the idea that domestic economic development can largely be a substitute for security policy. But while it was understandable during the vague welfare liberalism of previous Indian governments, it is surprising for a ‘nationalist’ like Modi. Nationalists tend to emphasise military power, and in some ways, BJP governments have reflected that association. Moreover, there is an intellectual basis for emphasising military power in Hindu nationalism, which makes this juxtaposition of security and development surprising, though scholars have noted that Modi has continued the traditional Indian emphasis on non-material power sources.

Security policy cannot be based on the hope or plans of long term economic development. Such thinking is based on the potentially fatal assumption that the country will face no unmanageable security challenges in the decades that it will take to become wealthy and strong. Unless there are other means of keeping security threats at bay in the meantime, or unless a country is extremely fortunate, this is a highly risky strategy.

The idea of development leading to security has adherents beyond politics, and within the Indian analytical community also. Leading commentator Pratap Bhanu Menta recently wrote, in the long run, development “is the only cornerstone of a defense policy”.

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Lesson of 1962

India, in particular, should be wary of the pitfalls of such a strategy considering what happened in 1962. Nehru’s expectation that economic development would eventually take care of India’s security concerns did not consider what could happen in the interim. It was an expensive long-sightedness.

Sadly, not paying adequate attention to security ultimately undermined India’s developmental efforts. India had to hastily build its military capability in the 1960s, after the defeat at China’s hands. Such unplanned and rushed military spending disrupted India’s economic development efforts and set the country back significantly. The analogy may be old but still valid: spending on security is like insurance. If you balk at paying the premiums, you run the risk of paying considerably more in case of an emergency.

There were other consequences too. India’s loss in 1962 also diminished its global role. This was a role that was premised on India’s potential power, than on actual fact. The difference between potential and reality was brought home sharply to everybody after 1962. It would be another three decades before anyone talked about India seriously as a great power again.

The idea of security through development has an intuitive attractiveness — long-term economic development is indeed important for national power and security. Obviously, national power ultimately rests on wealth. Wealth permits a country not only to acquire instruments of military power, but also generate diplomatic influence. Both China and the US are good examples of countries that took on the mantle of great powerness after becoming wealthy. China’s influence today rests to a considerable degree on its economic clout.

Also read: Modi has chosen discretion on China because India’s real failure is in defence capabilities

India’s strained security policy

We see some parallels of Nehru’s logic again. Despite India’s worsening security situation, our security policy appears reluctant to come to grips with critical problems. This includes budgets, which are already low and are being further squeezed by pensions and personnel costs. There appears to be little thought being given about how to resolve this problem.

But it is much more than just budgets. For example, inadequate reforms mean continuing problems in areas such as civil-military relations, jointness, and defence acquisitions. Not surprisingly, India appears to wait for crisis to strike before it buys weapons: it has just ordered rifles for the army under the ‘fast track procedure’ and is also buying other equipment, including UAV, bombs and additional fighter planes. All of these obviously cost more when purchased in the teeth of an emergency, and are unlikely to help the actual crisis at hand.

The idea that economic development will take care of national security is particularly problematic in India’s environment. Although both the US and China were able to grow untested and become economic great powers before they became military powers, they are exceptions. The US had two oceans to keep other great powers at bay, while it developed.

China was also fortunate, in more ways than one. It was always stronger than its neighbours, but until recently, was not threatening enough to get Washington DC’s attention. China was also lucky because the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq war diverted US attention at a critical point.

Most countries, including India, are not so fortunate. Development may ultimately make India strong, but that is based on the risky assumption of calm seas during the crossing.

The author is a professor in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Views are personal.

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  1. This is not Indias alone war but a war of the world namely us,Japan,Aussies, southeast Asia’s and lastly the Russia’s. The maximum damage if it goes like this will be to usa because the virtual money which usa possess by sake of paper to dollars is directly proportional to its military power. Aussie will have loose its land and Japan and southeast asia the sea but for india some land where even grass doesn’t grow and why have we alone to shed all the blood for a poor resultant visa others to lose.

  2. Have you observed certain undigetable facts. Gimmix of the political leadership. There is a gallon of dishonesty in top level. Trump is not able to repeat that COVID-19 is a delebrate spill of Wohan lab. No one is answering why it spread so fast among the world powers. Why there was no filter at airports?
    Like wise, national security does not come by increasing the arms strength. YOu waste more of your national wealth. This lobby is very powerful ,deployed by the arms and aircraft manufactureres. A common diplomatic sense is missing in every nation. We find that this war slogan was raised even before Doklam clash. We were with poltical war, we were with political diplomacy. We will talk of improving relationship. We will say , we will defeat China in Siachin Heights. We are having good neighbourhood talk and join hands with Trump, inspite of the fact, that we are having our exports are going up with USA to replace Chinese market, with the supply of component received from China. Two persons shall come with truth. Chinese Preimer and Indian Primer. WHAT IS GONE WRONG? During covid economic chaos is unfurled too much. Stop speaking of through dollars in arms deal and empty the nations coffers. Please

  3. Whilst there are surely trade-offs between deploying scarce resources for national security as opposed to development, there is surely one immediate step that entails no such trade-offs can be taken by the GOI: combating corruption in defence procurements.

