India dominates much of the subcontinent it occupies. In terms of land mass, population, economic activity and military capabilities, no other country in the region comes close. And yet, as much as India towers over the region by metrics, it cannot project power in the region proportionate to its size. In this Deep Dive, we’ll explain why this is the case and what would be required for India to reach its potential.
A Corridor to the Core
A country’s core is the area that is critical for geopolitical survival, where the key components necessary to sustain life intersect. India’s core lies within the Indo-Gangetic Plain, where the Ganges River meets the southern foothills of the Himalayas. Before independence, when colonial India included present-day Pakistan, the core extended westward to include both sides of the Indus River. The flat terrain is hospitable to settlement and agriculture, and its proximity to the Ganges ensures a freshwater supply. The humid, subtropical climate is much more hospitable than other climates found outside the plain: deserts, mountains, tropics, monsoons and arid steppes.
Strong geographic barriers fortify nearly all the boundaries of India’s core, making it difficult to attack. The Himalaya Mountains in the north and Arakan Mountains in the east clearly demarcate the region from the rest of the Asian continent. They are also difficult to traverse. Though they do not completely eliminate the possibility of attack, they make logistics and sustained fighting difficult, costly and often short-lived. To the west, the smaller Aravalli Mountains and Thar Desert protect the core by cutting off a large portion of the Indo-Gangetic Plain. To the south, the Vindhya Mountains extend up to the Chota Nagpur Plateau, creating a light land barrier. The remaining landmass below this southern line is surrounded by the Indian Ocean. Nearly every major empire to rule present-day India set up its base of power in this core area because of its hospitable climate and high degree of protection from foreign land invasion.
But there is one place where the core is highly vulnerable to land invasion: the flat corridor between the Thar Desert and Himalayas in Punjab. As far back as Alexander the Great’s India campaign, foreign powers have exploited this land passage to invade India. The Ghaznavids, a Turkic people from Central Asia, passed through valleys in modern-day Afghanistan in the 11th and 12th centuries and invaded India through this corridor. Other great empires that ruled over India after invading through this point include the Mughals (1526-1857) and Sultanate of Delhi (1206-1526). Lesser-known Persian and Afghan dynasties like the Ghorids, Lodhis and Durranis did the same.
Looking at the rise and fall of empires in India, it becomes clear that whoever wants to command the country must first cut off this point of entry through the Thar-Himalaya corridor. Failure to do so leaves the core vulnerable to foreign threats. Present-day India had this imperative fulfilled upon gaining independence in 1947. The national borders New Delhi inherited from independence and partition cut off passage through the corridor – as much as a national border can. Though an international border is not the same as a geographic barrier, India has a means of restricting entry into the country in this area through traditional border controls. In areas where India lacks a universally recognized international boundary, fighting continues. A case in point is Kashmir, which was not included in the legally established boundaries after British rule.
Throughout its history, Indian governance was characterized by foreign rule over hundreds of small states or principalities. Muslims ruled over the Hindu majorities during the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire, and the British ended up ruling over both. Even before the sultanate, ruling Turkic peoples mixed in with the local population. Unlike the previous empires, independent India is now fully governed by its own people, and the territorial integrity of the country is largely solidified.
India’s long history as a subject of foreign empires created the government’s main domestic challenge: effectively managing the country’s extreme diversity. India has never been a truly unified country or empire. It existed as a hodgepodge of kingdoms, clans and local rulers, each with their own unique identity. During the periods of great empires, the ruling powers consolidated control over the territory by arranging some type of allegiance from each group. Past empires used extensive military force to establish, maintain and grow their presence on the subcontinent. They followed a basic framework in which the ruling power acted as an overlord of the larger territory while local monarchs, clans or community leaders had a high degree of autonomy in running daily life and state affairs.
The current shape of the Indian administration has its roots in the way the British Empire built its control over the subcontinent. When India achieved national independence, the new country needed to shore up its political identity. As a British colony, the subcontinent existed as a series of administrative provinces and princely states. The provinces had fallen under direct British rule, while the princely states were semi-sovereign territories that allied with the British government. Each of the 565 princely states that existed at the time of independence could opt in to the new nation-state if it so chose. The states formed after independence corresponded to the British administrative divisions of the territory. The partition of India and Pakistan into two separate nation-states uprooted millions of people, leading to large-scale and at times fatal communal violence. The trauma that resulted from this still lives on today and is evident in the two countries’ tense relationship. What emerged was a country whose national borders were not created by natural geographic or demographic divisions. Instead, it was a conglomeration of eclectic identities and territories accustomed to having a large degree of autonomy under one national, administrative rule.
