Habit of free-riding


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FOR nations, as with people, bad habits are hard to break. Free-riding refers to the benefit of security that an established great power with its world-wide military presence and force deployment provides lesser states. It is protection that friendly countries can enjoy whether or not they are in a formal alliance relationship or strategic partnership with a superior power. Often, a convergence of interests, political values, and/or ideology is enough for the free-riding option to become available. What fuels it is the expectation of the beneficiary state that the proximal foe and the adversarial big power alike will be deterred with minimal expenditure of its own resources. Free-riding offers relatively poor and weak countries or states, unwilling adequately to invest in their own defence, security without sweat, but it is something a would- be great power, such as India, should eschew.

Alas, over the 60-odd years of its independent existence, India has become habituated to relying on one great power or the other for its security. In Jawaharlal Nehru’s time, the United States primarily provided security, though it was something of a diplomatic high-wire act India had to pull off. It required the country to teeter between its pretensions as leader of the nonaligned nations (which grouping Delhi hoped would become the balancer in the Cold War between the rival blocs) by championing anti-colonialism, anti-racism and disarmament, and the reality of dealing with an overmatched and aggressively expansionist adversary next door, China.

Simultaneously, it meant tippy-toeing around issues that alienated either the United States (Nehru urged Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser not to nationalize the Suez Canal in 1956) or the Soviet Union (Nehru was studiously silent regarding the 1956 people’s revolt in Hungary against the Soviet-supported regime). It was not principles, but expediency, that marked Indian foreign policy during its most active and inventive phase.


In the realpolitik context, Washington envisioned an American stake in the success of democratic India to rival the attractions of the rough and ready political, economic and development model offered by Communist China to Third World countries. India was propped up by economic assistance – grants in-aid and credit on easy terms from the World Bank, technical cooperation in agriculture that made India food-sufficient – and just so that India could progress without being concerned overmuch about the looming Chinese menace, the United States (with the United Kingdom in secondary role) opened out its strategic umbrella.

By the late 1950s, in order to stave off the expected ‘internal Communist revolution’ or Chinese attack, Pentagon war plans, with Nehru in the know, allotted one carrier task force, an amphibious force with integral air support, one airborne division, three nuclear demolition teams, one composite air strike force, a medium bomber wing on rotation from the Strategic Air Command, and air transport capability to lift one whole airborne battle group, for the defence of India.1 

However, it was Washington’s deliberate efforts at divesting the dual-use Indian nuclear energy programme of its weapons capability and the punitive use of economic and food aid combined with its unwillingness, in the wake of the 1962 War with China, to arm India with modern military hardware, in particular the supersonic F-104G fighter aircraft, that led Indira Gandhi to seek protection from the other super power, even as India continued to rely centrally on US economic aid. This policy reached its apogee with the activation of the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, offering the Indian government and armed services the freedom of action, even as Russian submarines tailed the USS Enterprise Task Group-74 into the Bay of Bengal and possibly deterred American military intervention.

It may be noted, however, that during the entire time that India was free-riding on security, courtesy the US-UK combo up till the mid-60s and the Soviet Union in the subsequent 25 years, it safeguarded its policy options and carefully nursed its strategic nuclear military capabilities, retaining for the country the space for independent manoeuvre. It led to India developing nuclear weapons and missiles in the face of punitive western technology denial regimes (Non-Proliferation Treaty, Missile Technology Control Treaty) and, coupled with its economic potential and resources, securing for the country the necessary heft to compel changes in the world order.


But a curious thing happened. The acquisition of economic prowess and a strategic deterrent, instead of leading to a more assertive and independent role for India in the international arena, as happened elsewhere – for example, France withdrawing from NATO after securing its nuclear force de frappe – spawned diffidence and a policy of trivializing the country’s nuclear security and strategic imperatives. How else to explain the landmark nuclear civilian cooperation deal with the United States predicated on India’s permanently consigning the nuclear testing option to cold storage, and leaving the country with untested, unproven, unreliable and unsafe thermonuclear weapons that apparently do not scare a piddling Pakistan, leave alone China?

