Limits of Hard Power in India’s Security Strategy



by Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra    9 April 2023

Post-Independence India considered global peace and economic development as two sides of the same coin. It was based on the premise that India’s ability to deliver on non-conventional threats such as poverty, diseases and unemployment largely depended on peace in neighborhood and beyond. However, the changing strategic mindset aligned with India’s growing economic and military power and its rising power status in the post-Cold War era has led it to get involved in balance of power politics, for instance, in its Great Game with China in the Indo-Pacific region. This is likely to drag India into a never-ending arms-race which will not only corrode its capabilities to address other imminent threats; it will undercut the country’s traditional soft-power base and diplomatic potential of working with other developing countries. While India continues to carry the attributes of a developing country, its changing strategic approach ignores post-Independence strategic understanding that emerged out of dialectics between security and development. Further, the approach ignores several cases demonstrating the futility of hard power in fulfilling the country’s strategic objectives. 


In the post-Cold War era, the Indian strategists and foreign policy makers imbued with the country’s newfound economic and military power buried most of the ideas underpinning the Non-Alignment Movement except ‘strategic autonomy’. For instance, the strategic document ‘Non-Alignment 2.O’ stressed on the relevance of this single idea inherent to the movement and stayed away from endorsing practices such as third world solidarity and non-involvement in balance of power politics and arms-race as recipes for future strategic choices for India [1]. Prime Minister Modi’s prescription for the practice of ‘multi-alignment’ echoes similar shifts in India’s strategic understanding. The idea of strategic autonomy basically implies a hedging strategy for security where balance of power is maintained through strategic partnerships and not through alliance formations. [2]. Such a pragmatic approach allows India to secure arms and defence technologies from all major powers not only without ideological constraints but also by obviating the imperative to submit foreign policy autonomy to them.

Based on the shifts in India’s strategic understanding, India has moved toward enhanced military preparedness geared toward tackling threats from Pakistan’s as well as Beijing’s suspicious strategic moves in the Indian Ocean and South Asian region which turned it into the world’s second largest arms importer, for the period 2016-20 according to data on arms transfers released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) [3]. New Delhi’s current drive toward cutting-edge defense technology and sophisticated weapon systems has led it to sign many fresh defense deals with great powers. For instance, India’s S-400 missile system procurement from Russia is aimed at expanding its air-defense capacity along its 4,000km border with China. The country has made strategic moves to enhance its profile in the Indo-Pacific region by entering deep into the strategic ambit of the US and both signed Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016, the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018 and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) in 2020, which provides India with real-time access to US geospatial intelligence. Both countries are co-developing air-launched unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) under the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative [4]. While India has its own nuclear-propelled submarine programme with two ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), namely, the Arihant and INS Arighat, it is planning to build six nuclear-propelled attack submarines (SSN) to deter China. India needs to be aware of the nuclear nightmare that the region is entering into.US, France, Britain and China are not only key players in the region with their nuclear capabilities, concerns are rising with the potential rise of new nuclear powers such as North Korea as evidenced from its tests of hypersonic missiles in September 2021 and January 2022 which could be fitted with nuclear warheads [5]. 

For a developing country and emerging power like India while it is considered necessary to rely on outside great powers to maintain balance of power, strategic partnerships with outside powers such as the US and Russia do not assure India of complete security against China for these powers have their own trade stakes as well as strategic equations with or designs against Beijing. Such policy choice has made India’s rapprochement with China with which it shares a long disputed border even more difficult. Further, India can ill-afford to divert more resources toward defence equipments and technologies if one considers additional accidental burdens. For instance, Indian nuclear submarine INS Arihant was about to sink a few months after its commissioning when a hatch was left open and seawater flooded the propulsion compartment, and INS Chakra did not sail for a month when it required repairs due to damage to its sensitive sonar equipment.

Considering the fragility of the security atmospherics in the Indo-Pacific and South Asian regions, it must be realized that competition, balance of power, alliance formation and deterrence cannot guarantee long-term peace which can enable India to divert resources and address various non-conventional threats such as poverty, diseases and terrorism. For India, a country with fewer military and economic resources to invest globally and which has relied more on the instrumentalities of soft power and strategic restraint for global clout, a perspective based on peace, development and integration must take priority over a military security perspective to meet the challenges emanating from conventional as well as non-conventional threats. Second, an over-reliance on a militaristic perspective would unnecessarily push New Delhi to view and approach the world from a realist perspective based on the assumption that amassing hard power is possibly the only way to realize India’s national interests which goes against the grain of India’s strategic thinking.

