Don’t bet on big role for India in regional security

Author: Ajai Sahni, the Institute for Conflict Management

Is India emerging as a great power? French President François Hollande’s recent trip to India included a joint statement with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which focused on security cooperation. This encouraged some speculative enthusiasm regarding India’s ‘widening role’ in Asia’s security.

French President Francois Hollande, flanked by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, waves to the media at a reception in New Delhi, India. (Photo: AAP)

For some years now, there have been rising expectations that India would be part of the Southeast Asian balance of forces and would act as a counterweight in the Indian Ocean to China’s increasing and capricious dominance.

But much of this is misleading. The India–France joint declaration echoes the form and language of numerous such statements in the past, hammered out with other visiting delegations and dignitaries from a host of countries, with marginal effect. Significantly, India has joint working groups on counter-terrorism with at least 24 countries including China. But these have yielded, at best, fitful cooperation — including joint counter-terrorism exercises with multiple countries — and occasional, highly selective, intelligence sharing. This is better than the situation a decade ago, but not dramatically so.

Crucially, despite projections and pretensions otherwise, the idea that India could be drawn into a more active or prominent role in Asian security, or could act as a balancing force in the region is premature, if not entirely misconceived.

Strategy is a function, overwhelmingly, of capacity. On the counter-terrorism dimension, India’s responses to recent attacks — in Pathankot on 1–3 January 2016, and in Gurdaspur on 27 July 2015 — provide anecdotal evidence of the state of disrepair in the security apparatus. Closer scrutiny exposes gaping deficiencies in the system.

To take the most visible indices of this incapacity, India has a severely inadequate police to population ratio of 141 per 100,000. And with multiple insurgencies across the country, this force is required to engage far beyond normal ‘peacetime’ policing. Worse, it has a chronic leadership deficit, with a 19 per cent shortage of apex level positions in the Indian Police Service.

The states spend a pittance on policing, on average 1.40 Indian rupees (about US$0.021) per day per capita. Unsurprisingly, the technical, technological and human resource profiles of state police forces remain abysmal — with a few tiny showcase units standing out as ineffectual exceptions. Similar deficits and deficiencies afflict the intelligence apparatus.

India’s armed forces have often been thought to be an exception to the general rot that afflicts the civilian administrative and security apparatus. But, the parameters that are projected tend to be misleading. India has long boasted that it has the ‘second largest army in the world’ (now, the third, behind China and the United States). But the reality is that the combined armed forces are overstretched and far below the strength and capabilities that are required even for present internal security and external defence requirements. India has a 1:944 active duty uniformed troop to population ratio, which pales in comparison to China at 1:585, the United Kingdom at 1:427, Pakistan at 1:321 and the United States at 1:229

The Indian forces are, hobbled by endemic shortages and obsolescent equipment, overwhelmingly acquired abroad, with little indigenous capacity for manufacturing. The capacity to project power abroad, consequently, does not go beyond token participation in a handful of UN Peacekeeping missions and politically correct pronouncements about development, peace and shared global responsibility. This will remain the case, despite rising expectations that India will take up a more active role in dealing with the global crisis of terrorism.

Crucially, India lacks the economic (and consequently, potential military) sinews to fulfil the ‘pivotal’ role that is being ascribed to it by both domestic and international cheerleaders. There has been much talk about India emerging as the world’s third largest economy by 2030, overtaking the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Japan, with a projected GDP of US$6.6 trillion at that stage.

What is left unsaid, here, is that these countries have current populations ranging between 64 million (the UK) and 127 million (Japan), while India weighs in at 1.25 billion. In 2030, with a projected population of 1.46 billion, India’s per capita income would still be just over US$4,976. In comparison China, with a projected GDP at over US$18.82 trillion and an expected population of 1.40 billion, would yield a per capita income of over US$13,412. The United States, with GDP forecasted at US$23.85 trillion and projected population at 355.7 million, would still be far ahead of both, with a per capita income of US$67,067.

India has made giant leaps over the past decades, but its ‘great power’ aspirations — and corresponding international expectations — are not backed by the resource profile that must underpin such ambitions. India is still a poor country with an abysmal human resources’ profile, lamentable leadership and a grossly deficient production base. This is certainly changing, but at a pace that will leave the country out of a decisive leadership role, both regionally and globally, for decades to come.

Ajai Sahni is the Executive Director of the Institute for Conflict Management and South Asia Terrorism Portal, Editor of the South Asia Intelligence Review and Executive Editor of Faultlines: Writings on Conflict and Resolution.