“Who will not want a friend and a neighbour like Bhutan?” an elated Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked rhetorically, after wrapping up his visit to Thimpu, August 19, 2019. “The two countries are living the definition of true friendship.”
He had just concluded a warm, friendly, and successful visit during which 10 Memoranda of Understanding were signed in several fields ranging from space, avaiation Information Technology, power and education. Modi also inaugurated the Rs. 4,500 crore, 720MW, Mangdechhu hydroelectric power plant in central Bhutan, one of a series of power projects India has helped finance and build over the years to harness that country’s rivers to the tune of 10,000 MW — a milestone reached last year. It is electricity an energy starved India buys back at remunerative prices in a virtuous cycle of joint Indo-Bhutanese planning, Indian investment and construction, and goodly economic returns for both parties.
Two short years later, it was the turn of Beijing on Oct 14, 2021 to crow that the “deadlock” had been broken in the talks begun in 1984 with Bhutan to settle the border, and that the latest (24th) virtual round — of characteristically interminable negotiations (a tactic the Chinese use to break the opposing side’s patience and resolve), had resulted in Thimpu agreeing to a three step process for final demarcation of the disputed Sino-Bhutanese border, and the establishment of formal diplomatic ties.
Soon India will no more have Bhutan to itself . Wth a doubtless big, fully manned, Chinese embassy in Thimpu contesting the diplomatic space with India, the Chinese will overwhelm the Bhutanese with offers of infrastructure projects and easy credit to built them and, perhaps, a Chinese military training scheme and transfer of armaments to compete with IMTRAT (Indian Military Training Team). Bhutan too will begin doing what other South Asian states — Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Maldives, have learned to do do — profitably play New Delhi off against Beijing. That’s the least of the problems though.
What’s really worrisome is that MEA had no inkling about this development, was caught unawares and was surprised by this breakthrough coming down the pike. For Bhutan, an Indian protectorate in all but name, to keep such an important decision — one to cut a deal with Beijing a secret, suggests Thimpu may be willing to agree to an exchange the Chinese had proposed in 1997: Beijing giving up its claims in central Bhutan for territory in western Bhutan that includes the Doklam trijunction with India. Except, per an earlier three way agreement, any decision on Doklam has to be in consultation with India. It will be interesting to see how Thimpu and Beijing manage this, assuming MEA doesn’t just lay down as is its habit and let the Chinese run a steamroller over its diplomats.
Doklam is where Chinese ingress by way of roadbuilding southwestwards towards the Siliguri corridor — the “chicken’s neck”, had almost sparked hostilities in June 2017. Some 270 Sikkim-based Indian troops alongside two bulldozers had then stopped the Chinese road construction. That standoff did not, however,result in a PLA withdrawal from that area and the Chinese completed the road. Then in mid-2020, while India was preoccupied with the Chinese transgressions in eastern Ladakh, Beijing laid claim to the Sakteng wildlife sanctuary in eastern Bhutan. In response, India proposed constructing a road through the Yeti region of Bhutan to Tawang, cutting the distance to Guwahati by 150 kms to enable faster shifting of land forces in an emergency. It is not known whether there’s progress, if any, in this project. And this is where matters stand today.
The historic pattern is that India always reacts and reacts some more, never ever taking the initiative at any time for anything in terms of aggressively occupying contested land, especially where China is concerned. It seems fearful of the inevitable Chinese response, which it apprehends the Indian military will not be able to deal with. The Indian army is silently complicit in this arrangement because it doesn’t — if it can help it — want to tangle with the PLA handing it, in the process, the psychological edge. Signalling in any way reluctance to engage in military action is tantamount to ceding ground.
How one wishes for a dashing General Sagat Singh to emerge from somewhere, take charge, and get a fist up PLA’s nose, as he did as GOC, 17 Division, at Nathu la in 1967.
Meanwhile, with Bhutan in the bag China has about finished its grand geostrategic design of encircling India, and confining it to its subcontinental strategic coffin. Circlement and counter-encirclement are at the core and the very essence of Chinese military maneuvering and strategy. It is something the strategically dim-witted Indian government has historically been unable for some incomprehensible reason to even envision, let alone practice. So, while India’s neighbourhood is now palpably under Chinese control with Pakistan posing as Beijing’s stalking horse, the Chinese periphery is terra incognita and, owing to Indian diplomatic and military passivity, is getting beyond India’s political-military reach. In this respect consider the heavy weather the Indian government has made over the last 20 years of merely transferring Brahmos cruise missiles to Vietnam when this should have been A-1 priority. Indulging periodically in Malabar naval exercises with the US and other navies in the seas WEST of the Malacca Straits is not going to cut it.
Ah, yes, but as I have always reassuringly reminded everybody, there’s fortunately Pakistan to berate and beat up on, and threaten more Balakots with — no matter that the original Balakot aerial excursion, as I had mentioned in a post soon after that “operation”, was a bad joke, a non-event. (Refer my March 19, 2019 post — “IAF goofs and Delhi’s post-Pulwama debacle: A post mortem” at https://bharatkarnad.com/2019/03/19/iafs-goofs-and-delhis-post-pulwama-debacle-a-post-mortem/)
Pakistan, I suspect — Home Minister Amit Shahji please note — would welcome your verbal “sturm und drang” topped with such harmless military Indian actions!
An imminent Sino-US war over Taiwan makes for sensational analysis, but is unrealistic and, military-wise, unsound assessment of likely hostilities. A spate of ill-informed media commentaries and the like have been published, many of them by Mandarin-speaking former diplomats who ought to know better. A former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, for instance, in an op-ed (https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/a-taiwan-flashpoint-in-the-indo-pacific/article36933319.ece) propagated the questionable thesis about China initiating an offensive on the grounds of a growing power imbalance — of Beijing acting sooner to forcfully reunify Taiwan with the mainland because doing so later would mean having to contend with a more powerful enemy lineup with a nuclear submarine equipped-Australia firming up the forward maritime stance of the new military alliance on the block — AUKUS (Australia-UK-US).
Further, his contention of bilateral Taiwanese capital stock worth some $188.5 billion in 1991-2020 or 15% of Taiwan’s GDP invested in China versus China’s $2.4 billion investment in the island-nation trade far from adding up as evidence actually suggests a contrary conclusion — a disincentive for Beijing going to war in the context of other sources of FDI slowly drying up, and China getting slowly economically isolated.
The massive flyovers staged in recent days by the PLA Air Force over Taiwan are, moreover, no more precursors of war than the US Navy periodically despatching its warships on freedom of navigation patrols (FONOPs) through the Taiwan Strait, or US troops regularly visiting Taiwan to jointly train with the Taiwanese armed services. As actions go, these are more show of force and symbolic than provocative. Had the Chinese planes dropped bombs or the Taiwanese air defence systems brought down an intruding aircraft or two is when the fat would be on fire. This last won’t happen because the Democratic Progressive Party government in Taipei, convinced America would offer no more than expressions of solidarity in defence of Taiwan, has no reason to challenge Beijing. And because all the talk out of China, including by Xi Jinping, about reunification — peaceful or otherwise notwithstanding, PLA simply does not have the capacity for a sustained military invasion and capture of the offshore island, especially one that, intelligence and cyber-wise, long ago penetrated the mainland defences and would have almost instantaneous knowledge of any decision to invade made by the CMC (Central Military Commission), which would void the surprise element. The PLA generals know all too well that an invasion would trigger an all-out Taiwanese response.
More than half of any Chinese invasion fleet is expected to be sunk by concentrations of shore-based Harpoon cruise missiles supported by a host of Taiwanese air and sea launched land attack and anti-ship cruise missiles — the 120 km range Hsiung Feng II, the 150km Hsiung Feng III, and for strategic deterrence the 600 km range Hsiung Feng IIE, and the 120km short range Wan Chien ballistic missile. Taipei is also developing on a war footing masses of the 2,000km range Yun Feng cruise missile to reach Beijing. And any attempts at aerial bombing is negatived by a dense and effective Taiwanese air defence. But even without the Yun Feng, Taiwan’s missile forces can, at a minimum, devastate the entire manufacturing base around Shanghai and its hinterland and up the Fujian province coast opposite Taiwan, and fully wreck the flourishing Chinese economy. Taipei knows this, and so does Beijing.
Sure, the 2049 dateline looms by which Xi Jinping would ideally like to see a reunified China with Taiwan accommodated in some version of a “One China, two systems” compromise. But while Xi may be an ideological blowhard, he is not a military idiot, however much he is urged by certain higher sections of the PLA command to once and for all and early sort out the Taiwan problem. So, where’s the question of war?
Indeed, just to clarify the Taiwan situation for an Indian audience, the possibility of forcible reunification of Taiwan with China is less of a flashpoint than Kashmir is — and this when the prospects of the Pakistan army attempting to wrench Jammu & Kashmir from India’s grasp is less than zero — whatever posturing Indian generals and militarymen eager to justify a wonky Pakistan-fixated Indian force structure and the ocassional brain-addled Pakistani politicians, may say.
From an Indian perspective, nothing would better serve India’s national interest than for China’s economy to get it in the neck and for Beijing to get diplomatically sidestreamed with a PLA misadventure against Taiwan, and one would very much hope that Xi is somehow persuaded by his military chieftains to start a real hard affray that Taipei is compelled to react violently to. But because this is unlikely, what’s next best India can do, proactively?
It has been Taipei’s policy before the DPP regime under President Tsai Ing-wen hove into view of Taiwan prudently disinvesting from China and moving its monies to more politically receptive climes. It was the context for the Taiwanese trade representative in Delhi — ambassador by another name, complaining to me some 20 years ago that the Indian government was doing nothing much, if anything, to attract Taiwanese investment capital in order to kickstart India’s development as a manufacturing hub for the world — something Indian governments Vajpayee’s onwards have been yacking about but doing little substantively to realize, and to otherwise assisting Taiwanese capitalists and manufacturers to do for India what they did for China in the Eighties and after.
The BJP government of Narendra Modi, on its part, seems entirely unmindful of the need to intensely cultivate Asian investors and companies, especially Taiwanese, Japanese and South Korean, to shift their production bases to India with attractive tax holidays, automatic “one window” clearances, and extensive language training and cultural acclimatization to speedily create a class of Mandarin-speaking Indian youth, say, to act as intermediaries, whose absence the Taiwan ambassador in Delhi long ago asserted was the single biggest obstacle — the other being the oppressive bureaucratism of all state authorities, state and central, to the flow of Taiwanese capital and production wherewithal into India. It is a problem the Indian government has failed to address.
While Modi’s ardour for Chinese infrastructure investment may have dropped down to realistic levels owing to happenings in eastern Ladakh and elsewhere along the extended Line of Actual Control, it is replaced by a hope of convincing American companies for FDI increases and manufacturing investment. Except, the Biden Administration’s priority is not India’s economic betterment, but welcoming investors from everywhere just so that the so far “jobless growth” produces more employment in the US.
Taiwan, Japan and South Korea are the biggest investment and technology sources India can productively tap, which the Indian government has done little to court and incentivize. It is time the DRDO, IISc, Bengaluru, and the IITs begin collaborating, for example, with the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology in Taipei that is designing and helping local companies produce world class weapons, platforms amd sensors to arm its own military. This is so because the Modi dispensation, unfortunately, is hung up on the US and the West as the locus geneses of these things, enabling Washington to play New Delhi like a fiddle with S. Jaishankar, the most destructively pro-American diplomat in history as first Foreign Secretary and now foreign minister advancing Modi’s harmfully overt policy tilt. Just what such policies have fetched India and how much real weight Modi packs in Washington, in the US, the West and in the world generally, as a result was evidenced from not a single major American newspaper covering the recent Modi-Biden meet in the White House, the so-called Quad summit in Washington Sept 24 — what little exposure this last event got related to the nuclear submarines to Australia-angle, and from the fact that Modi addressed a near empty hall in the UN General Assembly, September 25.
The sooner Modi appreciates that India’s future is tied to the future of Asian states whose interests too clash with those of China, the lesser will be the delay for the present counterproductive US-dependent Indian strategic security policy to correct itself and get back on track to genuine “strategic autonomy”.
Other than the necessary economic initiatives to attract Taiwanese, Japanese and South Korean investment capital and manufacturing, and technology, the Modi government can signal India’s strategic intent by ordering regular and frequent sailings of Indian warships and flotillas, through the disputed waters of the South China Sea, of course, but more meaningfully also through the Taiwan Strait with Indian naval vessels carrying out, to begin with, simple jackstay-kind of exercises with the Taiwan Navy and docking pointedly at major naval bases on the island-state’s east coast, such as Su’ao, headquarters of one of its leading units — the 124th Fleet.
Isn’t it time India responded in kind to Chinese naval sailings in India’s Indian Ocean domain and Chinese surface combatants and submarines docking at Karachi or in Humbantota at will?
Whatever the other effects of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, it has transformed global geopolitics. It sparked four notable geopolitical events. Apprehending China as potentially the principal beneficiary of the emerging order in Central Asia and, through its most important regional client, Pakistan, in southern Asia and, possibly, the Indian Ocean region as well, the United States countered with a new military alliance with its old Anglo-saxon partners — AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom and US) to replace the moribund Cold War-era ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, US).
Paris reacted with vehemence with a visibly agitated French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian calling it a “stab in the back”. Not only because France lost a US$ 65 billion contract with Australia for its Barracuda diesel submarine that would have kept its high-tech military sector in the clover for a while but because a supposedly trusted, traditional ally, the US, trumped it by offering a nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) along with its production expertise, something Canberra could not refuse. It led to Paris renewing its call for a European security alliance that Germany too supports and for the same reason that NATO, rather than protecting Europe and advancing European interests, acts as a handmaiden of the US.
Besides damning AUKUS as a destabilizing move and a strategic provocation, Beijing has reacted by mooting an Africa Quadrilateral of China, Russia, France or Germany, and a group of African countries as counterweight, also to the India-Japan-US-Australia Quadrilateral. But this Africa Quad is a stillborn idea, their immediate anger aside, because neither France nor Germany intends to deal a deathblow to NATO, and because few of the prospective African member states want to alienate the US.
That leaves the future of the original ‘Security Diamond’ or Quadrilateral to contain China that the former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe had conceived in 2007 up in the air. AUKUS has occasioned serious doubts about the utility of the Quad other than as its strategic backup — a distinctly subsidiary role neither India nor Japan signed up for. In order to mollify hurt sentiments and to preempt a rethink on the Quad by New Delhi and Tokyo, President Joe Biden convened the Quad summit in Washington and scheduled one-on-one meetings with Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Yoshihide Suga September 24-25. But these meetings have not dissipated the confusion and doubts about America’s intentions.
Arming Australia with a fleet of nuclear attack submarines is, however, a US decision with a fallout. Apparently, Washington considered the fast-changing Asian and international ‘correlation of forces’ to be alarming enough to part with its military crown jewels — technologies constituting the Virginia-class SSN firing Tomahawk long range cruise missiles, a deal that includes the wherewithal to manufacture the boat. To speed up the process of nuclearizing the Australian Navy, moreover, the US reportedly is even considering handing off to the Aussies the three Guam-based Los Angeles-class SSNs as platforms for training crews and maintenance personnel. Until now, the UK was the only country to benefit from such American technological largesse, with Britain being helped to produce eight Trafalgar and Astute-class SSNs and four heavier Vanguard-class nuclear powered ballistic missile-firing submarines (SSBNs).
An Australian Navy with Tomahawk-equipped SSNs does three things. It terminates any plans President Xi Jinping may have had to invade Taiwan with a naval armada and forcibly assimilate it into mainland China by 2049, the centenary year of the Communist revolution, by when Beijing expects the country to surpass the US as the wealthiest country in the world and as a military power to be at least the equal of America. Secondly, it heralds the end of the inequitable nuclear nonproliferation order based on the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty. With the US onpassing lethal nuclear technologies to an ally, Washington will be in no position any longer to preach nonproliferation and sanction proliferators.
And thirdly, it starts the clock on Japan and South Korea acquiring nuclear arsenals of their own, convinced as they would be by now that while the US will go to any extent to protect its interests and those of its fellow Anglosaxon partners, and AUKUS is evidence of it, traditional Asian allies of the US cannot bank on Washington to effectively deliver extended nuclear deterrence against an aggressive China. Thinking along these lines began in recent years in Tokyo and Seoul around when the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2015 advised the Japanese government to go get nuclear weapons to tackle the nuclear sabre rattling North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. And this when the far more onerous security threat then as now continues to be China. The US reticence in challenging Beijing militarily is as pronounced with the Democrat Joe Biden in the White House as when Donald Trump was president. But it meshes with America’s long term objective of a G-2 ruling condominium with China that was first outlined by President Barack Obama. AUKUS only furthers this aim.
Most of these developments are unhelpful from the Indian perspective. For instance, building up Australia’s naval muscle will not lessen the Chinese pressure in the Himalayas. But the alacrity with which Washington transferred its most sensitive military technologies to Australia has contrasted badly with the American foot-dragging evidenced in the 2012 India-US Defence Trade and Technology Initiative that, other than hot air and shrill sales pitches for the antique F-16 (dressed up as a modern F-21) fighter aircraft, has to-date produced no transfer of advanced technology or any collaborative project.
On the collective security front, with AUKUS emerging centre stage, the Quad has receded into the background as has India’s importance. India can, however, avoid becoming a bit player in an US security scheme by organizing an India and Japan-led modified Quadrilateral (Mod Quad) with Taiwan replacing Australia and a group of Southeast Asian nations substituting for the US, with AUKUS free to cooperate or not with the Mod Quad militaries in restricting China’s options. India has no other alternative to retain its independent strategic status and standing.
The future of non-Sinic Asia has reached a true inflection point. The new military alliance of the US, UK and Australia (AUKUS), superseding ANZUS (Australia-New Zealand-US), is set up to exclusively protect Western interests against a recklessly ambitious China in what is now called the Indo-Pacific. There is no other way to put it, but this is the old white Anglosaxon order (that excludes Gallic France, the new/Slavic European members of NATO, and even Japan, accorded, if anybody cares to recall, “honorary White”status by the apartheid regime in white-ruled South Africa, which suited the US and Western Europe fine) trying to maintain its hold in a much-changed Asia.
Having once again been militarily beaten by a wilful Asian people and forcibly ousted from Afghanistan in a 20-year war whose cost is estimated to be as high as USD 14 Trillion, AUKUS is a natural reaction of the US and its hangers-on to retain their relevance in a continent the Anglosaxon powers have long dominated, and post-1945, tried to dominate.
An impasse in the Korean war in the Fifties followed by a humiliating defeat in Vietnam after a nearly 15-year wasted military effort should have forewarned Washington about what to expect when taking on a highly motivated indigenous foe disinclined to tolerate foreign invaders. This is where great power hubris once again kicked in only for the US forces to discover that remote warfighting by drones piloted from Nellis air force base in Nevada is ultimately no match for AK47-armed groups primed for a religious war— a jihad, ready to suffer any privation and absorb unimaginable human losses. It is an end-state the US government should have expected considering it had uncorked the Extremist Islamic djinn in Afghanistan just to get even with the Soviet Union in the Cold War that had seen Soviet material help to North Vietnam result in the military humbling of the US in 1972. It is the very same CIA-funded and mobilized mujahideen who had run the Soviet occupation troops out of Afghanistan who form the core of the Afghan Taliban that victoriously took Kabul August 15.
The Afghan fiasco crystallized AUKUS as much in response to the fear of Afghanistan emerging as a potential jumping-off point for China to acquire unhindered access to the warm water ports on the Arabian Sea and, more importantly, to the ”Wells of Power” in the Gulf and the greater Middle East of Olaf Caroe’s conception. Caroe, British India’s Foreign Secretary in the 1930s who last served as Lt. Governor of the North West Frontier Province during Partition, was referring to the oil resources of Iran and Arab West Asia. It is the source of energy still for much of the world and especially China, which depends on this oil to fuel its rise as the Numero Uno economic and military power in the 21st Century. China is taking the place of Imperial Russia in the old Great Game of the colonial era, and of Soviet Russia of the 1980s, when the West apprehended it reaching for the Indian Ocean. Its rise is what the AUKUS alliance is gearing up to thwart by preventing Beijing’s access to Pakistan’s Gwadar and Iran’s Chahbahar, and to the region’s oil wealth via numerous connectivity projects under its Belt & Road initiative (BRI), including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
With AUKUS on the scene, the Quadrilateral (Quad) of India, Japan, Australia and the US, has obviously been pushed strategically to the sidelines, and is important only as a pseudo supportive military mechanism. Indeed, the primacy of AUKUS in the Indo-Pacific has been emphasized by Washington promising Australia transfer of technology and wherewithal to manufacture eight nuclear-powered, possibly the Los Angeles-class, attack submarines — the crown jewels of America’s military hightech — the sort of technology India does not remotely have a chance of getting. It will immeasurably enhance the Australian Navy’s sea denial capability against anything the PLA Navy (PLAN) will qualitatively be able to field in the foreseeable future. Canberra, courtesy AUKUS, will also be able to incorporate into its military forces the cutting edge US Artificial Intelligence and cyber warfare hardware and algorithms New Delhi can only dream about, however frightful and threatening China becomes in these realms in the future to India.
This takes care of American interests without in the least addressing India’s landward or maritime concerns about PLAN’s capacity to egress in mass west of the Malacca Strait. Because the one thing Washington will demand in return is that the Australian N-sub fleet be deployed to mesh with the US Naval presence essentially to block PLAN activity as envisaged by Beijing in the ”first island chain” and beyond.
This larger American game plan was signalled by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken reportedly asking foreign minister S Jaishankar, in their meeting, for the Modi government’s permission to stage drone strikes on targets in Afghanistan — whatever these might be, from north Indian bases and, worse, to have India train Da’esh (Islamic State) irregulars in Rajasthan — as reported by ANI, for use by the CIA. That India appears committed to launching drone attacks and to train IS militants suggests Blinken proposed these actions as basically anti-China — the likely targets being CPEC and PLA units in Baltistan, and the IS to infiltrate the Uyghur society and radicalize Xinjiang, to render the Chinese management of its western province difficult.
Never mind that the IS-angle backs what has long been suspected about Da’esh’s antecedents as a CIA invention that for a time went rogue under al-Baghdadi — meaning it turned against US interests in Iraq and Syria, before recently recovering its US patronage. Assuming the newly formed Taliban emirate has approved of these anti-China moves on plausible deniability-basis because it hopes to milk China for monies and such BRI benefits as it can, these measures cohere with India’s strategic interests of undermining China every which way.
There may also be a view in some quarters that just as certain sections of the Tehriq-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are amenable to creating trouble for the Pakistan army and state, the IS too could be marshalled for similar purpose. But then as Krishna Menon once reminded the Eisenhower Administration which justified US arms aid to Pakistan by saying it was defensive weaponry meant for use only against the USSR, that there’s no gun that fires in only one direction, what is the guarantee the IS, finding Chinese Xinjiang a hard nut to crack, won’t turn on India and, being Islamic fundamentalists, get on the Ghazwaa-e-Hind track instead to violently Islamise India? Further, training IS flies in the face of our own experience with preparing the LTTE to battle Colombo. We know how that turned out, don’t we?
Such are the dubious assurances Prime Minister Modi will be seeking when he meets President Biden in Washington in person on September 24 — knowing fully well they will count for nothing because Washington, in any case, always acts on its interests of the moment, and because its metasrategic interests — G-2, the condominium of the US and China proposed by President Barrack Obama to rule the world, converge actually with those of Xi Jinping’s Beijing. And Biden, mind you, was Obama’s Vice President through two terms.
Moreover, Biden is no Donald Trump, and looks askance at the deteriorating human rights and religious freedom situation in Modi’s India. Blinken has publicly upbraided the Indian government on these counts. And, no, Modi’s attempts to get around this inconvenient reality by getting Biden into embraces and bear hugs, will not help.
Perhaps, the PM can use his time with Biden usefully by doing and saying nothing of any consequence. But utilize the sidelines of the Quad summit to have a private talk with the Japanese prime minister to see if India and Japan can further the cause of collective security against China by fostering a modified Quad of India, Japan, a group of Southeast Asian nations and, formally, Taiwan (to replace Australia).
Asian states immediately bordering China on land and sea actively partnering against China is the model of a security architecture organic to Asia, of security by and for Asian states. It can be of enduring strategic value, if only some government in Delhi will wrap its mind around this idea. It is something I have been advocating for over 20 years now. Because there is no other credible alternative for India and other littoral and offshore Asian states.
What the Modi government will actually do in the difficult circumstances it finds itself in is predictable. It will join up with the other outlier, France. Upset because Australia is about to cancel the USD 65 Billion deal with Australia for the Barracuda diesel submarine, which cannot compete with the American offer of nuclear-powered subs, Paris will be only too happy if India adopts this sub for its Project 75i, and will massage Modi’s ego no end to achieve it. Macron will happily match Modi’s every embrace with a hug of his own. After all, it worked for President Francois Hollande vis a vis the Rafale fighter plane!
India’s last day as (the monthly rotating) chairman of the UN Security Council resulted in a watered down version of a resolution whose anti-Taliban sting was removed because of threat of Chinese veto. But even then China and Russia abstained from voting. India also decided on August 29 against joining in the joint statement signed by 98 countries of the world that announced their willingness to accept Afghan nationals. Had India signed on it would have meant taking in those Afghans who worked in, and with, the Indian embassy in Kabul and in the consulates in Kandahar, Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif and included Afghans, who over the years, have been instrumental in gathering useful intelligence and doing other such work inside that country.
These actions taken together with the government’s precipitate pull-out of India’s diplomatic presence lock, stock and barrel from Afghanistan for no good reason other than that it blindly and lemming-like followed the Biden Administration’s actions, reveal that having serially done these very foolish things, the MEA is fresh out of ideas — bright or not — about what to do next. It suggests the vaccuous state India’s Afghanistan policy has plunged into.
My Aug 17 post, in the event, in which I first pleaded the case for immediately recognizing the Taliban emirate in-being and raking in the benefits from being the first mover in this respect and impressing the top Taliban leadership with this display of good faith, set the proverbial cat among the MEA pigeons. Because accepting this advice would show up India’s earlier decision of abandoning the Kabul ambassy and the consulates as thoughtless, hasty and wrong. My August 27 contribution in the Face-Off section of the Times of India — and reproduced in the preceding post, fleshed out the arguments some more. Since then a significant thing happened.
Yesterday, a senior Taliban leader dealing with foreign affairs in the leadership team, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, made the effort and took the initiative to contact the Indian mission in Qatar, conveying to Ambassador Deepak Mittal the Mullah Abdul Ghani Barader-led interim dispensation’s eagerness to have India not only return to Kabul and continue with the development projects in that country, but to get overland and aerial traffic routes opened through Pakistan for trade and commerce with India. Assurances were also given that Afghan territory would not be allowed to be used as staging areas by any terrorist outfits associated with the Taliban in their final push for Kabul, namely, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), and possibly even, Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), for attacks in Jammu & Kashmir, and that the Indians and their dependents, and Indian-origin Afghans would have safe passage to India. All these utterances by Stanikzai, incidentally, merely reiterated what Barader had publicly stated earlier..
That Stanikzai made the effort to call on ambassador Mittal is significant for several reasons. One, it couldn’t have pleased GHQ, Rawalpindi, and ISI in particular that despite India’s formal anti-Taliban stance and hurtful follow-up actions, the Taliban are keen — and are going out of their way to make it obvious — that they want India back in Kabul. This may be because, as I have argued, the Taliban leadership wants desperately to have India as a hefty counterpoise to Pakistan in Afghanistan’s national life. Secondly, that it also wants India to be a strategic counter-weight to an overweaning China which could provide the Barader team with a range of economic, political, and even military options. And finally, because India’s resuming its diplomatic presence in Kabul will establish a direct and physical communications channel the better, from the Taliban perspective, to work the counterpoise to Pakistan and the strategic counterweight to China aspects of its policies. Indeed, the first mover recogntion advantage could be translated into lucrative concessions — which is what the Indian government should pitch for — to Indian companies, especially to mine Afghanistan’s rare mineral — Lithium — reserves.
It is significant too that the Taliban spokesperson reacted to Islamabad’s complaint that the Taliban seem unable to prevent the Tehreeq-e-Taliban Pakistan’s violent actions against the Pakistan army by saying that that is an issue the Pakistan government will have to sort out with the TTP! It should have given many in the Indian government pause to reconsider its wait and watch policy.
But predictably, the English language TV news channels trying to curry favour with the Modi government assembled talking heads against the recognition option; they ranted and raved, their rhetorical excess centered on the unwarranted belief that the Taliban are the same old gang of extremist Islamic yahoos and cuthroats of medievalist mindset last encountered in the 1990s and the early 2000s, and that they cannot be trusted to do anything right by India. Further, that Messrs Barader & Stanikzai’s assurances do not amount to much because Taliban Central cannot control the violence junkies constituting the outlier organizations — Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Islamic State-Khorasan bent on doing India harm. And, hence, that the almost inert “wait and watch” is the right policy for India to adopt. So far though almost all these assumptions, presumptions, and predicates for a do-nothing policy have proved to be wrong.
The Taliban leadership has shown it has learned its lessons from the Mullah Omar period (1996-2001) when that regime was happy for Afghanistan to be a backwater, and thus to cut itself off from the world and to survive hand-to-mouth. The new Taliban leadership has determined that to continue in that mode would be to again paint a big bull’s eye on their backs, making their regime vulnerable to future military interventions especially if it also remains a safe haven for al-Qaeda and IS-K. Moreover, it has discovered that Afghanistan has changed. Whatever the flaws and deficits in governance of the Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani governments, they created in the last 20 years a thriving urban middle class with educated and career-minded womenfolk in the lead, that had the Afghan society tippy-toeing into modernity. This middle class now constitutes 30% of Afghanistan’s population and is the driver of its economy — something Barader and his cohort recognize as an element they cannot do without. Whence their pleas to Afghan professionals — engineers, educationists, lawyers, bueaucrats and technicians, trying to get the hell out of the country, to please stay put and help them to run Afghanistan.