While New Delhi continues to procure upgraded weapons systems from great powers to mitigate its defense concerns, it has failed to work on an alternative vision of world politics with likeminded countries and sensitize world public opinion as to the impacts of proliferation of arms and ammunitions on the global population and on the environment. The members of the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) including India called upon all states “to respect the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace from which Great Power rivalries and competition, as well as bases be excluded” in the summit in Lusaka, Zambia in 1970. Although the idea has become even more relevant in the present context with the involvement of more powers with nuclear abilities in the larger Indo-Pacific region, the emerging strategic understanding within the country ignores the wisdom and significance of collective diplomacy along with other developing countries in establishing peace.

Post-Independence India’s Strategic Thinking

Dearth of experiences in managing British India’s strategic concerns during the colonial era and the overwhelming non-violent nature of decolonization movement not only minimized the western footprint on India’s strategic understanding but made the impact of Gandhian ideas a persisting phenomenon [6]. The Gandhian belief in the force of truth, patience and persuasive means to convert the opponent toward accepting and adopting the moral and right course of action became the essence of India’s non-alignment policy and this eliminated the conception of enemy and constrained search for hard power in India’s strategic understanding while it kept alive the desire to work toward a peaceful and democratic world order. Unlike a believer of idealism – a theoretical perspective of the West, India’s non-alignment policy never considered powerful states would behave rationally constrained by international laws, norms and organizations. On the other hand, India considered active participation of like-minded states as a collective entity in bid to shrink the space for military and economic dominance and pave way for an alternative world order based on international peace and egalitarian global economic order. India’s conception of security was the result of complementarities and dialogues between the imperatives of its development concerns and global peace.

While its strategic understanding restrained India from adopting a militaristically adventurist foreign policy, it allowed necessary measures to address its defense concerns. The philosophical undercurrents of non-violence inherent in the philosophy of Buddhism and Gandhian Satyagraha tempered Indian notions of pragmatism inherent in the practices of ancient kings and medieval rulers and helped engender a doctrine of strategic self-restraint. India jettisoned balance of powers politics of the Cold War era and refrained from joining any of the military blocs sponsored by either the US or Soviet Union. India had to face harsh criticisms whenever it was perceived as being involved in power politics. For instance, its Friendship treaty with the Soviet Union in 1971 was viewed with skepticism and encouraged criticisms even from among the members of the Non-Alignment Movement as well. Similarly, India had to move cautiously, specifically in the neighborhood where it perceived most of the security threats coming from. After the liberation of East Pakistan from West Pakistan with Indian military intervention, Indian forces did not move further in the western direction to assert dominance on the areas belonging to Pakistan. India did not even use the 90,000 Pakistani prisoners of war, captured in liberated Bangladesh, to control the bilateral relationship and coerce Pakistan into abandoning its claim over Kashmir [7]. This restrained action from India has made a subtle and gradual addition to its soft-power resources.

While India tested its first nuclear device in 1974, it called it a peaceful nuclear explosion in order to avert fuss and chaos in the neighborhood. Despite rising security concerns expressed through nuclear power China’s increasing footprints in India’s neighborhood and continuous supply of arms, ammunition and nuclear material and technology to Pakistan, it was only after 24 years that India conducted another test making its military purpose clear in 1998.

Following closely on the heels of India’s test, Pakistan conducted its own nuclear test later the same year. It reflected Chinese nuclear assistance to Pakistan over a period of time making it well equipped with the necessary nuclear technology and material. Although its nuclear test invited criticisms from many major actors in international politics and US sanctions, India undertook efforts to mitigate unusual responses from the neighborhood and pacify members of the international community. India developed a nuclear doctrine combining the principles of “no first use” and “credible minimum deterrence.” It is India’s belief and practice of military restraint that was instrumental in pushing the US to clinch the civil nuclear deal even though India is not a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Faith in strategic restraint continues to be backed by Indian society. For instance, Indians usually expressed anger immediately after major terrorist attacks and supported coercive measures against Pakistan; however, simmering sentiments gradually cooled down and fell in place with India’s traditional craving for restraint in military actions. It has been noted that the people of India have rarely been swayed by militaristic impulses in the long term. This was observed when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government came back to power for a second term in 2009 even though India observed military restraint after the Mumbai terrorist attack in 2008.