Much like its historic empires, modern-day India consists of many states acting autonomously, with minimal control given to the central government. India remains an unwieldy collection of semi-autonomous states and union territories. As a result, the country has maintained a diverse population over centuries. Indian states are allowed to choose their own official language, which has resulted in 22 official languages throughout the country, with many more unofficial languages widely spoken. Hindi is the predominant language group, with roughly 422 million native speakers, but outside of the Hindi core, linguistic minorities have majority status within many states. For example, Bengali is spoken natively by 83 million people and is the official language of West Bengal, Tripura, and the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Telugu, with 74 million native speakers, is the official language of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Many Indians are unable to effectively communicate in a shared language, which creates problems for national cohesion.
Another diversity problem for India lies in religion. Hindus are the most populous religious group in 27 states, but some provinces have majority or sizable non-Hindu populations. Islam makes up a majority in Lakshadweep and Jammu and Kashmir; it is a sizable minority in Assam (30.9%), West Bengal (25.2%), Kerala (24.7%), Uttar Pradesh (18.5%) and Bihar (16.5%). Communal violence is common. The biggest conflict was in 1947 during partition, but since then, there have been smaller-scale communal riots, such as the 1984 massacre of Sikhs. Prior to British rule, communal riots were scarce. The Muslim minority ruled over a Hindu majority almost uninterrupted from the 10th century to the 19th.
Regionalism is compounded by disparities in economic development. Wealth is far from equally distributed. According to India’s Ministry of Statistics, rich states like Maharashtra and New Delhi boast per capita net state domestic products of $2,094 and $4,376, respectively. Meanwhile, a poor state like Uttar Pradesh registers just $757 as its per capita NSDP.
Economic activity is also not equally represented throughout the country. Some regions of India have a developed services-oriented economy like Mumbai or Hyderabad, which is a major IT hub. Others have limited and unreliable access to basic infrastructure such as electricity and water. The country’s industrial sector also reflects the wide range of wealth generation in the country. There is basic textile manufacturing in Tamil Nadu state and high-value defense industry production in Karnataka state.
This divergence in economic activity and standards of living creates multiple population groups with very different needs and demands from the same government. All compete for the government’s attention and resources. Historically complicating these competing interests for the Indian government has been its limited ability to exercise control at the national level, as local government initiatives can easily usurp or bypass national ones.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is attempting to kill two birds with one stone by using economic reforms to centralize power and win public favor through economic growth. In an effort to crack down on black market cash and formalize the economy, the government has linked the ability to exchange cash for good currency with formally registering with the government for income taxes. The new Goods and Services Tax streamlines the tax process such that the final prices of goods are cheaper and more tax revenue ends up funneling into national accounts rather than state or local accounts. Reforms underway regarding real estate ownership and the gold market also will simultaneously formalize the economy while targeting potential business power centers or groups that could pose a challenge to the central government.
Be the Regional Hegemon
In the event that India consistently manages its unity and diversity for an extended period of time, it can begin to project outward and will set its sights on becoming the regional hegemon. This matters to India because of the country’s strategic need to secure resources and better protect its territorial integrity. But for India, hegemony demands that it be able to project influence over each of the four nation-states bordering it within the subcontinent – Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh.
India’s main strategic concern is its ability to maintain access to its northeastern states. These states are separated from the mainland by the Siliguri Corridor, a strip of land that at its narrowest measures just 17 miles (27 kilometers) wide and, due to its positioning with respect to the Dolam Plateau, makes it vulnerable to attack from the north. A small part of Chinese territory dips down between Nepal and Bhutan close to this corridor. Nepal and Bhutan are critical buffer states between India and China, so New Delhi and Beijing compete for influence in these countries. In the past, Indian-Chinese competition for these two territories has resulted in war. These conflicts are usually short-lived, since the mountainous terrain makes it logistically costly and difficult to sustain warfare over an extended period of time. Instead, India’s leading strategies to maintain influence in these buffer states revolve around building strong political and economic relationships.