Also of note is why the Taliban cadres — under the effective control of Mullah Yaqoob — Mullah’s Omar’s son, who is in-charge of military operations and is the likely Taliban defence minister, by and large displayed restraint in treating the police and Afghan militarymen who surrendered or accepted the new authority. And how the strategic lessons they learned made them prioritise the capture of border checkposts on the Durrand Line with Pakistan, such as Spinboldak, and with the various Central Asian Republics on the Amu Darya River that at once brought the sources of customs revenue into their hands and placed them in a position to choke off military and other supplies to the new “Northern Alliance” now forming in the Panjshir Valley under the leadership of Amrullah Saleh, Ahmad Massoud, and possibly Col. Abdul Rashid Dostum, to militarily oppose the Taliban government.
The Stanikzai connection though is a useful pointer to a unique advantage India has. Stanikzai, an ex-Afghan National Army veteran graduated in 1982 — the 119th Course — from the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun. His course-mates remember him as a normal sort of guy who participated in all the activities and made friends easily. Surely, it cannot be denied that the time he spent at IMA and the exposure he had to India, has made him like this country, which liking is reflected in his taking the Qatar initiative. He can be expected to act favourably towards India in high Taliban decisionmaking circles. But none of this can happen if India stays stuck with its current policy of seeing everything Taliban through the glass darkly, and dealing and communicating with the Taliban apex only through indirect means and at a remove.
Fostering a connection with the until rcently Doha-based Stanikzai-Barader ‘political’ faction who negotiated the US withdrawal with the American representative Zalmay Khailzad, is particularly important because it is in contestation for power within the yet to be formed government with the ‘military’ faction under Yaqoob, who have dismissed the former as soft, luxury-loving, group who took no part in the hard fighting. Except the Yaqoob cohort are also at daggers drawn with the ISI proxy — the Haqqani Network, also in the fray.
This only highlights the need for an active Indian embassy in Kabul, without which India is simply not in a position, for instance, to bring together the Barader and Yaqoob factions in order to consolidate this front — which is in India’s national interest, strategically and geopolitics-wise, against the ISI-directed Haqqani fighter group.
In this fraught situation, it has been suggested by a former ambassador to Afghanistan, Vivek Katju, that India re-man its embassy in Kabul and communicate directly with the Taliban leadership without, however, according the prospective Afghan emirate diplomatic recognition, just yet. It is the typical MEA way of doing every thing half-cocked and by half-measures, and will get India nowhere.
But Stanikzai’s IMA background underlines the dilemma faced by some 80 graduating gentlemen-cadets in the current batch of the IMA, and some 40 other Afghan army officers undergoing specialized military training in different military institutions in India. What do they do when there is no Afghan army to go back to? The government has decided to let all of them finish their training, which’s fine. Then what? Having not signed the August 29 statement to voluntarily take-in fleeing Afghans and absorb them here, the Indian government has, in a sense, washed its hands off even those Afghans who worked for India as embassy and consulate staff and in various other capacities. This is a crying shame, and this decision needs to be urgently reversed.
Such a reversal would offer the 120-odd Afghan army officers in training in India the chance to settle down in India along with their families — whose protection and safe journey to India should be speedily negotiated with the Taliban. How would these officers be useful? Think of how these officers with fluency in Pashto and Darri languages can be deployed by the army Special Forces for distant operations, and in mountain fighting on the LoC. Indeed, a small SF unit along the lines of the SFF (Special Frontier Force composed of Tibetan exiles) of hard-trained Afghan armymen for trans-border covert actions can be set up — India’s own version of the French Foreign Legion! And how a select lot among them can be inducted into the army’s Military Intelligence Directorate for gathering of strategic intelligence in the neighbourhood. And, female members in the families of these Afghan officers, once in India, could be hired by the external services division of All India Radio and Doordarshan to beam news and other programmes in Darri and Pashto languages, including targeted information campaigns to Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and Afghanistan.
The stranded Afghan army trainees in India are a precious national security asset that has fallen into our lap. It will be criminal to let it go waste.
Wars occur, popular unrests happen, foreign interventions fail, governments fall, regimes change. These are constants of the Third World scene. Hence, there were no real surprises in the recent developments in Afghanistan. Predictably, the United States ran out of political will, the finger pointing over “Who lost Afghanistan” has begun in Washington, Ashraf Ghani got out of harm’s way, and the Afghan National Army disappeared like the two trillion dollars America spent on the “never ending war”. The only surprise was how with a minimum of fuss the Taliban reclaimed Kabul.
Now comes the tricky part for all the countries with a stake in Afghanistan of doing a hard count of gains and losses, and configuring future policies. This requires getting a fix on the prospective Taliban system, and the attitude of the five countries in play — India, Pakistan, China, Russia and the United States.
An emir advised by a guardianship council is the sort of sunni dispensation outlined in two Taliban-sourced documents — the 1998 ‘Dastur Emarat Islami Afghanistan’ drafted by some Islamic scholars at the bidding of the previous emir, Mullah Omar, and the ‘Manshur Emarat Islami Afghanistan’ of 2020 vintage. Both papers reject electoral democracy as lacking sanction of the Shar’ia. The leadership cohort headed by Habaibullah Akhundzada and Abdul Ghani Barader have so far sounded reasonable, promised an inclusive government and amnesty, but armed opposition is nevertheless coalescing.
Because the Taliban are a force of mostly Gilzai tribesmen, other Pashtun tribes could join the Tajiks, Baloch, and the shia Hazaras in making common cause with the former President Ashraf Ghani’s deputy, Amrullah Saleh, and NSA, Hamdullah Mohib, controlling several intact Afghan army units, and the Tajiks loyal to Ahmad Massoud congregating in the Panjshir Valley. With Col. Abdul Dostam mobilizing the Uzbek faction, resistance is firming up, potentially stronger than the Northern Alliance of yore.
India, Pakistan, China and Russia fear that, contrary to its pronouncements, the Taliban could coordinate with the al-Qaeda, Da’esh (Islamic State), Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Jaish-e-Mohammad elements who were part of its victorious sweep through Afghanistan to respectively foment trouble in Kashmir, Talibanize Pakistan (via Tehreeq-e-Taliban Pakistan — TTP), radicalize the Uyghur Muslims of Xinjiang (by infiltrating armed militants through the Wakhan Corridor), and to spread “terrorist ideology” in the seven Muslim majority enclaves (Tatarstan to Bashkortostan) in Russia’s southern tier. China believes it can buy the cash-strapped Taliban’s compliance with massive credit and infrastructure projects (in return for concessions to mine lithium, gold, and copper, and extract oil and gas Afghanistan is rich in). Russia, publicly pro-Taliban, thinks it can encourage the adjoining Central Asian states to help the Panjshir opposition, which Tajikistan is already doing. Pakistan hopes its ISI can work the Quetta and Peshawar shuras it has hosted since the US initiated the war in 2001 to defang the TTP. All three countries are convinced they need to formally recognize the Taliban regime at the earliest to effectively pursue their separate goals.
India mindlessly followed the US lead and got out. America has reinforced its reputation for unreliability and India, by forsaking a Kabul presence and direct dialogue with the Taliban leadership, has lost the ability to closely manage its interests. Rather than “wait and watch”, India should garner first mover advantage by immediately recognizing the Afghan emirate. As a surprise move in the face of Western efforts to isolate the Taliban regime, India’s interests will be accommodated by the grateful mullahs, also because, TTP aside, it will be a counter-leverage against Pakistan. A diplomatic foothold will consolidate India’s influence and more effectively neutralise anti-India groups, such as the Gulbadin Hekmatyar-led Hizb-e-Islami, active in Kabul. This move, moreover, can draw on the enormous goodwill and popularity India enjoys, courtesy Bollywood musicals, Afghan cricketers in the IPL, etc. with the nearly 30% of the urban population the Taliban need to connect with.
The now experienced firm of Barader and Akhundzada understands that establishing an emirate is one thing. But constituting an “inclusive government” is something else, and that strict implementation of the Sha’ria will deny it the legitimacy it craves in a still West-dominated world. However, association with a democratic India will, to some extent, soften the Afghan emirate’s image, raise its acceptability levels, and incentivise the ruling clique to foster substantive relations with India. New Delhi can offer more development projects and this work has been appreciated by the Taliban for good reason. The India-financed and built Zaranj-Delaram Highway, for instance, has eased the transportation of opium poppy from remote fields to makeshift heroin processing labs on the Iran border, and increased manifold Taliban’s revenues from the illicit drug-trade.
The benefit of such a realist and clear-sighted policy is that it does not prevent India from maintaining its longstanding links with the Panjshir coalition. Indeed, the first mover recognition – the carrot, and the threat to strengthen ties with the resistance – the stick, wielded together will serve India’s strategic interests better than any other option can.
The US has high-tailed it out of Afghanistan. A pithy, darkly humourous, speculation of what will happen next in America in the wake of its military humiliation by a ragtag Taliban force, was provided by the mountaineer, Joydeep Sircar, who corresponds with me fairly regularly. “By the end of 2021”, he confidently prophecies, “Hollywood will produce multiple movies showing how heroically the Americans fought and defeated the Taliban as a first step towards airbrushing history. By 2025 a large portion of the American public will believe the USA won in Afghanistan. American military thinkers will produce scholarly works showing Afghanistan was a victory because the USA took 20 years to run away whereas the USSR took only 7, and managed a higher Taliban body count. [Indian army officers] deputed to the US War College will come back full of dollars, and praise the US skill in seizing defeat out of the jaws of stalemate.”!!! He could have added by way of a last line that a bored US will then scout the map to see where it can intervene next to change a regime or build a nation.
The Afghan National Army (ANA) the Americans funded and sustained over 20 years simply melted into the countryside, or the urban chaos, Taliban having done an exemplary job of signalling to those wearing military and police uniform that unless they abandoned their posts and all ideas of fighting, when caught they’d be shot like dogs, or hung from the nearest rafter. But how and why did this happen and with such suddenness and finality? Mohan Guruswamy has come up with some revealing statistics that point to the problem. Over the last 20-odd years the US and the West annually poured into Afghanistan grant-in aid worth $60-$70 Billion. The Ashraf Ghani dispensation (and before him Hamid Karzai’s) yearly spent about $11 Billion. The revenue it generated totaled $3 Billion. Simple Math suggests that this left roughly $68-$78 Billion as “loose change” for Hamid Karzai (2001-2014) and Ashraf Ghani (2014-2021) to play around with. This was the scale of corruption — a readily accessible and replenishible trough of hard currency every minister and senior official and military officer liberally helped himself to. It sapped, in the process, the fighting spirit of the army and the police and hollowed out the government. Signs of this were available with the ANA desertion rate of some 9% before Biden’s announcement of full military pullout rising to some 26% after it. The Taliban needed to merely tip over the shell of the Ashraf Ghani regime and of the ANA.
With the Taliban in Kabul and a warning from Washington to not in any way hinder the evecuation of American citizens, the only activity being witnessed is at the Kabul airport where masses of people are seeking desperately to get the hell out, some — as seen in video clips — even clinging to the tyres in the landing systems of giant C-17 transport planes as they took off, being shaken loose as the aircraft gained altitude, and plunging to their death.
This time around though the armed Taliban motorized units in Kabul seem more disciplined, and are doing things differently. They haven’t as yet dynamited the new India-funded and built Parliament building, for instance, as they did the Bamiyan Buddhas during their first stint in power, 1996-2001, under the one-eyed Mullah Omar. In fact, the official directive to the residents of Kabul is to carry on with their lives as usual but to respect the prohibitions on women. Whence, large bill-boards featuring women models selling this or that have been blackened. And the Taliban field commanders holding court in the presidential palace, pending the imminent presence of their leaders, are posing in the grand hall, not tearing it up.
The new Talibani emirate in the offing will be run by a trio. There is Habaibullah Akhundzada who is emerging as the spiritual head, Mullah Abdul Ghani Barader the founder, along with Mullah Omar, of the Taliban, heading the negotiations with the interlocuters from various countries, including India, in Doha, and the likely future Emir, and the man in-charge of military operations and controlling the fighting cadres — Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Yaqoob. It will be interesting to see how the tensions between the stalwart, Barader, and the scion, Yaqoob, get worked out, or don’t and with what results, once the regime starts functioning.
But how do developments affect the neighbouring states and how are they preparing to handle their prospective relations with a Taliban government?
Of all the proximal countries, Pakistan is at once in the most advantageous position and, danger-wise, the most exposed. It has earned leverage with the Taliban owing to hosting and housing the leaders and their families in Quetta and in Peshawar for two decades after they were run out of Kabul by George W Bush’s regime-changing intervention post-26/11 attack on New York in 2001. Both these cities now boast tribal shuras presided over by these leaders comprising Afghans, who to- and fro- and longtime refugees from camps dotting the Pakistani side of the Durand Line in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province (KPP) that notionally separates the two countries.
The problem for Pakistan that I alluded to in a previous post on this subject is this, the refugee Taliban element along with the Haqqani Network led by Sirajuddin Haqqani dominating the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) in northwestern Pakistan is only tenuously under Barader-Yaqoob’s control. Their ambition could drive them to want their own fief and to fight for an independent Pakhtunistan incorporating the southern Afghanistan belt and KPP. So, even though Taliban Central may feel beholden to ISI, the Taliban in Pakistan who form the bulk of the Tehreeq-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have no such loyalty, and have, in fact, waged a war for many years against the Pakistani state. More recently, some of the TTP foot soldiers have gone across the Durand Line to assist the Taliban mainforce take Kabul, which they didn’t expect to be the child’s play it turned out to be. So, one can readily see how grave a threat TTP poses to Pakistan. The issue for ISI is whether Islamabad can cash in on Taliban gratitude and get it translated into a pacified TTP on the ground.
For China the Taliban takeover is a double-edged sword. They have the monies to simply bribe the Taliban into complying with their objectives. These are to (1) keep Islamic extremists — al-Qaeda and Islamic State (Da’esh), in the main, nesting in Afghanistan, from staging armed infiltrations into the Muslim Uyghur province of Xinjiang through the strategic Wakhan Corridor and stirring up that pot — a prospect Beijing is paranoid about, and (2) facilitate the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) of which CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) is flagship venture, and other rail-road, and oil-pipeline connectivity projects in Central Asia. China will also offer its trademark infrastructure buildup programme and as a financial fallback option for the Taliban who in government will be strapped for cash because of two things. Firstly, Afghanistan government’s financial holdings (some $9.4 Billion) are held in US treasury bonds, etc., and the Biden Administration has announced Talibani Kabul will not be allowed access it. And, secondly, Taliban generates most of its independent revenues — which helped it finance its war — from growing poppy and converting it into heroin for mostly the US and West European markets, and amounts to a whopping $8-$10 Billion annually. Should Washington also further constrict this latter illicit trade with more world-wide policing, Taliban will be in trouble. This is the reason why the Taliban have been fairly well behaved to-date. But China would not care to have this drug trade directed to its mainland, and will be just as apprehensive of that possibilty. Beijing will, of course, be happy to fork over oodles of monies as also millions of dollars worth military hardware of all kinds, to prevent this from happening. But for all these considerations Beijing, as is its wont when dealing with Third World states it wants to have transition into clients, will extract a steep price. In Afghanistan’s case, it is its extraordinary natural resources and mineral wealth. Soon we will be hearing about Kabul approving generous concessions to Chinese companies to tap into Afghanistan’s oil and natural gas reserves, and to mine coal, iron ore, gold, copper, lead, and zinc.
Does China ever not come out on top?
Russia’s concerns are different. It wants to minimize the role of the US and the West in Afghanistan and Central Asia at-large. Indeed, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has asked the Chinese government to coordinate its Afghanistan-related policies with Russia, and together to build up an anti-US front in Eurasia, which goal President Xi Jinping will be extremely enthused by. At the same time, though Moscow will strive to keep the Central Asian ‘stans from being tempted by Beijing’s economic promises and gravitating militarily towards China. It wants a return of the Soviet-era sphere of influence in Central Asia and Afghanistan is a key player for some of the same reasons that China perceives it — it does not want the Islam of al-Qaeda and Da’esh to spread to Central Asia or to its own smaller provinces around the Caspian Sea.
India has a few things going for it that other countries don’t. Barader and his leadership team in Doha have let it be known publicly that the Taliban appreciate the good development work India has done and the projects it has invested in in their country and, short of interfering militarily in Afghanistan’s internal affairs — something he warned Delhi against doing, have no interest whatsoever in diverting excess fighting manpower from their country to Kashmir or any such external cause. The Afghan cultural goodwill for India, moreover, transcends the Taliban-nonTaliban divide. Everybody there loves Bollywood films and cricket (especially after the success of several local boys in IPL). So much so that it was said during the Soviet occupation period that the Russians found an easy way to round up the Taliban in the cities and towns: Raid cinema theatres mid-show of Bollywood blockbusters where the bearded AK47-toting cadres, otherwise of severe mien, would be found dancing in the aisles and singing along in the song sequences! How strategists underestimate the power of Bollywood naach-gaana!
The trouble for India is not from the Taliban or the TTP. But from the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) fighters who too went north to help the Taliban establish the emirate and, having done their bit, will now feel free with ISI encouragement to turn their attention to Jammu & Kashmir. Taking on these war-seasoned LeT and JeM fighters will not additionally tax the Indian army, which has become expert in tackling them. Rather the core problem for India is how to preempt China from putting down strong roots in Afghanistan?
Offering more development aid and infrastructure assistance and generally building on Afghan goodwill is one way. But how can Delhi ensure China does not corner all the Mining concessions in Afghanistan and, by other means, enhance its strategic presence in that country? There’s only one way — and I’ll stress this: IMMEDIATELY RECOGNIZE THE TALIBAN GOVERNMENT IN KABUL before eveyone else does. The first-mover advantage will impress Barader and Co. no end and incline them, pari passu, to give weightage to Indian proposals in contestation with China in economically developing that country, once we also offer military goods at “friendship prices” and our diplomats emphasize and keep propagandizing China’s inhumane treatment of Uyghur Muslims.
Such formal recognition will require a 180 degree turnaround from the position the Modi government has so far adopted — more, it seems, to please the Biden White House than to serve India’s national interest, of not recognizing the Taliban government owing to its bad human rights record and its plonking for a manifestly undemocratic system — which’s in line with the US policy. I am not sure how it helps India’s cause for its government to be a thekedar (guardian) of democracy in the region.
A former ISI chief, retired Pakistan army Lieutenant General Assad Durrani has, perhaps, mischievously suggested that India buy the Taliban government’s compliance on various issues, pointing out that even the US military that was supposedly fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan paid them $150 million annually to enable smooth passage of American truck convoys carrying supplies sustaining the American military operations in Afghanistan. Such payouts are actually a reasonable and realistic way around such Talibani intransigence as might be encountered!
One wonders if Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked his foreign minister S Jaishankar what he thought about his idea of India hereafter commemorating August 14 — Pakistan’s Independence Day — as ‘Partition Horrors Rememberance Day’, before he tweeted it and the Home Ministry notified it. Because it has very real, god-awful and enduring ramifications.
Partition happened, Independence followed but 74 years after that bloody bifurcation the deep wound was drying out, developing a thickened scab in the process of perhaps leaving a small scar indicating the psychological recovery of the peoples on either side of the Radcliffe Line from the trauma impacting Punjabis in particular who lived through that time of excesses committed by, and against, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, in that horrid August of 1947. Except, August 14 will now keep reminding Indians about that ghastly period when sense had left the people. It will be like periodically picking on a scab until the dried up wound is raw again, which will keep the wound from drying out.
Modi’s observation that the displacement of millions of innocent people and loss of lakhs of lives owing to the “mindless hate and violence caused by the partition” and his hope that this Day will “keep reminding us of the need to remove the poison of social divisions, disharmony and further strengthen the spirit of oneness, social harmony and human empowerment” is, in the event, somewhat disingenuous, though politically and electorally, perhaps, productive. Bad memories long since interred will thus be stirred up on a yearly basis. The Pakistan government called it a “political and publicity stunt that only seeks to divide” and called it a “hypocritical and one-sided” invocation of “the tragic events and mass migration that occurred n the wake of independence”. The opposition parties here have slammed it as “divisive and diversionary politics”.
My wife is a Punjabi. My father-in-law was from Mogha, East Punjab, on this side of the Radcliffe Line where his family owned land; my mother-in-law was from Miani, Sargodha District, West Punjab, on the other side of the R Line. Her sister was married to an Inspector in the Punjab Police and was the one most to suffer the pangs and terrors of Partition. How she and her three young sons, one virtually a babe in arms, made the perilous and palpitating journey in a train from Lahore put on it by her husband’s Muslim colleagues in Punjab Police who escorted her from Dera Ghazi Khan, and how every moment on that wretched death train in its stop and start journey with men with bloodlust in their eyes and knives and swords in their hands entering and exiting the compartments killing passengers crammed into them but somehow missing my wife’s aunt and her then very young cousins huddling terror-stricken underneath the lower berths, the mother quite literally sleeping on her baby son, hoping he won’t cry and give them away, was an unforgetable passage that passed into family lore.
So, Partition was very, very bad; emotions and memories jangling and jostling on the tip of the eye colouring the post-1947 world as it passed by for that generation of Punjabis. My father-in-law’s hate for Muslims, however, was at once visceral and sublime. This was a man who when at St. Stephen’s College (as he recalled those days) befriended Zia ul-Haq (yea, ex-Probyn’s Horse and army chief who imposed the nizam-e-mustafa on Pakistan, and finished off its future) and ribbed him incessantly, calling him “Mullah” for being a strict namazi.
Hailing from a family with roots in the pleasantly temperate and sedate environs of Dharwad (in north Karnataka), I could never make head or tail of this kind of anti-Muslim rage and hate. And still can’t.
But I see that unthinking rage against Pakistan reflected even now in some retired and serving Punjabi military officers as they tortuously try and explain to me why the Indian army, navy and air force need to prioritise taking down Pakistan militarily. For the life of me I can’t see how they don’t see the obvious that Pakistan is a small, big-talking, military nuisance and sideshow at best, and why the institutionalised antipathy towards Pakistan is a strategic liability that has dragged India down since 1971 when ironically, having reduced Pakistan to its western wing, the Indian government and the military brass rather than moving on and making preparations to take on China, gave into their base and myopic instincts and began fixating on Pakistan instead.
Little wonder India has slipped down in the world. This even as China has gone from strength to strength, taking care to keep Pakistan afloat nuclearly and otherwise, just enough to have India on edge, and all this as it laughs its way to Great Power. Whatever else Partition Horrors Remembrance Day does, it will perpetuate India’s bottom-feeder status but, hey, we will have a lowly Pakistan for company. That should make us happy and keep the world entertained with South Asia’s never ending Punch and Judy show!!
Indian warship building has finally come a full circle after 250 years. It was in the 1780s that the Royal Navy impressed by the man’o wars in the 100 ton-1,000 ton range made from hardy Malabar Teak that the team of shipwrights under the Parsi master builder Luwji Nusserwanji Wadia constructed at the East India Company’s shipyard in Bombay for the trading firm’s use, ordered a number of frigates from the Wadias for its frontline service. Now the Kochi shipyard has turned out what will doubtless be the flagship of the Indian navy — a 40,000 ton aircraft carrier, the new INS Vikrant, presently undergoing sea trials.
Still, the country is not all there yet. Just as the HMS Cornwallis type of ships of Bombay pedigree were, in the heyday of Pax Britannica, equipped by 3 ton guns wrought in Britain, most of the high value weapons and other hardware on board Vikrant are of foreign origin as are the aircraft designated to fly off its deck.
So, we are still stuck with that inconvenient reality since the follow-on to the Leander-class frigate, the Godavari-class, were built at Mazgaon in the late 1970s, that while 80-85% of the carrier is indigenous, it is more by weight than by value. The 15-20% of the weight made up by the shipborne guns, missiles, sensors, and data/information fusion, navigation and other paraphernalia enhancing situational awareness constituting the high value end of technology and the bulk of the cost of the aircraft carrier, are all imported.
That said, the capability to construct aircraft carriers is no mean achievement. It is just as consequential as India’s capacity to design and build its own nuclear-powered ballistic missile-firing submarines (SSBNs). Except the Indian carrier-making capability is coming to fruition just when the age of the large ships is coming to a close. The Wadia shipbuilders never transitioned from sail to steam-powered ships and hence slipped into a backwater. There’s every danger that unless the Indian Navy and shipyards adjust fast to the naval requirements of the future, they too could soon become relics.
Which brings the discussion to the operational value of aircraft carriers in the coming era of supersonic and hypersonic cruise missiles and remotely piloted automoumous weapons platforms. Here I can do no better than reprise the arguments I made against this type of warship in my last two books — on pages 350-351 in ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’ published in 2015 and on pages 373-376 in ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’ released in 2018.
There are three main negatives of the aircraft carrier, other than their extreme vulnerability, as mentioned. to supersonic and, soon hypersonic, anti-ship cruise missiles that will be in the employ of all potentially adversary navies. These are:
1) Aircraft carriers are prized targets, both because of their symbolic value and enormous cost — the Vikrant price tag is US$ 8-10 billion with its complement of strike aircraft and early warning and anti-submarine warfare helicopters. So, the enemy will prioritise their destruction early in a war by any and all means — strikes by land-based and carrier-based combat aircraft, by ballistic and cruise missiles launched from air, ships and submarines, and submarine-fired heavy torpedoes. In the event, an aircraft carrier at sea is all but unprotectable considering the kind of guided ordnance that can be fired at it, not just singly but in salvoes from too many firing points that cannot all be adequately covered.
2) Even so, by the very nature of this ship, a navy would mobilize a dense, layered, defence for its protection. At a minimum, this will mean that six to eight frigates and missile destroyers and a submarine used as picket will need to be deployed as an escort flotilla for a single carrier. Unless, the Indian Navy grows to have some 300 capital ships, taking away a large fraction of the current naval strength of some 50 capital ships just to protect aircraft carrier assets makes no sense whatsoever, especially as such protection will result in a seriously thinned-out sea presence of the navy even in the proximal waters of the Indian Ocean. With Vikramaditya and Vikrant in the Eastern and the Western Fleets respectively, say, as many 16 surface combatants and two Kilo-class submarines as pickets will instantly become unavailable to the navy for any of a host of other missions in case of hostilities. This to say that deploying carriers will prevent a very large fraction of the naval force from being available for a range of offensive and defensive sea control and sea denial missions.
3) For the cost of a single aircraft carrier, moreover, the Indian Navy could have secured as many as 3-4 each of the multi-purpose frigates, missile destroyers/mine sweepers and diesel submarines, or a mix of any of these war ships. In a time of financial austerity, it makes more sense to augment fleet strength than to induct one or two flashy aircraft carriers.
Serious doubts have begun to be voiced in the US naval quarters and security enclaves generally about the survivability and hence the continued utility about the large 100,000 ton Gerald Ford-class nuclear powered aircraft carriers for many of the same reasons adduced above. But let’s assume the Indian Navy is, in fact, able to protect its carriers as it claims, the question to ask is whether it serves the national security interests better for two aircraft carrier groups to be able to hold sway over two mobile circular areas, each of 250 miles in radius centered on the carriers in the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean, what to speak of the immeasurably vaster oceanic areas of the Indo-Pacific, than a whole bunch of smaller (2-3 ship) flotillas and submarines, singly or in packs, creating hell for adversary navies? The latter is obviously the more cost-efficient and operationally versatile option.
Surely, an objective analysis will show what I long ago concluded that INS Vikramaditya, the new INS Vikrant and the third carrier, INS Vishal (whenever its construction is approved) are high cost sitting ducks ready to be shot up at will by the enemy, and a real all-round liability for the Indian Navy and the country.
‘Argumentative Indians’ website had this panel discussion July 26 with Jay Ranade (former China specialist in RAW), Manjeev Puri, an ex-diplomat, Major General SB Asthana (Retd), Chief Instructor, Unted Service Institution of India, Shruti Pandalai of IDSA, and yours truly.
It is not a coincidence that the announcement in Washington of the appointment of the Indian origin lawyer Rashad Hussain as Ambassador at-large for Religious Freedoms followed in the wake of the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s India trip and meeting with his Indian opposite number, S. Jaishankar. The US side had indicated that the issue of the deteriorating human rights situation in India would be raised, and Blinken did so. and tried to preempt the obvious counterstrike by accepting that the conditions and treatment of Blacks and other minorities in America is nothing to crow about. In this context, Jaishankar’s combatively framing the discussion in terms of how the two countries handle their diversity were apt tactics. That said, and the brazen hypocrisy of it notwithstanding, the US government will continue attacking India on this front. And one can expect Hussain will be mouthing off, making visits to India every time there’s a communal incident or eruption, and testifying before committees of the US Congress that will increasingly grate on Delhi’s nerves. Best for Jaishankar & Co., to brace for this onslaught.
Having long ago set itself up as “the shining house on the hill”, the US has habitually worn its democratic system and values on its sleeve even when its human rights record at home was abysmal. In the Cold War years before the 1965 Civil Rights Act, Blacks in the US did not have the right to vote and, in the American South, lived in an apartheid-like system of racial discrimination, including separate public utilities for Blacks. All the while Radio Free Europe, with powerful transmitters on the Warsaw Pact periphery, interspersed with Jazz and popular American music, broadcast 24/7 the virtues of freedom to the peoples of Eastern Europe, supposedly under the Soviet yoke. One thing the US doen’t display in its public posture is a sense of irony.
