India cannot ingratiate itself with China through placation.
Shortsightedness, misguided idealism and a false sense of stature in the world contributed to the debacle 50 years ago against China, the wounds of which are yet to completely heal. When realization hit home and the sandcastles in the sky finally crumbled, it was too late. One has only to remind oneself of the two desperate “Eyes Only” letters that Jawaharlal Nehru dispatched to JFK on November 19 to realize the enormity of India’s miscalculations.
However, while steps were taken to correct India’s military posture after the 1962 war, the sense of idealism and misguided assessments of India’s place and stature in the world continued to dominate years after. We had learned little in the years immediately succeeding a catastrophic defeat. Inder Malhotra’s op-ed on nuclear debates in the Lal Bahadur Shastri era following China’s “596” nuclear test in 1964 reveal as much (emphasis added):
WELL before the All India Congress Committee (AICC) could meet to pronounce its verdict on the raging controversy over whether or not to make the atom bomb to meet the Chinese nuclear threat, Lal Bahadur Shastri had made up his mind not to go for nuclear weapons. Instead, he had resolved to rely on international nuclear security guarantees, particularly from the United States and the Soviet Union. How this was to be achieved was far from clear; indeed, the whole idea seemed tentative and half-baked.
Faced with [an] onslaught [to build an atomic bomb], Shastri decided to counterattack, which succeeded because other top party leaders, principally Morarji Desai and Krishna Menon — an odd couple, considering their intense mutual dislike — rallied to the PM’s support. They fully endorsed his moral and economic arguments for sticking to “the Mahatma’s teachings and Nehru’s legacy” and using atomic energy for peaceful purposes only. The high cost of nuclear weapons (Shastri questioned Homi Bhabha’s estimates and the AEC chairman later agreed that he had understated them) also helped the PM’s argument. Desai buttressed it by adding that the Rs 1,000 crore defence budget was already causing great hardship to the people. The huge additional cost of nuclear weapons would be “crushing”.
Eventually, the AICC passed the official resolution to the effect that India “would continue to utilise nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and that India would not enter into a nuclear arms race”. For his part, Shastri made a last-minute concession to his critics by declaring: “We cannot at present think in terms of making atomic bombs in India. We must try to eliminate the atomic bombs in the world”. (Emphasis added). The press called this outcome Shastri’s “triumph”, the Hindustan Times going so far as to hail it as “nothing short of a miracle”. [Indian Express]
The slow and meandering course that this political idealism took in our national security discourse (particularly as it relates to nuclear weapons) was somewhat corrected — first through action in 1974, and later intellectually in the 1980s. For this, India stands in gratitude to the political backing provided to the evolution of realism in our collective strategic thinking, perhaps best articulated by Rajiv Gandhi’s speech at the UN General Assembly in June 1988.
However, to employ a phrase that Mr. Nehru would appreciate — we have “promises to keep, and miles to go before we sleep.” Nuclear weapons may deter direct Chinese aggression against India, but cannot assist us in the ever-expanding projection of Chinese power in East Asia, the subcontinent, and the Indian Ocean. Our political leaders will need to learn that India cannot ingratiate itself with China through placation. Dialog with China has its place, of course, but cannot be a substitute for India’s own development of capacity.
We must be more ambitious (not to say, unapologetic and focused) in developing capacities beyond our own shores. Our delivery systems must continue to mature, rapidly. And our border infrastructure needs to be urgently developed to counter developments on the other side of the border. But none of these can be effectively achieved without a concerted effort to correct the negative trajectory of the Indian economy.
Being able to balance China requires both the development of military capabilities and sustained economic growth. While many articles and op-eds reflecting on the 1962 debacle argue (and quite rightly) for need to focus on military growth and better regional engagement to balance Chinese influence, these efforts will be impaired if India is unable to sustain its economic growth. We have been witness to a faltering economy, caused largely due to political inaction. A continuation such inaction will impact not only the lives of our citizens, but also jeopardize our influence in the region. And the Chinese will tell us as much. India cannot lose sight of the ball in Asia. There is simply too much at stake.