Prime Minister Modi’s trip this month to the Indian Ocean islands has been touted as part of India’s assumption of some of the burden of being a ‘security provider’ in the Indian Ocean Region. But the littoral of the ocean that bears its name is not the only region in which India entertains such ambitions, albeit covertly. The subcontinent is its own backyard and its self-image as a regional power necessarily entails the role of a ‘security provider’. The question, however, is can India pull off such a role?

India has projected itself as a benign power. To argue this, it not only points to its strategic posture but also to its strategic culture. In this narrative, India has never coveted territory beyond regional confines even though it has constantly been attacked from outside, both in medieval and colonial times. This, it attributes to a pacific – not pacifist – strategic culture that was defensive, non-expansionary and accommodative. Consequently, even though it was a successor state to an empire, it has remained satiated both in terms of territory and power.

These arguments are to embellish India’s credentials as a regional security provider. Since it has been a benign power, others need feel no apprehensions if its military exercises presence in their vicinity. India is now an emerging power with extra-territorial military capability. It is no longer an adversarial power, forever at odds with the West due to its non-aligned policy. It is instead a strategic partner of the US, and since it has a policy of multi-alignment, it is not averse to China either.

India’s peacekeeping ability is legendary and its humanitarian operations have perked up with its military capability. It went in and withdrew from Sri Lanka, both at its government’s behest. Therefore, India can take on traditional responsibilities of powerful states, such as in anti-piracy on the high seas.

However, being a security provider means much more, and that this remains unstated implies that there is a case for wariness.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses an audience in Jaffna, Sri Lanka on 14 March, 2015. Pic: PIB

Firstly, counter narratives on India’s strategic behaviour exist. As can be expected, these are routinely trotted out by Pakistan, more to hide its own chicanery. However, these cannot be dismissed entirely on that count. This record, starting from Junagadh to reactivation of the Line of Control last year, is at variance with the popular narrative of a reticence in using force based on a strategic culture privileging restraint.

Instead, it suggests a realism-inspired strategic doctrine, which means that India is just as most other states are: not averse to using force to further its ends. Even the ‘defensive and reactive’ posture that India presents as proof of its benign strategic culture has a realist rationale. As the status-quoist power and the powerful one in the India-Pakistan dyad, it is a rational posture that has thus far been suited to its ends.  Strategic culture, therefore, can be read not so much as the inspirational bedrock of strategy but an afterthought, obfuscating its realist strategic doctrine.

Therefore, both the strategic culture and strategic doctrine argument underpinning India’s projection of itself as a security provider are rather thin. The role of security provider needs to be measured against a truer representation of India, as evident in its hardnosed strategic behaviour rather than its sugar-coated professions.

That India is a growing power to be reckoned with was not lost on global minders in the West. The US industriously set about influencing India’s strategic self-perception starting in the Clinton era by instigating the debate over its strategic culture. It stepped in to profit from this effort in the Bush years with its proposal to turn India into a great power. So long as India stood to gain strategically, it played along, coming dangerously close to becoming yet another ‘pivot’ state in US’ mind’s eye, one that keeps a watch on its behalf in this corner of the world.

Obama’s ‘pivot towards Asia’, with China in its cross hairs, has made an essential partner state out of India, displacing Pakistan from that privileged status in the region.

This has placed India at the crossroads now. While the US may see India as its handmaiden, the latter for its part could well be taking the ride for its own purposes, not different from those of any growing power wanting to shape its neighbourhood. The second possibility is in India being unable to escape the US embrace and both unconsciously and wilfully internalising its role as a subordinate power out to do the US bidding in the division of global strategic labour.

The spin being put out in strategic circles is that India is riding on US coat tails, quite like China did in the seventies to the nineties. This would be a sign of continuity. The recent appreciative word from the former National Security Adviser, Shivshankar Menon, on India’s strategic moves in the Modi era suggests this may be the way to go.

The danger is from the discontinuities making India go down the wrong road. The change to the Modi era appears to be under-appreciated in the strategic community. The belief is that India will do what it has been traditionally doing, but only better and perhaps without hypocrisy.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Prime Minister of Mauritius, Sir Anerood Jugnauth at a one to one meeting in Mauritius on 11 March, 2015. Pic: PIB

However, ensuring continuity in India’s foreign policy and defence posture requires appreciating that it will not be easy in the light of the manifest change from a centrist polity to a rightist one. The likely change in the US post Obama towards the right and the continuance of its out-of-the-closet partner Israel under the right wing could place expectations, or even demands, on India that its right wing dispensation will only be too willing to oblige.

The influence of India’s US-based diaspora, the military-technological ballast from the US and Israel, and its Hindutva-rooted internal political compulsions and complexion, suggest that the definition of security provider could expand. The regime believes that India has been imposed upon historically, particularly by Muslim invaders, and that it needs to be more assertive, such as against Pakistan’s continuing provocations; that India has arrived with Modi’s ‘Barack’ moment, and finally that in Narendra Modi, India has the ‘man for the job’.

Currently, India is rightly staying out of this quagmire, with the home minister echoing the prime minister in arguing that its Muslims stand unaffected. This is encouraging in that the security provider logic is useful cover for the $40-billion military budget and force projection capability underway.  The chickens will come home to roost only if this changes. Given an increasing military capacity, a worsening situation that threatens to come right up to the Indus, subtle pressure from strategic partners and an amenable regime, this cannot be ruled out. Therein lies the threat of the ‘security provider’ argument.