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Redefining National Interest

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As India's stature grows in the international community, the question that preoccupies the minds of most strategists in India is how should the government define national interest? It's an ongoing debate. The definition of national interest tends to evolve along with the state itself, but the basic parameters or variables that we take into account while defining national interest — such as economic development, internal and external security and global systemic changes — remain unchanged.

In The National Interest, the prime objective of authors Rajiv Kumar and Santosh Kumar is to identify major factors that influence how India defines its national interest. But the book does not get into a conceptual debate on how one ought to define it. The authors include three broad variables that are important for defining national interest: security, economic prosperity and global public goods (safe international air space, good climate, etc.). The book tries to answer questions concerning India's security threats, economic growth requirements and the country's growing role and significance in the international system. To this end, the authors summarise major factors that go into defining national interest.

In the introduction, the figures provided on security and economic growth succinctly show where each of the factors lies in the overall security and economic framework. But there seems to be a few contradictions in two of their concluding points. On the one hand, the authors mention that "the probability of a major armed conflict or violation of sovereignty is weak due to global balance of power, India's changing relationship with the US, multi-polarity, nuclear deterrence and other preoccupations of China and Pakistan". On the other, they say, "India must, however, build up adequate defence capabilities for contingencies beyond 2020, particularly in light of the growing security deficit vis-à-vis China." There seems to be an inherent problem in these conclusions; or rather, they raise new questions. If chances of conventional conflicts with states have reduced, why then India's defence planning should be based on conventional threats from China?

The authors rightly point out that high technology weaponry will play a significant role in the future, and there is a greater emphasis on high-tech weaponry in the book. But, curiously, the authors also believe that there will be a "progressive shift in the centre of gravity of the power construct away from military and towards soft power." That's a disconnect.

The book goes on to mention that Pakistan and China would not engage in major confrontations with India, barring minor skirmishes or jihadi terrorist attacks. Excluding the Kargil conflict, which was also a localised conflict (in Jammu and Kashmir), Pakistan has been targeting India at the sub-conventional level (using unconventional methods) for over two decades. This pattern is, perhaps, likely to continue. Once the intensity of activities on the Afghan front reduces, there may be a spike in terrorist attacks against India, rather than a direct state-to-state confrontation between India and Pakistan. The current state of internal politics in Pakistan and issues with regard to Afghanistan have not led to any major change in Islamabad's strategies; it has only reduced the intensity of the proxy war.

The authors rightly note that there is a security deficit with respect to China. While India's ability to match China dollar-to-dollar is suspected, the country must, as suggested by the authors, try to offset the threats it faces from the Red regime not just by increasing investments in the defence sector, but through investing smartly into platforms and infrastructure that best serve the purpose.

In sum, the book covers the major security and economic issues that matter to India's national interest comprehensively. Well structured and easy-to-follow, the book is recommended to those who want to understand issues that India must deal with so as to ensure sustainable progress. And, of course, the authors have something substantial to offer in terms of rejuvenating India's foreign policy.

Author's Details:
Rajiv Kumar was director and chief executive of the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (Icrier), Delhi, during 2006-10, and was chief economist of the Confederation of Indian Industry. Kumar is on the central board of the State Bank of India. He has also worked with Asian Development Bank. Santosh Kumar is senior consultant at Icrier. A former IFS officer, he has been India's ambassador to South Africa, South Korea and Yemen; deputy chief of mission with ambassadorial rank to the European Union; and has held senior diplomatic positions in China, Pakistan and Germany.
Hosur is a researcher at Delhi-based think tank Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 18-04-2011)