We have not seen much clarity in Indian strategic thinking despite the coming and going of governments. Maybe, this is now changing. Ajit Doval, our National Security Advisor (NSA), spoke in Mumbai yesterday (4 August) on “State Security, statecraft and Conflict of Values”, and he had this to say: “India has a mentality to punch below its weight. We should not punch below our weight or above our weight, but improve our weight and punch proportionately.”
This is a simple, if not all that original, statement on the importance of wielding power effectively – something Indians have seldom thought through in over 5,000 years of civilisational history, despite indulging in periodic speculation about the true nature of power. If Doval and his boss Narendra Modi convert this principle into strategic thought and purposive action on the ground, India will be a safer place in the longer term.
Among other things, Doval pointed out the obvious: weak states invite trouble rather than mitigate or combat it. “If you make a provocation, you are partly responsible. But if you are not able to exercise power, it is as good as not having it,” The Indian Express quotes him as saying. This again is something that is obvious to all but those who substitute emotion for clear-headed thinking – and especially those peaceniks who believe lighting candles at Wagah or offering unilateral concessions will bring peace with Pakistan. This is useful idiocy from Pakistan’s point of view, but won’t do much for the security of Indians.
Doval also made an important distinction between individual morality and state actions. An individual can embrace non-violence and accept non-retaliation as a personal principle, but a state cannot. States have to act for the larger good, and a “nation will have to take recourse to all means to protect itself.”
He also pointed out the silliness of assertions that hanging Yakub Memon, convicted for the 1993 Mumbai blasts, was some kind of “state-sponsored killing”, as Shashi Tharoor tweeted. Doval said: “The first duty of the government of India is to protect itself. In this protection, conflict of interest is automatic…when a state acts in a judicial way (through) the due process of law, its actions are correct, and it does not reduce you to murderers.” (Note: One presumes when Doval talked of the government of India, he meant the Indian state and not a specific government.)
The point of quoting Doval at length is not to justify the Memon hanging or to indulge in macho muscle-flexing about terrorism, but to talk about the usual Indian ambivalence about power and its concomitants. We have allowed all issues relating to power to degenerate into issues of personal morality, and in the process reduced ourselves to ineffective and weak statehood. We are paying the price regularly for this.
The Abrahamic religions (and the resultant civilisations) and Indic faiths like Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism asked themselves a key question about power and its durability. They came to opposite conclusions. Both recognised the transient nature of individual power – ultimately we all die, powerless to change our fate – but the conclusions we drew from this realisation have made a huge difference to our attitudes to it.
Indic philosophers saw power as transient and decided (by and large) that the only power worth having is the power over ourselves – since that directly impacts the quality of our inner and outer lives. We thus became “seekers” of truth rather than “believers” in absolute truths. We developed ambivalent attitudes to power and we are still uncomfortable with its acquisition and use for temporal ends. Hence our emphasis on meditation, conquest of ego, individual dharma – all of which empower us spiritually, but leave us naked when confronted with the external, physical power of our enemies.
The west looked at power and its transient nature and saw the need to make it last – and they developed law and institutions to perpetuate power beyond one lifetime.
The truth is not that the west was right and we were wrong, but that both approaches are needed.  Today, if the west is adopting yoga and meditation as lifestyle choices, it is because they see the pointlessness of having money and power and an empty, meaningless life. We have to learn the opposite lesson: how to use real power for long-term benefit to society, even without losing our belief in inner spiritual growth.
Our failure to seek a balance between power over oneself and long-term state power has resulted in our embracing soft options and temporary non-solutions as a substitute for strategy and long-term thinking. I am, of course, oversimplifying, for it is not true that Indian philosophers and empire builders did not seek this balance (Chanakya Niti is one example of the kind of thought that went into creating the ideal state using varied elements of power), but the overall failure to harness power and put it to good use has been very visible in Indian history – and endures to this day.
This is evident in our wariness about the acquisition of economic and military power even today, and explicit in our tendency to confuse arguments about power with arguments about personal morality.
