The Bold Voice of J&K

India—reluctance of a can-be great power

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Ashok K Mehta 

Last week two back-to-back book discussions on war and hard power passed off routinely when they ought to have attracted higher political and public interest and attention: After all, it is never too late to review past strategic errors and oversight which have cost India dear by allowing China into making India a military and economic laggard. The release of Air Vice Marshal Arjun Subramaniam’s outstanding history of India’s Wars 1947-1971 was a landmark event, as the book is the first collective account of wars penned by a serving Air Force officer whose version was cleared by Government censors. The book is all the more striking because the official account of India’s wars has been suppressed since independence by Governments led by the Congress, the BJP and the Third Front. The ruling NDA Government was expected to unlock the dark secrets of political and military failures but has chosen to maintain the veil of secrecy. Fortunately the BJP’s MJ Akbar, the keynote speaker, made a candid observation: “Military history has not been made public because the political class is as afraid of its failures as it is of the military’s successes.”
The lack of knowledge and experience of defence and strategic security among the Indian political class was due partly to Whitehall retaining both as its exclusive preserve. Worse was its transforming civilian political control into bureaucratic control of the military without any accountability or responsibility. Jawaharlal Nehru’s idealism coupled with Mahatma Gandhi’s pacifism in a milieu of missing strategic culture turned the British empire’s greatest Army into a reactive and defensive force. The strategic mistakes of not preventing China’s occupation of Tibet, proactively attempting to resolve the inherited disputed McMahon Line, and prematurely terminating the war in Kashmir by taking it to the UN, are still extracting a high cost.
The central question AVM Subramaniam asked about the strategic content of the wars was lost in the tactical details of war fighting. Except the 1971 war, where a synergised politico-military and diplomatic strategy underscored the 13-day lightening campaign, in other wars the strategic thinking was conspicuously absent. Reason: Since the political and military defeat in the high Himalayas, a passive and reactive mentality had taken root. Witness the unrequited parliamentary resolutions on Kashmir and the 1962 debacle focus on recapturing every inch of lost ground leading to defence fortifications around ditch-cum-bund and canal obstacles. Even 45 years after the great 1971 victory, the conventionally superior Indian military is flummoxed by Pakistan’s wily employment of cross-border terrorism under a nuclear shadow, virtually paralysing a military response after the attack on Parliament and Mumbai. For the under-utilisation of the military are three reasons: Lack of political will, absence of higher political and military direction, failure to build a military edge with a killer instinct. On the other hand, India has flaunted strategic autonomy, eschewing military alliances and calibrated use of force. Strategic restraint and strategic patience are proclaimed as virtues.
The second book is Bharat Karnad’s Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet). Karnad is at his audacious, provocative and unconventional best and, therefore, the book is fun debating. He says there is no national interest, no national security strategy and no joint military doctrine document. The nub of his argument is that India lacks the software of hard power and is hobbled by resources: Small and inconsistent defence budgets, nascent military industry and rudimentary defence research and development. By contrast, India’s space and nuclear programmes are world-class. By February 1964, India’s secret nuclear programme had reached a nuclear weapons threshold, but Nehru dithered and did not test. Last week, the US State Department declassified a report noting that India had weapons grade plutonium to go nuclear.
Karnad argues that sequencing the rise of India as a great power through first becoming an economic power followed by developing military power is not tenable, as hard power must accrue in sync with soft power. The Chinese in their Four Modernisations had relegated defence modernisation to the fourth place – and, therefore, the yawning military capability gap with the US. In 1991, Finance Minister Manmohan Singh, while launching the economic liberalisation programme, had told the three Services they would have to make do with smaller budgets till the GDP growth rate took off. The consequences of that decision were felt during the Kargil war, when defence inventories for fighting even two divisions dried up. But for the SOS to Israel and South Africa, many more lives would have been lost on the Kargil heights.
Does India wish to be a great power, leave alone why it is not one yet? The US is keen to help India in becoming a great power in its own right. During UPA2, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Singh literally shied away from the poser of India’s great power status at a Hindustan Times summit. That the question was ducked by both tells us something: Great power status brings rights and responsibilities; India wants to be recognised as a great power but is unwilling to fulfil the accompanying responsibility.
Is the BJP-led NDA Government any different? In its first avatar, little was done to enhance the Military Order of Battle after the attack on Parliament. But it did cosy up to the US supporting ballistic missile defence, providing logistic assistance in Afghanistan and escorting US ships across Malacca Straits. After the nuclear tests, the Next Steps to Strategic Partnership with the US were completed by the Vajpayee Government culminating in the ten-year Defence Framework Agreement and the India-US Civil Nuclear deal with the UPA regimes. Then Defence Minister AK Antony was rather suspicious of the US. The Defence Intelligence Sharing Agreement of 2003 lapsed in 2008 and has not been renewed. Similarly, the Defence Foundational Agreements have been languishing for more than a decade.

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