You are on page 1of 3

Asia Program

Policy Brief
May 4, 2010

Summary: India is in many re-

Understanding the Duality in Indian Strategic
spects the world’s most globalized Thinking
society, having both absorbed and
exported traditions and ideas over
the centuries. This dynamic has also
by Manvendra Singh1
given Indian society an exceptional
level of continuity. Consequently,
India continues to live its past as it A security seminar involving Indians global movement of thoughts and ideas
grapples with the responsibilities and Chinese should, logically, focus on from and through India. It is from this
and challenges of its future. borders, territory, war, and peace. But at essential fact that an understanding of
the end of a security seminar in Beijing India begins. In parts of the country,
The divide in India’s foreign policy a couple of years ago, a colonel from the people like to believe that the first Chris-
between globalization and insular- People’s Liberation Army (PLA) asked tian proselytizer arriving on Indian shores
ity is accentuated by its democratic a question that went completely against was a contemporary of Jesus, while the
politics, with Lord Curzon’s expan- the grain of proceedings. He inquired, first Muslims came during the lifetime
sionistic vision of India’s interna-
with genuine concern, about how India of the Prophet (by which time, of course,
had globalized as a society and economy, there was already a thriving Indian Jewish
tional presence in competition with
and yet kept its cultural moorings intact. community).
the inward-looking non-alignment
While it can be debated whether the
associated with Nehru. While there
concern expressed by the PLA colonel The idea of India existed long before
is a broad consensus on issues such delved into China’s condition as much as geographical boundaries and centralized
as terrorism and India’s presence in it probed India’s, there was clearly more governance appeared to give it its
multilateral institutions, the contest than neighborly envy in the question. structure and physical contours.
between these two visions will Conceptually in existence prior to the
continue to define how India sees its India and Bharat consolidation of political power, India
place in the world. and its civilization are rooted in ideas and
Analyzed dispassionately and historically, the perpetual quest for knowledge. India
India could quite conceivably be thought is unique among countries in that it was
of as the most globalized society in the not created by a family, a feudal authority,
world. The country has been in the busi- a faith, or a war. Despite many repeated
ness of globalization for more millennia attempts to change the nature of India,
than much of the world has been inhab- the strength of its ideas and thoughts
ited. In economic terms, it boasts a very have allowed it to experience a continu-
long history of trade with Mesopotamia, ity that is also exceptional. A 21st century
eastern Africa, the Mediterranean, and visitor to the town of Varanasi, for
East Asia. That is an impressively large example, would describe the experience
footprint by any standards in any era. in a language not dissimilar to that used
1744 R Street NW What, however, is as extraordinary is the by Chinese pilgrims centuries earlier.
Washington, DC 20009
T 1 202 745 3950
F 1 202 265 1662 1
Manvendra Singh is editor of the Defence & Security Alert, and formerly a member of the Indian Parliament. The views expressed
E here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Asia Program