Late George Tanham, a specialist on South Asian security affairs working for the RAND Corporation, based on his findings from a study of the impacts of historical and cultural factors on India’s strategic thinking, asserted that India lacked formal and systematic strategic planning and therefore a strategic culture. [8]. His conceptualization, however, of strategic culture predominantly represented a Western perspective on security and was more defined in terms of proactive military engagements and systematic long-term strategic planning, which not only stood at variance with Indian strategic thinking, the doctrine of strategic restraint laid bare his narrow perspective on strategic culture. In reaction to Tanham’s findings, many from India’s strategic community assert that India has a strategic culture not only by citing Kautilya’s ‘Arthashastra’, an ancient Indian treatise on statecraft, which contained elements of strategic planning and pre-emptive actions. However, they equally ignore the unique dimension of India’s strategic approach which is ‘strategic restraint’.

Observations and debates on India’s strategic culture whether India has one or does not have one is a futile exercise from India’s standpoint because these either undercut or inflate India’s real strategic potential and second, these unnecessarily push India to view and approach the world from a realist perspective based on the assumption that military and strategic planning is central to realization of India’s national interests. While the conclusion that India lacks a strategic culture implies that it is vulnerable to security threats, the assertion that India has one has the propensity to make India more assertive and militaristic. Both observations are not likely to serve India’s national interests.

Moreover, India, being a developing country with similar anti-colonial experiences, growth trajectory, and Cold War experiences, along with having long-term cultural transactions historically with other post-colonial states, was poised to understand the predicaments of other developing countries in a much better way than many developed countries. This propelled India to recognize the importance of collective, diplomatic, and peaceful efforts toward addressing security issues. For instance, India understood long years of colonial and neo-colonial economic exploitation of the developing world as a major source of human insecurity and social tensions. Hence, it along with other developing countries tried to make use of all these platforms – the UN, NAM and G77 – to make the New International Economic Order (NIEO) possible [9].

While India continues to have the attributes of a developing country and faces similar non-conventional threats afflicting other developing countries in the post-Cold War era, its inclination towards involvement in balance of power politics and arms race contradicts the strategic understanding that evolved in the post-independence era.

India’s futile experiences with hard power

It is worth recalling that India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru decided in favor of projecting India’s hard power along the border in the shape of a forward policy (including measures such as the establishment of military outposts and launching aggressive patrols in the disputed India-China border areas) to deter Beijing from adopting an aggressive posture but the decision did not ultimately work in New Delhi’s favor. Instead, India could have resorted to its soft-power capacities and diplomatic strength, which could have earned it the support of many dominant powers and developing countries, to deter China from launching a military offensive. On the other hand, resorting to a hard power approach only could provoke China, resulting in the border war of 1962.

In a similar vein, India under Rajiv Gandhi’s leadership conceived the Operation Brasstacks in 1987 in an attempt to dissuade Pakistan from engaging in proxy wars and resorted to the projection of hard power through a massive mobilization of the Indian Army in Rajasthan near the Pakistan border. The operation failed to achieve its desired objectives and prompted Pakistan to accelerate its nuclear weapons program with Chinese assistance.

India’s sense of victory after launching surgical strikes across the India-Pakistan border has not reduced the incidents of cross-border fire in violation of the 2003 ceasefire agreement. India’s attempts at sending a strong message to its opponent by imposing prohibitive costs unless it changed its behavior seemed to have fallen on deaf ears. Consequently, Islamabad resorted to “tactical nuclear weapons” threats to continue proxy wars undermining India’s superior conventional military capacity.

On the contrary, American leaders did not hesitate to praise Indian restraint vis-a-vis Pakistan on many occasions after allegedly Pakistani-sponsored terrorist attacks on Indian soil. The Bill Clinton administration prevailed upon Pakistan during the Kargil War in 1999 and asked it to withdraw its forces sent across the Line of Control. The changing gesture of the US toward India, India’s diplomatic efforts to normalize relations with China in the 1990s, and the visit by India’s then external affairs minister Jaswant Singh to China in the midst of Kargil War led Beijing to maintain neutrality during the war.