If the idea was for this deal specifically to facilitate India’s falling back on the US strategic arsenal for safety in a nuclear crisis with China, it could not have been designed any better. There are similarities with the situation existing in the 1950s except, ironically, Nehru’s India, for example, sans any of the prerequisites of power, boxed way above its weight-class on the global stage.


There is a god-awful tendency – almost a constant in Indian strategic culture – prompting Indian rulers regularly to draw defeat from the jaws of victory. The 12th century Delhi king, Prithviraj Chauhan, beat the invader, Mohammad Ghori, at the first Battle of Tarain but failed to pursue him beyond Bhatinda and finish him off, only to face defeat the next year when the Afghan looter, showing no comparable mercy, ended the game by putting out the Delhi king’s eyes. Maharaja Scindia of Gwalior at the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761 terminated hostilities on the say-so of his court astrologer at a juncture when the Afghan marauder, Ahmed Shah Abdali, faced abject defeat. It afforded Abdali the time to regroup and ultimately to prevail.

Fast-forwarding in time, Indira Gandhi stopped full-fledged weaponization in its tracks after the first Pokhran blast in 1974. Had she not choked, by the then American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s own account, India’s admission into the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a nuclear weapon state, alongside the ‘Big Five’ – the United States, Soviet Union, United Kingdom, France, and China, was a certainty. Vaulting into an expanded UN Security Council as permanent member with veto rights, and easing the country’s passage into the great power ranks would then have been a mere formality.

Again in 1998, Atal Bihari Vajpayee resumed nuclear testing, including of a thermonuclear design, and rather than have open-ended testing of higher yield weapon designs and hydrogen warheads for various missiles with different nose-cone geometries eventuating in a proven thermonuclear deterrent, announced a ‘voluntary’ test moratorium, leaving India strategically, once again, between and betwixt – neither a full-scale nuclear power nor a non-nuclear weapon state, and well short of great power status. It is this test moratorium, moreover, that Washington froze into a non-testing premise – the foundation for the nuclear deal.


The US insistence on India’s giving up testing ought to have sounded alarm bells for the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on many grounds, mainly geopolitical and military – how is India to emerge as a ‘major power’ (that US promised it will help India become) or, for that matter, a credible counterweight to China in Asia that geopolitically would serve the US purposes best, without India’s strategic thermonuclear wherewithal attaining at least ‘notional parity’ with its Chinese counterpart?2 But Manmohan Singh was persuaded by the argument of the economic gains from the supposed nuclear energy flow from imported reactors to meet electricity shortfalls. Some tradeoff this: India remaining a second-rate power for a small jump in electricity output!


The debilitating historical penchant aside, the fact is the Indian ruling class has always been enamoured by the prospect of the country becoming a great power on the cheap. Beginning in the fin de siecle, Rajiv Gandhi imbued his government with a ‘modern’ millennial sensibility. At a public level, this was reflected in his fascination for computers and high technology but in a time of flux in international relations – the breakdown of the Berlin Wall and the division of Europe, the demise of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War and its simple certainties, and of the dissolution or reformation of the alliance structures at the heart of international affairs post-1945 – it signalled a return to the cautiousness of the Nehruvian age. All consequential powers were courted and even China merited an improvement in relations (Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s ‘long handshake’ with Chairman Dengxiaoping in 1988).

Rajiv Gandhi’s belief in technology as a vehicle for development and his rollout of the numerous ‘technology missions’ under Sam Pitroda, seeded the great informatics revolution, resulting in the totemic successes of the Indian private sector computer software industry. It epitomized the emergence on the global stage of a technologically savvy 21st century India. Because this development happened unannounced and unforeseen and, as if by magic, virtually overnight, it reinforced the view in political and official circles, amongst the generally uninformed intelligentsia and the urban middle class at-large that this could be the paradigm for India’s rise to great power status, all the more attractive because it demanded no expenditure of blood, sweat, tears and toil nor a consequential outward-looking military – the traditional way to great power.