This to say that the Narendra Modi government cannot but expect to be at the receiving end of bad press in the US and the West, especially if it is unable to prevail on BJP-run state governments to tamp down severely on the extremist Hindu loony fringe. The RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s attempts at narrowing the communal divide by saying Hindus and Muslims and other minorities of the subcontinent share the same DNA, and hence are brothers albeit with different religious affiliations will hopefully contain the more rabid elements, and prevent them from periodically providing Ambassador Hussain the stick to beat India with.
It is clear the Biden Administration seems intent on keeping the human rights situation in India and the geostrategic imperatives of collaborating with Delhi to keep China leashed in the Indo-Pacific, in different policy baskets. In other words, Washington hopes to be free to criticize India in the same way it does China on the matter of the East Turkestani Uyghur Muslims, say, but expects that India, recognizing the larger game in play, will ride out the American barbs and militarily cooperate with it. The onus is thus on Delhi to accommodate Washington, and not the other way around.
There’s a problem here. One hopes Jaishankar made it plain to Blinken that this double-faced approach won’t do. This is no small thing, not something Delhi can safely ignore, because it undermines Modi’s central premise for his pro-America, pro-West stance, namely, that India is a part of a concert of democracies facing an authoritarian China in Asia and the world, even if it is obvious that Indian democracy has still very, very far to go to maturation. But whatever the quality of its democracy, India is still nominally a democratic state in the developing world. This counts, but not for much.
The ruction over India’s democratic status apart, how did the rest of the July 28 Jaishankar-Blinken meeting go? Quad, Afghanistan and covid were reportedly the three main issues on the table. Re: Quad — surely any talks over China and the Indo-Pacific would have to be contextualized by the discussions Wendy Sherman, the US Deputy Secretary of State had with the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi July 25-26. This is what the US State Departgment spokesman Ned Price had to say: “The Deputy Secretary underscored that the United States welcomes the stiff competition between our countries—and that we intend to continue to strengthen our own competitive hand—but that we do not seek conflict with the PRC.” Had he stopped at strenghtening America’s “competitive hand”-bit, that’d have been fine. But his declaration that the US “does not seek conflict” raises the legitimate question about how far Washington would go in avoiding it? The most the US will do is send warships, on ocassion an aircraft carrier group on FONOPS (freedom of navigation patrols) through the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea or, as happened some three weeks ago, deploy 25 F-22s from air wings in Alaska and Hawaii to Guam for in-theatre operations. These are largely symbolic gestures, not real commitment to fight.
America’s will to stand up to China is as suspect as India’s under Prime Minister Modi. Except, India is a frontline state and has much more at stake vis a vis China than does the US, and a much smaller margin of error. This isn’t helped by Delhi’s ridiculous optimism coveyed to the press about the 12th meeting of army commanders in Chushul leading to the PLA withdrawing from the Y-junction on the Depsang. It marked the kind of unrealism attending on Modi’s China policy dictated by that bunch of proven appeasers — the “China Study Group/Circle” whose list of flawed recommendations over the years would shame amateur sinologists everywhere.
Re: Afghanistan — Blinken may have responded to Jaishankar’s apprehensions at the turn of the events in the aftermath of America’s precipitate withdrawal by assuring the latter that the US means to continue supporting th Afghan National Army (ANA) by bombing and rocketing Taliban concentrations preparing for attacks on ANA garrisoned provincial capitals, cities and district capitals. There is also a mystery about where the attacking aircraft are taking off from — there have already been several strike sorties to-date. It can’t be carrier aircraft from ships stationed in the north Arabian Sea because they don’t have the range with full ordnance load to reach Taliban targets and get back. Bahrain and the base at Duqm in Oman too can be ruled out for the same reasons. There’s absolutely no doubt then that — notwisthanding promises to Mullah Ghani Baradar, the chief Taliban negotiator that Pakistan won’t allow any foreign power to use Pakistani military facilities against the Afghan Taliban, Islamabad has been arm-twisted by Washington to permit American combat aircraft to use the PAF base at Jacobabad for their anti-Taliban flights. The Jacobabad base has been available to the US Air Force/Navy/Special Forces for a long time now.
Blinken may have queried Jaishankar about what Delhi proposes to do to protect its investments in Afghanistan. Other than some reports in the Pakistani media that the Modi regime has dispatched some 3,000 troops — army or paramil isn’t clear, the Indian government’s response to appeals from President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul for military aid and assistance has teetered on uncertainty. Vivek Katju, a former foreign service colleague of Jaishankar’s, calls it “strategic paralysis”. The paralysis is less over what and how much of various military items to ship to Kabul; more over the substantial policy to adopt with regard to Afghanistan’s future and what role if any to play in shaping it.
India has a choice of some Taliban factions to support, fianancially and otherwise, but no real prospect of getting a regime of its choice. The existing Ashraf Ghani dispensation on the other hand is just the kind of progressive, liberal, government it’d like to see flourish in that country. It makes no sense for Delhi to support a Taliban govt of any kind but it makes ample good sense to try and sustain to the extent it can the Ghani government and, in parallel, begin putting back together the old Northern Alliance, just in case, the Taliban push to take over the cities and major towns and Kabul becomes shove. This will be the bloodiest phase of the underway civil war. The northern Alliance will have to be helped in every possible way to take back the border posts the Taliban have captured on the Amu Darya River accessing Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in particular, and to join with Iran in fielding a substantial and well armed Hazara shia militia to keep northwestern Afghanistan out of Taliban hands. The numerous forums, including the Russia-Afghanistan-Pakistan “troika”, where there’s endless talking, seem to be of little use under the circumstances, and India loses nothing to be no part of any of them.
Re: COVID — Whatever Blinken may have said, with the Delta variant of Corona virus now spreading like wildfire in America, it is doubtful President Biden will agree to increase exports of vaccine making materials for India to ramp up its vaccine production. One wishes the Modi govt, instead of going with begging bowls to the US and the Western pharma – Pfizer, et al for the vaccines, had invested more fully in the Indian Company, Bharat Pharmaceuticals, to scale up its production of its indigenously researched, designed, tested and winning product, Covaxin, as the low cost and effective vaccine alternative for India and the developing world.
Something monumental happened and no one noticed. Not the Ministry of Defence, not the Ministry for External Affairs — the two ministries that will be most affected. Unless they have known about this and are quietly reconciled to this development by stealth. Or, because they do not take seriously the seminal change announced by Amit Shah, the Home Minister.
The undisputed Number Two in the Narendra Modi government, Amit Shah made public something that was at once strange and stunning. No one has commented on his statement or even reacted to it. Delivering the KF Rustomji Lecture on July 17 at the 18th investiture ceremony of the Border Security Force, Shah remarked that he “used to think if there is a security policy of this country or not?” This is a reasonable thing to wonder about. I have done so too. Then he elaborated a bit by adding a qualifier. “Till Narendra Modi became the prime minister”, Shah declared, “we did not have any independent security policy.”
But for the insertion of Modi into that line, I would agree with this conclusion. That India’s foreign and military polices and, therefore, the national security policies are not “independent” is, after all, a theme I have been dilating on for the better part of the past 25 years, especially in the context of America’s conspicuous role in the last decade and half in shaping and channeling Indian government’s thinking. So, you can understand my nearly jumping out of my skin at finding the Home Minister seemingly seconding my view, leading me, for an instant, to expect that Modi, having belatedly recognized the flawed policy system he was working with, had decided on a structural overhaul and a radical change of course.
That joy lasted the proverbial half second — the time it presumably took Shah to read the next line in his speech, which brought me down with a thud accompanied by much befuddlement. This effect would have been replicated on anyone who was paying attention to Shah.
The Home Minister, it turns out, was not referring to any foreign influences on Indian foreign and military or security policies, but rather was expressing his elation at the country’s “security policy” being unshackled from the malign influence of — wait for it — India’s “foreign policy”!!
To quote Shah per a newspaper report: the country’s security policy he declared “was either influenced by foreign policy or it was overlapping with the foreign policy” — both, by his reckoning, bad things to happen. “Our idea is to have peaceful relations with all” he continued, “but if someone disturbs our borders, if someone challenges our sovereignty the priority of our security policy is that such an attempt will be replied in the same language.” He added that this new security policy was a “big achievement” and “I believe without [it] neither the country can progress nor democracy can prosper.” He then congratulated “Modiji [for doing] this big job” before revealing that this policy had already been operationalized. (http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/84499031.cms )
Is that too much to take in all at once?!
National security considerations are at the apex and dictate foreign and military policy choices and options. In the event, if Shah is to be taken at his word, it means primarily that the “security policy” making is now in the Home Ministry’s bailiwick, and secondarily, because disturbances on the border, “peaceful relations with all” and “challenges [to] our sovereignty” are apparently not “priority” with either the MEA or MOD, the Shah-led Home Ministry will put in place measures to implement these priority jobs. In other words, the task of managing relations with Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Pakistan are now transferred from South Block to Sardar Patel Bhavan. China, because it does the intimidating where India is concerned, is left for the MEA and MOD to handle. The MEA, MOD and the armed services on their part will feel relieved that in this new Shah scheme they will have something to do other than sit on the sidelines unprofitably twiddling their thumbs.
Then again, it may just be that nothing has changed and Amit Shah does not know what he is talking about. This is a real possiblity given how ministers read babu-drafted speeches they can’t make head or tail of, in which case, Home Secretary Ajay Kumar Bhalla and his minions ought to be blamed for making the Home Minister sound, well, as not quite there! In this policy realm, is there anything more outlandish than what Amit Shah said?
The interesting thing is why did Shah, even in his muddled fashion, say what he did? May be the Home Minister is in an aggrandizing mood and believes diplomacy with adjoining states would be conducted better by him and his boys, and would like to wrench decisionmaking turf from the MEA and MOD, and find more military missions and such for the BSF and other paramils under his control to carry out? Or, with the neighbourhood blowing up around us the Home Minister is a bit jealous of his colleague, the external affairs minister, S Jaishankar for being, willy nilly, in the public eye. Except the foreign minister is in the limelight lately for the wrong reasons.
Diplomats, it is said should think twice or thrice before saying nothing. Jaishankar, perhaps, feels that because he has graduated from the ranks of babu to minister, he can let his mouth run wild, the diplomat’s characteristic tact be damned! He let this happen around the same day that Shah was asking the MEA to keep off security policy in order to make it more “independent”. What? How? Don’t ask!
Speaking to a virtual audience of his BJP partymen in a foreign policy training session, Jaishankar couldn’t resist boasting. “Due to us, Pakistan is under the lens of FATF and it was kept in the grey list”, he asserted. “We have been successful in pressurizing Pakistan and the fact that Pakistan’s behaviour has changed is because of pressure put by India by various measures.” He elaborated further: “FATF, as all of you know, keep a check on fundings for terrorism and deals with black money supporting terrorism. Also terrorists from LeT and Jaish, India’s efforts through UN, have come under sanctions.”
So, where was the diplomatic boo-boo?
FATF (Financial Action Task Force) is fairly unique in how it holds a targeted country’s feet to the fire. For instance, at the last FATF meeting in Paris in end-June Pakistan did not get a pass out of the institution’s ‘Grey List’ even though it fulfilled 26 of the 27 conditions because there was telltale evidence of the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist outfits beneftting from monies Pakistani agencies had a role in laundering. By the same token, US will ensure, Pakistan never slips into the Black List which India wants, which will activate comprehesnive economic sanctions, because Islamabad is, owing to the civil war in Afghanistan, all but indispensable to America.
The trouble is this: Pakistan is in the FATF crosshairs because of its covert and overt support to the various terrorist outfits it has nursed for operations in Jammu & Kashmir which, in turn, keeps alive what, for all intents and purposes, is the dead 1949 UN Resolution 47 pertaining to Kashmir — the outcome of Jawaharlal Nehru’s referring the dispute to the UN.
India does not have to do a thing to keep Pakistan in the Grey List other than do what it has quietly been doing — list terrorist incidents traceable to Pakistan-based gangs and refer to their financial links to the Pakistan state. In that sense, the Indian government is merely an agency reporting terrorist incidents and the electronic/paper trails of terror financing; that this implicates Islamabad is by the way. This was done routinely and without fuss. Now Jaishankar has gone and spoilt it.
For the Indian foreign minister to publicly take credit and crow about India’s efforts in keeping Pakistan on the FATF’s warning list is to arouse suspicions among the European and other member states of this body about motives other than terrorism driving Indian government’s actions. Not that they are unaware of how much value and weight New Delhi attaches to keeping Pakistan on the FATF hook. But, for that very reason, they could at any time convert their decision into diplomatic leverage for use against India.
Indeed, the Pakistan Foreign Office was very fast in trying to corner India on just this point, claiming that New Delhi had “politicized” the FATF, and offered Jaishankar’s “confession” as it called his gloating, as proof for its charge. Such a claim is rendered credible because India is the co-chair of the Joint Group that assesses whether Pakistan’s warrants placement in the grey list in the first place. The more low key and objectively the Indian government acts in the FATF the more convincingly Pakistan crucifies itself by its own irrefutable acts of ommission and commission. Should Pakistan’s case of India politicizing the FATF take hold, however, Pakistan may well be let off on its good faith actions and for fulfilling most of the criteria and Indian interests will end up taking a hit
For Jaishankar to have thus imperilled India’s case and potentially loosened the FATF noose around Pakistan’s neck is an inexcusable mistake particularly for a supposedly seasoned former career diplomat to make. But then just may be Jaishankar felt pressured. Can it be Amit Shah and Jasihankar are both competing, trying to elbow each other out of Modi’s attention, by trumpeting the performance of the ministries they head?
In a punitive mood after the Islamic extremists whom the US had carefully nurtured and who, in the guise of the Al-Qaeda led by a one time CIA operative Osama bin Laden turned on their American masters and spectacularly brought down the trade towers in New York city and nearly finished off the Pentagon as well in Washington on 11 September 2001, the then US President George W Bush launched US forces to take out the medievalist regime of the one-eyed Mullah Omar in Afghanistan.
I had predicted then the Americans would be there for a while, but would be beaten black and blue and bundled out by the Taliban. 20 years later that prediction has come true.
Once again, and as is their wont, the US expeditionary forces showed as much punch as a bunch of pansies, running away from a fight as they had done from Saigon when between the Viet Cong guerillas and the People’s Army of Vietnam under the generalship of the legendary Nguyen Von Giap, US MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) was stomped into mulch, the last of the American troops and consular officials helicoptering out off the roof of the US embassy in end-April 1975.
Military defeat is the most wrenching of national experiences. The Chinese smash down in the 31-day Himalayan War 60 years ago (20 Oct-21 November 1962) so dented the image and reputation of the Indian army, it has still to fully recover from it. The Pakistan army, likewise, remains unreconciled to a sheepish-looking General AAK “Tiger” Niazi surrendering his pistol along with 93,000 troops in East Pakistan to General Jagjit Singh Aurora at the race course in Dhaka on 16 December 1971.
Military defeat cannot be masked. Or covered up. Or denied. The former US President Donald Trump’s sometime National Security Adviser, John Bolton, tried to do all three and, predictably, ended up sounding like a blithering idiot. With the last of the US forces decamping in C-130s in the dead of night, July 1, from the Bagram air base in Kabul, this shameful final act of cowardice and lily liveredness was sought to be explained away by Bolton. He claimed with a straight face on CNN that “We weren’t defeated. You have to be defeated to lose a war. We’ve given up because we’ve lost patience.”
Losing patience, walking away, from a war the US started, are synonyms for the American forces being pounced on and pummelled into submission — a result all the more stark considering the $1,200 Billion US spent in Afghanisan over the past two decades in a failing venture, before finally being run out of a country whose people, unlike Indians in India, have historically not taken kindly to foreigners tresspassing into their country. The humiliation at the hands of a scruffy band of sandal-wearing, Kalashnikov-toting, turbanators will be difficult for the US to live down. One thing is certain though, in the aftermath of their twin military fiascos in Iraq and now Afghanistan, Americans will not be sallying forth on a new military adventure any time soon.
And this is the US and the American military the Narendra Modi government is happy to outsource India’s strategic security against China to?!!
Still, with the Yanks out of Afghanistan and President Ashraf Ghani and the Afghan National Forces (ANF) hanging on for dear life at least in Kabul and the other cities, which uptill now have been spared the Taliban rush, New Delhi has to be clear-minded about its aims and surefooted in crafting a policy that will serve India’s national interests in the short, medium and long term.
Kabul is an invaluable prize for the taliban for a reason — the capital with all the embassies and international presence will legitimize its rule; without it, Taliban are only another set of pretenders. Washington has said a violent takeover of Kabul and other cities by the Taliban will lead to the US withholding diplomatic recognition. This is the reason why the loose Taliban High Command has tried to be reassuring about its behaviour once in power this time around — though the actions of its foot soldiers in the areas it has occupied have increased apprehensions about that country being pushed back into the dark ages — with the girl child imperilled, women’s rights suspended, and music and colourful garments attracting Taliban lashes, when not worse.
The pivotal issue is how long and credibly the ANF can keep up its morale and fight the Taliban surge that swept through 85% of the Afghan countryside. The July 16 incident in Dawlatabad in northwestern Balkh province where a 22-strong ANF Special Force element who, after putting up a valiant fight until their ammo ran out, tried to surrender only to have the Taliban, not conversant with Geneva Conventions or other niceties of war, simply line them up and shoot them down in cold blood. This along with the Taliban edicts to women to go into purdah and the men to not smoke or shave, will do one of two things. It could steel the hearts and the nerves of ANA commanders who with their troops are deployed in and around Kabul and in the 34 provincial capitals, into deciding they would rather risk an honourable battle and go down fighting than meet a dog’s death. Or, they may take a chance on the Talibans’ mercy and heed their call to surrender. In either case, the probability of the Ghani government surviving is problematic. Unless, and this is the big if, ANF holds on to Kabul and successfully repels waves of Taliban onslaught. There’s enough ammo and artillery shells with the ANF to do so in the short and medium term. Some eight Indian Air Force C-17 sorties to Kabul in the recent past, each with 40 tons of military supplies, will have increased the ANF stock of ample prepositioned stores the US left behind on its rapid exit out of the country.
The Afghan ambassador in Delhi, Farid Mamundzay, said the Ghani government and the ANF have an advantage in two decisive respects. It has some 400,000 troops and more than adequate military stores of all kinds, as against only 70,000 in the Taliban ranks. And they have air power which the Taliban don’t. Whence his request to India for help in augmenting the ANF’s helicopter force. 35-40 attack hepters, he thinks, would do the trick and he hopes other than India, the US and Russia will respond with transfer of these fighting whirlybirds. There may be a problem with this reading of the situation. The American forces with excess of everything, especially air power, failed to leave much of a mark on the Taliban. How can an ANF armed hepter fleet of 40 some aircraft make any real difference? Besides, what’s to prevent the Taliban from periodically blunting this edge by mounting attacks on city air fields like the one that a fortnight back destroyed two Blackhawk hepters on the ground in Kunduz? Or, intensifying their new tactic of assasinating helicopter pilots with the ANF?
But Ambassador Mamundzay is absolutely right in identifying the US, Russia and India as the three countries that can prevent the Taliban from taking over the country by sustaining an arms supply line. Moreover, under cover of the US forces marshalling its forces in the area, Russia is strengthening its military presence in the adjoining Central Asian states under the aegis of the Collective Security Organization (CSO). The Central Asian governments are worried about a backwash from a Taliban takeover of Kabul and Afghanistan, and how they’d have to deal with Islamic extremism. So should a future Taliban dispensation in Kabul turn rogue, the CSO states would be happy to be part of a corrective action.
Actively courting the ire of the US, Russia and India, could place the taliban in a no-win situation. Taliban targets can be directly reached by US, Russian, and IAF strike aircraft rounding over the Gulf and staging out of their Farkhor base in Tajikistan. This is the reason why I have pleaded for a long time for a fully provisioned IAF forward placement of a Su-30 squadron at Farkhor. Indian, American and Russian air strikes can take a heavy toll on the Taliban morale and its barebones logistics chain set up for them and, for some time, even managed by the Pakistan ISI. It can, for instance, prevent them from concentrating their war materiel and numbers for concerted attacks on major cities, in particular Kabul. This is what US air power essentially achieved.
The trick for the Indian government is to continue playing on both sides. India can promise more development aid and infrastructure construction assistance to the Taliban. Further, Indian intel agencies have had productive contacts over the years with certain factions of the Taliban. Because the Taliban operate in discrete fashion, each faction in effect fighting its own subregional war for supremacy, it is not that difficult to act against some factions inimical to Indian interests without alienating the friendly ones. And because of the transactional nature of relationships with the Taliban, even the not so friendly sections can be won over by money and other considerations. Pakistani media is full of reports and commentaries suggesting the Indian support and subsidy for the Tehreeq-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) means Delhi holds a whiphand and can destabilize Pakistan at any time.
The ideal solution of course is for an inclusive coalition Afghan government that the Taliban have talked around without giving a clear yes or no answer in the various talks held in peace forums from Doha, Istanbul to Moscow. The Taliban obviously believe thay can wait out the Ghani regime and the patience of its external supporters, in the hopes of Kabul and other cities falling into their lap without a fight. In the meanwhile, they have strategically this time, prioritised the taking over of the main roads, check posts and entry points into Afghanistan.
The Taliban have already captured the border posts over the Amu Darya River connecting Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. They realized how because these routes remained in enemy hands, certain western and north western provinces became hotbeds of resistance that the Taliban, when they were in government last, were never able to quell. Thus, the Tajik Ahmed Shah Masood ruled the Panjshir Valley and Colonel Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek, with his 20,000-strong complement of ethnic fighters, was a spoiler. So, this time, not wanting to repeat the past, the Taliban have first overrun all border areas and main crossing centres with Tajikistan (Sher Khan Bandar, Panj River) , the Badhgis border with Turkmenistan, Islam Qala in the Herat province fronting on Iran, and the Wakhan corridor facing China.
The Durand Line on the Khyber and across the lower length of Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan is Taliban’s own play ground. Islamabad and GHQ, Rawalpindi, are rightfully worried that working in conjunction with the TTP, the Afghan Taliban, after pacifying the rest of their country and taking Kabul, will realize the old Afghan dream of regaining for Afghanistan its traditional border before the British Raj annexed the territory upto the Marghala Hills in Islamabad. That will be an unexpected denouement to the Independent Pakhtunistan problem! With the Baloch insurgent movements, moreover, operating out of southwestern Afghanistan and the secessionist movement in Balochistan on the boil, the emerging situation is fraught with the utmost danger for Pakistan.
This is where strategic good sense needs to inform India’s Afghanistan decisions. Delhi can play the old game of tightening the pincer on Pakistan — Baloch National Movement, Balochistan Liberation Army, et al, on one side and the Afghan Taliban-TTP on the other side. This will fetch small returns.
Or, it should opt to do the wise thing to subserve India’s metastrategic interests — use the back channel with Islamabad to, in return for Pakistan government settling on a Kashmir solution with the LOC as international border — loosened for to- and fro- movement by Kashmiris on either side, incentivizing, motivating and materially supporting the Afghan Taliban and TTP (away from Pakistan) and against Godless Communist China, and towards liberating fellow Muslim Uyghurs of East Turkestan (Xinjiang) and helping them throw off the Chinese yoke. The mountainous Wakhan Corrdor as Taliban guerilla war staging area is almost too perfect for this purpose. It is an enterprise that will have wide support of just about every country that wants to pull China down a peg or two and otherwise help that aggressive Communist state to implode, and which category includes, the US, Russia, most European countries and almost all Asian states.
Pakistan is small fry. Please Think and Act Big and real Strategic, Modiji. You can task your NSA Ajit Doval, with this his biggest Game.
India’s first Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat, has been visible and vocal the past few months on television and public forums explaining what his priorities are, starting with the theaterisation of military commands. Both the CDS and theaterization were recommended by the 1999 Kargil Committee chaired by the late K. Subrahmanyham. These were part of the reforms the Committee had suggested to realize ‘jointness’, absent which the country had managed to put one over the Pakistan army in the last border conflict but at great cost.
India and Indians can’t be thankful enough that there’s always the Pakistan army to rescue us from our military follies because, unmindful of its resource limitations, it screws up by not thinking strategically before lurching into action.
The lack of coordination (owing to the then air chief, Anil Tipnis, not satisfied with an ask for help by the army chief General Ved Malik, insisting on a written directive from the government to use aircraft) led to the Indian Air Force taking no part in the first two weeks of the hostilities. And when it finally was activated, it did so with armed helicopters which were promptly shot down as was a combat aircraft logging, in the process, a startling attrition rate and all inside the first few hours of deployment. The reason the IAF offered for this fiasco was that it had not prepared for war in the mountains!
In line with how the Indian system works — the country got the body first — the Integrated Defence Staff, the supposed secretariat for CDS, as recommended by the Kargil Committee, before the Indian government realized, some 20 years later, that something was missing and around 2019 attached a head, namely, the CDS, to the IDS body. Thereafter, moving with commendable speed, it filled this newly created post with the then soon-to-retire army chief, General Rawat, the sort of grounded infantryman anyone would be happy to take advice from.
But before being pitched headlong into the chair, Rawat failed, apparently, to take the precaution of inquiring from the government about his role, what was expected of him by way of agenda and priorities and, most importantly, what slate of powers the CDS post would be endowed with as these powers would have to be carved out of the decisionmaking turf the services chiefs lord over. This was necessary in order to implement decisions that would require the CDS to work through, over and around the inevitably resisting services chiefs of staff, each of them zealously protective of his own part of the field and preventing encroachment of any kind by any body. Once in the CDS’s chair, Rawat realized he was the proverbial fifth wheel of a running vehicle and served no useful purpose.
For all the pomp and ceremony attending on his CDS position Rawat found himself, in effect, as nothing more than head of the Integrated Defence Staff, but with bigger office and perks. For the Services chiefs he was an imposition but as primus inter pares (first among equals) and so designated by the Cabinet Committee as the single point source of military advice to the Defence Minister and, hence, the government, he could, in theory, insert himself in the military decision-making process with more consequence than the chairman, chiefs of staff committee (CCoSC) in the previous schema could. Except, the CCoSC was an established institution and over the years a gentleman’s understanding had evolved. Because the senior most serving chief served as chairman, each service chief would get his turn and, as chairman, had the opportunity to serve his service’s interests, push his service’s pet projects and programmes. Now insert into this mix a fourth four star but take out the old structure and what you get is a new player who is as much nuisance as inconvenience. It was a recipe for gumming up the works.
To correct this mess, the government then compounded it by creating without much thought or deliberation an organization for a CDS to head and so the country got yet another department of government — the grand sounding Department of Military Affairs (DMA), because IDS HQrs, a subordinate entity, obviously wouldn’t do. So DMA is now in place with a near full establishment on paper — AdSecs, Joint Secs, etc. Except no one from the superior civil services or the armed services wants to serve in it, because it is still a stand alone appendage with no real standing or power. Why, because, again, Rawat, in a tearing hurry to become secretary to government forgot that as army chief he was principal secretary to the government and, as a former CCOS pointed out to me, heading the DMA is actually a substantive demotion. In effect then, all the services chiefs actually bureaucraticaly outrank the CDS and head of DMA, Rawat!
And because Rawat didn’t take care before taking the job of fleshing out the power and authority of the CDS, which he could have done by exploiting to the max his Pauri-Garhwal connections to the powers that be, he and the CDS post are in the unenviable position of remaining transfixed between and betwixt. Because ultimate decisions, short of the PM, pertaining to national defence are still made by the Defence Secretary who retains the responsibility for the country’s military security, and outranks the CDS in every respect!
So, one can see why Rawat cannot push the theaterization of military commands through with the IAF standing in the way. The CAS Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria explained in a TV intervew that his service was not against theaterization per se, but rather that it wants it done just “right”. Of course, if the IAF had its way, it will never happen because it is loath for the sake of jointness or anything else to give up its operational prerogatives and control over its assets. But for the deadlines set by the government, this would be grist for endless disagreement without closure. The IAF, more than the self-confident navy, has always been reluctant to dilute its separate corporate identity even if for a good cause. And it has not fought shy to go to any extent.
Just how petty the IAF can get was revealed by a former commander-in-chief (CINC) of the integrated Andaman Command — the first demonstration project for jointness. He reveals how the IAF refused, for instance, to cede its land to the Command, land where the CINC hoped to build living quarters and recreational facilities for IAF and other military personnel on base, at a time when airmen were living in tents. And not to give ground even in matters of protocol, he recalls how airmen waiting for a service bus invariably failed to salute the CINC passing in his car because he was from another service and how they went to great lengths to avoid doing so. When this CINC asked the IAF chief at the time about it, he was told that that was because the IAF men did not have their caps on. To avoid such protocol situations from arising the IAF component commander, under instructions from IAF Hqrs, then changed the location of the bus stop!
The Andaman Command experience points to the major issue at the core of the integration problem. The authority to write annual confidential reports (ACRs) of officers, which defines the limits of the CINC. In the current circumstances, CINC, Andaman Command, writes the ACRs of his deputy from a different service and of each of the component commanders. Except the final vested authority on the ACRs rests with the services chiefs in Delhi. Should the deputy chief or any of the component commanders act in any way considered detrimental to the interests of the service as determined by the chief, well he and his ACR are fixed, promotion prospects marred. In other words, even in an integrated setup, loyalty to the parent service is paramount or an officer gets it in the neck, hardly the incentive for officers serving in integrated commands to feel loyalty for the joint setup. Or, for the Command to come up with optimized battle plans and crisis solutions involving use of all resources. So what would the falloff be in terms of the Command’s military efficiency and effectiveness? I reckon it would not be insignificant.