    Right from independence, India’s defence capabilities have been beset by the rampant corruption in the procurement process. And regardless of government in power, politicians, MoD babus and middlemen – Indian and foreign – have made tidy sums from India’s defence deals. Some examples:

    – 1948: Jeep procurement scam under VK Krishna Menon, Congress;
    – 1987: Bofors scam under Rajiv Gandhi, Congress
    – 1987: 1987: German manufacturer Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW) submarine scam; Rajiv Gandhi, Congress;
    – 2006: Barak Missile scam. Missiles were purchased at higher rates quoted by the Israeli manufacturer, George Fernandes of BJP + RK Jain of Samata Party
    – 1999: Coffin scam, George Fernandes, BJP
    – 1999: West End, Tehelka sting revealed that both babus & politicians were willing to buy non-existent equipment for the forces for a fee ! Implicated Jaya – Jaitley & George Fernanded, both from BJP.
    – 1995-2002: Denel anti-material rifles and ammunition scam. Nobody indicted
    – 2007: Israel Military Industries howitzer scam. I could not find out who benefitted.
    – 2010-2011: Rations for ghost soldiers scam, MoD & Forces babus. Rations were being “purchased” for 2.5 lac ghost soldiers.
    – 2012: Agusta-Westland of Finmeccanica Purchase of 12 “VVIP” helicopters scam, took place under watch of AK Antony, Congress. Air Chief Tyagi, politicians Ahmad Patil, Veerappa Moily etc. implicated
    – 2001 – ongoing : Rafale scam, award of offsets to Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence, a firm with no experience in aerospace, Narendra Modi, BJP.

    The above list is a just a small snapshot of the better known scams. Fact is, governments of all hues have been involved in scandals involving procurements for the Forces. And both the BJP and the Congress are equally tainted.

    If India can get at least this bit right, it would not only save the lives of soldiers in that they get proper equipment, it would also save the taxpayer of huge expenses. Alas, I am not optimistic that this will happen.

    Multiple sources have been used as references. Please see links below:

    Defence ProAc:
    Arms and the middleman:
    Transparency International:

      • Mr A Kumar: Really ? Do you have proof or references to the contrary? After all, I cite 3 sources whilst you merely bray because you don’t like the writing on the wall.

        Fact is, under every government in India, there have been corruption scandals, not only in arms procurements but also in other big ticket items. No Indian government has been without its crop of baniyas, babas, babus and Bollywood cronies that have not looted the common man. That has been a constant fixture of all regimes : from Nehru down to Narendra Modi.

  4. Reverse the sequence. This is a seductive argument : Security is priceless. Taken to an extreme, it led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Economic development should be pursued for its own sake, all the more in a desperately poor country. However, also as a means of building up comprehensive national power. The 5 : 1 economic asymmetry does not create a happy situation for national security.

  5. Valid points. Economic power and military power should be pursued parallely, not one after the other. Military power is paramount.

  6. In the present situation, India should have good ties with the democratic western countries and Russia who can support it with arms and militarily in case of war or aggression with China. Although China will create border tensions continually just to assert its power. While India should solve it by discussions, it should not buckle it under Chinese pressure at all and even push them. China can not initiate war against India to malign its image. India should remain very vigilant and create infrastructure for quick access to borders and further strengthen defense along both Chinese and Pak borders. If Chinese see that we can quickly mobilize our military and are vigilant to take quick action against their incursions, they may not go overboard. However, we should also not give up business and economic ties with China while we are strengthening our economy and manufacturing. Thes ties can serve a buffer against Chinese aggression as the more business means that blocking the Chinese companies will cause economic loss to China however small it may be. More business with China means more loss to its companies if we stop business with them in the wake of any Chinese hostilities. Our international friend will also put pressure on China not to show military aggression.

    • Mr Arun Sharma: You proclaim:

      “.. Our international friend will also put pressure on China not to show military aggression ..”

      Why would they do that ? One of the first questions in diplomacy is: What’s in it for me ?

      So why would anyone wish to shed anything more than crocodile tears over India’s plight?

  7. There is a difference between Security and a Security State. Security needs democracy and what Mao referred to as a Peoples Army. A Peoples Army is not engaged in fighting a war with its own people. A security state is a state in which a small clique of people want to impose their own views on their own people and also sometimes on the entire world and for this they need a huge security apparatus. Hitler’s Germany was an example of such a State. Wanting a powerful army to enforce the ideology of Hindu Nationalism or Hundutva or Islamism or Zionism or Communism even if it means going to war with ones own people who do not subscribe to their ideology would be a characteristic of a security State.In a Security State security comes first and health ,education ,and economic well being all are subservient to it(China calls itself communist but in 2013 Piketty wrote that it had far outdistanced India in spending tax incomes on health,education and infrastructure.). Nehru knew that Kashmir was not a part of the Radcliffe award.Kashmir came as a result of political wheeling dealing (some may call it skulduggery ) and Ladakh came along with it.So if China too wanted a share of the loot there could be mutual accommodation. After all the word Chin in Aksai Chin or SiaChin does not refer to Bharat else it would have been Aksai Bharat and Siabharat.. Unfortunately some hidden hands prevented him from pursuing a rational course and this not only led to a disastrous defeat in 1962 but it seems has now put India on the path of becoming an ideological Hindutva Security State.

  8. Good summary of the deep and long term damage imposed on India by 70 years of Congress (mis) rule.

    • Yes, blame it all on Nehru Mr Yatin Mistry !! And blaming it on Nehru solves the problem right?

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