This ‘great power on the cheap’ idea was merely a latter day embellishment of the tendency noticeable from Jawaharlal Nehru’s days when great power recognition was thought of as India’s natural entitlement – a view, perhaps, encouraged by the offer in the 1950s by the US President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to India of the UN Security Council seat occupied by Koumingtang China (under Generalissimo Chiangkaishek) – an offer, grievously for the country’s interests, Nehru in a fit of national self-abnegation turned down, saying Communist China deserved it more! That chance of ascending easily to the great power club passed never to return, though Nehru must have believed that more such offers will follow as the UN and the world simply could not do without India’s sage presence.


It is precisely this unsustainable conviction of India’s hop-skipping its way into the highest ranks that led the Indian policy elite quickly to latch on to the concepts of ‘soft power’ and, later, ‘smart power’. Harvard University Professor Joseph P. Nye., Jr., who parented both these concepts, would be amused to see an India striving to maximize its ‘soft’ or ‘smart’ power (Information Technology prowess, Bollywood films and music, traditional cultural artifacts, etc.), without possessing the iron of great power.

Nye’s recommendation that the United States use its soft power (Hollywood films, music, high technology edge, western liberal ideology and values, free market nostrums, agricultural and industrial muscle, foreign aid and development assistance, and so on) smartly was based on the existential premise that Washington’s tendency to use military force when in doubt was a counterproductive strategy. It ended up fuelling anti-Americanism all over the world and ill-served the US national interest.

But the building blocks of soft or smart power, as Nye, President Bill Clinton’s Assistant Secretary of Defence, emphasized, rested on the US’ unchallenged military might. It is this last aspect that the Indian analysts within and without the Indian government never paid attention to; presumably because they were so enthralled by these ‘politically correct’ sounding concepts, they did not bother to study what Nye had said. Nye postulated that soft power is best wielded in conjunction with the discriminate use of the country’s hard power (strategic nuclear and conventional military capabilities, bases with pre-positioned stores all over the world, and forwardly deployed military units), and that this would make the US a ‘smart power’.


The ‘smart’ use of its undoubted soft power will require that India first procure the elements of ‘hard power’ and the willingness to use it. If this is done, there will be no need for India to free-ride on security. In any case, this country’s recent historical experience reveals the limits of free-riding, which works just so long as the security provider is not asked to deliver on its promises, imperil its own interests, or put its military forces in harm’s way. The Pentagon plans and intentions for defending India evaporated once the US-UK combine in 1962 espied the possibility of its own forces clashing in a land war with the Chinese army in the Himalayas. It is then that Washington and London both recalled that the masses of PLA in Korea a decade earlier were a damned difficult adversary to defeat. Also that the use of tactical nukes against the Chinese hordes might be successful but could trigger a catalytic nuclear war with the Soviet Union coming in on China’s side.3 


China in the 21st century remains India’s main Asian rival and competitor, except it is now so powerful an entity that even the United States would quail to take it on militarily, less so on some other country’s behalf. This is the reason why Asian allies of the United States may go in for nuclear weapons of their own.4 India, therefore, is left with no alternative other than to engage in a single-minded strategic build-up that will induce caution in Beijing. The activation of satellite air fields and the upgrading of main bases to host the Su-30 MKI main force for aggressive air defence mainly in the East is a start, as are the excavation of tunnel complexes invulnerably to station China-targeted Agni IRBMs.

A measure of military parity, however, will be achieved only when proven and tested thermonuclear missiles become available for bulk eployment and the Indian Army obtains a genuine offensive warfighting capability (between six to nine Light Mountain Divisions) enabling the battle to be taken to the Chinese in the mountains and on the Tibetan plateau. And as a complement, it is necessary that a tit-for-tat approach is adopted strategically to permanently discomfit China by helping countries on its periphery, such as Vietnam, secure critical strategic military technologies – a belated response to Beijing transferring nuclear weapon designs and technology to Pakistan, and giving it ongoing technical advice.