A simple reform of making the CINC the final authority in ACR writing will do more to generate loyalty in an integrated military structure than all the endless gassifying on the subject by politicians and militarymen. This is the stickiest point and no service chief will make concession. It requires the defence minister and, if he is averse, the prime minister to simply lay down the law and, by diktat, affect this change. No debate on the topic, no discussion, no endless file pushing in the Defence ministry, no nonsense!
The other immediate issue are the proposed plans for theaterization. The trouble with them is their byzantine nature. There’s so much opacity and such a tangle of crossed lines it is hard to know whose authority will work when, where, and how, and over what. For instance, Rawat in a recent TV interview talked about his priority — the proposed integrated air defence command that will make a single commander in charge of all air space management, including all air activity by assets held by the three armed services, this to avoid, as he put it, fratricidal kills. (See https://youtube.com/watch?v=wwhbsvN9o_l .) These air assets are inclusive of everything from the army’s longrange artillery firing shells to 40 km range because at apogee they reach 15 km altitude in their ballistic course, drones, unmanned aerial vehicles, helicopters, to combat and transport aircraft, in other words every last thing of military use that flies.
Then Rawat talked of the extant complication: He tried to explain why because of the live borders with Pakistan and with China, the IAF’s northern and western air commands will continue as they are. He did not clarify just how all the flying objects with these two air commands will fold into the air management scheme overseen by CINC, Air Defence Command, and how utter confusion can be prevented. Untangling the operational control over the multitude of assets in these three commands will be a nightmarish exercise with what results will be decided by the outcome of the next war!
The aforementioned fomer Andaman command CINC believes there’s no way to resolve such problems other than for the three armed services chiefs to sit around a table with, perhaps, the CDS presiding, and working out just how and where the fighting assets in particular are to be distributed, located and controlled at literally every moment in time — which aspect will become crucial in case of crisis and hostilities. This is inherently difficult business, and the CDS and his staff will have to work the details out with Bhaduaria, Admiral Karambir Singh and General MM Naravane and their respective staffs, and find appropriately dynamic solutions.
The rest of us can only hope and pray our adversaries will show some consideration and not thrust a war on us before the three services chiefs and the CDS iron out the integration wrinkles.
On the larger issue of military integration, however, the minimum that is expected of the CDS is that he will be familiar with the other two services, their inventories, their capabilities, and of the whole host of specialist skills and competences they represent and embody. In this respect, Rawat has disappointed. He has not shown the necessary knowledge of, leave alone insights into, even the basics of air and naval warfare. Just how deficient he is in his appreciation was showcased by his calling the air force a mere “supporting arm” which, in this day and age, is inexcusable and almost a goad to the IAF to stand its ground against theaterization. Not content, Rawat then almost revelled in his ignorance of the differences in combat flying conducted by the air force and the navy. Sounding verily like one of the generalist babus populating the defence ministry, who can’t tell the business end of a gun from their elbow, he said he can’t see why IAF pilots cannot fly their aircraft off carrier decks, and naval pilots their planes from air bases!! In Rawat’s mind, flying is flying — what’s the big deal?!! The small matter of the vast and consequential differences in aircraft and in combat flying over land and at sea off aircraft carriers is for him of little concern. Ooh, boy!!!
With Rawat as CDS, the Modi government better begin to worry about the sort of military “integration” that may materialize under his charge, and its overall effects on the armed forces’ efficiency and effectiveness.
Drones which dropped small explosive packages on the Jammu air base just missed hitting — not by much — a helicopter unit parking area and the air traffic control tower. Consider this a trial run.
What if a parked hepter had been struck? Depending on whether it was armed and ready with a full ordnance load of missiles, rockets and bombs, and a full tank, and on how many other hepters were in the vicinity, this would have been a humungous fratricidal fire attack — the first exploding hepter destroying other aircraft.
That the realtime photoimagery or IR sensor guidance was available to the drone platforms and that the hepters were in the crosshairs suggests its handlers were after big targets and wanted this to have a big demonstration effect. Logically, then the attacked aircraft would have to be expensive ones; in this instance, that means the targets were the attack helos stationed at the Jammu AFB at the time, or deployed there for the nonce.
There are two types of high value attack hepters in service with the IAF — the AH-64 Apache and the Russian Mi-24. In rounded figures, the Apache costs Rs. 695 crores or US$ 100 million each; the Mi-24 comes in at around US$ 14 million. If it is officially contended that what the drones missed were utility/transport hepters then the unit cost of the Russian Mi-17 is some US$ 9 million.
Now, let’s calculate the exchange ratio — the ratio of the cost of the drone lost to the cost of the destroyed hepters — the adversary would have obtained had the attack operation succeeded. The cost of the drone, assuming it was equipped with miniaturised camera, etc and a communications link, wouldn’t have exceeded Rs. 2 lakhs or US$ 2,700. Had the drone taken out, say, one Apache worth $100 million the exchange ratio just in monetary terms would have been 1:37000!! Had two more Apaches been thus destroyed the ratio would have mounted to 1:111,000. If we assume a single Mi-24 was hit, the exchange ratio would have been still terrifically lopsided at 1: 5186. In case it was the Mi-17, the E-ratio would be 1:3333.
You get the idea.
A former CAS, S Krishnaswamy, has penned an op-ed, post-Jammu attack, when everybody has suddenly become alive to the threat posed by drones/UAVs. (https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/drone-detection-system-jammu-airfield-bomb-attack-7380116/). He says drones are means of terrorism, that “hundreds of drones” could be launched by Pakistan to “harrass” India, and then alights on the surefire solution senior Indian military officers always do when they get the problem wrong and are otherwise fresh out of ideas — he talks imports! By way of a throwaway line Krishnaswamy mentions helicopters in anti-drone role. Presumably, he is referring to the directed energy (laser) doo-dah on the Apache able to disable lowflying drones. The Apache in anti-drone role, however, is nonsense because it will require an improbably large fleet of AH-64s to be in the air all the time, 24/7/365! This Apache mention is a prelude to his recommending buying systems to detect and to destroy drones abroad.
From this ex-Air Chief Marshal’s piece — one thing is clear. He hasn’t a clue about the evolving nature of drones and neither does the IAF brass who, over the years, have never seriously mulled the drone/UAV as principal offensive weapon system and surveillance platform. Tool of harrassment — really??!! Nor how drones/UAVs are helping manned combat aircraft to obsolesce fast because anything worth targeting is more vulnerable to small, highly agile, inexpensive drones than a new fangled combat aircraft our blinkered fighter-jock community leading the IAF into the future may insist on procuring. And he and the IAF pooh-bahs know even less about indigenous capability.
In this respect, a small but revealing episode. The day before yesterday, out of the blue, a retired Vice Chief of the Air Staff called me up. He asked me to republish an op-ed of mine he says he read 10-15 years ago that warned about the danger from drones, which he said was “prophetic”. He recalled how he had gone with my article to meet the then Air Force Chief and his Principal Staff Officers to ask them to do what I had urged in that piece: Take drones seriously, because they are the future, only to be told by them that “Karnad is a maverick”. Maverick in IAF terminology is a term of abuse.
Actually, I first talked about drones and unmanned aerial platforms making combat aircraft obsolete in 1986 in a two part series published in the then Khushwant Singh-edited Illustrated Weekly of India. It was written from Washington and after discussing the subject with many leading lights in the US, such as Jacques Gansler, then Under-Secretary of Defense in-charge of acquisitions. Given the technology trend path, I had recommended in those articles that, rather than waste time and money on the Light Combat Aircraft project that was just getting started and which aircraft I predicted would be dated by the time it hit the tarmac, HAL, IAF and the Indian government would be better off if they concentrated on designing and developing a family of drones/UAVs for various roles in aerial warfare of the future.
It earned me, on my return to India, the anger of the then science adviser to defence minister V Arunachalam and a trip to the LCA project in Bangalore and a briefing by its director, Dr Kota Harinarayanan. Enjoyably, I was, perhaps, amongst the first outsiders to actually sit in a live LCA glass cockpit mockup with fly-by-wire, and engage in what can be termed a dynamic video game of an aerial fight of me in the LCA versus one, two, or three “raiders” being managed by the head of the avionics software group, a US-trained engineer. (This was a long time ago and I hope I got most things right about the B’lore trip!) And I liked what I saw.
It is another matter that seeing the IAF time and again make a hash of things by choosing yet another foreign fighter plane and waste national resources while stepmothering the indigenous LCA into near extinction, I have been all for the Tejas to make it and for its technologies to be continuously upgraded and for larger, more modern and lethal variants to be funded. Meaning, if the IAF is damn fool enough to believe manned aircraft will be viable well into the 21st century, then I’d rather the government pour national resources — your and my tax money — into the homegrown Tejas and Indian industry than in a deal for an imported item that will improve the bottomlines of Boeing or Lockheed or Sukhoi or Mikoyan or Dassault or Saab or EADS.
The reason I say the IAF brass are clueless is mainly because they seem entirely unaware of the drone/UAV technologies — hardware and software — of the most sophisticated kind being designed, developed and marketed in India. According to a hard count by Group Captain RK Narang, there are 26 private sector companies, who are at the cutting edge of drone tech and doing well. He made this list for SITARA (Science, Indigenous Technology & Research Accelerator) — a forum founded and headed by a retired diplomat, Smita Purushottam, which has relentlessly pushed indigenous technology and has repeatedly succeeded in getting the Prime Minister’s Office to intervene, especially in the telcommunications area where the Ministry of Telecommunications and its various agencies seem bent on sabotaging Narendra Modi’s atmanirbharta policy by letting in foreign 5G technology vendors by the backdoor. A seasoned IAF helicopter pilot and author of the usefully informative 2020 book — ‘India’s Quest for UAVs and Challenges’, Narang was, until he retired earlier this year, the leading proponent of UAVs in IAF. One suspects though that while his seniors in service indulged him by supporting his research, his recommendations were not taken too seriously by Air HQrs. Hope they will do so now.
It seems to me that were these 26 firms to work together per a single plan and integrate their resources, they would produce a world class series of surveillance, warfighting and attack drones including drone swarms operating in distributed (artificial) intelligence mode, as also anti-drone technologies. Such an enterprise should long ago have been underway with the IAF helming it. But considering its regressive mindset the chances of its doing so are, well, zero. In the main because IAF brass fear that drones/UAVs will divert resources from combat aircraft acquisition programmes they are wedded to come hell or high water! Such purchases will be made even if these aircraft stand next to no chance of surviving actual fight with drones. Indeed, these aircraft will be lucky to get off the ground in the face of attacking UAV/D-swarms.
Relying on DRDO to perfect its drone and anti-drone systems, like land-based and airborne low energy lasers to shoot down drones/UAVs, and IT systems to scramble their guidance loops, is unnecessarily to lose time and money. Most countries are fast-forwarding their drone/anti-drone projects by going commercial — that is, getting companies vending whole drone systems and related technologies for commercial use, to build more rugged and capable drones and unmanned aircraft to milspecs for military use. This is the way to go and Narang’s list of Indian companies should ideally be immediately involved and commissioned by the Ministry of Defence to have time-certain delivery of finished drone weapons and surveillance systems and anti-drone tech systems. Because this is private sector where time is money there’ll be no time or cost over-runs.
Except, as in all advanced technology areas where procurement is featured, the process is deliberately elongated by everybody in the acquisition hierarchy and in the DRDO in the hope that IAF and Indian govt will opt for the usual, derated, inherently compromised, foreign hardware, and that this will involve a lot of foreign trips, lavish “entertainment” — “commissions” anybody? and, who knows what else. Can the Indian firms provide them such goodies? Of course, not.
So import everything!! Third World/Fourth World modus operandi zindabad!!
Your Minister for External Affairs, S Jaishankar, who as ambassador to the US arranged the Sept 28, 2014 public relations circus with NRIs at the Madison Square Garden in New York (when Barrack Obama was President) which won your heart and fetched him first the Foreign Secretary-ship and later a Cabinet berth, no doubt considers himself an expert on all matters American. Hopefully he has warned you just how markedly the political ground has shifted in Washington from when your “jigri dost” and “yaar”, the Republican, Donald Trump, inhabited the White House to now when the Democrat Joe Biden, occupies it.
This has happened less because of developments at the US-end than because of the carryings-on of your select chief ministers in BJP-ruled states here, especially Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh. Adityanath may be faulted for taking to heart the belief permeating all state governments and central govt agencies alike that the way to impress you is to go at Muslims and your political opponents quite literally with hammer and tongs.
In the age of lightning fast visual, aural and written communications — Twitter, Instagram, Facebook — the very electronic mediums you have successfully used to marshal support and to instantly reach out to and message tens of millions of people at the flick of your finger, physical and verbal abuse of citizens whether by neighbourhood goons or by local and state police acting as hand-maidens of chief ministers of the day, captured on mobile phones and broadcast realtime to the world, can be absolutely devastating for the concerned CM, of course, but even more for your fast eroding image and reputation, Modiji.
What could have been more appalling PR than that mobile video gone viral of an aged Muslim being beaten and bruised, his beard pulled and finally sheared, and being forced to chant ‘Jai, Shri Ram’? Bad advertisement for the ‘Ram Rajya’ Adityanath is presiding over and wants you, Modiji, to endorse! No wonder it has sent Adityanath into apoplectic fits and UP policemen scurrying to find the villains responsible for this excess of electronicaly transmitting the UP reality to the world.
Fewer and fewer people remain unaware of how bad things really are on the ground, Mr Prime Minister. But once Twitter, Instagram and Facebook showcase this reality — the media and those in power in the West, who take their cues from the leading press and media outlets, will begin to let their outrage show. If you think — or if Jaishankar has given this spin, that given how the US finds itself in a Russia-China vice with Russian combat aircraft yesterday dropping fragmentation bombs in the path of a British warship that had strayed into Crimean waters off Sebastopol and, at the other end, the Chinese military making noisy preparations (or so the always hyperventilating ‘Global Times’ reports) for possible invasion of Taiwan, that the Biden Admin would be too preoccupied to make a song and dance about some Muslims in India getting roughed up then, I am afraid, you are being given faulty advice.
We know, you have been trying hard to impress Biden & Co and are keen to recover for yourself the kind of personal traction you enjoyed in Washington during Trump’s tenure but, so far, you have striven without much success. This was evidenced in the leisurely way in which the Biden Administration responded to your frantic calls for help when the 2nd wave of the Covid pandemic hit. Your pleas for speedy export to India of materials and ingredients needed to produce the vaccines here, instead of expeditious processing, was met with a lot of empathetic gas and platitudes. US officials hee-ed and haw-ed but did nothing about actually shipping to India bioreactor bags, cell culture mediums, lipid nanoparticles, microcarrier beads, etc. even as the crisis reached levels of extreme god-awfulness — dead bodies by the hundreds every day thrown into rivers when not set afire at road sides.
For two months and more the Biden White House tarried, calculating how much of what ingredient export would hurt the US production of vaccines and how that would affect the President’s campaign for optimum vaccination, which had a July deadline, by when it was wrongly estimated that levels of 60+ percent of the American population would be vaccinated and herd immunity achieved. Washington announced a couple of days back that this deadline would not be met.
I had warned in my blog post (https://bharatkarnad.com/2021/04/27/cost-of-trusting-america/ ) of April 27 that someone in your PMO may have alerted you to, that the export of vaccine ingredients to India wouldn’t even begin to get underway for several more months at the very least, and that to turn to America for succour in an emergency was futile. And so it has proved. Of course, the US pharma companies (Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson) agreed happily to export their vaccines at high profit margins and on the basis of a liability exemption, meaning if anyone in India dies from the vaccine the company can’t be held responsible in law! (It is like the exemption the US company, Westinghouse, has secured from your government about its unproven AP 1000 nuclear reactors it wants India to buy — all such transactions enabled by the civilian nuclear cooperation deal negotiated by your cabinet colleague, Mr Jaishankar!).
If you, Mr Prime Minister, weathered the bad covid publicity and felt comforted, you ought to dust off that sense of complacency because you may be heading into a press freedom storm set off by the afore-mentioned human rights video and by the insensible response to it by your government of pressuring Twitter, Instagram and Facebook into strict self-censorship with the threat of legal troubles and punitive actions. Most companies may squawk some and submit. Then again they may not because the criticism on the twinned human rights-press freedom issue is now acquiring US Establishment legs. The rule of thumb is that whenever Washington Post or New York Times editorializes on an issue it is because that issue is front and centre in Washington.
On June 23 a Washington Post editorial, after surveying the rather fraught situation in India, pointed to the demonstration effect of the Indian government’s actions in the rest of the developing world of muzzling the media and the leading tech communications platforms. It concluded by saying that “What happens in India, …matters a great deal even in nations thousands of miles away — because it sends a signal about what one populous and prominent country thinks still-developing national Internets should look like, and also because it sends a signal about what other countries are willing to tolerate. So far, the United States and its allies have remained largely silent amid this erosion of free expression on the Web, leaving domestic companies on their own to stand up for civil liberties overseas, or to back down. Every day this silence does more harm.” (See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/the-united-states-cant-keep-ignoring-indias-internet-abuses/2021/06/23/1e4c2490-d2c1-11eb-a53a-3b5450fdca7a_story.html )
Never mind the cant and hypocrisy of this Washington Post editorial, considering the US Congress is currently discussing and debating draft legislation to impose restrictions on, and to limit the freedom of, Twitter and Facebook!
But this cannot be any consolation to you, Mr Modi, nor should it surprise you because the US government routinely holds America to one standard, and applies far stricter metrics to judge other countries by which, incidentally, is a trait of all great powers throughout history!
Assuming the Biden White House cuts you and your dispensation some slack, the “Progressive” element in the Democratic Party won’t. Led by Pramila Jayapala, the Congresswoman from Washington State, whose request for a meeting was turned down by Jaishankar on one of his Washington trips during the Trump presidency for reasons that can only be explained as pique, thereby earning for India her personal enmity, can be expected to lead a furious charge. It is not clear whether Jaishankar’s handpicked team in Washington headed by Ambassador Taranjit Singh Sandhu is up to the job of blunting it, especially because the Congressional lobbying help provided the Indian embassy by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee may not be available in quite the same degree because the new coalition government of Naftali Bennett will need all the help it can get to hold off the same Progressives in the US Congress from targeting Israel for nearly sparking off a hot war against the Palestinian regime of Mahmoud Abbas. And because the RSS-leaning Hindu support base among the NRIs in America is on the defensive, unable to answer for the institutionalised ill-treatment of Indian Muslims and for the sly encouragement of the loony Hindu fringe that you and your government are accused of.
You may be reading the domestic political situation right — there’s no one better at it than you. So, you have begun sporting a fuller beard, and have discarded gold-threaded suits for plainer more plebian clothes, still well cut. With a shawl stylishly draped over the shoulder, you look verily like Rabindranath Tagore from a 100 years ago. It gives you the desired sagely appearance as you approach the next general elections when the contest will be tighter. But 2024 is also when Biden may seek re-election. In any case, he will have less time for India or you in the intervening years. The minimum you should ensure doesn’t happen between now and then is that Hindu-Muslim tensions don’t flare up both because the anti-Muslim tilt distracts your government from urgent nation-building tasks and because it fetches you and the country bad international press which, in turn, will attract hurtful US Congressional actions that Biden with his own agenda and priorities, will not be willing or be able to prevent or even divert. Heading into next general elections none of this can be good news for you.
Do take this missive in the right spirit, Mr Prime Minister, because it is written by someone who, as early as 2011 in his writings championed your election as PM on the basis of your conservative economic ideology and hoped you’d free the indigenous talent and entrepreneurial genius from bureaucratic shackles and let India fly. Six years into your rule, you have failed to deliver on that promise, and are relying on statist-socialist solutions for enormous problems, when you ought to know these don’t work (and haven’t for seven decades!).
With your nationalist background, moreover, I had hoped you would by now have put India on the broad gauge track to great power as your adoption in 2014 of the ‘India First’ philosophy I have been advocating since 2002, promised. Disappointingly, I find you have shunted the country onto that old narrow gauge foreign policy line, huffing and puffing to nowhere –badgering Pakistan, kowtowing to China, opting to ride America’s coattails in the Indo-Pacific and, profession of atmanirbharta notwithstanding, permitting the military to binge on arms imports.
Your most significant success to-date has been ridding the Constitution of Articles 370 and 35A. You deserve all the accolades not because it put Kashmiri Muslims in their place, but because the Indian Union of states cannot long endure if only one state is accorded special status. Otherwise, your prime ministership has been bare of substantive achievements. Still, everyone expects you and the BJP to win the next elections because of the absence of a halfway decent alternative. But few will be cheered by this prospect, especially if things continue to proceed as they have done in your first term and so far into your second term.
On Thursday June 24, the leaders of all political parties active in Jammu & Kashmir, but especially the Srinagar Vale, will gather in Delhi at the invitation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There will be the old knowns — the Abdullahs (Farooq & Omar) of the National Conference (NC) and Mehbooba Mufti of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), but also smaller outfits such as Altaf Bukhari’s Apni Party. Apni Party, in particular, promises political fireworks in the future. It has been building up its cadre and engaging in mass contact programmes before 5 August 2019 when Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution were abrogated, earning for the dissenting top echelon of the NC and PDP a longish stint of house arrest. It cleared the political space for Apni Party to put down roots. Bukhari hopes to do in the Valley what Aam Admi Party of Arvind Kejriwal did to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress in the capital — decimate them, and force their dynastic leaders into retirement, replacing them with grassroots representatives who have found their voice and a role unconstrained by the activities of the usual favour seekers and entrenched supporters of the NC and PDP.
Having participated virtually lastweek with the G-7 leaders meeting in Cornwall, UK, who emphasized the importance to international peace and order of democratically-run states, Modi wanted to be on the same page as them. Never mind that democracy may not be faring all that well in the West! The defeated Donald Trump’s residual but resilient support in America is combining with the doggedly uncooperative Republican party in opposition to erect institutional and procedural barriers to voting by minorities in all American elections. The French President Emmanuel Macron was slapped in the face when gladhanding in a crowd, etc. Modi could have wagged a finger at them. Instead Modi addressed the unease in certain American circles about the Kashmir issue, by now calling an all J&K parties’ meeting and, as goodwill gesture, even released an aide of Mehbooba Mufti’s, Sartaj Madni.
Pakistani press and even some sections here have interpreted this Modi initiative as a precursor to the BJP government restoring the status quo ante in Kashmr with Art 370-35A back in place and a return of the tried, familiar and failed situation of the past. See https://tribune.com.pk/story/2306115/restoration-of-old-iiojk-status-on-cards. This is a gross misreading of the political tea leaves, and underestimates Modi’s nous.
By junking 370, India had passed the point of “no return” the day it was abrogated. Pakistan, the Abdullahs and the Muftis, however, have been slow to catch on. What the Prime Minister has in mind with the June 24 meeting is to encourage all the parties to participate in the separate elections in the three units — Valley, Jammu, and Ladakh, of what once constituted Indian J&K. There are no problems with Union Territories — Jammu and Ladakh.
The Valley potentially posed a problem but not anymore. That is because of a new party in Kashmir affairs, the Apni Party, which has gained traction. Without Bukhari’s outfit in the political mix NC and PDP had negative leverage in terms of the Abdullahs and Mehbooba refusing to fight elections. But with Apni Party eager to test its budding political support in the Valley, NC and PDP cannot afford to sit out an election and lose what chance they still might have to reestablish their political bonafides, presence and even their duopoly in the Muslim majority Srinagar region.
Nothing has so decisively helped Modi to advance his plan of permanently trifurcating not just J&K — ridding the system of the Art 370 anomaly was only the first step, but the politics of J&K than the emergence of Bukhari’s Apni Party.
A former Finance and Education minister in Mehbooba Mufti’s government, Bukhari was kicked out, in 2019 perhaps, because of his ambitions, and promptly founded the Apni Party which won almost instant support from the BJP. So, it is not unfair to conclude that Syed Mohammad Altaf Bukhari and his party are beneficiaries of Modi’s calculus. Apni party spun off from the PDP in March 2019. But Bukhari has denied he is in cahoots with the BJP. Indeed, he has publicly made common cause with the NC and PDP on the matter of restoration of statehood of J&K. He explained his two meeings with Modi — once in 2019 and another a year later as an attempt by him to convince the PM to fill the vacant government posts in J&K with locals, and to finesse the domicile rights to prevent the unhindered influx of “outsiders” into the province.
Restoring J&K’s status as a single state entity is unachievable, but even more so is the restoration of Articles 370 and 35A, which are history. But Bukhari has been careful not to demand the latter! In real terms though Bukhari is likely to accept the formal territorial and political trifurcation of J&K, if he can assume the “gaddi” in Srinagar (with no latitude for the Valley government to move to Jammu in the winters!). Whether just the Valley will be designated ‘Kashmir’ is a loaded issue, but one that Modi and Amit Shah can use as leverage against the NC and PDP leadership — better to be elected and referred to as Chief Minister of Kashmir than Chief Minister of ‘Srinagar Valley’, surely.
This is precisely the denouement Islamabad fears the most, the reason for Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureishi repeatedly internationalizing the Kashmir issue and especially the possibility of Delhi reconfiguring Kashmir demographically by settling outsiders in the Valley to tip the balance against the Muslim population, and demanding that the UN Security Council take up the matter and bar India from proceeding to do what’s in Modi’s mind to do.
The trouble is Pakistan cannot reasonably make that case because the only relevant Security Council Resolution No. 47 of April 21, 1948 requires as prerequisite for holding a “free and impartial plebiscite” the removal of all Pakistani natives — military, police and others as of date from the erstwhile ‘princely kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir” inclusive of Hunza, Gilgit and Baltistan (since referred to by Pakistan as ‘Northern Areas’). The second step was for India to remove its military but to maintain a skeletal police force to carry out constabulary functions (law & order). The final step was for a plebiscite under the UN’s aegis to ascertain the will of the peoples of all of J&K including Northern Areas. Pakistan never removed its armed forces then or at anytime soon thereafter, until now, 70-odd years later, when that prior condition, because it cannot be met, has rendered Resolution 47 moot.
In fact, in the early 1950s — I think it was 1954 — General Ayub Khan issued orders for the ‘Azad Kashmir forces’ (AKF) to be regularized and integrated into the Pakistan army. The special status of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and the validity of UN Resolution 47 ended then and there. The August 2019 Art 370 abrogation only belatedly completed that process begun by Ayub Khan. This was so because AKF were made up by large remnants of the tribal Pashtun ‘raider’ force who never returned to their homes in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan and settled down in POK. This raider force under then Brigadier Akbar Khan, it may be recalled, invaded the princely kingdom at Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s behest in September-October 1947. And then the worst thing that could happen from India’s point of view, happened. As advised by his nominee as free India’s first Governor-General, Lord Mountbatten, Jawaharlal Nehru decided senselessly to refer the dispute to the UN for resolution. That fatal decision is mainly to blame for the mess India finds itself in. It owns a truncated J&K minus the strategically significant Northern Areas.
For the Pakistan Foreign Office, therefore, to keep squawking interminably about getting the UN to compel India to respect and to comply with the provisions of that outdated Resolution would be understandable if Pakistan government agreed somehow and credibly to rid POK of 30%-40% of its population which can be traced genealogically to the original raider force members. How that’s to be done is anyone’s guess! Once that happens India can agree to the UN-mandated plebiscite which, given the disaffection of the mostly shia peoples of Hunza, Gilgit and Baltistan, will result in most of that population voting to merge with India. Along with the bulk votes from the Ladakh and Jammu areas, the results of the plebisite will be in India’s favour — assuming every last vote in the Valley goes Pakistan’s way.
But the orginator of the idea to treat the different regions of the 1947 J&K as discrete geographic units for the purpose of ascertaining the wishes of the various peoples is not Modi but rather, Sir Owen Dixon — an Aussie judge appointed by the Security Council to obtain conditions on the ground to facilitate a plebiscite. Dixon suggested that for the ease of conducting it, it be carried out in geographically distinct territorial blocs. He concluded after touring both sides of Jammu & Kashmir that a majority of the people in Muzaffarabad and adjoining areas and in the Northern Areas were inclined to join Pakistan, while Ladakh and Jammu were for merging wth India, and the population of the Srinagar Valley was undecided but leaning towards India. Other than the changed attitude of the people of Gilgit, Hunza and Baltistan, plebiscite votes 70 years later would generally fall along the lines Dixon foresaw!
Incidentally, India agreed to Dixon’s plan of thus electorally demarcating J&K for the purposes of the plebicscite, Pakistan opposed it on the grounds that Nehru had promised a plebiscite “in all of Jammu & Kashmir”!
This bit of history is to highlight the sheer ridiculousness of Pakistan’s demand. But it has not kept Qureishi and his predecessors in office from periodically making it. The Permanent Five, including Pakistan’s so-called “iron brother” China, in the Security Council are aware that this is an insurmountable problem and Resolution 47 is a dead letter, a no-go solution, and that no one can do anything about it other than to carry on disregarding Pakistan’s case for a defunct Resolution. It is akin to a hopeless and futile effort to disinter the body of a long dead relative, and to try and revive it! Then again Islamabad apparently believes in miracles! Apni Party, National Conference and the People’s Democratic party too, but for different reasons, would have to do the same — believe in miracles — to think Modi will return J&K to its status and condition prior to August 5, 2019.