Gandhi typified this attitude best. He considered Jesus’s Sermon on The Mount – a sermon for losers that extolled the virtues of meekness – as his guiding principle. Nehruvian policies – of high moral principles and a low ability to live up to them – are a direct outgrowth of Gandhi’s predilections.
Gandhi’s advice to the victims of Hitler’s aggression was something like this: throw yourself at his mercy, don’t fight, and win the fascist dictator over through love and peaceable activities. When it came to dealing with Hitler, racist Winston Churchill had better ideas than hyper-moral Gandhi. This is not to say Gandhi was wrong, but advice that may be all right for an individual to apply to himself may not be right when applied thoughtlessly to others – or the whole of society. Personal morality that results in failure (or success) only affects one individual; when it applies to society or state, it can lead to disaster.
In Arun Shourie’s book Eminent Historians, he quotes Dr BR Ambedkar to show how internally focused Buddhism failed to note the threat of Muslim invaders and their iconoclastic zeal. In one fell swoop, the invaders destroyed all Buddhist monasteries and idols of the Buddha, hastening the religion’s demise. Passivism and lack of real power played a key role in Buddhism’s extinguishment from the land of its birth.
Nothing illustrates our own current self-defeating attitudes to power and morality better than the arguments we have heard over the death penalty. Those who want to end the death penalty are fond of quoting Gandhi’s observation that an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth will leave the whole world blind and toothless.
Gandhi clearly did not understand game theory and the practical outcomes of his personal morality. What may be true for individual violence may not be true for societies and the state. If I hit you in the eye and you hit me back, and I break your teeth and you return the compliment, we may both become blind and toothless. But this is not what happens to the larger society when a tit-for-tat policy is followed. When eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth, both action and reaction, continue for some time between two combating societies or their respective states, both learn to start acting more carefully. Both states proceed to protect themselves from going blind or toothless. Thus eyes and teeth get better protection, and over time, both learn that there is no gain in taking the other’s eye or knocking out his tooth. In short, mutual strength creates mutual deterrence over time – and leads to a durable peace.
This was clearly established in game theory experiments conducted by Robert Axelrod in 1980 at the University of Michigan. Axelrod invited game theorists to submit strategies for testing in computer-simulated games to check whether being saintly is a substitute for being sensible. His experiments tried to establish whether opponents tried to cooperate or cheat when they were unclear about the other person’s real intent. To cut a long story short (you can read a summary of his experiments here), the strategy that won more often than not was “tit-for-tat”. That is, all players should try good faith in the first instance, but if the rival plays dirty, you pay him back in the same coin. Over time, the players can learn to cooperate.
The Gandhian argument of blindness and toothlesses is valid only in the individual context, where winning and losing can be defined by each person. An inability to hit back in the societal or national context will, on the other hand, actually invite attacks – as Nehru found out with the Chinese in 1962, and as we have repeatedly found out by treating Pakistan with kid gloves. A strong state with the ability to give as good as it gets is a pre-requisite for peace.
Now consider what the true inheritors think of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount actually do as opposed to what they profess. No Christian majority nation – from America to Britain to any member of the European Union – will ever turn the other cheek when hit. Did George Bush turn the other cheek after 9/11? He hit back twice as hard. Does Israel believe in rolling with the punches or give it back in double measure? They retaliate, they fight, they try to win. No Muslim state will ever talk peace if it feels wronged – whether the wrong is real or imagined.
The reason is simple: the west has learnt to separate personal morality from state morality. Individual Christians may be willing to be fed to the lions in pursuit of their moral ideals, but the state will never throw its citizens to external lions for the sake of peace.
The west’s answer to the transient nature of power was to make it endure not through individuals, but the creation of a strong state, through law and institutions. This is an important lesson for us to learn. A strong state puts law and institutions above the individual and thus can act benevolently in practice; a weak state will be tyrannous in reality as it cannot be held accountable for failing to do its job. After all, it is weak by definition.
Only a strong state can wield power sensibly and punch at its true weight. When it comes to the state, weakness equals immorality.

by R Jagannathan  Aug 5, 2015