Policy Brief
India continues to live its past as it grapples with the responsi- nent historian Ainslie Embree captured this Curzonian perspec-
bilities and challenges of the future. tive. He argued that it was futile to have assumed that Indian
interests in Afghanistan would wane after independence; in fact,
It is this duality that poses the greatest challenge to understand- they were as deep as during the British colonial period.
ing India. The country and its people are divided between those
completely globalized in thought and response, and those who In contrast, Nehru, despite his Western civilizational ethos,
continue to carry the past with them. Commentators have long elucidated a policy that pulled India from its inherently global-
described the two groups, both inhabiting the same geographi- ized form of thinking and clubbed it with a set of insecure and
cal space, as India and Bharat. Bharat is the traditional historical inward-looking countries. This was best reflected in the creation
name for what constituted India in the era when it lacked both of the Non-Aligned Movement. India’s natural interests in a
political unity and exact boundaries. flexible foreign policy were jettisoned in favor of membership
of a club that believed in the virtues of poverty. Moralizing
The essential psychological contest within India, therefore, is became the mantra of governance. This strain is still evident in
between its globalized and insular parts. What is worrisome, India’s policymaking and politics today, in some ways more than
though, is that the distance between the two groups is ever the expansionist view. The contest between the Curzonian and
increasing. While the purpose of democratic practices is to bring Nehruvian visions produces the intellectual questions that today
unity and consensus to decision-making, the very exercise of confront the Indian state and its society.
democracy in India also shows up differences. Indian politics
and policymaking is replete with examples that underline this Finding a consensus
fact. This struggle for the soul of India gets manifested in the
functioning of the state. As with almost every other democracy, there are some aspects
of policy that unite the two schools. One particularly promi-
Curzonians and Nehruvians nent issue is India’s presence at the global level. Despite India’s
emergence in recent years, there is a continuing disquiet about
If there are two individuals who best represent the competing multilateral agreements and arrangements. The Curzonians and
visions of India’s position in the world, they would be India’s Nehruvians share the belief that the major multilateral arrange-
first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the former British ments and institutions arose out of political maneuvering in an
viceroy, Lord George Nathaniel Curzon. Some might contest age when India was supine and vulnerable.
these choices, but the philosophical influences of the two remain
evident even today. Another issue that concerns most Indians is the question of
terrorism, in its various manifestations across the country. This
The vision of Lord Curzon, who represents the “expansionist” may be the single most important issue confronting Indian
vision, was best captured in his seminal 1907 Romanes lecture, policymakers and the government. Indians believe that their
entitled “Frontiers.” From his concept of India arose an effort country is the one most often in the crosshairs of terrorists,
—still underway—to define what constituted India’s natural whether international jihadists or the homegrown extreme
space. In his exposition on frontiers, Curzon set the benchmark left-wing variety. But in the tackling of terrorism, the various
fairly high, arguing that the Indian political footprint should be strains of thinking in India again display their differences. While
covering more space than it had for many centuries. In indepen- more lives and more money have been lost as a result of terror-
dent India, his strain of thinking has influenced how the state ist activity than in almost any other country, there is no national
has worked to enforce its boundaries. consensus on a strategy to deal with it.

In the foreword to his 1977 book Pakistan’s Western Borderlands, Therefore, no understanding of India, not even on multilat-
which discusses the same area making headlines today, the emi- eral negotiations or international terrorism, can be considered

Asia Program

Policy Brief
complete without appreciating the importance of thoughts and
ideas. Returning to the security seminar in Beijing, a staff mem- About GMF’s Asia Program
ber at a local university made another insightful intervention,
The German Marshall Fund’s Asia Program addresses the implications
noting that India had occupied China for about a thousand years
of Asia’s rise for the West—in particular, how Asia’s resurgence will im-
without firing a shot or sending a soldier. Instead, it had occu-
pact the foreign policy, economic, and domestic challenges and choices
pied China’s mind, with its export of ideas and philosophies.
facing the transatlantic allies—through a combination of convening,
writing, strategic grants, study tours, fellowships, partnerships with
other GMF programs, and partnerships with other institutions. Led by
Senior Fellow for Asia Daniel Twining and Transatlantic Fellow Andrew
Small, the program’s initiatives include the Stockholm China Forum
and India Forum, seminars and other activities in Japan, a Japanese
fellowship program, Asia-related panels at GMF’s flagship events at
Brussels and Halifax, and a paper series on transatlantic approaches to
wider Asia and on deepening cooperation between democratic Asia and
the West. For more information see

About GMF

The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a

nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution
dedicated to promoting greater cooperation and understanding
between North America and Europe. GMF does this by supporting
individuals and institutions working on transatlantic issues, by
convening leaders to discuss the most pressing transatlantic themes,
and by examining ways in which transatlantic cooperation can
address a variety of global policy challenges. In addition, GMF
supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded
in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to
Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both
sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington,
DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Bratislava, Paris, Brussels,
Belgrade, Ankara, and Bucharest.