How should the Indian system operate to achieve strategic goals?
During the Great Game of the 19th Century, world powers jostled for influence and control over various regions of Asia for over six decades in pursuit of their commercial and geopolitical interests.
A similar Great Game of the 21st century is now under way with Asia the focus region yet again. Enabled by deep knowledge of digital (computers, cell phones, wearables) users of India, the big powers are able to play a highly calibrated game both at an individual level as well as at a country level.
If an aspirational India is to achieve its 21st century vision and strategic goals in this environment, it will require a certain degree of alignment among its people.
In this article, we define the constituents of the Indian Establishment (see Fig 1) and the Indian Influencer Class who are principally responsible for how India operates, provide an example of the kinds of strategic choices and tradeoffs that India has to make, explain a model for transitioning India from a Tier II middle power to a Tier I global power, and finally present a framework by which the Indian Establishment can prioritise strategic goals and handle short-term activities in a manner that aligns with the big picture.
The Indian Establishment
Poor decision-making or sub-optimal outcomes happen due to: (i) lack of information (ii) poor execution or (iii) improper articulation and prioritisation of vision and strategic goals.
Politicians who are severely constrained by five-year electoral timelines and by the need to please a diverse set of constituents can rarely be blamed for deficiencies in strategy.
The politicians' role is to define aspirations, inspire the populace, and provide good governance. However, the strategists/advisors who define execution paths and tradeoffs amongst various options, and the Indian Establishment may rightfully be blamed for poor outcomes.
What do we mean by the Indian Establishment (see Fig 1)? This is the set of bureaucrats, advisors, military, intelligence, business, think-tanks, media and academia that are most impactful on planning and decision-making activities at the country level.
Peripheral to the Indian Establishment is the Indian Influencer Class, which may be quantified as those 10 percent of Indians who are societal trendsetters and guideposts for the Indian Establishment.
For example, the set of Indians that were the first to buy smartphones or the ones that define employment with an MNC as the definition of career success.
The US is the gold standard for a competent Establishment because it delivers consistently on the ideological and strategic goals of the country regardless of which political party is in power. The Indian Establishment must strive to emulate the US in this regard.
Priorities and tradeoffs
In an earlier article from May 2020, we articulated seven strategic goals for 21st Century India with stability on Indian borders as an important pre-requisite to achieving these goals. The unfortunate tragedy at a border location with China last month and escalating border tensions challenge our recommendations.
The movement of the India-China relationship into a downward spiral has important consequences. To balance out China's military superiority, India has to depend on the support of the West, led by the US.
But the West's support comes at a steep price - the West will continue to take India's data and will take trillions of dollars of value created by Indian startups and industry because of the preferential treatment that it gets to invest in India.
The West will continue to do what it has done for the past 20-30 years, which is to reap most of the financial benefits of a growing India, including startups and technology created by India's top talent. Pressing strategic goals such as data localisation and self-reliance in technology have inevitably taken a back seat.
Shifting mindsets from Tier II to Tier I
A significant change in the Indian mindset will be required for India to evolve from a Tier II middle power to a Tier I global power (see Fig 2).
The current turmoil in global geo-politics is an opportune time for the Indian Establishment and the Indian Influencer Class to make this change. Conceptually, we view the period up until the year 2020 as the pivotal year when this mindset shift takes place.
Cultural/Societal Mindset: The Indian populace is divided into silos based upon various demographic parameters such as religion, class, caste, skin colour, and region. In a Tier I India, we see such silos melting away in favour of a core set of Indian Values that are unique and common to Indians of all backgrounds.
These values define the Indian Identity which is distinctly different from that of the Chinese, European, African, or others. For example: 'My word is my honour' is one such Indian value.
On the skills front, the most talented Indians are focused on learning tools that will land them a job with an MNC and not on foundational technologies. Or they somehow find themselves delivering technological breakthroughs for foreign companies.
In Tier I India, the promise of greater financial rewards combined with the satisfaction of building 21st Century India will nudge the best Indian talent to align with India's strategic goals.
Economic Development Mindset: In Tier II India, different categories of people are focused on different economic segments like startups, military/defence, industry and non-profits but there is no synergy between the segments.
In Tier I India, the perspective is changed to a set of core concepts that provide the foundation for big picture concepts. We see Finance Innovation, Solutions Innovation and Self-Reliant Technology as the core foundations that will enable the big vision goals of building High Tech Giants and Indian Brands, Defence Indigenisation, and transforming India into a Power Player with a Global Profile.
Finance Innovation includes promotion of digital currencies and structural changes to the world's financial system whereby money supply is tied to a country's natural resources and productive labour capacity and not to money printing capacity backed by a military.
Solutions Innovation is about shunning bad business models from the so-called developed countries in favour of innovative models that serve all Indians and beyond.
Self-Reliant Technology is about weaning away from the dependence on other countries through a combination of indigenous technology and technology transfer.
Aligning with strategic goals
Each of the constituents of the Indian Establishment is undoubtedly a patriot and well-wisher of India. However, a lack of alignment among the groups has proven to be quite expensive for India. Stipulating that the Establishment and Influencer Class must constantly ask themselves if their job responsibilities, projects, and day-to-day activities align with India's 21st century goals is easier said than done.
Top academics have taken pride in announcing that most of their students are in foreign countries without understanding the long-term impact on Indian high-tech industry. Military personnel are, rightfully, very upset with some neighbouring countries and are inclined to take an aggressive posture but they may not know that the economic costs of Western support could impact India negatively for one or two generations.
Individuals with family members that are settled in the West may be promoting agendas that are not necessarily in India's broader interests.
Let us illustrate how the Indian Establishment and the Indian Influencer Class can align with the Vision Goal (see Fig 2) of creating a High-Tech Giant. MeitY and NITI Aayog have just launched a Digital India Aatmanirbhar Bharat Innovate Challenge to promote Indian app startups that can compete against foreign equivalents. This effort could easily create several Rs 1,000 crore ($130 million) companies, but will it create Rs 1 lakh crore ($13 billion) or Rs 100 lakh crore ($1.3 trillion) companies that can stand up against multinational giants like Amazon or Facebook?
The US provides a good model for how this is done. Establishment strategists pick startups that meet certain criteria and the entire Establishment pushes these select startups. Each individual of the Establishment does whatever they can do either through their job or through promotion within their network to make these startups a success. Inevitably the Influencer Class takes the hint and does the same.
Transitioning from a Tier II mindset to a Tier I mindset, prioritising strategic goals, and aligning the Indian Establishment and the Indian Influencer Class with these goals is sure to propel India to being a 21st century global power.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)