Ramped up strategic military cooperation with Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and, if it is appropriately inclined, Australia; the consolidation of the Indian Ocean littoral and ASEAN states in a cooperative regional security architecture; a policy of undercutting Chinese influence and taking Beijing head-on in Africa and Latin America to win friends and sew up access to oil and other natural resources, and extensive sales and transfers of military hardware to African countries and to states in the vicinity, like Myanmar and Sri Lanka, to wean them away from the Chinese orbit; and, the cultivation of the ‘Tibet card’ to use against Beijing, involving covert and overt support for efforts to realize a genuinely ‘autonomous’ Tibet majorly vacated of its Han Chinese population, are some of the other actions India ought to take. This is the minimum necessary because nuclear crises with China are looming in the foreseeable future and India is simply not prepared for them.5 


What to talk of nuanced notions of soft, hard, and smart power, the Indian establishment has not even come to grips with the nature of international power – what constitutes it and how to wield it for maximum returns. This is evident from the repeated turn away from power when on the point of realizing it. A facile explanation is that it betrays the classic under-achiever’s weak-willed instincts of withdrawal at the first sign of resistance.

Consider this. For the Indian decision-makers, the nuclear bomb is less a political or military instrument than an empty symbol of power. Having revealed the barest capability (altogether six tests, one of them a test in 1998 of a thermonuclear weapon design that fizzled, compared to 1,800 tests conducted by the US, some 800 tests by Russia, and 80 by China), the Indian political leaders retreated, thinking there was not much else to do except to await recognition by acclamation of India’s new, more enhanced, standing and for the world to hail the new player on the great power block.

Thus, after abandoning the 25 year-old ‘do nothing’ policy characterized by lassitude, procrastination and strategic confusion of the Congress Party, the Bharatiya Janata Party coalition government ordered a series of nuclear tests and before a substantive technical assessment of the tests was in, and despite a formal warning from the DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organization) that more testing was needed to certify the reliability of especially hydrogen weapon designs, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced a test moratorium on 28 May 1998 – a decision that was not any less inexplicable for having the qualifier ‘voluntary’ attached to it.


It was a replay of 1974 when, instead of moving full steam ahead with weaponizing the atom, Indira Gandhi shut down testing after only one test. Had India proceeded with testing and presented the world with a usable nuclear force as a fait accompli, the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, then in its infancy and awaiting ratification by a host of countries, would have accommodated it as a nuclear weapon state.

Again in 1998, had an open-ended testing regime been ordered and persisted with to validate the performance of numerous thermonuclear weapon/warhead designs, and a strategic main force build-up ordered, India could have forced a radical overhauling of the skewed nonproliferation regime by manipulating the threat of fatally damaging it. If the rinky-dink nuclear operation run by North Korea can push the nonproliferation regime to the brink and Washington into fits, and Pakistan can leverage the A.Q. Khan-run nuclear black market to advance its national interests, imagine the havoc the well-oiled Indian nuclear programme with mastery over two fuel cycles (uranium and plutonium) and growing expertise in a third fuel cycle (thorium) can wreak and the returns on such a policy.


This attitude, earlier adopted by China, inspired fear and won it respect. But a fearful Delhi sued for peace and, to the immense relief of the nonproliferation lobby in the United States, sought accommodation. Instead of talking from a position of strength, India was back on familiar ground, with the BJP government seeking ‘strategic dialogue’ and beseeching America for handouts (‘advanced technology’, this time around).

