This interview with Dr. Rajeswari Rajagopalan is part of the Asia program’s Women's Voices From the Indo-Pacific Project, produced by Senior Fellow Manjari Chatterjee Miller and Research Associate Zoe Jordan, featuring influential women in India’s political, economic, technological, and social fields whose work matters for the U.S.-India bilateral relationship and India’s relationship with the world.
Dr. Rajeswari Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi, and writes a column on defense issues in Asia for The Diplomat magazine. She joined ORF after serving on the National Security Council Secretariat, Government of India. She has also been a Technical Advisor to the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts on Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space. She is the author of nine books including Global Nuclear Security: Moving Beyond the NSS.
Dr. Rajagopalan, who is one of very few women working on space and nuclear security in India, believes there needs to be deeper and more structured exchanges between the Indian government and outside experts to craft more efficient security policies.
What do audiences in the United States commonly misunderstand about your field of security and nuclear policy research in India?
India is still seen in the context of the India-Pakistan conflict rather than in the context of the Asian international system. For many decades, India focused more on Pakistan than on the larger Asian order. However, today India is increasingly concerned about China and broader stability in Asia and the Indo-Pacific. This is why it is more willing to collaborate with the United States on security issues, including through partnerships like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. India still has a ways to go in fully embracing external security cooperation, but its focus has definitely shifted away from Pakistan towards China and the Asian order.
Americans also inordinately focus on the possibility of India-Pakistan nuclear escalation, even though both countries have now been overt nuclear powers for over two decades without a nuclear crisis–that is, no bilateral crisis, of which there have been a number, had any major nuclear component, nor any serious risk of nuclear escalation. Other than oblique rhetoric, there is no evidence that either India or Pakistan has ever considered nuclear weapons use or even threat of use. International worry about nuclear escalation has been the result of just the presence of nuclear weapons rather than actual Pakistani and Indian behavior. India’s nuclear policies are fairly consistent, especially the No-First Use (NFU) doctrine, and it sees nuclear weapons as having an important but limited role in its security.
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) ideological leanings have also not had as much of an impact in foreign policy as was proposed by American observers. The BJP government’s foreign policy demonstrates continuity and consistency with past governments.
What are the most consequential factors in your field that you think will play a role in India’s relationship with the United States or the world over the next 3-5 years?
The single most important factor is China. China is a rising power and likely to be, alongside the United States, one of the two future bipolar great powers. But China is also India’s geographic neighbor with whom it has had an unresolved territorial dispute since 1962. That makes India’s relationship with and concerns about China very different than most countries around the world. India needs the United States to balance Chinese power in the Indo-Pacific.
Another important factor is Russia’s relationship with the United States and the West. Russia has historically been very important to India, and New Delhi still relies on Russia for much of its defense equipment. Worsening Russian relations with the West could drive Russia closer to China, making things difficult for India. India seeks to maintain both, its historically positive relationship with Russia, and its growing closeness with the United States.
An important future area to watch is space governance. Space governance has begun to figure very prominently in the India-U.S. bilateral relationship because there are growing concerns from both countries about China’s space capabilities. For all the rhetoric that China uses–that it only engages in the development of peaceful space capabilities–the reality is that the PLA has been developing a flourishing military space program. I’m not saying it stands to compete with the United States, but in certain niche areas China has developed sophisticated competency. Existing space governance mechanisms are decades old and need updating. If there are any disruptions in space there would be significant effects on people’s daily lives, not just in the spacefaring countries such as India and the United States but in all countries.
Can you speak to the status of women in the work that you do?
I had very few women role models when I entered the field of foreign policy and security issues in India. That situation has slightly improved and there are marginally more women at the middle and senior levels, but the field remains largely dominated by men, and especially by older men.
The consequences of underrepresentation heave ranged from a gender imbalance in leadership positions to discouraging young scholars to consider this field to ignoring the work of women scholars when it comes to forming discussion panels or citations. This is enormously demotivating.
While over the last few years, there has been relatively greater awareness of this issue, and younger women scholars in particular are demonstrating a greater willingness to push back against such discrimination, I also hear from many of them about the difficulties they face in being too vocal and the backlash they face. Therefore, the overall situation for Indian women in security studies remains challenging.
What inspired you to pursue your career path? How does your personal background inform your work?
I was lucky to have parents who supported education even at high levels. More importantly, they encouraged me to follow my own interests and career path without questioning. This is particularly important because a lot of my friends were directed to go into professional education, such as medicine or engineering, irrespective of their personal interests and capabilities. The path I chose was unusual because I had no other family members who had pursued a purely academic career, which must have seemed unusual and risky to my parents.
I joined the field around the time that India conducted the nuclear tests in 1998, and there was a growth in interest in security studies. After my MPhil, I joined the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) as a junior scholar, and was then offered an opportunity to work at India’s National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS). I eagerly took up this opportunity because it offered me a chance to see how national security policies are framed from the inside [of government]. Nonetheless, my interests remained in academics and after nearly five years at the NSCS, I joined the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in New Delhi.
The last two decades have been quite exciting in terms of the changes and opportunities that came as a consequence of India’s rise, and the interesting international political context we now face.
When you look at the state of international security, nuclear and space policy, and think tank work, what concerns you most or brings you hope? What are the most pressing priorities for you and your colleagues?
My main concern is the increasingly tense international environment, which feels very similar to the early stages of the Cold War. But today’s landscape is also more complicated than the Cold War because there are many more actors and far greater uncertainty. There is a sense of chaos exacerbated by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Indian researchers have been trying to understand the implications of this new international context for India’s foreign and security policies, particularly China’s behavior and consequences for the Indo-Pacific. Older concerns also persist: India’s war on terror preceded the global war on terror, and despite the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, or perhaps because of it, terrorism is an important priority for Indian policy analysts.
Managing both the new and old international challenges India faces is harder because there is insufficient interaction between Indian foreign and security government officials, and outside experts and academics. There have been various efforts to correct the insularity of the Indian bureaucracy, but the situation has not improved very much.
The Indian private sector also lacks interest in expert foreign policy analyses, despite the fact that international conditions have such a dramatic effect on business prospects.
An encouraging sign in Indian security studies is the availability of archival sources on the first few decades of Indian foreign and security policies. Some excellent research has come out in the last decade based on these sources, and more is in the offing. This new research gives a much more complex picture of how India navigated the international environment, which also suggests new insights into current decision-making and policy.
 Editor’s note: IDSA is an Indian think tank offering advanced research in defense and strategic studies, and training for Indian government officers. It is funded by India’s Ministry of Defence.
 Editor’s note: the NSCS is the highest body of the national security management structure in India.