It is hard to know if the poet Horace, in 23 BC, was being satirical or optimistic about the future of Rome with his cry “carpe diem quam minimum credula postero”— ‘seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the next one’ — after Augustus Caesar had vanquished his domestic foes, ended the Republic and began the Empire by pacifying Iberia, conquering Egypt and installing himself as the pharoah.
The foreign policy comparisons
Horace came to mind with three recent, probably unrelated, events. In his column (The Times of India, 29 May), BJP Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta fulminated against the “left liberal” and “global ‘woke’ fraternity” for slamming Narendra Modi’s management of, and his government’s performance during, the Covid-19 pandemic and hinted darkly at the “Old Establishment” forging “alliances with foreign entities” to pull down India and besmirch the Prime Minister. But there is also a minuscule group of socially liberal right-wingers that has been lambasting Modi 2016 onwards for something a lot worse – for not even making an effort to deliver on his election slogans and promises. “Minimum government, maximum governance”, “Government has no business to be in business”, and “atmnirbharta”, they argue, have remained just rhetoric in the Modi oeuvre, even as conservative precepts touting individualism and the rapid privatisation of the public sector are ignored.
On 2 June, a government order proposed to dock the pensions of retired intelligence officers and the like who reveal some skulduggery or cloak-and-dagger business in their memoirs, and tasked the current heads of departments they worked in to decide what revelation breached which sensitive information threshold. While unexceptionable — the vetting requirement is standard in CIA and MI 6, for example — department heads in the Indian context, however, are likely to play safe and redact all interesting stories. This may preserve national secrets but render a potential bestseller-manuscript dud on arrival, and aspiring memoirists sans fat book contracts.
The vetting directive and the shrill reaction to criticism generally suggest a thin-skinned Modi regime that wants to ensure its advertisements about itself are not publicly shredded. Unfortunately, such actions don’t burnish India’s democratic credentials or the Prime Minister’s personal reputation.
A day later on 3 June, four foreign service stalwarts – Kanwal Sibal, Shyamala Cowsik, Veena Sikri and Bhaswati Mukherjee — fronting for something called ‘Forum of Former Ambassadors of India’ (FFAI) published an apologia for Indian foreign policy post-2014 in The Indian Express. It started with an attack against “those who were at the helm of our foreign and security policies in the past”, “relentlessly” criticising “Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policies”. This article drew interest in part because Jyoti Malhotra highlighted in her 8 June column in ThePrint that FFAI is patronised by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s ideological fount and political bedrock. These critics of Modi the FFAI is at loggerheads with, it turns out, are members of the Constitutional Conduct Group (CCG), which like FFAI, is of recent vintage. The former founded in 2018 is more settled with a proper Constitution, etc; the latter, currently better placed, is still finding its feet, its defence of Modi’s record marking its public debut. If CCG has in its ranks former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon and ex-Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, who served Manmohan Singh and, by Dasgupta’s reckoning, constitute the “Old Establishment”, FFAI is led by Sibal, Foreign Secretary for a couple of years in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. At one level, this seems to be an intramural fight to influence the public perceptions of Modi and his policies.
And why the comparison isn’t worth it
There is, however, nothing to choose between the quality of CCG’s defence of the Manmohan Singh-era foreign policies, when the strategically debilitating civil nuclear cooperation deal with the United States was formalised, for example, and the policies of the successor BJP government during which the three “foundational accords” were signed with America, and the Quadrilateral (India, US, Japan, Australia) to contain China in the Indo-Pacific articulated. They are both equally incoherent and disjointed, reflecting the confusion at the heart of Indian foreign policy. (For substantive critiques of the foreign and national security policies under Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi, refer respectively to my 2015 book Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet) and my 2018 book Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambitions.)
Indeed, Sibal, et al, in trying to argue that CCG’s criticism is unwarranted because its leading members had a hand in crafting Manmohan Singh’s policies that Modi has persisted with, acknowledge that the BJP government has, Gulf countries apart, done absolutely nothing new in the foreign policy field, there being “clear continuities”, as they put it, in Modi’s approach to the neighbourhood, the United States, China, Russia, and the Quadrilateral – the “security diamond” (not “Indo-Pacific” they claim was) conceived by Shinzo Abe in 2007. But FFAI’s assertion, for instance, that “The Modi government has paid far more attention to its neighbours than the previous government”, does not mean relations with most of them have improved, nor that Modi’s “109 visits abroad, visiting 60 countries” other than as a record of his travel, really benefited India. These are the sorts of elementary mistakes CCG and FFAI representatives make in overstating the alleged successes of Modi and Manmohan Singh in external affairs.
Trouble is FFAI seeks protection from brickbats for the BJP government on the ground that in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic it deems a “national calamity”, the country has to be “united”. This self-serving argument, smacking of the desire to ingratiate itself with Modi seeks, in effect, blanket immunity from criticism for those in power because India, after all, faces some calamity or the other all the time.
Where both Congress and BJP failed
Both the Congress and BJP governments can be seen to have failed if the ‘India First’ metric — originally conceptualised by this analyst in 2002 (‘India First’, Seminar, Issue 519, 2002) which Modi flogged in his first election campaign — is used to judge Indian foreign policy. This is so because the ‘India First’ tilt, predicated on overturning the regional and international status quo, has been missing. Reason why a heavyweight India has all along boxed in bantamweight-class, and desperately needs disruptive foreign and military policies to carve out an independent strategic space and role for itself with appropriately re-configured armed forces. But this sort of thinking is anathema to risk-averse Indian policymakers whether in the BJP or Congress, and their sympathisers in FFAI or CCG.
More damagingly, Indian regimes, of whatever ideological stripe, have stayed stuck in the subordinate State mindset, cementing the country’s standing as a pawn on the global chessboard. Preoccupation with the risk/reward calculus of band-wagoning with the US or Russia or China has resulted in nothing meaningful being done to make India, a nation with natural heft, a player. Or, to help the country to seize the moment.
The Indian army has one offensive mountain corps (OMC) and another — I Corps — one of the three Strike Corps previously assigned to the plains/desert sectors, recently converted to mountain warfare in the face of Chinese aggression in eastern Ladakh. As I have been arguing in my books and writings for the last 25-odd years, two OMCs are still nowhere adequate for sustained warfighting across the length of the disputed border — the Line of Actual Control (LAC) — in Chinese-occupied Tibet. The army requires a minimum of three OMCs equipped, not with heavy tanks (T-72s and T-90s) outfitting the remaining armoured Strike Corps (II and XXI) now that I Corps is out of the plains warfare picture, but with a genuine, high-altitude optimised, armoured vehicle for offensive operations on the Tibetan Plateau.
The heavy tanks are deployed in the XIV Corps sector on the Ladakh front and in the northern Sikkim plains, but with what level of effectiveness is unclear. The trouble is the T-72s and the T-90s do not perform at all well in the thin air and cold of the Himalayas. So, as I mentioned in my last book (‘Staggering Forward) on any morning, 40 percent of the tanks controlled by XXXIII Corps in the northeast, fail to start and need all kinds of extra ministering to warm up their engines before they can get going. One can readily see why they are a liability in the Himalayas and why a new breed of light tanks is desperately needed for the OMCs.
The army was not entirely unmindful of this requirement, having approved in 1986 the DRDO development of a light tank with a turret and 105 mm smooth bore gun on the Sarath armoured personnel carrier (ex-Russian BMP) chassis. But because they were mostly fixated on Pakistan, the army brass never got down to actually indenting for a light tank believing that such an acquisition would be at the expense of the Russian MBTs required for the western front. Even so, if it did not actually demand a light tank, the army did not kill the programme either. DRDO kept tinkering and periodically produced newer versions of the design.
The latest such iteration is a genuine light tank (LT) to compete with the Chinese ZTQ-15 LT with a 105mm rifled gun with the PLA in Tibet. The Light Tank programme is one in which DRDO is partnering the private sector defence major, Larsen & Toubro. In the aftermath of the fiasco in eastern Ladakh the army finally woke up to the China threat that I have been warning about for ever, and looked around for a light tank to latch on to. The first instinct of the armour brass was to go in for the 18 tonner Russian Sprut — a product that was originally designed as an air-portable armoured vehicle to be dropped alongside Russian airborne forces. Except, given its manifest weaknesses as a fighting platform — too light and inoffensive, the Russian army rejected it. Only 25 units were built and stored. With Ladakh on fire, Rosoboronexport State Corporation — the Russian arms exporting agency, saw an opportunity to sell this lemon as a light tank to its longtime customer — the Indian army. Perhaps, persuaded by the reasons for its Russian counterpart turning down the Sprut, the Indian army too — fortunately for the country, did the same.
The DRDO-L&T light tank is a quite different and more serious animal. The army’s initial order is for two regiments worth some 40 light tanks, with another tranche of three regiments or 60 LTs in train. L&T has used the Vajra chassis and fit a turret and a 105 mm gun secured from CMI (Cockerill Maintenance & Ingénierie) of Belgium on it. Incidentally, Vajra is the mobile artillery gun system L&T produced with tech-transfer from South Korea, which originally got the engine and transmission technology from Germany, and delivered the same to the army within cost (Rs 2,400 crores) and ahead of schedule, possibly the first Indian military procurement project to do so!! The delivery of 100 Vajra systems was completed by February-March this year, when the last of the units had to be delivered to the army only by June!
As regards, the light tank, DRDO & L&T were able to accelerate its development because of the latter’s experience in designing the Future Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV) and developing the requisite technology for it, and incorporating many of the features and technologies of the FICV into the LT. Thus, other than the engine, transmission and the gearbox everything else is indigenous, including the tracks and the hydropneumatic suspension. The turret and the gun can be produced in-house by L&T if there is a large enough army order for light tanks to enable the Company to scale up the production and make the whole thing financially profitable and, therefore, viable. In any case, the success of the Vajra artillery system and prospectively of the light tank, is what happens when you trust a proven private sector firm to produce military hardware, rather than leaving it to the laggardly defence public sector units. It usually works out rather well for the country. Indeed, the DRDO has been influenced by L&T’s efficiency in doing things, conducting the weapon development and production business.
In any case, the first of the LTs would have been with the army by now but for a new officer taking over earlier this year as Director-General, (Armour) at the army headquarters. Lieutenant General KS Brar, the new man in, proceeded to change the milspecs of the light tank, when his predecessor had accepted the prototype LT that was three tons above the designated 30 ton weight with the understanding that DRDO and L&T would quickly bring down the follow-on batch of tanks to meet the lighter weight threshold. General Brar, however, demanded that the LT weigh no more than 25 tons, which required redesigning and reengineering a whole new product. But, and this is admirable, he showed foresight in also insisting that this lighter tank integrate into it the mobile Tactical Communications System (TCS) and the Battlefield Management System (BMS) assigned to L&T and Tata respectively to develop. At 25 tons, moreover, the LT would be transportable by Il-76s and C-17s of the Indian Air Force.
The problem is the TCS and BMS projects have stalled for over a decade now because the Ministry of Defence has played the usual Scrooge when it comes to private sector companies — and been reluctant to defray in full the development costs of these two systems, without which financial support L&T and Tata, who designed and developed the TCS and BMS systems to prototype stage, find themselves unable to proceed beyond it.
What’s that old saw? For want of a nail, a horse could not have a horse shoe, without a horse the General could not lead his forces, without the General the battle and the war was lost! With generalist babus helming the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Defence Production (DDP), whose formal remit is to keep the wasteful and unproductive melange of DPSUs, Ordnance factories, and DRDO labs in the clover, the defence private sector gets shafted, and without the private sector in the game national resources are not maximally used and India’s armed services keep importing hardware to meet their urgent needs, and India’s security is rendered hostage to the policy whims and national interests of supplier countries. And India’s cause is lost.
By the way, the Ministry of Defence is quite happy to annually squander huge monies on DPSUs, Ordnance factories and DRDO — Rs 22,000 crores in 2021 for R&D alone, but is reluctant to fund L&T’s and Tata’s development costs for the TCS and BMS amounting to Rs 200-300 crores!! Who loses? Specifically, Indian armoured and mechanised forces. Because were Indian tanks — heavy and light, armoured personnel carriers and Infantry Combat Vehicles of the mechanized forces, to be equipped with the TCS and BMS, they would be able with the TCS on board, for instance, to have a video link to surveillance drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and realtime information on enemy’s force disposition “on the other side of the hill” and, with the BMS fusing data and communications links to all fighting platforms in theatre, the army and, with the appropriate communications interface, air force would be able to deploy their fighting assets more effectively to obtain decisive results.
This would be good for national security, right? Yea, but not so convenient for the risk-averse babus in MOD and DDP who worry that handing over development costs to private sector companies for projects that may not produce the goods, may lead in the future to investigations being launched by the government of the day into how public monies were thus siphoned off to some private sector company or the other, and to haul up the babus who made the decision years ago to so divert funds. So, why would these babus imperil their retirement years by doing the right thing? Safer for them to slough off tens of thousands of crores of rupees to the public sector — the DPSUs, Ordnance factories, and DRDO and see this level of country’s wealth go down the drain, year after year, with no questions ever asked, or accountability ever fixed for the sheer wastage of scarce financial resources and for nonperformance of the public sector units.
This is why India’s defence and security are being sucked steadily into the black hole of public sector from which the Indian government apparently cannot escape, even when it is led by Narendra Modi, who swore to rely more and more on the private sector — remember his 2014 campaign slogan/declaration “Government has no business to be in business!”? — and whose atm nirbharta policy, therefore, seems to be a cruel joke he is continuing to play on the nation. Because without a new system of administration, new “rules of business” for all ministries and departments of government, and rules of accountability for all public sector enterprises, Modi can talk up an atmnirbharta storm all he wants but it will leave nothing in its wake.
I concluded in my 2018 book — Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition, that Modi lacks the vision, the strength of his own conviction and especially the political will to fully and completely makeover the system, apparatus, and processes of the Indian government, and is too much the statist to, if not rid the country of the public sector incubus, than to more productively use its extensive and modern facilities for better outcomes. No one believed in the rightwng credentials of Modi more, and no one has been more disappointed than I to find — six years into his rule that Modi has turned out to be just another run of the mill “neta” worried about the next election, not a leader and visionary concerned with having a facilitative government and driving India to pull itself up by its own bootstraps in all sectors, starting with defence and national security — the first charge on any government.
Time and again bureaucrats, regularly and routinely, blow up technology self-sufficiency initiatives, defying Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public professions of atm nirbharta in high technology. This is so for one of two reasons. Firstly, because the PM’s directives are simply ignored, especially by “technical” departments of government — such as the telecommunications ministry under cabinet minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. Or secondly, as I argued in my 2015 book — Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet), because each ministry and every agency within Government of India feels free to act as a soverign entity, the PM of the day — Modi — and his directives be damned!
In the case of the 5G technology, both these factors seem to be at at work. This is further to my statements on this subject on Defensive Offence forum (in my last post) where I mentioned that for the telecom ministry atm nirbharta apparently means keeping the Chinese majors Huawei and ZTE out, but handing over India’s telecom domain to Ericsson of Sweden, Nokia of Finland, and Samsung of South Korea. These foreign companies have set up units in India to assemble mobile phones from components imported from here and there but mostly from the parent firms. This screwdriverng level of technology the defence public sector units have specialized in, apparently satisfies the atm nirbharta standards for the generalist babus, in this instance, secretary and ex-officio Chairman of the Digital Telecom Commission, Anshu Prakash, IAS (Union Territory cadre) running the Department of telecommunications (DoT). Prakash, it is plain, has not the faintest clue about 5G or anything remotely technical relating to telecom. Lucky for Prakash his career, like those of other secretaries in GOI, does not depend on his knowing anything he pronounces on.
If Anshu Prakash has some slight knowledge in anything, it is Health. He was Health Secretary in Delhi government. So, how did this fellow become telecom secretary? For one of two reasons. One of them being luck of the draw — the reason why Prakash’s predecessor for the same reasons Aruna Subramanian was hoisted into the post. This is the value-neutral explanation. In that post she proved herself partial — as news reports and a previous post of mine related to her biases based on news reports, etc from her time in the ministry reveal, to China and the People’s Liberation Army offshoots Huawei and ZTE for the 4G+ systems in the country transitioning to 5G gear and systems. Huawei and ZTE have since been banned from the Indian market despite Subramanian’s best efforts, only to have the vacated space occupied, in her successor Prakash’s tenure as secretary, by Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung. This is as acute an internal security threat as when Huawei and ZTE were monopolizing India’s telecom scene. It is a danger the DoT-WPC are actually nurturing!
The other reason for babus getting prized secretary posts is because what the person did in his previous post pleased the central government, reason enough for empanelling him/her for promotion. This is a motivation for babus in contention to conduct their duties with an eye to pleasing the PM/central government of the day. What may have helped Anshu Prakash to be rewarded with DOT Secretary post is his clash as Chief Secretary, Delhi Government, with the elected Aam Admi Party (AAP) chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, when he claimed in end-February 2018 that he was attacked by AAP MLAs. Some weeks later he mobilized the UT cadre officers in the Delhi govt secretariat and led a “candle light march” to protest the physical danger they apprehended from the AAP. It certainly got Prakash noticed by Modi’s BJP govt which has been going hammer and tongs against Kejriwal eversince his re-election for a second term. This possibly got Anshu Prakash into DoT.
So, welcome to the Government of India world where generalist civil servants, such as Prakash, act in contravention of worthwhile measures ordered directly by the Prime Minister. So much for the systemic change affected by the Narendra Modi regime over the last 6 years and the power and authority exercised by the Prime Minister and his PMO run by the superannuated Gujarati-speaking Gujarat cadre IAS officer and Principal Private Secretary to the PM, PK Mishra, who is trying to emulate his namesake from Vajpayee’s time, Brajesh Mishra, in being at the master controls of the over-bureaucratized GOI. This last is something Modi in his 2014 election campaign promised he’d remedy, but hasn’t!!
What is it about Anshu Prakash and 5G that has got me — as it should every Indian — so incensed? The Economic Times on May 11 carried a story 9 ( https://telecom.economictimes.com/news/telecom-secretary-puts-on-hold-5g-trial-spectrum-allotment-to-saankhya-labs-iisc-bengaluru/82545622 ) of how the telecommunications ministry ostensibly headed by Ravi Shankar Prasad but actually run by the IAS babu, Anshu Prakash, has put on hold the allocation of spectrum to Saankhya Labs and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore — the institution founded by the Physics Nobel laureate CV Raman and funded by the Tata’s, and the only Indian science institution that consistently ranks among the top scientific research organizations in the WORLD, for the testing of their separate, entirely indigenous, 5G technologies developed by them. Why, pray?
Well, because Saankhya supposedly did not follow due bureaucratic process. So what did Saankhya Labs do? Did it do something heinous such as jerry-rig the process so its technology being tested could take undue and unfair advantage? Or because it tried some other underhand means? NO, NO, but actually because Saankhya did something lot worse! It followed the laid down rules a little too scrupulously!!! But let’s follow the story.
The ET report based on info from “Government and industry insiders” suggests that Saankhya and IISc erred by not applying for the spectrum directly online to the Wireless Planning & Coordination (WPC) wing of DoT, as mandated by the rules, but chose to approach “DoT’s Standards, R&D & Innovation (SRI) division”. “Minutes of an internal April 29 meeting of DoT’s SRI division show that specific directions were given to WPC’s Regional Licensing Office (RLO) in Chennai, ‘to issue experimental 5G spectrum licences to Saankhya Labs and IISc without any further delay by April 30’ itself. The RLO-Chennai was also ordered to grant such trial 5G spectrum to both applicants for six months, extendable upto 1 year. ET has seen a copy of the minutes of the meeting that was attended by senior officials of Saankhya Labs and IISc. Subsequently, Saankhya was granted in-principle experimental 5G airwaves in the premium 700/600 Mhz bands in Bengaluru to run trials for convergence of broadcast and broadband networks, while IISc was offered trial airwaves (in the 3.5 Ghz/2300-2400 Mhz bands) for testing in its campus lab.”
IISc, more experienced than Saankhya in dealing with GOI, tried to separate itself in this process, explaining to ET via its spokesman that “We have obtained a provisional license which was approved and signed by the Deputy Wireless Advisor, WPC …we are awaiting the grant of the final license, which is expected to happen in the coming weeks.” Saankhya, per ET, did not respond to its queries, which the pink newspaper took to mean confirmation of WPC’s charge that it had, in fact, done something wrong. This even though ET also informed its readers that “According to the meeting minutes of DoT’s SRI wing, Saankhya needs trial 5G spectrum as it has IPRs [Intellectual Property Rights] and its products have global appeal and also recognised by US Federal Communications Commission’. The SRI Division, DoT, apparently was impressed by the fact, as ET also reported that “Saankhya has reportedly received a certification from the FCC [Federal Communications Commission in the United States] for its broadcast radio head (BRH), which enables convergence of broadcast and mobile networks and helps digital terrestrial broadcasters boost their reach and market share.”
Meaning, Saankhya, a proven chip-designer, has developed a technology, for which it has secured US and other international patents and which tech America is keen on buying and incorporating into its telecommunications grid in order to advance it. It was reason enough for SRI Div in DoT to speedily approve a spectrum license for Saankhya, which action irked WPC because it was bypassed. In this internal, intra-agency, DoT turf war WPC, it would appear, packs bigger clout, with head babu Prakash, whose technical knowledge extends to near zero!
Notwithstanding SRI Div’s good reasons for issuing Saankhya the license, the ET story continues thus: “But government insiders said the hasty manner in which such trial 5G spectrum was issued to Saankhya and IISc did not go down well with top officials in the DoT’s WPC wing, and the matter was put on hold after a review by telecom secretary Prakash and Wireless Advisor G K Agrawal.” The ET quotes from a May 5 “internal [DoT] communication“ by Agarwal which says “As directed by Secretary (Telecom), when Joint Wireless Advisor (JWA) along with myself were also present, the matter (pertaining to decision on experimental licences) is to be kept in abeyance till further orders, and JWA, RLO (Regional Licensing Office)-Chennai be informed for necessary action.”
Let’s flesh out the issue some more of the trial spectrum allocation to Sankhya-IISc, which got derailed, which the ET story didn’t do. What follows is known to everybody and his uncle in the telecom field, in the industry at-large, and certainly beyond DoT in the rest of the government which, incidentally, leaks information like a sieve. Indeed, there’s no national secret not spilled by motivated government officials when it serves their purposes.
In 2019, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) set up a Committee under Dr. Abhay Karandikar to decide on the rules for the issual of experimental 5G spectrum. Karandikar is Director of IIT, Kanpur, and earlier was Head of the Electrical Engineering Department IIT, Mumbai, head of its Research Park, and previously worked with ISRO and with the High Performance Computing Group at CDAC (Centre for Development of Advanced Computing), Indore. The Karandikar Committee — not headed by a babu and hence not intent on creating new bureaucratic bottlenecks which is what most such committees in any ministry end up doing, decided reasonably that if the Wireless Planning & Coordination (WPC) Wing of DoT — incharge of issuing licenses, failed to act on an application within 8 weeks of its submission, the license would be deemed as granted. It was this provision that WPC led by the above-mentioned GK Agrawal objected to vehemently. He may even have put down WPC’s objection on file.
But Saankhya, following the Committee’s rules, assumed that because they had not heard from WPC or anybody else in DoT that everything was go and it could proceed. It sought the license from the SRI office, Chennai, which was quickly given for the reasons of its acceptability in the US, the sort of American Good Housekeeping seal that has cleared bureaucratic logjams in GOI in other policy areas in the past in a jiffy.
In Nov 2020 Saankhya applied for “a radiating outdoor experimental license as per the policy” in the unused 700Mhz and 580Mhz bands. Per articulated policy, it did not require any such permission because this was way past the 8-week deadline for WPC decision imposed by the Karandikar Committee. But the company owning the towers on which the Saankhya tech systems needed to be installed insisted they get clearance from the WPC as it feared trouble without it. Repeated follow-ups up until March 2021 yielded no response from WPC. So, it is said, in early March 2021, Saankhya decided to approach the SRI Div within DoT. To resolve matters, in April 2021, Member (Technology), Telecom Commission, K. Ramchand called a meeting of all stake holders. [Correction: originally the text mentioned Peeyush Agrawal as Member Telecom. Agrawal, a lateral entry official, unfortunately, died within months of assuming office in 2018 and was replaced by Ramchand.] WPC head Wireless Advisor GK Agrawal, was also called for the meeting chaired by Ramchand but, conveniently, didn’t attend. The minutes of the meeting were circulated and an in principle approval given to both IISc and Saankhya, who attended this meeting, to start the trials for 6 months.
It brought a huffing and puffing GK Agrawal — the non-attendee at the Ramchand meeting, more interested in asserting and protecting WPC’s control of the licensing bottleneck — to secretary Anshu Prakash to whom this was all gobbledegook anyway. But to be fair to Anshu Prakash, GK Agrawal perhaps because of his objection on file — notings by stakeholders are sacrosanct and no secretary dares over-ride such objections put down on paper by even the junior most under-scretary in his ministry, and Prakash did not, but rather played along with the WPC head. Incidentally, the power of the officials — as in most GOI bureaucratic processes lies precisely in postponing/delaying decisions until, well, some potential beneficiary or the other coughs up … well, we know how that goes from umpteen such cases, don’t we?! So the inevitable happened, GK Agrawal on the basis, one presumes, of his noting prevailed on Prakash to stop the licensing process in its tracks under cover of a reexamination of the process, a usual time-consuming tactic, when all the secretary needed to do was read the report of the empowered Karandikar committee and throw out GK Agrawal’s objection which, considering his decision, Anshu Prakash didn’t do.
Meanwhile — and this reveals how a willing media is often used by officials in their intra-agency bureaucratic turf warfare, the Economic Times, having got the dope from someone in the DoT — who that source is, is fairly clear from the above exposition, published its story on May 11, which revealed the decisive meeting called by Ramchand, which as per the Karandikar Committee Report provisions, over-rode WPC. It was after the ET story falsely vilifying IISc and Saankhya became public that DoT formally informed these two spectrum allotees that their licenses were stalled pending inquiry. In other words, ET’s so-called investigative story was the hook on which DoT tried to hang its decision. Once the ET story came out there was one other casualty. Ramchand resigned a fortnight before his retirement possibly to avoid all the muck attending on this Prakash decision.
None of this could have escaped PK Mishra at the PMO. Why didn’t he take up the cudgels on behalf of the atmnirbharta policy that’s supposedly dear to the Prime Minister, and pull up Anshu Prakash, and especially GK Agrawal, and so send the right message to other babus up and down the GOI system gumming up the works on Modiji’s agenda that such obstructionism won’t be tolerated? Is it because IAS solidarity is so strong that PK Mishra didn’t want to collar Prakash, and get him transferred to public sanitation or some such department where his Health background would be put to better use?
“Daal main bahut kucch kala hai”, Modiji. If you don’t want these IAS babus and technical bureaucrats, who have grown fat, rich and lazy in their sinecures from saying no to all homegrown technology, and making a complete monkey out of you, and a nonsense of your atmbirbharta programme, you’d do well to pay attention to atleast your flagship policies, and see that the confusing welter of rules and regulations are streamlined and such bureaucratic barriers arbitrarily erected don’t hurt homegrown high tech, that incessant turf wars are curbed, and babus,such as GK Agrawal and Anshu Prakash, are punished for their recalcitrance and tardiness in realizing your aims and ambitions for a tech-wise self-sufficient and self-reliant India.
At a minimum, an investigation into just how and why the indigenous 5G technology is sought to be torpedoed, will be a good and salutary beginning.
It is not too late for you, PK Mishraji, to do the needful, before Modi rounds on you. There’s too much accumulating debris from policy and systemic failures in recent years that you may end up having to answer for.
A few hours before being discharged from a Delhi hospital forenoon today — yea, COVID or its variant/mutant put me there for the last nine days, despite my having taken the Astra-Zeneca double shot few weeks previously, so effects of this strain were, mercifully, relatively mild, which hints at just how relentlessly dangerous this virus is, but ‘am back online — I heard our esteemed External Affairs Minister (EAM) S Jaishankar on CNS-News18. I am not any more surprised by anything the MEA minister says or does. I am beyond that and fully into being simply appalled instead.
With cremation fires lighting up the cityscape, mofussil areas, and the countryside alike, and graveyards everywhere full to bursting and unable to accommodate the dead, a suited-booted Jaishankar, staring into the TV camera, unctuously mouthed inanities. Firstly, he informed the viewers that the covid pandemic was a global thing — shades of Indira Gandhi –or was it Rajiv Gandhi? — defending herself against charges of corrupton by saying corruption was a global affliction, remember that! — the easier it’d appear for the Modi sarkar to disavow any responsibility for the unfolding public health catastrophe. Incidentally some projections show the COVID surge is yet to peak, or that there is another corona tsunami in the offing, in any case, it is something the Modi regime is singularly responsible for. And because it was a global phenomenon India, Jaishankar implied, would be part of a global solution with every country pitching in to help. If that help doesn’t come– and there’s every reason to expect it won’t materialize anytime soon, what will the Modi regime do? Sit on its hands? Make a beggarly nuisance of India?
With every major country scurrying to mobilize its own national resources to meet its covid requirements — the demand for which cannot easily be estimated, depending as it is on the estimated population size and receptivity curve, and thus only able and willing to render mostly symbolic assistance — cryogenic oxygen chambers, O2 concentrators and the like, massive offloading of rawmaterials for vaccine manufacture in India, is unlikely. As I said in the preceding post, it’ll be months before Indian vaccine factories actually begin humming. Meanwhile, the Indian government will have to make do with palliatives, like maxing oxygen industrial scale production and delivering oxygen cylinders to hospitals, etc.– which activity, thanks primarily to the Indian private sector, the country has less to worry about. So, what else does Jaishankar expect the rest of the world to do?