As far as Nepal is concerned, resorting to an economic blockade as a pressure tactic toward the end of the 1980s forced Kathmandu to court Beijing, and New Delhi was accused in 2015 of playing an unofficial and covert role in imposing an economic blockade in favor of the Madhesi population as way to exert influence on constitutional developments in Kathmandu.

The success of India’s coercive strategies in Bhutan in the form of withdrawal of subsidies on kerosene and cooking gas when Prime Minister Jigme Thinley made a suspicious move to court China, allegedly to facilitate a formal diplomatic presence and a land-swapping deal should not mislead New Delhi. This measure was subsequently reversed and the succeeding Prime Minister, Tshering Tobgay, maintained close relations with India. However, India’s ability to coerce Bhutan runs with a caveat that the Himalayan country could move into the Chinese sphere of influence unless caution is maintained.  New Delhi needs to evaluate its defensive and retaliatory conventional military capacities against potential threats (as it cannot go on spending on the military at the expense of other needs of the citizens of the country); it cannot ignore non-conventional threats in the form of proxy wars and cross-border terrorism. These become sustained threats, spilling more blood than conventional wars, and present endless challenges in terms of protecting India’s territorial integrity. Terrorist attacks on the Indian mainland have surged which include high-profile cases such as the assault on Parliament in 2001, the 2008 Mumbai attacks, the Gurdaspur attack in Punjab in 2015, the Pathankot attack in January 2016, and the attacks on the Uri military camp in September 2016, the latest being the Pulwama terror attacks in which at least 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel (Indian paramilitaries) were killed in a suicide car bombing by an operative of the JeM group (Jaish-e-Mohammad) at Awantipora town of Pulwama district in Jammu and Kashmir (on the Srinagar-Jammu Highway) on 14 February 2019 apart from regular attacks that get less media coverage. In addition, cross-border attacks occur regularly, resulting in military personnel and civilians being killed every day in both India and Pakistan.

Enhanced preparedness in conventional military capacities does not enable New Delhi to handle the threat of terrorism effectively. For instance, a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs pointed to intelligence failures and security lapses in preventing terror attacks on Pathankot airbase in Punjab, India. [10]. It can be argued that addressing a threat by gathering credible intelligence and tightening defense mechanisms would do more to counter terrorism than mounting offensive strategies that often do not work and sometimes backfire. India must muster more diplomatic capital by continuously engaging with countries sharing similar security concerns.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose to invigorate his campaign against terror at international platforms and became successful in dissuading other South Asian countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan from joining the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) Summit hosted by Islamabad in November 2016. The United Nations decision to declare Masood Azhar a global terrorist also bears testimony to India’s persistent diplomatic efforts at voicing its concerns related to cross-border terrorism at international forums.

Concluding observations

While post-Independence India rejected the key tenets of the realist paradigm such as balance of power, deterrence, alliance formation and power maximization which underpinned the strategic understanding of the West to realize its broadly-defined security objectives, India’s growing economic and military power and its rising power status in the post-Cold War era has led it to approximate and incorporate the Western tenets in terms of the country’s military preparedness and rhetoric which is likely to  raise the level of security dilemma without addressing its continuing security concerns as a developing country and the emerging strategic understanding also ignores its historical experiences with the use of hard power.


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[6]Sagar, R. 2009. “State of mind: what kind power will India become?”, International Affairs, vol. 85, no. 4, p. 811.

[7]Dasgupta, S., Cohen, Stephen  P., 2011. ‘Is India Ending its Strategic Restraint Doctrine?’ The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 2, 163-177.

[8]Tanham, George K. (1992). “Indian Strategic Thought: An Interpretive Essay”, Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, Available at.

[9]Seethi K.M., Vijayan P. (2009). “Political Economy of India’s Third World Policy”, in Rajen Harshe and K.M. Seethi (eds), Engaging with the World: Critical Reflections on India’s Foreign Policy, Orient BlackSwan, New Delhi.

[10]“Parliamentary panel raps government for terror attack in Pathankot airbase”, (2018). The Economic Times, July 13, Available at