What accrued was the nuclear deal that the Congress party government headed by Manmohan Singh finalized. There is seemingly no limit to which Indian leaders won’t descend in terms of sacrificing national self-interest and self-respect. By now the United States has the measure of Delhi’s downward shuffle. The visiting American Under-Secretary of State William Burns may have hailed India as America’s ‘critical global partner’ but no pressure will be spared by the Barack Obama Administration to ensure India’s compliance with its overarching scheme to zero out the global nuclear threat to the United States.

Ellen Tauscher, the hardline non-proliferationist and presently Under-Secretary of State, says she intends to have India (and Pakistan, Israel) sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (of which India is already an informal adherent owing to the no-testing clause in the nuclear deal), quickly agree to a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (an expectation Delhi has fanned by putting the bulk of its natural uranium reactors that could earlier be converted for production of tritium and weapon grade plutonium and which constituted a surge production capacity, under international safeguards, again as a pre-condition for the nuclear deal), and otherwise to ‘cap, freeze and rollback’ its weapons programme and to eliminate its nuclear arms inventories, even as the US and, presumably, the other four NPT recognized nuclear weapon states retain, according to President Obama, meaningful nuclear arsenals. What remains unsaid is that a nuclear disarmed India can once again rely on America’s security policy and free-ride on its military apparatus.


Historical evidence reveals, unsurprisingly, that countries that free-ride also face decline, especially if they have no firm strategic sense of themselves. During most of the 19th century, the Royal Navy was the dominant force in the world, enforced the British writ, and kept out the European continental powers from the ‘new world’ of the Americas to prevent their plundering gold and establishing colonies in the Caribbean and Central and South America. In the event, the United States had a free-ride, security-wise, and unhindered freedom to firm up its control of its hemispheric backyard and the time to beef up its naval strength until the 1890s when the US had a globe-girdling oceanic navy, and could take care of its own business by itself (ousting Spain from the Philippines and the Caribbean).

However, the US escaped the negative impact of free-riding because in 1823, when the American Navy was no more than a few ships of the line, US President James Monroe staked out America’s expansive defence perimeter, audaciously enunciating his ‘Doctrine’ – that interference or intervention by any European power into the affairs of Central and South America would be cause for war. Absent a singular strategic vision for the country and the determination to realize it come what may, the end-result of India’s free-riding and a too tight embrace with the United States will be less exceptional.

Usually, free-riding begets strategic reduction of the country and a status as subsidiary ally – a fact well understood, for example, by Maozedong. When Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, in order to dissuade Beijing from building its own nuclear-powered submarines, offered China the deterrent use in 1956 of a fleet of Chinese port-based Soviet submarines with nuclear missiles, Mao declined, asking rhetorically, ‘Whose finger will be on the trigger?’

Other states were in no position to protest and avoid the consequent diminishment. This happened with all the countries of Western Europe after joining NATO and to countries in Eastern Europe after being coerced into the Warsaw Pact. It happened to Japan and South Korea after coming under the extended US military cover, and to Israel and the Arab states, all of whom are American protectorates. And, nearer home, Pakistan became an expendable cog in the US foreign policy machine, its value up one day, down the next, and never far from being jettisoned for not complying with US diktat. If India does not mend its strategic outlook, policy and posture, this is the denouement India faces.



1. For a detailed analysis of the Nehruvian era foreign and defence policy and the US military plans, see Bharat Karnad, Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy, 2nd ed, Macmillan India, 2002, 2005, ch. 2.

2. The concept of ‘notional parity’ with China is detailed in Karnad, Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security, 2nd ed., pp. 614-647.

3. For a detailed analysis of the western military thinking on assisting India to fight China, see Karnad, Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security, 2nd ed., pp. 96-152.

4. For the case that eroding US will and strategic military wherewithal will motivate Japan, Taiwan and South Korea towards nuclear weapons, see Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy, pp. 29-32.

5. For scenarios concerning China that might involve the threat of use of nuclear weapons, see Bharat Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy, Praeger, USA, 2009; special South Asian edition, Pentagon Press, 2nd print, 2009, pp. 133-149.