In this respect he mysteriously mentioned the cabal of G-7 and the trio of India, South Korea and South Africa as a special group concerting, he hinted, to resolve covid issues whether specifically in India or in all these other countries as well, he didn’t say. That wasn’t helpful.
Secondly, and this was even more troubling because it indicates just how deep down the dependency complex is now rooted in the thinking of the Indian policy establishment, he equated — and did so, oh, so, smoothly — the pandemic situations in the United States and in Western European countries who had suffered badly from the pandemic and came out of them, with India’s present condition, by saying, by implication, that the governments in these countries know what’s best for India to do in its present circumstances!!!
Has Jaishankar not been watching the TV screen and CNN this past year and not seen there’s a universe of difference between the Covid crises in America and in the West, generally, and the one India is enmeshed in right now? Hasn’t he looked at wailing men, women and children in thousands daily on television, people begging for puffs of life-giving O2, and the macabre scenes being played out all over of dead bodies being lit up wherever they can be — any vacant roadside spot will do — because the shamhshan grounds are piled thick and high and cannot take anymore custom?
Does this self-consciously clever EAM not see the manifest, obvious, absolute chasm in SCALE and DEGREE of the problem India is facing, and the depressing quality of his government’s ameliorative efforts when compared to the problem the US and Europe faced with the spiking pandemic and how they dealt with it? This is a country with 1.3 billion people — nearly a billion more than America, with a public health infrastructure at a small fraction of the US’. What the heck can the Biden Admin advise Delhi to do that it doesn’t already know it should have done, and considering Modi isn’t inclined to do the one thing Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, has suggested he do — order a full lockdown, again, for fear of bringing the stuttering Indian economy to a grating halt, what’s there to listen to?
Sure, even otherwise in general terms what the Indian government should have done is known to everyone in the Health Ministry at the centre and in the state governments. Indeed, all those responsible are only too aware of how badly they have fouled up every which way and are left scrambling to make excuses when not, like the UP chief minister, Adityanath, threatening to take people to court for claiming oxygen shortage! The fact is Prime Minister Modi is so thoroughly flustered he has lost his bearings and, of course, his elan. As mentioned in an earlier post, he got complacent too quickly and once the kumbh mela and state elections in particular rolled around, he couldn’t summon the political will to at least call off his campaigning in West Bengal — the real pandemic facilitators, and now finds that the Indian system cannot cope with real adversity when it has come acallin’.
How concerned Modi is with the ravages of the virus on the society, economy, etc and with how badly large masses of the Indian people are being impacted by this unmitigated disaster of his making, is hard to speculate. But there’s little doubt why he wheeled out Jaishankar before the media: It was to try and prevent an already humungous personal public relations calamity for Modi from snowballing into something lot worse — being perceived by the West whose regard and attention he seemingly craves more than anything else, as no more than a run-of-the-mill showy incompetent Third World head of government. Whatever the positive aura he tried to create for himself over the past 6-odd years is now dust, especially abroad.
In the event, Jaishankar sought hard and predictably failed to do what his boss had asked him to do: Somehow cover up for Modi’s covid mismanagement and the sense of desperation it has spawned in the PM by mooting a global solution for a seriously, strictly, Indian problem he cannot avoid taking the blame for.
The Modi government sent an SOS to the Biden White House almost three weeks back. Adar Poonawala of the Serum Institute — the largest producer of vaccines in the world with global sales of 1.5 billion doses of vaccines for every malady ranging from Polio, Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis, Hib, BCG, r-Hepatitis B, Measles, Mumps and Rubella, with high-tech production capacity of 500 containers per minute, pleaded with the US President via Twitter to release raw materials for making the Astra-Zeneca Covid vaccine. All that has happened in response so far is that Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and all the other Administration biggies have clucked in sympathy and expressed their “solidarity” with India and Indians. Much good that will do India or the 350,000 Indians daily detected as virus stricken and the almost 3,000 Indians dying all over the country every day.
Even as the US government sits on its hands it has, according to newsreports, stockpiled covid vaccines in government depots, in other words, it is hoarding, over 100 million doses — which it isn’t releasing for use abroad just in case there’s a surge need for them within America. It is rushing oxgen concentrators, ventilators and similar stuff but not the 37 raw materials the ‘Economist’ has identifed as needed by India — and the Serum Institute in particular — to bulk produce the vaccine. The reason for this blockage is that Biden has invoked the Defence Poduction Act for vaccine manufacture, which means the needed raw materials can only be deployed as priority to speedily meet domestic production requirements, and cannot be diverted to India or any other country.
Meanwhile, Pfizer and other vaccine producers, espying huge profit, want the US government to go the World Trade Organization route to fix vaccine prices and to protect intellectual property rights. What this means in practice is that Serum Institute will be starved of the raw materials and the vaccine production will soon grind to a stop at its facility in Pune once the current stock of ingredients runs out. Biden can short circuit this lengthy WTO negotiating process, but won’t for the simple reason that he does not want to rub the wealthy pharma industry, intent on making money, the wrong way.
Where does that leave our dear leader, Narendra Modi, who has worn his love for America on his sleeve? He has advisers around him, like External Affairs Minister Jaishankar, who won’t hesitate to push India into the US camp whatever the opportunity or occasion, and at whatever cost to the country. Washington may be thinking along the same lines and may extort, say, an Indian military role in Afghanistan or seek activation, as some have speculated, of the Logistics Support Agreement to embark US Special Forces from Indian bases for operations against the Afghan Taliban after September 11 when the American military presence in that country is formally zeroed out. This would be in exchange for release of covid vaccine raw materials.
The reason such a deal is very possible is because of the realist, transactional, nature of US foreign policy and the unvarying American attitude to the world which, I for one, have long admired, and which I have held up for GOI-MEA to emulate. There’s no place here for sentiment, for emotions, for fellow feeling — there’s just the unvarnished fact of the National Interest, and nothing else, and any and all means are usable to further it. Realizing the national interest by this reckoning is a zero sum game, and as Biden sees it, reduced stocks of raw material could come back to bite him politically were the pandemic to skyrocket again in the US requiring heightened emergency production of vaccines at home. Biden is covering all contingencies that could potentially impact the US and get him in hot water.
This sort of thinking is entirely foreign — pun intended — to GOI, which begins planning for a any catastrope after it has occurred, in the case of the Covid pandemic only after several thousand people had met their doom. And then the bureaucratism and the centre-states tussles take over. Consider the rough sequence of the pandemic reaction by the Government. After the first complete country-wide lockdown, India was among the few countries that seemed to have contained the virus. It led to Modi’s shipping the vaccines in stock to all over the developing world per World Health Organization guidelines. It resulted in Modi and India winning a lot of friends and encomiums. But, more dangerously, it triggered the complacency that is always just below the surface where the Indian government is concerned and which is the bane of the Indian system. No sooner was there the barest glimmer of success then Modi and the entire top ranks of GOI were cock-a-hoop and short of publicly high-fiving everybody in sight, radiating self-satisfaction.
And then the real Covid Tsunami hit which the GOI had neither foreseen nor prepared for. Worse, the state carried on as if nothing was amiss — with literally millions milling in the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad and election campaigns proceeding at pace in West Bengal and elsewhere — perfect mediums for the rapid spread of the virus throughout the length and breadth of the nation.
Confronted wiith an unfolding disaster Modi did the first thing he could think of — call on the United States for immediate help, confident that American planes would, without hesitation, be winging loads of the raw material to the Serum Institute and other production facilities. Hopefully, the Prime Minister now knows better that America makes haste only when its tail is in the wringer, not when India’s is. Washington is already talking about the response timeframe of months, not days, leave alone weeks — for the main items — the raw materials to be officially released and airlifted. By then, who knows what the human toll in India will be? And how much good it will do?
At a minimum, Modi should heed what this analyst has been warning for decades in his books and other writings — that to construct an Indian foreign policy edifice on the strategic partnership with the US is to build on a foundation of quick sand, where Indian contingencies are involved. But it is also to setup an automatic positive response-cum-pressure system India will be subjected to anytime Washington calls on Delhi for any assistance or help which, if they aren’t immediately complied with, will instantly trigger punitive US actions.
Assuming Jaishankar knows this, it is unlikely he has communicated any reservations — “Time to rethink our US policy”-kind of advice to the Prime Minister. But Modi should rely on his own political instincts and not bank on foreign countries to pull India out of the mess it peridocally gets itself into. Atm-nirbharta is so far mainly a mantra endlessly repeated without anybody in government or outside of it having the faintest idea of what it means. Modi should start by making the country self-sufficient in base pharma materials and chemical industrial necessities and incentivise their manufacture at home to ensure India does not again have to have its begging bowl out.
In the current crisis, GOI and its agencies, including the military, are filled with officials with scant knowledge of the US and how the American system actually works, in the main because, like all Third World officious types, they can’t get beyond the lure of America if not for themselves than for their children — green cards by hook or crook! — and hence, by habit, don pink-coloured glasses when viewing the US, including its invariably tardy reactions to life or death issues facing other countries.
The antidote to this raging Yankeeitis — and this, I admit, is derived solely from my personal experience — is exposure to America at an early age — in my case at the undergrad level. One then begins to understand the “belly of the beast”. But equally I began to appreciate just why the realpolitik the US unapologetically practices with weak states and strong alike is absolutely the right thing to do in a perennially unsettled and disorderly world. Having heard and interacted with American strategic realm heavyweights in graduate seminars at UCLA and in the larger California Arms Cntrol Seminar in the early to mid 1970s — and over 50 years since then, what has always impressed was their crystal-cut clarity of thinking, their precision when processing information and data, analytically dissecting situations and policies, and when proposing just as clear-headed solutions, which may not always be right but serves the US interest of the moment.
The world doesn’t change all that fast. Trust no big power to do the right thing by India, keep distance from all major states, do not sign any agreement that India is not ready to violate, and use the policy space that is thus created to maximize the benefits — are principles the Modi government and the MEA and military more generally should fruitfully follow, certainly when dealing with America.
Then there will be absolutely no reason for Delhi to trust in the US or be disappointed in case it does something unexpected, or even adverse, and less reason for Washington to be disappointed by anything India does in its own, singular, National Interest.
The most absolute ruler in the world today, other than Kim Jong-un of North Korea, is Vladimir Putin of Russia — not Xi Jinping in China, who has to play and balance a number of powerful entities and vested interests, especially the pampered People’s Liberation Army which, no surprise, has the run of the Treasury. It is the reason why the Communist party continues to be in the wheelhouse and Xi at the wheel. Putin has no such oppostion and rules virtually by decree. He also has the Stalinist State apparatus that never really disappeared, with KGB at its core, as his handmaiden.
Vladimir Putin spent long years in the State Committee for Security — KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti). Posted to the Second Chief Directorate (counterintelligence) in Dresden in East Germany during the Cold War, he was shifted to the First Chief Directorate (Foreign Operations) and finally to the Fifth Chief Directorate (Internal Security). He thereby pulled time in the three most powerful arms of the KGB. In analyzing ‘alpha male’ leaders — Modi, Trump, Putin, Xi, and Erdogan in the first chapter of my 2018 book ‘Staggering Forward’, I emphasized how during his time in the 5th Directorate Putin cannily linked up with the Russian Orthodox Church and. after becoming President, returned to it all the properties and lands expropriated by the State in the 1917 October Revolution, and won its loyalty. The reason why the Church supports him fully and gets him votes during elections.
Putin is a martial arts expert, hunts with a Baikal Rifle, sea dives for fun, rides around in a Harley Davidson Lehman Trike hog, has authored a regime of physical exercises to keep fit, and inaugurated the new HQ in Moscow of the Russian military intelligence (GRU) by loosing off a few rounds at a moving target in its underground firing range. When this man — the Russian President, says “We know how to defend our interests”, Delhi better believe he will not take anything lying down.
The Biden Administration signalled the end of the 4-year Trump-honeymoon with Russia by announcing a slew of economic sanctions against Russian entities and notables. Moscow retaliated and then upped the game just to see what Washington would do. So, on the southern NATO tier, Putin massed over 40,000 Russian troops, including as BBC reported, “16 tactical groups”, on Ukraine’s eastern border and in Crimea that he had annexed in February 2014. Ukraine Defence Minister Andrii Taran informed the European Parliament’s Security and Defense Subcommittee that Russian military strength on Ukraine’s borders may soon “reach 56 battalion tactical groups with 110,000 troops”.
Russia’s objective to eventually re-absorb all of Ukraine is based on Russia-leaning separatists already controlling much of the Donbas country in eastern Ukraine roughly upto the line Mariupol-Petrivsk-Donetsk-Horlivka-Debaltseve-Luhansk. Speaking April 13 at the NATO HQ in Brussels, a shaken Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba warned that Russia was “openly threatening Ukraine with war and destruction of our statehood”. But unlike in 2014, he added, “Russia won’t be able to catch anyone by surprise anymore”. Kuleba got it wrong.
Putin has been beefing up Russian forces on the Ukrainian front for a while now not so much to catch Ukraine, NATO or the US by surprise but to see if the American President, Joe Biden, is risk-acceptant enough to chance a military confrontation. Indeed, Moscow is going the extra mile to needle Washington by choking off Ukranian naval access to its Black Sea ports. The Ukrainian defence minister Taran fears this Russian blockade in the Black and Azov Seas is designed to severely hinder his nation’s “important trade routes in international waters” accounting for $103 billion in foreign trade. This action suggests Putin is intent on economically strangling Ukraine and daring Biden to do something. That he can throttle the confrontation up or down at will is indicated by his latest move to de-concentrate his forces on the Ukraine border.
So far the US, other than venting hot air, has not reacted. Sustained Allied military action may, in any case, be difficult considering the NATO main air base in Incirlik in Turkey for a southern approach may be unavailable to US forces because America is in the same jam with Ankara as it is with Delhi — the S-400! President Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey has made clear — almost in so many words — that he will have the S-400 and, should Washington threaten CAATSA sanctions, NATO can go find another Incirlik for itself! By getting close to Turkey in the last several years, Putin may, in fact, have planned and prepared for a contingency as is developing. With so many chess-like moves (like cultivating Germany and other West European states with piped oil and gas), Putin has shored up his country’s security perimeter before going on the offensive. The point to make is this: Putin is a careful but ruthless player willing to push the envelope. For Modi to rub him the wrong way by sidling up to America may be to goad Moscow into unsheathing its numerous options which will only worsen the regional balance of advantage against India.
Consider how Erdogan in contrast is playing it. His stance, unlike Modi’s, is stern. Ankara is very sure what it brings to the table is something the US and NATO cannot do without. Modi, on the other hand, advised by the likes of Jaishankar, acts unsure, as if Delhi has no leverage at all with Washington. Thus, India’s peninsular expanse sticking halfway into the Indian Ocean, which makes it pivotal to any Indo-Pacific security scheme, is a basic fact of geography that is evident to any school child looking at a map but apparently isn’t visible to the Indian government. Or, why else would the Indian government be content with the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s expressing satisfaction (in his January 30 telephonic talk with Jaishankar) with the state of bilateral relations which, other than the same old, same old — Malabar naval exercies, blah, blah, blah,… haven’t, in real terms, benefitted India much?
Trouble is the Modi government makes no demands on Washington, only concedes whatever the Americans want, as I have long been saying. Thus, Jaishankar did not challenge Blinken on the US not coming through on promises to transfer advanced military technology (made vide Defence Technology & Trade Intitiative 20 years ago!). Nor asked for a show of good faith by going beyond the transactional mindset and immediately reviving, say, the US participation in the Indian combat aircraft jet engine development programme which, Modi’s great and good friend, Donald Trump, abruptly terminated. Because Delhi makes few demands and doesn’t insist that these be met as condition for furthering cooperation, it has led Washington to assume it can rely on India to do whatever it bids it do without the US requiring to put out at all.
The Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was recently in town to assess the extant state of affairs. He assured the Modi government that Moscow, while not an ally of China was only partnering it in the latter’s face-off with the US, and that it would do nothing to hurt India’s vital interests. In return, he was told that the boom of the CAATSA sanctions hanging over India’s head, notwithstanding, the $5 billion deal for the S-400 air defence system was on. Instead of picking up on the space Putin is deliberately leaving for Delhi to maneuver in by, for instance, carving out a loose security coalition with BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-South Africa) out of BRICS by cutting out China, which I have detailed in my ‘Staggering’ book, Indian officials have been heard muttering within Moscow’s earshot about Delhi, may be, doing a rethink specifically on the S-400 contract and, more generally, on the time-tested military supply links with Russia. Modi, aided by his sidekick Jaishankar, seems intent on losing India the leverge with Putin and Russia. Wrong move!
Just to make sure India doesn’t deviate from its traditional policy line, Lavrov hopped across the Radcliffe Line and, in his meeting with Pakistan army chief General Qamar Bajwa, promised him whatever he wanted! By way of sprinkling gasolene on fire Moscow clarified that Russian arms supply to Pakistan would be limited to goods to fight terrorism with. One of the things in the pipeline, for instance, is the Kamov attack helicopter. May be these will be deployed by GHQ, Rawalpindi, in anti-terrorist ops!
The point to repeat and reiterate is this: Leaving aside for the nonce the matter of India’s faulty geostrategics, if the advanced quality of military technology is any of India’s concern — as it should be, then the record shows Russia has delivered, time and again — seminal assistance in the nuclear submarine project, Su-30MKI, etc. Waiting for the US to come through on anything remotely uptodate, technology-wise, is for the Indian armed services to wait “for Godot”. Not that this has deterred the present Indian government and the Indian military from yearning for America and the West to make good.
This lot needs to wise up fast though. Unrequited love is tolerable in adolescents. But not in alleged professionals (in PMO, MEA, MOD) tasked to safeguard India’s interests.
For those who have nothing better to do (!) on an early Sunday evening, please join the panel discussion on ‘Will India become a super power?’ hosted by the forum –‘Argumentative Indians’ today, April 18, 2021, at 5 PM IST.
[Bloodied US troops — in retreat from Afghanistan]
The Americans have thrown in the towel; its military will soon slink out of Afghanistan. US President Joe Biden, over-riding Pentagon’s objections, announced the evening before the pull-out of all American troops from the “endless” Afghan war by September 11 because, he explained, “We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result.” This is how the punitive US intervention to avenge the 9/11 attacks on the twin Trade Towers in New York closes, as ignobly as America’s cutting and running from Syria, Iraq and still earlier from Vietnam. And no amount of dressing up this fact by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in his sudden dash to Kabul — “the partnership is changing…[it] is enduring” — will hide the truth of a beaten America and its military hightailing it out of Afghanistan.
It proves once again that the US does not have the staying power to prosecute long wars, that once engaged, the mounting deaths of American soldiers (some 2,500 to-date) and escalating costs (well in excess of $ 1.2 trillion over 20 years) of fighting a difficult war in distant battlefield begin taking their toll. All it needs is a highly motivated and resilient foe, strong of will even if minimally armed — as are the Afghan Taliban and earlier as were the Viet Cong, to slowly suck the spirit out of the armed intruders. And notwithstanding the ultra-advanced weaponry and battlefield support systems of the US expeditionary military in Afghanistan, the US forces — Washington lately realized — simply don’t have it in them to defeat the Afghan Taliban. Hence, Biden’s scoot option.So much for the reliability in crisis of the US as partner and ally! This is a warning to Asian states and to Prime Minister Modi, NSA Ajit Doval, S Jaishankar and his crowd in MEA and the Indian military brass seeking solidification of the American connection.
However, it was the leader of the opposition, Republican senator Mitch McConnell who accurately described the situation in Afghanistan post-Biden’s decision. “We’re to help our [Taliban] adversaries ring in the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks”, he said, “by gift wrapping the country, and handing it right back to them.”
It is likely the Taliban will assume the reins of government in Kabul. But it is also a possibility that such a denouement may not obtain anytime soon for several reasons. The Uzbek group controlling northern Afghanistan under the warlord, Colonel Abdul Rashid Dostum, with a private army of some 40,000 Uzbeks, has never liked the Taliban and will not accept their writ. Also the area that was once the foremost Afghan guerilla leader the late Ahmed Shah Massoud’s home ground — the Panjsher Valley — is where the ethnic Tajik Afghans reside and where the Taliban don’t hold sway. Both the Uzbek and Tajik ethnic provinces of Afghanistan, on the other hand, support the present regime of President Ashraf Ghani — Delhi’s longtime partner. Then there are the shifting interests of four other players in the Afghan mix — Pakistan, Russia, China, Iran and India.
From the time of the Soviet occupation, Pakistan was the US umbilical that materially sustained the Afghan mujahideen fighting the Russians; which mujahideen of Pashtun stock then signed on with the Taliban led by the one-eyed Mullah Omar, until it was forcefully overthrown by the US. Thereupon the Taliban returned to what they were best at doing — waging an asymmetric war, now against the American military in the new millennium. The problem for Pakistan is that the backwash from this episode led to the “Kalashnikov culture” with attendant availability of small arms and ammo seeped into Pakistani Punjab and into tribal areas in Waziristan, etc recently “pacified” by the army. The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) emerged from these elements and has attained a certain critical mass, with its influence spreading farther and deeper in the countryside.
TTP’s activity has paralleled the rapid growth of the even more reactionary Islamist group — the Tehreek-i-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), which the Imran Khan government outlawed April 13 — perhaps at Pakistan Army’s prompting. This after the Imran dispensation had conceded many TLP demands, including one that won’t be realized — cessation of diplomatic relations with France for its anti-Muslim measures (banning hijab, etc.). The ban on this outfit resulted in its cadres assaulting leaders, organizing ‘chakka jams’ and shutting down most cities a day later (April 14). But the larger official intent was to prevent TLP from undertaking its threatened Long March on Islamabad to impose targeted mass pressure on the government to meet still more problematic demands.
As usually happens in such circumstances, the tendency will be for outlier, ideologically disparate, outfits such as TTP and TLP arrayed against the Pakistani state, to forge tactical and logistics links to assist each other in realizing their slightly different agendas. Then there are fellow travellers in this extremist-Islamic bloc in Pakistan, such as Lashkar-E-Taiba/Pasban-E-Ahle Hadis and Jaish-E-Mohammed/Tahrik-E-Furqan, which are militant on the Kashmir issue and on the frontlines of the anti-India front, but are being held back by Islamabad which does not want these groups to precipitate terrorist incidents in J&K that, besides pushing India and Pakistan into another cycle of mutual recrimination and possibly low level hostilities, will once again drag Pakistan to the brink, tipping the country from the ‘Grey List’ into the UN Financial Action Task Force’s ‘Black List’. This will automatically trigger lethal sanctions and sink Pakistan economically for good. The direction in which this is headed was signalled by the UK government two days back, for the first time, including Pakistan in a list of 16 states identified as assisting terrorists.
To add to this roiling mess are the ongoing activities of freedom fighters in Balochistan and the stirrings of rebellion among the minority shia community who suffer the sharp end of sunni hate, and have had enough. This especially involves the Hazaras and other shia communities who constitute a majority in Gilgit, Hunza and Baltistan, where public protests against Pakistan’s sunni excesses have mobilized the local people, and which condition of popular alienation the Imran government and the Pakistan army are in mortal dread of.
Russia intiated its own forum to achieve peace in Pakistan, the one that left out India. Moscow’s interest is in seeing that Taliban form the government in Kabul, because of the belief that this is the only way to contain and limit this menace to Afghanistan. Russians have always feared that should the US military remain in Afghanistan, some of the Taliban fighters who are driven out will begin reaching the Caucasus region and once there will radicalize Russia’s southern tier. China too sides with Russia in that it too is afraid of the Taliban influencing the restive Uyghur population of Xinjiang. Beijing rather trusts Pakistan to continue to manipulate the Taliban factions and to tamp down on this danger. The strategic interests of Iran, on the other hand, in several aspects, overlap India’s interests and those of the Ghani government, and of the Uzbek and Tajik groups — in that Tehran doesn’t want an extremist sunni regime ensconced in Kabul and, if it is somehow installed, then Iran will be inclined to do whatever is necessary to undermine it. This makes for a shared Indo-Iranian interest and for Delhi to begin preparing at a minimuman an arms pipeline, as in the past, to these opposition groups.
That leaves India with a menu of options — not all of them clearcut or without risk. Depending on whether the secret UAE-facilitated back-channel diplomacy with Pakistan delivers a modicum of peace, meaning that Islamabad conveys it is reconciled to the Constitutional change of status for Kashmir, etc., Delhi can callibrate its moral and material support for the Ghani government, strengthen its old links to the Tajik and Uzbek factions, provide such covert help to TTP and Baloch fighters as furthers India’s national interest, and cooperate with Tehran in propping up the Ghani government for as long as it lasts, and then to upkeep an all-effort insurgency against the Taliban faction that assumes control in Kabul.
In this context CDS General Bipin Rawat’s worrying yesterday about the US-NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan creating “a vacuum” hints at the Indian government’s diffidence in dealing with an unfolding situation where India has lost none of its cards. This view is in contrast to his counterpart Pakistan COAS General QJ Bajwa’s “welcoming” US military pullout. Whatever the Modi regime thinks is lost with the US militarily out of the picture, Washington, Beijing, Moscow and Islamabad need to be made to appreciate that India — if it plays its cards right and that’s a big if considering Delhi increasingly takes its cues from Washington — has the power to be, if not the decisive actor, then a spoiler in any political arrangement in Afghanistan that doesn’t take India’s interests fully into account.
Q.1 There seems to be no breakthrough in the marathon 13-hour military talks that took place between the Indian and Chinese corps commanders last week. In fact, they did not even issue a joint statement this time around. Why was that the case?
A: The 11th edition of the talks between the Indian and Chinese theatre commanders ended as most of the earlier ones had done – without any progress at all. This was so, perhaps, because the two sides were asserting, in different ways, their respective positions that neither party was prepared to back down from, minimizing the prospect of negotiation by compromise.
Q.2.The PLA has not agreed to troop pullback from the contentious areas which include PPS 15,17 and 17A in the Hot Springs-Gogra-Kongka La areas where they have a sizeable troop presence in the rear areas. Nor are they willing to de-escalate in the Depsang area. What does this indicate?
A: It shows clearly the PLA’s intention to not withdraw from advantageous positions it is holding on to in terms of the Indian patrolling posts you mention and at the Y-Junction on the Depsang Plains while, at the same time, getting the Indian army to back down from terrain features benefiting it.
Q.3.The question repeatedly being asked is why the gains accrued by occupying the Kailash range and Trishul Heights were frittered away for a disengagement to take place in north bank of the Pangong Tso lake and not for concessions in the Depsang Plains?
A: This is the point I have been making from the time the Indian SFF first occupied he Kailash range heights in September 2020 last year that the one thing the Indian army should not do is surrender these high points for any reason but rather that the SFF and other units should strengthen and consolidate their hold of these favourable points.
Q4. From all indications it appears as though India is inclined to agree to the Chinese terms in Hot Springs and the Depsang Plains or so one would surmise by the interviews given to the media by the Northern Indian Commander where it seemed as though he were attempting to disassociate himself from this problem claiming the problem in the Depsang Plains predates April 2020 and therefore will is not part of the current round of negotiations So, are we willing to concede around 18 kilometers of territory occupied by the PLA?
A: This is a ridiculous stance for the Northern Army commander, Lt. General Yogesh Kumar Joshi, to take of disavowing whatever happened before he assumed his post and, even more astonishing, that he says he is responsible ONLY for what has occurred in the field AFTER he took over. The army commander, in other words, is willing to take “credit” for the linked withdrawal of the SFF-Indian Army troops from the Kailash Range heights and the PLA from Fingers 4 to 8 on the northern shore of the Pangong Lake – which has hurt the army’s relative military positioning vis a vis the PLA in that sub-area, but is quite content to have the Chinese stay put on the Gogra-Hot Springs and at the Y-Junction on the Depsang. And that, owing to his acceptance of the latter situation, he and his Command have signalled that they will NOT do anything to recover the nearly 1,000 sq kms of Indian territory thus lost, de facto, to the PLA. This sort of reticence should earn Lt. General Joshi, at a minimum, removal from service, unless these are the express orders from the Army Chief General MM Naravane who in turn, factually reflects the directive from Government of India to avoid a re-triggering of hostilities at all cost.
Q5. Of course the government’s stand is that what was of priority for them was to ensure that the eye to eyeball troop confrontation between the two armies on the banks of the Pangong Tso lake be halted as this could lead to an escalation. With China being the aggressor, why should the Indian government / army have been so afraid of a confrontation?
A: This does not make sense. Why would the Indian Army be afraid of eye-balling the PLA on the Pangong and elsewhere in eastern Ladakh? After all, it is precisely an aggressive posture telegraphing that the Indian Army is quite prepared to give as good as it gets that will give PLA commanders and Beijing pause for thought.
Q6. Several defence analysts point out that it is obvious that the Chinese were not willing to disengage further because India has no leverage space with them and therefore it is unlikely they will reduce their troop concentration in eastern Ladakh. If that is the case, what will the consequences of this be for India?
A: India has no space to leverage PLA withdrawal because the Indian government and army have been remiss all these years in not proactively strengthening the vulnerable Indian posts or building up supporting infrastructure in selectively prioritized areas, such as Sub-Sector North, adjoining the strategic Karakorum Highway critical to both China and Pakistan because this Highway – GS 219 has a branch – China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, diverting south at the Karakorum Pass.
Q.7. Are these commander level talks trying to arrive at some settlement around the April 2020 incursion without addressing the entire border problem. Why did the government agree to sector by sector negotiations in Ladakh rather than negotiate it as a whole. By agreeing to do so, India has fallen into a trap laid by the Chinese. Why were negotiations not conducted across the entire area?