Control of Pakistan would help India meet two strategic objectives. The first is access to water resources from the Indus River Valley. The Indus River Valley lies in Chinese, Indian and Pakistani territory. From India’s point of view, control over Pakistan is necessary to ensure water and hydroelectricity to its northern cities.
As a question of national security, India has a strategic objective to control, or at the very least definitively subordinate, Pakistan. Since partition, relations between India and Pakistan have been antagonistic. The arrangement accentuated the Muslim-Hindu divide between the two countries. This has manifested in the form of military skirmishes and terrorist attacks against India.
India’s relationship with Bangladesh is the most stable compared to the others. Unlike Nepal and Bhutan, Bangladesh does not directly border China. Nor does it have a neighboring power it can use to play off India. Instead, India almost entirely surrounds Bangladesh, aside from a short 169-mile border with Myanmar, of which about 130 miles are on land rather than at sea. Additionally, India controls the upper portion of the Brahmaputra River, which provides Bangladesh with a significant source of freshwater. This gives New Delhi even greater leverage over Dhaka. The relationship helps mitigate the risk to the Siliguri Corridor and provides India strategic depth. If infrastructure were better, India’s northeastern states would benefit from sea access via the Brahmaputra River through Bangladesh. Such access would also help support further economic development in these states, which are among India’s poorest. Additionally, controlling Bangladesh helps shore up India’s border with Southeast Asia. This border area is not often as dynamic or noted as India’s other borders, but the China-Burma-India theater of World War II illustrates its strategic value to India. The theater was established to prevent and push back the Japanese advancement in Asia, which at one point reached modern-day Myanmar and directly bordered British India.
Control the Indian Ocean
India also has its sights set on becoming the predominant military power in the Indian Ocean. The country has an extensive coastline stretching 4,671 miles, making it impossible to ignore surrounding waters. The Indian Ocean region, including the Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea and Laccadive Sea, remains a strategic interest for India. New Delhi also pays close attention to areas from the Andaman Sea to the Strait of Malacca, the Gulf of Aden to the Suez Canal, and the Strait of Hormuz to the Persian Gulf. This latter group of maritime bodies represents major entry or exit points into the Indian Ocean region and coastal waters of India, and given the natural geographic defenses surrounding most of India, the coast is one of the only areas vulnerable to attack and possible invasion. British colonization of the subcontinent did begin, after all, with coastal entry into the country.
The Indian Ocean region plays a vital role in India’s economy and national security. India has a difficult time engaging in land-based trade. Generally, land-based trade has higher transportation costs than maritime trade, and this is even more true for terrain as challenging as India’s mountain ranges. Even the ancient Silk Road’s main trajectory skirted north of the Himalayas; any access points to India were secondary or tertiary branches of the main route. Because of this, India will always need to use maritime routes for trade.
It sits in the advantageous position of having access to energy imports from the Middle East and access to Asian markets for selling goods. Even Europe is a market India can tap at its convenience, thanks to the Suez Canal. Approximately 95 percent of India’s trade by volume and 70 percent by value is carried out via maritime transportation, according to India’s Ministry of Shipping.
India’s navy is in the early stages of modernization and still needs to grow and increase its capabilities before it could come close to fulfilling this imperative. India’s military has only recently become capable of providing baseline security to immediate coastal waters. But although New Delhi lacks the ability to project power into the oceans, its strategic interests mean it must monitor the ocean, even if there is little it can do to affect it. In the meantime, the country’s strategy to ensure that its security interests are being met in the region is to ally itself with strong navies from sympathetic countries like the United States, Japan and, to a lesser degree, Australia.
There’s no denying India’s potential to dominate and project power across the subcontinent it occupies. Reaching that potential, however, depends on the country’s ability to overcome the constraints that keep it from fulfilling its imperatives. Maintaining and managing the country’s unity in the face of so much diversity has been a challenge for all Indian governments. The current strategy to achieve this revolves around economic reforms and efforts to build nationalism, particularly among the Hindu population. The problems, tensions and national interests in the border states will persist as India tries to manage its imperatives. But the better India can manage domestic diversity, the more resources it will have at its disposal to deal with international issues. India must achieve its imperatives in succession. First, it needs to create a sense of nationhood among the people and develop a coherent economic system. Once the core of India is under a centralized authority, it can pursue its security imperatives at land and at sea.