A: These mil-to-mil talks are a waste of time – have always been –and merely afford China an excuse to do nothing at the political level – Special Representatives level — which is where a solution will be hammered out.
Q.8 While Indian government has gone overboard on stating that there have been no Chinese incursions on Indian territory, a US military commander Admiral Philip Davidson has blown the lie on the Indian government face by stating that the Chinese PLA has not withdrawn from several `forward positions’ which they have occupied. This statement was not contradicted by the Indian government?
A: All the US Indo-Pacific Commander Admiral Davidson has done is repeat what I for one have been saying since the PLA armed incursions came to light in June last year. Nothing big there, unless it is to point out that the Indian government and media take something coming out of America more seriously than they do what’s being openly said by informed analysts here.
Q9. Does the statement of Admiral Davidson not contradict Minister of Defence Rajnath Singh’s statement in Parliament that we have made no concessions to the Chinese?
A: Of course, it does (if you lend Davidson’s words weight)
Q 10. India seems to have foregone their grazing rights in the Demchuk area with this land being occupied by Chinese Tibetan graziers. Ladakhis continue to complain against this but the Indian government has failed to take any action on the ground?
A: The record of Ladakhi graziers taking their herds to the Depsang Plains is strong evidence for India’s negotiating position, except it is now trumped by the PLA simply establishing their presence – something the local administration, Indian government and army should long ago have proactively done.
Q11. Why has the issue of the massive failure intelligence failure highlighting the Chinese PLA build up not been acted upon?
A: The Indian government wakes up after the fact when it can do nothing, or rather lacks the will to prosecute military actions to reverse these adverse PLA-driven developments. Which ought to make everybody wonder what good, if anything, our numerous civilian and military intelligence agencies do
Q12. The fact that the Indian government is willing to make massive concessions means they understand that this is not going to impact the mood in the Indian army. India seems to have a history of making concessions whether it be in Tashkent of at the Simla Agreement. Which country cedes so much territory with no assurances on the ground?
A: The Indian Army brass is very much in sync with the GOI’s thinking and happy for the government to make concessions to China just so long as they do not have to actually fight the PLA.
Q13. Would it be correct to say the 35-year old treaty of the maintenance of peace and tranquillity along the LAC has been trashed to the dustbin of history. China wanted to teach the Indian political class a lesson for making claims that Aksai Chin and POK were all part of India and in response to their redrawing of Indian maps making such claims?
A: The peace and tranquility accord signed was a sham from the start, because it was a way for the Indian government, intel agencies and the military to avoid reorienting fully to the only credible threat India faces, namely, China.
Q.14. Would it be correct to state that our present leadership is more interested in playing to the domestic class rather than in pursuing policies that suit India’s geo political needs?
A: Not sure what you mean by “domestic political class”. Surely, no section of Indian society wants a dishonourable peace with China; and geopolitics has perennially been India’s overarching strategic weakness.
Q15. In 2013, when the Chinese moved into Depsang Plains, India took a diversionary chunk of territory in order to get them to negotiate. Why was no attempt to put pressure on the Chinese this time around.
A: Two reasons: No political will, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi conflicted about how much to alienate President Xi and imperil the supposedly good personal relations the two have cultivated and the possibility of massive Chinese infrastructure investment. And inadequate military capability with the Pakistan-fixated army reluctant to commit its resources more fully to the extended China front.
Q.16. It seems to me that there is no hope of returning to status quo ante of April 2020? Is it correct that all the new buffer zones that have been created post April 2020 are now on the Indian side of our patrolling points?
A: By and large, true.
Q.17 To come specifically to the Gogra Hot Spring area, so you see any concessions?
A: Chinese, unlike Indians who can’t see beyond their noses, act always with the long view in mind. So, no, PLA is unlikely to concede on Gogra and Hot Springs, or remove its blockade of the Y-Junction in the Depsang.
For thirty years now I have been writing about the reasons why India needs to have heavy healthy scepticism when tackling the US, and why Washington’s record has earned it a high level of distrust. Except four successive governments under Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and, since 2014, Narendra Modi, entirely unmindful of this history, have acted as if India is America’s peon.
Given the high level of institutionalized US-leaning policy tilt of the Government of India spurred by a bunch of factors, such as most senior Indian diplomats and military officers having their children in America, being part of the American thintank (Carnegie, Brookings — now under another guise, Aspen) circus in Delhi pushing the US policy line, etc that I have been warning about, I am not at all surprised the Indian government is surprised by the US Navy alerting the world to the fact that one of its ships, USS John Paul Jones, an Arleigh Burke-class missile destroyer (DDG-53), had willfully violated Indian maritime territory, and sailed through the waters close to the Lakshdweep Islands without so much as ‘by your leave’, as courtesy demanded. It is as much this sailing as the egregious statement that followed about the ship asserting its right of untrammeled transit issued by the US government that is cause for worry.
The Indian Navy’s Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC), Gurgaon, tracking Jones in its eastward path from the Gulf area, was aware it had transgressed into Indian territory but did not raise a stink about it. India did not contest, and was not contesting, this ship’s passage. So why did Washington feel the need to make a public hullabaloo about this ship being on a Freedom of Navigation Patrol (FNOP), implying that by word and/or deed Delhi, in some sense, opposed it? That the FNOP reference also mentioned China, whose claims in the South China Sea and in the Taiwan Strait are regularly flouted by US carriers groups, flotillas, or single ships, makes this incident even more curious.
If India — America’s supposed ‘strategic partner’ in containing China, is equated by Washington, with China, then what does it say about where India stands vis a vis the US in the larger geostrategic game that’s afoot?
The US is not a signatory to the 1982 UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea). But, like every other international treaty-multilateral agreement within its eyeshot that the ridiculously shortsighted and idiotic Indian government, at the MEA’s behest, signs blindly without thinking about its longterm ramifications, the country once again finds itself holding the shortend of the stick. Delhi got quickly on board the UNCLOS without waiting for the US to first sign. Why was this last important? There’s the unresolved matter of the largest island, Diego Garcia, in the Chagos Archipelago claimed rightfully by Mauritius, a claim India has from the start backed. When Britain vacated the space ‘east of Suez’ in the 1970s it handed over Diego Garcia to the US, which promptly built a very imposing naval and air base on the island, complete with nuclear submarine pens, ship repair facilities, and vast storage tanks for oil and depots for prepositioned stores to sustain major military deployment in the Indian Ocean.
The prickly issue is two-fold: One, as it did elsewhere — partitioning India, for instance — Britain departed the area but not withhout doing prior mischief. It had no right to detach Diego Garcia from the rest of the island group, and even less right to transfer it to the US without Mauritius’ concurrence, which’s what it did. So, how’s the US presence on this island to be treated when America has no legitimate right to be there in the first place? India is well within its rights to treat the US presence on Diego Garcia as illegal, and act on this basis. And two, the US disrespects Indian claims off Lakshdweep extending some 220 kms out to sea as India’s Exclusive Economic Zone per UNCLOS that the US wants nothing to do with even as its representatives Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Biden’s NSA Jake Sullivan crow about all countries needing to heed a “rule based order”! What’s that again?! So the US means to follow only those rules that serve its purposes, in which respect how is it different from China?
China signed this treaty on the same day as India did in December 1982. Except, as its shenanigans in imposing its nonseniscal ‘nine-dash’ exclusive claim line — which is ultra vires of UNCLOS provisions indicates, Beijing signs pieces of paper without intending in the least to respect them. This is in contrast to India’s attitude which signs damnfool agreements all the time and then, boy scout fashion, follows them not just in the letter but also in the spirit — doubly hampering the country’s pursuit of national interest.
Obviously, the sailing by DDG-53 was to rub India’s nose in the dirt and to let the Indian government know that the US will do damn well as it pleases torpedoing, in the process, even pretensions to sea-based order UNCLOS promotes and which the US champions in the South China Sea.
This puts the Narendra Modi regime in bit of a political pickle. Already buffeted by Congress party’s charges about corruption attending on the Rafale deal and anti-corruption provisions missing from the contract with the French company Dassault Avions, it now has to put up or shut up where the US is concerned. Modi must miss his fellow-Alpha male leader Trump in the White House with whom he had cultivated a working relationship. With the Biden Administration, the Modi government has had to face one insult and slight after another. Various US agencies have slammed his government for human rights abuses, pushed India down the list on the religious freedom count and Freedom House has rated India as only a “partially free” country, imposed counter-tariffs to hurt Indian exports, etc. This is bad enough.
But for the US to treat India as potential strategic impediment in the same class as China, is something else altogether. It undercuts Modi’s entire foreign policy centering on the US that has been vigorously pushed by the external affairs minister S Jaishankar, who as Foreign Secretary shephered the four foundational accords and earlier in his career as an MEA babu negotiated the completely unequal 2005 nuclear civilian nuclear cooperation deal that, by barring future testing, froze Indian nuclear weapons technology at the low yield fission level.
The operative part of these developments is this: The next time IMAC begins tracking US Navy ships and finds one heading towards Indian waters, Indian Naval ships will have to be ready to impose the UNCLOS rule of law to keep them out. The crunch will come when that US ship simply disregards Indian naval warnings, then what? What exactly will the Indian ships do in response — fire a missile across the bow of the American ship as a warning? What if the US ship counters by firing a salvo to miss the Indian naval ship(s), will the Indian ship(s) be ordered to escalate proceedings? Should the Modi regime and Indian Navy not be ready and prepared for such contingency?
If, on the other hand, the Indian government and Navy again do nothing, or plan on doing nothing, how can they respond differently if a Chinese warship does exactly the same thing? Meaning, the US ships are setting a precedent for other navies to violate Indian territorial seas at will. Already, India and Indian government have been shown up — nothing new here! — as weak, willing to take guff from anybody, because they are too spineless, too unwilling to court risk, to up the ante. To restate an old saw — with friends like the US, who needs enemies?
Look at the faces of the resting Naxal fighters in the pic above. What do you see? Weather-beaten, battle-scarred, lean and emotion-less faces, their sensibilities deadened by survival tensions and battle fatigue. These are young people just past adolescence, fighting for a cause they believe in but with resigned fatalism etched into their personas betraying no hope or expectation they’ll survive for long, but damned if they are not going to give it their all before going down!
It is such youth who followed Che Guevara and Fidel Castro into the Sierra Maestre mountains in Cuba before springing the revolution on Fulgencio Batista’s military junta in 1959, and were part of the anti-colonial force of the FLN (Front de Liberacion Nationale) seeking freedom for Algeria. They constituted the sharp edge of the Viet Cong, undertaking the most dangerous missions against US MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam), and formed the most lethal element of Pirbhakaran’s Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that slam-banged the Sri Lankan military and almost singlehandedly drove the Indian “peace-keeping force” out of Sri Lanka.
And it is the Naxals led by their young charismatic commander in the Pirbhakaran mould, Madvi Hidma — “Area commander, People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army, Battalion No 1, of the Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee of the Communist Party of India (Maoist)”, who could be the reason for the new Spring for Naxalism in the country, set as he is to head the party’s Central Military Commission that oversees all guerilla activity against the Indian state.
One thing the Indian government cannot allow to happen is for Hidma to grow his legend as Lord of the Red Corridor stretching from Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhatisgarh, Jharkand, Bihar to the borders of Nepal — the route China uses to keep the Naxals amply supplied, besides support equipment like communications sets, satellite phones, and other paraphernalia, with Kalashnikovs and unlimited stock of ammo, needed to sustain a successful rebellion. Indeed, his reputation grows in tandem with the bounty on him announced by the State, which has inreased from Rs 25 lakhs a few years ago to Rs 40 lakhs now. The trouble is this: As any guerilla war primer will tell you it is the growing legend of a fighting leader that, more than any other factor, drives an insurgency. Think Che’ in Bolivia! Such a leader is the magnet drawing new recruits to the cause, an endless line of impressionable youngsters, and not just from the impoverished tribal hinterlands of Bastar, who have nothing to lose. Here can’t get the words of Janis Joplin’s counter-cultural anthem from the Sixties out of my head — ‘Freedom is just another word for nothin’ left to lose”! It is to the jefe maximo’s standard that the young will rally until Hidma’s repeated successes ensure that if the Naxals cannot prevail over the Indian state, they cannot be defeated either.
The core problem is the ‘Special Forces’ sent to overcome this menace, who are special only in name. Look at the pic of SF troops at their ease, below:
What do you see? Well shod and accoutred, well-armed, fairly content SF troopers, each with a hint and more of belly that comes from eating well, being looked after well. It can be safely surmised from one look at such SF (in real life and pics) that they are about as capable of prosecuting decisive anti-guerilla actions as a bunch of pot-bellied Delhi traffic cops parachuted into the Sukma forests (where Hidma cut his teeth) would be!
What’s the problem? Well, for one thing, Hidma’s strategic mindset and tactical nous.
But, let’s start with the immediate situation the government has at hand. Hidma ordered his outfit to wipe out a platoon plus of SF troops — 22 killed, 30-odd injured — an action on April 3 in the forested badlands around Bijapur in Chhatisgarh state that resulted in four of his own cadre dead. This was an excellent outing in terms of exchange ratio, especially considering the Naxals also augmented their arsenal by 14 SF weapons and 2000 rounds of ammo — not a small haul for the guerilla! But, mindful of the Indian state’s perennial weak spot, he also instructed his fighters to capture at least one SF trooper alive as bargaining card. Hence, SF Constable Rakeshwar Singh Manhas is now a Naxal prisoner. Soon enough Hidma communicated, besides Manhas being in his custody, the demand for an official appointment of a mutually acceptable ‘mediator’. And Manhas’ photo in custody has been flashed by media outlets. What the Naxals have in mind to negotiate with, and to get out of, the Indian government, is not as important as how they have always operationally enjoyed the upper hand in the first place.
The Naxals are obviously aware of New Delhi’s ignoble record of capitulating to public pressure. The last time this sort of thing happened was when another BJP government, this one led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, allowed Indian Airlines flight IC 814, ex-Kathmandu, to proceed unmolested to Kandahar in Taliban-run Afghanistan as demanded by the jehadis who had hijacked the flight on 24 December 1999. Vajpayee did so under pressure from hundreds of family members of the passengers on this flight gathered outside the 7, Race Course Road compound, streaming tears, hollering before TV cameras for their safe return. The government muffed another chance of bringing this sorry event to a close at Amritsar by failing to take measures to disable the plane when it landed for refuelling, presumably because Vajpayee’s commitment to save the lives of the passengers superceded the national interest and the anti-terrorism principle of never, under any circumstances or for any reason, negotiating under duress with terrorists, leave alone giving into their demands. It led to the release of Mahmood Azhar and a decade and more of heightened jehadi activity in J&K, which burnished India’s reputation as a soft-state led by soft-headed leaders who can be pressured into doing anything.
With this episode no doubt in mind Hidma has made his demand with Minhas as hostage. As if on cue, Manhas’ daughter and wife publicly and tearfully pleaded with the Indian government for their father’s/husband’s safe return. But all the brave words by Home Minister Amit Shah about a “befitting reply” and such other mush apart, the Indian government is once again up a creek without a paddle.
The main unit featured in this debacle is Central Reserve Police Force’s COBRA (Commando Battalion for Resolute Action). Methinks, some wise guy in the Home Ministry in 2009 when the battalion was being raised, thought up this fearsome name and then configured an appropriate acronym around it! It only underscores the reality that no one in the Indian government (or, going by the record, even in the Indian military) quite understands what ‘commando’ actually means other than as an appelation for some armed unit or the other in spiffy black dungaree uniforms, purple berets, equipped with special weapons to acquire which some babu must have signed off on.
The word commando is of Boer War (1899-1902) origin where the British rulers in South Africa discovered that the Dutch Boers (settlers) they were fighting were making monkeys out of the British forces in the field by operating in self-sufficient small units (the Boer called commando), which were agile, struck fast and hard and then melted away, and left immensely disruptive/destructive outcomes in their wake. Winston Churchill first used the word commando for the British Special Forces (Special Boat Service, Special Air Service, etc.) he established during the Second World War, which he hoped would function like the original Boer units. It is in this sense the word has since come into common usage.
So, who is Madvi Hidma and why does he terrorize the COBRA so?
Hidma, it turns out, has built his reputation on the backs of the COBRA kind of rank-incompetent SF tasked to deal with the Naxals. Some 9-10 years ago I recall being asked by a paramil to contribute an article for their annual journal, or some such thing. I wrote then that they were going about it the wrong way in fighting the Naxals. Having solicited the article, the paramil brass, as far as I know, left it unpublishesd!
What I roughly remember writing, in essay form, was this:
(1) There’s by now ample evidence from all over the world of how effectively to neutralize guerillas.
(2) It requires a commando force that can operate in extremely small groups, living off the jungle, and entirely untethered from the logistics supply chain, in complete radio silence, armed with minimal weapons holdings — knives, and at most small arms with silencers and limited ammo for relatively soundless elimination of the guerilla opponent.
(3) The commando groups are best deployed in designated areas on the basis of as extensive as possible intel gathered from local informants and surveillance mechanisms and technical sensors, about the size of the guerilla force active in that grid area, about their kit, gender constitution of the group, their movement patterns, and the villages identified as sympathetic to the Naxals.
(3) Such commando groups should be out in the field for six months at a time, followed by 6 months off and conducting themselves in a non-splurgy manner with cover of decent jobs in distant cities that only allow for short home visits, etc. — precautions so as to not arouse curiosity among the local people.
In the field, they work incommunicado, and remorselessly to track and hunt down the guerillas following tell-tale signs (camp sites, cooking fires, etc) and execute them unarmed combat style or by knife, rarely using the silenced small arms for the kills, with the kill list prioritizing leaders and would-be leaders. Nothing is more demoralizing for the cadre than to have regular attrition in the leadership ranks.
Moreover, fighting and dealing with a foe who is just as mobile and fearless and with no set method in operations of warfare as themselves, is the most difficult thing for the guerillas to handle.
(4) The best commando are recruited from among the same local unmarried youth pool the guerillas hail from, and who are familiar with the terrain and the local lingo. Except they are given specialized training in SF camps far away from their areas of ops. And, most importantly, they are rewarded handsomely with hefty remuneration and should the operative die in action, it should be seen to it that a rich life insurance package reaches his/her family through indirect means, so the families — who are always kept in the dark about the dead trooper’s exact work — do not, in turn, become targets for vengeful Naxals.
The above is a bare sketch of how the entire anti-Naxal commando set-up ought ideally to function. How actually and amateurishly the COBRA, et al work is illustrated by the April 3 massacre. Let’s briefly deconstruct this event from newspaper reports.
Intel is received by COBRA of a top Naxal leader, possibly Hidma, holed up in the vicinity of a triad of villages — Jonaguda, Jeeragaon and Tekalgudum, located in an elongated U with their backs, as it were, to the hills.
No effort is made to validate and verify the intel so received, which is difficult to do any way given that the villagers are more in simpatico with the Naxals than with the police and the paramils, and in any case are Mao’s water in which the guerilla fish swim.
A force of some 1,700 security personnel is mobilized for a combing operation of this entire area on April 2. There’s no encounter, they find nothing.
Unbenownst to the COBRA SF-led contingent, Hidma had in days previous both cleared the three villages of its residents to avoid needless loss of life of locals which caring and thoughtfulness, in the aftermath of incident, will have won him goodwill and confirmed his standing with the locals. And, he brought in some 350 Naxal fighters from the extended area for this operation, and hid them — how? There’s his genius.
This last activity — the movement of such a large number of Naxals converging on the 3-villages vicinity is not detected by any police or COBRA or any other intel agency — that’s how effective they are!
On April 3, some 450 personnel detached from the larger 1700-strong anti-terrorist group that combed that sub-sector the day before, and now presumably on a mission to capture or kill Hidma, proceed towards these villages, and walk la di-dah fashion with eyes wide open quite literally into Hidma’s trap.
How this fairly large SF contingent advancing in dispersed mode, entirely missed the armed Naxals hiding in the approaches to the villages suggests just how careless and unconcerned these paramil troops were sauntering in, and why they simply did not expect the surprise attack by the Naxal fighters, who began firing at them from the rear over ground they had just traversed even as they faced Naxal fire from the sides and the front.
Once the SF bulk force was well inside the cauldron, for the Naxals it was a free fire zone with raking AK-47 fire, or picking off of the paramil troopers in the middle individually.
Even as this fire duel was underway, Naxals began closing the wide open side of the U — the fourth side — to prevent the trapped police from escaping, using this entry-exit channel.
In the intense exchange of fire the COBRA-led SF had no chance; the ratio of the dead and injured on the two sides reflects it — 55 SF to 20 Naxals for an attrition rate of 2:1 disfavouring the SF.
The obvious conclusion is these COBRA and other groups, far from displaying any commando skills or specialized training, were remiss in not following even common sense rules when engaging with the enemy in known Naxal-infested territory. They did not do the obvious thing of carefully and thoroughly vetting the intel on Hidma, and then equally deliberately moving through the lightly forested jungle landscape towards the villages, which action — had it been diligently carried out — would have ended up revealing the hidden Naxals which, in turn, might have sparked firefights but on a far smaller scale, with next to nil SF dead or casualties if the first ragged SF line advancing towards Jeeragaon had done their job professionally. Instead, confident that Hidma and his cohort were unaware of the fate awaiting them, the paramils advanced without sanitizing the approaches, and met their end.
The reason no state police or paramilitary organizations have a genuine commando is because nobody wants the onerous job of living off the land and tracking and hunting down the Naxals. Most paramil SF on anti-Naxal duty have to have their hot rations — daal-chawal fetched to them by a long and conspicuous logistics line, which also arranges vehicles to carry them in trucks to the edge of the jungle for them to disembark and fight. Such police forces are thus tied to the roads, leaving the rest of the countryside without proper connectivity as the domain for the Naxals to put down roots, indoctrinate the local people, and create a sympathetic and supportive milieu for them to operate in. So while the Naxals are kept well informed by the grateful local people about police movements and other relevant developments on their home ground, the grid for their potential ops is totally terra incognita to the SF troops armed with spotty intel when not fed straightforward misinformation as a lure in this instance.
It is also true that most of the troops selected for SF do not meet particularly rigorous standards and because they are mostly married men having children, are risk averse in extremis, and simply do not want to court any danger.
This is in sync with, and reinforced by, the risk-minimizing mindset of the top paramil leadership, which does not care to reside in the countryside or to lead from the front. This is because the top paramil ranks are exclusively officered, not by the force’s own officer cadre, but by officers on rotation from the Indian Police Service, most of whom acquire minimal policing skills and competence on the job over the years that are not always of high quality. Most such IPS officers, moreover, do not have their heart in the hard and dangerous job of fighting Naxals. After all, IPS officers are those who failed to get into the Indian Administrative Service, and usually have a chip on their shoulder. In any case, they are not hands-on managers of the counter-insurgency effort needed to make successes out of the anti-Naxal campaigns.
An example of a truly effective anti-insurgency commando are the units France fielded in Algeria in 1958-59 — the ‘commandos de chasse’ (hunting commando) with Algerian Arabs comprising some 60% of this force, who were so ruthless and bloodyminded in their actions, especially in the Arab quarter of Algiers — the casbah — that their killing sprees caused so much popular revulsion in France it compelled President Charles de Gaulle to announce Algeria’s freedom.
No Indian commando unit can ever function or be anywhere as effective and efficient in eliminating the Naxal threat as the French commando in Algeria were when tackling the FLN. But there has to be that level of intent and commitment to find from among the tribal people in the red corridor — like the Kuka Parey group of Valley Muslims the state funded in Jammu & Kashmir 20 years ago, whose members were the perfect foil for the cross-border jehadis — who believe in India enough to fight for it.
Absent such option, Naxalism will wax and wane but the Indian state will continue to fail to stamp it out. And Naxals will be the news fodder on the days they achieve spectacular success or, more routinely, when they blow up a culvert here or a transport carrying police with expertly engineered IEDs (improvized explosion devices) there, or when these police — innocents in Naxal-land — step on expertly placed mines on jungle paths, and get blown up.
To divert the attention of the public from their continuing failure to tackle Naxalism, the senior police leaders occasionally deploy helicopters borrowed from the air force to drop their “commando” in some wretched jungle clearing or the other, where the troopers will shoot up some trees and make a show of force, even as the no doubt amused Naxals — invisible to these police, watch on, itching to fire on the easy targets that the whirlybirds offer, and whose use only ends up directing the Naxals to the area where their vulnerable targets have dismounted and can be found!
What the government and the forces fighting the Naxal threat have to bear in mind and reconcile to is this reality that the young, recklessly bold, and highly motivated Naxal fighters are the only true commando in the field; and that subduing them is beyond the ken of the spurious commando proliferating in the state and central police.
Human rights is the new ideological divide in the coming Second Cold War. The confrontation between the Western Capitalist world and the Eastern (Soviet Union and China) Communist bloc was the centerpiece of the First Cold War that ended with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1992-93, with the free market-capitalist ideology coming out on top. It was around the time that China having got the measure of the US-dominated international system and benefitted from Chairman Dengxiaoping’s reforms which incentivized Western capital and manufacturing industries to set up shop in China and to gain from low labor costs and state subsidised infrastructure, such as ready-to-occupy factories and industrial parks (such as Shenzen outside Hong Kong) with nearly free supply of water, electricity, etc. and, at the demand end, unfettered access of Chinese manufactures to the wealthy American market, led to China’s rapid emergence in the new millennium as the workshop of the world, and its equally rapid rise up the economic rank-order of countries.
China did not abandon Communism. Rather, its imaginative leadership, starting with Deng, coupled the capitalist get-go spirit and native entrepreneurship with socialist state control that strengthened the Chinese Communist Party’s grip on Chinese society until now when, under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, it is no liberal haven but is economically firing on all cylinders even with a pandemic raging all over the world that US scientists now claim is due to the novel corona virus engineered as a biological weapon that escaped the confines of a government lab in Wuhan.
Human rights was not an issue in Sino-US relations during the Donald J Trump presidency. The focus then was more on strongarming China into leveling the playing field where bilateral trade was concerned, and closing down Chinese access to American technical research in a host of cutting-edge knowledge areas, ranging from nano tech to bio-electronics, high speed computing to data fusion, robotics to artificial intelligence, wherein Chinese high-tech companies, when not stealing classified research through cyber means disregarded intellectual property rights (IPR) and simply replicated high-end products and processes for its own market and for export. And it promulgated laws that compelled foreign companies, seeking to set up manufacturing hubs in China, by law to transfer their proprietory technologies whole to their Chinese partners — usually some Chinese state agency or the other in private sector guise. Alongside, the Chinese also helped its investors to buy off advanced technology Western companies and soon the Chinese tech sector not only got up to speed on the entire range of technologies but also pushed China into the forefront of tech-wise competent countries.
European firms were as much victims of China’s predatory economic and trade practices as American companies. But because Trump made a show of beating down China by himself and because he had sufficiently riled EU capitals by badtalking NATO and poisoning the cross Atlantc partnership generally, the rift between Europe and the US widened and China quickly exploited it. In end-December 2020 in a virtual China-EU summit there was agreement on cross investments, which is now on hold. This because the new US President Joe Biden, in the old presidenial mould, sought to revive a collegial relationship with Western Europe. And secondly, Xi’s China, a little too full of itself, began brazenly to, on the one hand, treat its minorities, especially the Tibetans in Tibet and Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang with criminal harshness — ethnocide campaigns, concentration camps, etc, showing absolute contempt for human rights, certain its wealthy trading partners would rather make money off China than make an issue of mistreatment of these peoples and, on the other hand, to aggrandize disputed territories on land ( Ladakh, Bhutan) and sea (South China Sea, Senkaku/Diaoyu Island chain).
With the US-European consensus on dealing with China solidifying, the Biden Administration in continuation of the Trump line, has challenged Beijing on a host of issues, making it clear that a hard push was coming. Thus, for instance, China’s soft power arm — the so-called Confucius Institutes that the Chinese government had funded and set up on numerous university campuses in the US and Europe, are being shut down. Ostensibly, these institutes were there to spread Chinese language and culture; except they actually functioned as distant police posts of the Chinese state — keeping tabs on Chinese students, reporting on their public anti-China utterances, and even functioning as facilitators for the shanghai-ing of advanced research carried out on these campuses, among other nefarious activities.
The line between the two blocs was formally drawn at Anchorage in Alaska March 18 where the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and the Chinese foreign policy chief Yang Jiechi got into a slanging match with a lot of finger-wagging at each other, with the latter — referencing the January 6 insurrection in Washington DC, the institutionalized ill-treatment of Blacks, violence against Asian-Americans and minority communities in America, newly promulgated laws in various states within the US to make voting difficult for these people, all of which renders nonsensical the theoretical democratic rights enjoyed by all Americans — telling Blinken that China will have none of the Yankee notions of democracy and human rights. And by way of an ‘in your face’-measure, Beijing announced the elimination of elected government in the erstwhile British colony of Hong Kong. Beijing then upped the ante, responding to US sanctions on Chinese Communist party notables of Xinjiang held responsible for the excesses against the Muslim Uyghurs and on the export of Xinjiang-grown cotton — an economic lifeline for that province, by counter-sanctioning US officials and unleasing a domestic campaign against buying Western goods.
Sino-US relations were, in any case, headed south fast. The US Navy is reviving a separate fleet for the Indo-Pacific — the 1st Fleet, and increasing its freedom of navigation patrols in the contested waters of the South China Sea. US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin’s recent swing through Asia, other than to find a way out of the Afghan imbroglio, was to firm up a pan-Asian coalition against China. More active than ever before, the Chinese Navy is now using swarming tactics with supposedly civilian vessels to crowd out fast patrol boats and corvettes of the navies of the Philippines and Indonesia, and of Japan around the Senkakus.
These are large geopolitical developments. But underlying them is the human rights and democracy divide alluded to earlier. China and its main strategic partner, Russia, make no bones about their polities not giving a damn about individual rights and freedoms. The West led by the US, on the other hand, make a fetish of them and, ignoring the fairly deplorable state of affairs at home, seek hypocritically to make these issues something of a litmus test. It is hard to impress anyone with such blatant two-faced policy that amounts to using the relative low state of human rights and slide in democratic order as a means of harrassment and diplomatic pressure.
It is in this melee that India finds itself gingerly traipsing around the edges. The problem for the Indian government is this: It cannot credibly claim that excesses are not routinely committed in the country against religious minorities (Muslims), and Dalits and the other lower castes, that the National Register of Citizens in the borderlands of Assam and in the Northeast is not an inherently discriminatory device to select people for conferment of citizenship and the benefits that accrue from such status, or that the Indian State is becoming more illiberal in terms of freedom of expression, and less tolerant of criticism. The US-based Freedom House has accummulated evidence, collated data, and based on this trove of information concluded that India is slipping badly in the democratic sweepstakes. It formally downgraded India from a “free” country to “partly free” — which is really bad considering just how much the Indian government invests in India’s democratic status to finagle all manner of considerations from the West, and specifically in the fight against China. And what must have really hurt the Prime Minister was its assessment that “The changes in India since Modi took charge in 2014 form part of a broader shift in the international balance between democracy and authoritarianism, with authoritarians generally enjoying impunity for their abuses and seizing new opportunities to consolidate power or crush dissent.”
India’s plunge down the freedom list will be diplomatically used to pressure countries such as India sensitive about their ‘democratic’ credentials. Modi’s India has reacted to such slippage by threatening to have its own human rights commission evaluating developments in the US and other countries in the West. This is no bad enterprise to launch to keep discussions with Western governments on an even keel. The ability to counter US/European charges of disrespect for human rights, etc in India by trotting out the obvious patterns of discrimination against “foreigners” and coloured minorities of all stripes makes for a handy cudgel to hit back with. But if the Modi government is really serious about such a counter then an Indian human rights council or commission will have to be constituted as a permanent body that looks everywhere, keeps tabs on all countries. And it will have to publish reports on a regular basis with facts marshalled in an orderly fashion accompanied by sober analysis. Considering most Indian official agencies are a mess, the prospects of such a thing working are dim.
Absent such an institutional counter, the Indian government can do little else than hope that the official soft-peddling of criticism will suffice in pushing the human rights abuse issues to the background in bilateral dealings with the western countries. It can also try and divert attention by making common cause with the West in reprimanding Asian and other countries falling short on democratic and HR metrics. This has obvious dangers that India is now facing with Delhi going a little overboard in admonishing the military junta in Myanmar, for instance. This is bound to have negative repercussions for India and tighten China’s stranglehold on that country. Shedding its initial caution on the displacement by the military junta in Myanmar of the Aung San Suu Kyi-guided government, it suddenly turned around and came out publicly and shrilly against the increasing violence in Yangbon. Instructed by the Jaishankar-ministered MEA, the Indian permanent representative at the UN Security Council, threw India’s support behind the US position and a neighbour under the bus. Rather than limiting himself to urging “maximum restraint” on both sides — which “evenhanded” stance the Myanmarese junta would have appreciated, he formally condemned the military’s violence against the Myanmarese people, no doubt much to Yangbon’s annoyance and Beijing’s delight. It instantly earned India a place in the junta’s doghouse. One wishes Modi’s MEA had left the treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi, et al alone and said nothing at all. Crucifying a neighbouring state for democratic shortfalls sets India up for precisely the kind of political shellacking it has sought to avoid on the receding democracy-front. Because it will not prevent India from being roasted by the American and European do-gooding agencies. So why deliberately shove your hand into a beehive as Delhi has now done on the Myanmar issue and be surprised at being stung?
This sort of unthinking policy to win a reprieve from the US only hurts India’s national interest while increasing the American leverage on Indian foreign and military policies. Myanmar is but a symptom of the larger malaise afflicting the country in the external realm where between China, relentlessly pushing its advantage, and the US, just as strongly motivated to enlarge its “democratic” camp by hook or by crook, India becomes the passive subject of assault by both sides.
The Modi government would be better advised, and India better off, if with China on his mind, Modiji rethought the path he is set out on of aligning closely with Washington — a line that Jaishankar is pushing hard, and instead worked to recover India’s “strategic autonomy”. Regaining such autonomy will not in any way prevent the country from cooperating militarily and otherwise with the US and other interested states to hogtie China. What it will preclude is this tilting to the US position on any and everything as a policy reflex that potentially has high cost in the short, medium and long term. China will try and screw India at every turn for any reason — just because it can, to extract advantage. The Modi government is now ensuring that the US too will punch India around, also because it can and because it wants Delhi to toe its line.
But unlike in the 1950s when India got up everybody’s nose, in the Second Cold War that’s beginning, there’s no Krishna Menon in our ranks rhetorically to skewer China for its genocide in Tibet and Xinjiang, or show up America for its democratic pretensions, and otherwise dance expertly around the human rights minefield. Krishna Menon was a “pain in the ass” for everybody and no one did more harm to the Indian military and the cause of national security than he. But he was also the only Indian diplomatically feared by everyone for his waspish tongue and “take no prisoners”-debating style that frequently reduced those he targeted into angry incoherence.
On his return from Dhaka, where he’d be immersed in Bangladeshi goodwill that comes from the flowering of very good relations with an adjoining fellow-South Asian country, Modiji should contemplate the equally good returns that are there for his taking if only he shakes the hand of friendship proffered by the main man in Pakistan, army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and ends, once and for all, the intra-mural and squably India-Pakistan relationship — an ongoing absurdity.
Just how absurd is reflected in the fact of two Punjabi Jats, a Bajwa leading the Pakistan Army, and a Sidhu (Air Chief Marshal Zaheer Ahmad Babar) the Pakistan Air Force! While not rare, it is uncommon, in Pakistan for Punjabis converted to Islam however long ago, or recently, to retain their original family names. That the families of the current Pakistani COAS and CAS have managed to do that suggests the resilience of old social identities even under pressure to conform to newer realities. And should someone care to dig deep enough these two broods would, I reckon, find their Sikh cousins across the border. [Could the General, I wonder, be related to my best friend from school days, Harjit Singh Bajwa, a brilliant engineer officer who, but for brain cancer cutting him down in his prime, would almost certainly have made it as one of the youngest to reach Rear Admiral rank in the Indian Navy?]
Cousins of different faiths living side-by-side was not uncommon in old India. My late mother-in-law originally from West Punjab — a ‘Malik’ and native of Miani, Sargodha District, was fond of recalling from her childhood days the ‘Malika-da-darwaza’ (Gate of the Maliks) beyond which lived the community of Maliks — Hindu families on one side of the mohalla street, Muslim Maliks, on the other side, with children running in an out of homes on either side and adults doing the normal to-ing and fro-ing while preserving prejudices and practising their respective religious restrictions! Thus, it was quite normal during each other’s festivals for the Hindu and Muslim Maliks — keeping in mind mutual sensibilities –to exchange gifts of food in the raw form — wheat, rice, vegetables, dry fruit, etc., to allow the usually same dishes to be cooked and eaten according to different norms. She remembered Hindu Maliks having a separate set of crockery for when their Muslim relatives visited them!! This may seem ridiculous, but that was the way it was.
Such snatches of sentiment cannot, however, figure, other than tertiarily, in the calculation of national interest, in which respect, the India-Pakistan tangle is an especially hard nut to crack. Still, as I have argued in my books and other writings, the recovery, even if in a loose form, of the unitary subcontinental space for longterm strategic stability and economic progress is an inescapable geopolitical imperative, whatever the naysayers among the religious right, the military and strategic enclaves, and the media commentariart, on either side may say.
Except, Gen. Bajwa has indicated his willingness to take the Pakistan army out of the nyet camp and give peace a chance! In his March 17 address on the second day of the first ever International Security Conference in Islamabad — which the Pakistani policy establishment hopes to see emerge as counterpart forum to the Raisina Dialogues in Delhi, made a straight forward pitch for peace and why India and Pakistan need to go beyond the mindless hostility their relations are mired in.
But what did Bajwa say? And why shouldn’t what he — at the apex of the singularly powerful army and central pillar of the Pakistani state, said be taken seriously as it needs to be? The good thing is that the Modi government has eased up on its relentless demonizing of Pakistan, a process begun with the UAE, as mediator, urging the two sides to talk out the differences. Modi visited Dubai and was feted, and I had written then that the special consideration shown him — permission to build a temple, promise of investment in India, etc. — were a means for the Emirates to develop leverage, and which lever was now used. The Directors-General, Military Operations, of both sides talked in late February and agreed strictly to keep the peace on the LoC, and Modi then made conciliatory moves (Covid vaccine, etc). This was the appetizer.
One, while deeming the resolution of the Kashmir dispute as central to peace in South Asia, and asking Delhi to “create conducive environment” in J&K he, unlike Prime Minister Imran Khan, made no mention of the restoration of Article 370 and the status quo ante as pre-condition.
This leaves the field clear to revive General Parvez Musharraf’s scheme that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh almost accepted in 2007 as template for an amicable agreement. It will, in effect, freeze the existing territorial division of the erstwhile princely state of Jammy & Kashmir, with the fig leaf of a joint mechanism to oversee Kashmir affairs put in place. It will be a salve for Pakistan’s amor propre but not change the reality on the ground in that while Kashmiris on either side will be free to travel to the other side, they will require their identity papers to be stamped/registered at the border posts thereby reinforcing the territorial separation and sovereignty principle. Pakistan benefits because it gets to keep, besides Pakistan-occupied Kashmir across the Neelam River, the “Northern Areas” — Gilgit, Hunza, and Baltistan, now crucial to CPEC, and India retains Jammu, the Valley, Ladakh and the Saltoro Ridge. There was no talk of “self-determination”, perhaps, because a referendum in Baltistan could see the shia majority opting for India!
The chief positive of this Musharraf scheme is that the Pakistan army is fully on board, which fact, minimizes the value of such opposition to this compromise as may be voiced elsewhere in the Pakistani society
Two, Bajwa extolled “rule-based” order, one that, he said, may help India and Pakistan to escape “the acrimony and toxicity of the past”. Because the rule-based order mechanism most agitating Pakistan is the UN FATF (Financial Assistance Task Force), which tracks money flows to terrorist organizations and outfits — a great many of whom are located in Pakistan. That country has been on the FATF Grey List for a long time and barely avoided being heaved into the Black List which would have automatically triggered killer economic sanctions — the one thing Pakistan simply cannot afford to have happen. True, Pakistan has been protected by the US and the West, but should Islamabad fail to end its financial and other support to the terrorist gangs masquerading as social welfare organizations, its protectors may feel compelled to bring down the boom. That could write finis to Pakistan’s trade and attempts at economic development. A shrinking economy will mean a bigger slice of a progressively smaller economic pie for the Pak military, or a smaller slice of a flatlining economy — in either case, the Pakistan army takes a hit. What this means is that the Pakistan army will err on the side of extreme caution before deploying terror — an asymmetric means of warfare it has had considerable success with against India in Jammu & Kashmir. In other words, Pak-sponsored terrorist incidents may no more be on the Pakistan army’s menu. At least for the nonce.
Three, Bajwa said that Pakistan intended to leverage its geostrategic location to become “a bridge between civilisations and connecting conduit between the regional economies.” Note, he thus implicitly acknowledged India’s standing as a civilizational state, along with China, and how he expected Pakistan to be the medium, a way station, for transactions of all kinds between “West Asia” and “East Asia”.
And finally, and most importantly, the General stated that “despite the rising security challenges” Pakistan was not involved in an arms race and its “defence expenditures have rather reduced instead of increasing”. It is an indication that GHQ, Rawalpindi, now believes that Pakistan (1) has conventional and nuclear capability sufficient for any contingency featuring India, and (2) does not need to react to India’s military build-up against China, even though some of these new dual mode capabilities can be switched to the Pakistan front. In other words, the Pakistan army has reached satiation in terms of the national expenditure directed to service the military’s needs.
Incidentally, the basic point underlying Bajwa’s offer of peace is the fact that the Pakistan army no more considers India potent, primary, national threat. Relying on China to back it materially in an unexpected crisis with India, GHQ, Rawalpindi is more sanguine and at peace with itself than ever before in terms of dealing with India. But Bajwa’s predecessors — Generals Raheel Sharif and Ashfaq Kayani had repeatedly declared to the media that the danger to Pakistan was not anymore from India but from terrorists operating inside the country. That this was not iterated by Bajwa suggests the Pak army thinks it is beginning to get the better of such unfriendly outfits as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, and the Baloch freedom fighters roiling the internal security situation within the country. This from Pakistan’s point of view is a great improvement.
But to revert to Bajwa’s desire for amity, the main course in the rapprochement process will ultimately be the deal hammered out by the diplomats. A lot of the negotiating work has already been done, and the MEA and the Pakistan Foreign Office need only dust off the notes, memoranda and files from 2007. The dessert would be Modi and Imran meeting, ideally, on the occasion of the first match, in Delhi or Lahore, in a resumed cricket series when the entire subcontinent would have tuned in, signing the peace accord, then proceeding to the stadium for a little “chai pe charcha” as the ball is bruited about. Thereafter, the two leaders can repair to their respective corners to await the announcement of the shared Nobel Prize for Peace which last (per this script), is certain!
Writing this post a few hours before the US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin touches down in Delhi and begins his meeting with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. Washington has already indicated the line it will take to compel the Indian government to do what it desires, namely, cancelling the S-400 air defence system deal with Russia.
Austin will use the one-two punch — the soft left jab followed by a hard right, to use an old boxing metaphor.
In both instances — the jab and the right cross will be attributed to US Senator Robert Menendez of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who, here, is playing the villain. The soft jab is the supposed US concern with Human Rights violations in India, and Austin’s opening will be with the senator’s statement that the Defence Secretary will “raise democracy and human rights concerns in your discussions with the Indian government” and how the Indo-US “partnerhip” “is strongest when based on shared democratic values [which] the Indian government has been trending away from…”.
This has to be countered by Rajnath Singh telling Austin in as clear a language as the defence minister’s MEA minders can muster that the Biden Administration would be better advised to look inward and work on addressing the reasons for the breakdown in the democratic order in the United States — as mirrored in the insurrection by religious bigots and ideological exremists — and how this is endangering the lives of immigrant communities in America, and why the Indian government fears Indian immigrants may be next in line for such victimhood. And further — to give the dose of the same democratic medicine to the Biden Admin — that Delhi will be closely monitoring the developments in the US.
Next, Austin will use Menendez’s threat of sanctions if India does not resile from the S-400 deal, to indicate that President Biden’s hands are tied were the US Congress, in fact, to use this Russia contract as the prompt for harsh action against India. “If India chooses to go forward with its purchase of the S-400, that (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act] will clearly constitute a significant, and therefore sanctionable, transaction with the Russian defence sector under Section 231 of CAATSA. It will also limit India’s ability to work with the US on development and procurement of sensitive military technology. I expect you to make all of these challenges clear in conversations with your Indian counterparts,” Menendez apparently wrote to Austin on the eve of the latter’s visit to various Asian states.
Far from acting intimidated, Rajnath Singh, in the best Uttar Pradeshi tradition of responding to a threat with a counter threat, should tell Austin in no uncertain terms that this isn’t the Cold War period of the 1950s, and in the fight against China the US needs India as much, if not more — and stress this last — than India needs the US, and so while the US Government is free to take whatever actions it deems fit, the Indian government in service of its national interests WILL not let an external power dictate which country it wants to cultivate, or what it buys from where by way of armaments and military goods. And that Austin better understand what the exchange here is. And if the US government follows through on the CAATSA threat issued by the likes of Menendez , Washington should expect an equal and opposit reaction from India — for starters the voiding of the four foundational accords, and the potential loss of the Andaman-Nicobar staging area that the US Air Force, for one,has been eyeing with considerable interest. And that India’s Quad cooperation, that much is being made of, is also at risk.
Here Rajnath should not listen to the habitual queasy appeasers and collaborators should the S Jaishankar-led MEA advise conciliatory language. MEA have already spoiled the situation for the country vis a vis China, and if given the chance, will make India grovel before America, China and any other country that begins throwing its weight about.
The best results are obtained and respect won with the US when plain language is used, one without obuscation or any hint of mealymouthedness that could be misread by Austin and his advisers as a tendency to flinch — something they can exploit.
The trouble with Delhi has always been it doesn’t hold to the true North on a compass of national interests. Time for Rajnath and for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to understand and appreciate that the manner of correctly dealing with the Americans has not been learned by MEA or government interlocuters dealing with Americans, and to remind Austin and the Pentagon what’s at stake.
Results of the Austin trip will show if the Modi government caved in, or stood its ground.
The leading members of the new Joe Biden Administration — US Secretary of State Anthony J Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan will, for the first time, touch base with Yang Jiechi, director of China’s Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Anchorage, Alaska, on March 18. This meeting will be in the wake of the virtual summit last Friday (March 12) of the head honchos of the Quadrilateral — Narendra Modi, Joe Biden, Yoshihide Suga and Scott Morrison, and of Blinken and US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to Tokyo and Seoul scheduled for March 16-17. That China agreed to this first meeting being held on “American turf” is considered an aspect of the U.S. approaching China, per the White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, from a “position of strength” and “in lockstep with our allies and partners.” This suggests that the issues the Quad partners are supposedly in “lockstep” on were at least notinally discussed at the Quad virtual summit.
The main achievement of the virtual summit, however, was elsewhere, in the agreement on the division of labour to get the Quad’s Covid-19 ‘vaccine diplomacy’ to outmatch China’s global efforts, underway. According to this schemata India will use its production facilities to produce the vaccine at a fast clip at low cost, the US will facilitate the transactions with due regard to intellectual property rights, etc for Indian pharmaecutical companies to mass produce the latest remedy in the field — the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine and otherwise prepare it for speedy world-wide distribution, Japan will financially underwrite such commercial deals as are involved in joint manufacture, and Australia will pitch in with assistance in vaccine delivery systems.
Other than on the vaccine, the four leaders also decided to cooperate on what was referred to as “critical and emerging technology” areas, chiefly 5G telecommunications technology sector. China has taken the lead in terms of commercializing 5th-generation equipment but now finds itself stymied by a whole bunch of previous customer countries rejecting Huawei (and other Chinese company-produced) gear out of the reasonable security fear about deeply embedded electronic bugs prospectively activated by the their PLA masters that could hold hostage the communications networks of various countries. While there was a reference to strengthening India’s defence industrial base, there was no specificity about the US sharing any sensitive military technology with India, or any such thing. In the event, this issue is likely to go the way the DTTI (Defence Technology and Trade Initiative) has gone over the last 20 years, which is no where!
Blinken and Austin’s discussion with the Suga government will, logically, be around two issues: the increased presence of Chinese warships and fishing trawlers in the contested waters off the disputed Senkaku (Diaoyu for the Chinese) Island chain The numbers of Chinese vessels of all kinds in this East Sea area tripled in the period 2012-2020. The other issue concerns the protection provided by the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force (MSDF) to the US Navy’s 7th Fleet staging out of Yokohama, and US Air Force combat aircraft operating out of Japanese bases. This more proactive use of the Japanese military muscle was made possible by the “reinterpretation” ordered by the previous Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe in 2014 that led a year later to the famous ‘Article 9’ of the country’s ‘peace Constitution’ being stretched to legalize this more offensive use of Japanese forces.
What the Suga regime will want to be reassured about is the extent to which Tokyo can depend on US naval and airforce assets attached to the 7th Fleet to buttress Japanese MSDF activity in defence of its Senkaku interests against the Chinese PLA Navy (PLAN). The Japanese government will want to work out a very clear understanding with Blinken and Austin about what exactly to expect by way of American military support and help should the simmering crisis with China begin to boil. The tension will be between what Tokyo would ideally like with respect to maximal deployment of US forces and what the Biden Administration is actually willing to commit to in the context of Washington’s less combative attitude to Beijing now than when Donald Trump was in the White House.
The Blinken-Austin duo’s conferring, across the Sea of Japan, with the South Korean regime of Moon Jae-in would be of a completely different character. Unlike the Suga cohort seeking more intensive US engagement on the Senkaku dispute, the high American officials will be wanting an iron-clad promise from the Moon Jae-in government to not be tempted, or get lured, by the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s play for rapprochement at the expense of the US thinning out its militaryforces from South Korea. It is a deal that a large section of the South Korean population pining for, if not reunification than, normal relations, support.
What transpires in the Blinken-Austin rounds with Suga’s and Moon Je-in’s representatives is the baggage Blinken and Sullivan will carry to Anchorage in their meeting with Yang Jiechi, the top Communist Party man and overseer of China’s foreign policy who, incidentally, outranks foreign minister Wang Yi. But what is the Biden template for the US’ China policy?
President Biden in his address to American diplomats at the State Department on 4 February ahd this to say regarding China: “We’ll …take on directly the challenges posed by (sic) our prosperity, security, and democratic values by our most serious competitor, China. We’ll confront China’s economic abuses; counter its aggressive, coercive action; to push back on China’s attack on human rights, intellectual property, and global governance.” This would have been encouraging had it not been for the wishy-washy stuff that followed. “But we are ready to work with Beijing when it’s in America’s interest to do so”, he explained. “We will compete from a position of strength by building back better at home, working with our allies and partners, renewing our role in international institutions, and reclaiming our credibility and moral authority, much of which has been lost. That’s why we’ve moved quickly to begin restoring American engagement internationally and earn back our leadership position, to catalyze global action on shared challenges.”
A month after Biden’s speech, Blinken in his first address (March 3) as boss to an audience at the State Department, embroidered the President’s statement. “Our relationship with China”, he declared, “will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be….The common denominator is the need to engage China from a position of strength.“ This could well be the mantra that the other Quad foreign ministers S Jaishankar, the Australian Marise Ann Payne, and the Japanese Toshimitsu Motegi and their governments will readily subscribe to as well. In the main, because it allows each individual Quad state an awful lot of slack in defining when their country needs to be competitive, collaborative or adversarial! It also reflects and reveals the greatest weakness of the Quad. It relates to Washington’s opting out on any issue dear to the other three individually or collectively. Thus, without the military resources of the kind that the US can muster being available, the remaining Quad states could find themselves left high and dry in a contingency or crisis involving China.
In any case, the Biden Admin is moving cautiously. Referring to the proposed meeting with Yang Blinken clarified that “This is not a strategic dialogue. There’s no intent at this point for a series of follow-on engagements. Those engagements, if they are to follow, really have to be based on …tangible progress and tangible outcomes on the issues of concern to us with China.” These “issues of concern” over which the two sides have, according to the White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, “deep disagreements” are, specifically, China’s “coercive and unfair economic practices,” the “crackdown in Hong Kong”, and “human rights abuses in Xinjiang”; and more generally America’s “concerns about challenges [China] pose[s] to the security and values of the United States and our allies and partners”. Psaki talked “about areas where we can cooperate, of mutual interest” without spelling out these areas but hinted that these may have to do with upholding “the rules-based international system and a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
And in this regard, Blinken stated that “China is the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system — all the rules, values and relationships that make the world work the way we want it to.” He then referenced the Pentagon “task force” constituted by Biden to “work quickly, drawing on civilian and military experts across the department to provide within the next few months the recommendations to Secretary Austin on key priorities and decision points so that we can chart a strong path forward on China-related matters”. This task force is to be chaired by Ely Ratner, a longtime Biden aide installed as Defence Secretary Austin’s adviser, who prefers the competitive (rather than the collaborative or adversarial) approach to China. This may or may not be reassuring to India.
What the Modi government will definitely be more wary of is the Biden Administration’s strident tone on two other sets of issues — trade & economic policies, and democracy and human rights. As regards the first set, Blinken reiterated the Trump line on domestic investment, in-sourcing and employment generation. “Our approach” will involve, Blinken said, fighting “for every American job and for the rights, protections, and interests of all American workers.” So, say Good Bye to the prospects of Washington encouraging US companise to invest in India or to move their manufacturing facilities to this country! And stressing on Biden’s favourite theme, Blinken talked about “Shoring up …democracy [as] a foreign policy imperative“. “Otherwise”, he added, “we play right into the hands of adversaries and competitors like Russia and China, who seize every opportunity to sow doubts about the strength of …democracy. We shouldn’t be making their jobs easier.“ But, he repeated Trump’s line against foreign interventions by the US but in a slightly different guise. “We will not promote democracy through costly military interventions or by attempting to overthrow authoritarian regimes by force” he added. “We’ve tried these tactics in the past. However well-intentioned, they haven’t worked. They’ve given ‘democracy promotion’ a bad name, and they’ve lost the confidence of the American people.”
As far as as India is concerned it leaves a great many foreign policy balls up in the air not least that matter about whether and under what conditions the four Quad countries will join in pursuing competitive, collaborative or adversarial strategies vis a vis China. This will be the great sticking point on which the Quad could render itself immobile. And then there’s the question of how long it will be before the Biden Government, prompted by the progressive element in the Democratic party led by the likes of Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, will make Kashmir and the eroding respect of the Modi regime for human and democratic rights the rock on which the ship of Indo-US relations will crash. There are enough signs already that that point will not be long in coming and, in any case, a clash is inevitable in the context of the Modi government’s reaction to the negative Western assessment of Indian democracy.
The US-based Freedom House last week downgraded India from “free” to “partially free” status. And the V-Dem Institute in Sweden deemed India less an “electoral democracy” than an “electoral autocracy”. Apparently, Modi has been hurt to the quick because in his travels to America and elsewhere in the West in the past few years, he has basked in the glow of massive electoral victories at home. This is reflected in Jaishankar’s waspish reaction over the weekend. Per news reports this is what he said: “You use the dichotomy of democracy and autocracy. You want the truthful answer — it is hypocrisy. Because you have a set of self-appointed custodians of the world, who find it very difficult to stomach that somebody in India is not looking for their approval, is not willing to play the game they want it to be played. So they invent their rules, their parameters, they pass their judgments and then make out as though this is some kind of global exercise.”
These are fighting words and the BJP government better be prepared for even closer scrutiny and criticism of its record on the human rights front by Washington involving US Congressional Hearings on the subject of a democratically sliding India. Jayapal and others will be in the forefront of pressuring Modi regime onto the right and narrow path they deem democratic and that could mean, you guessed it, sanctions in some form or the other even if Biden himself would be loath to go this far considering how alienating India could lose America strategic traction in the Indo-Pacific. Still the Western democratic purists may decide that this price is worth paying.
Then what do you reckon the Indian government will do? Because such things as attempts by Washington to win brownie points with Delhi, like including India in the US-hosted talks for peace in Afghanistan as rival to the Russian-led negotiating effort from which India is excluded, won’t help.
China’s approach to conflict resolution is unique. It works because it is surrounded by countries militarily weaker than itself and/or unwilling to up the military-political ante. First step: It uses force to change the status quo on the ground. Second step: the new territorial fait accompli is then legalized spuriously by some “law” or new rules and regulations the Xi regime issues to endow this initial status quo-changing action with post-facto legitimacy. Step Three: Beijing then uses this new territorial reality and supporting laws, etc. to demand that the victim nation adjust to the new reality on the ground so obtained by the Chinese military, and exercise restraint for the sake of order and stability!
The Xi cohort has had considerable success with this approach because the victimised states fall into the trap of accepting the new ground reality and doing what’s asked of them.
China has repeatedly pulled this three-step , besides eastern Ladakh, in South China Sea and in the East Sea. In the context of the supposed “disengagement” in Ladakh that, incidentally, has left the People’s Liberation Army units still in place on the Depsang Plains and in control of the Y-Junction, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was at his oiliest.
Deliberately disregarding the fact that successive Indian governments in their desperate desire for peace on the disputed border have taken Beijing at its word, studiously followed Chinese instructions, accepted Chinese pre-conditions, and engaged in endless fruitless discussions at various levels,including at the Special Representative-level involving Indian NSA, Ajit Doval, designed to wear out the other side, Wang on the occasion of the National People’s Congress adopted an avuncular tone at a media event last Sunday. “It is important the two sides manage disputes properly” he said, “and at the same time expand and enhance cooperation to create enabling conditions for the settlement of the issue.” Having spouted this nonsense he then revealed that Beijing had neither moved from its original stance nor in its intention to impose its expansive claims on India. He used his reference to the Galwan incident last summer to say that “the right and wrongs at (sic) what happened at the border area last year are clear, so are the stakes involved.” He akso asserted China’s commitment “to settling the boundary dispute through dialogue and consultation” but without compromising its claims because “we are resolved to safeguarding our sovereign rights.”
But apprehensive about India finally responding more consequentially to Chinese provocations in South Asia such as its deep inroads into Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and even Bangladesh, by transferring Brahmos supersonic cruise missiles and other armaments to Asian states (Philippines, Vietnam, Indoensia, etc) contesting Chinese claims in the South China Sea, and firming up purposive partnerships in the Indo-Pacific — such as the Quadrilateral, a concept that falls owing to the proven unreliability of the US as partner but which the Modi government seems anamoured with, Wang warned of the negative impact of the Indian reaction on Sino-Indian friendship! Love such gall!! “China and India are each other’s friends and partners, not threats or rivals”, he averred. “The two sides need to help each other to succeed instead of undercutting each other. We should intensify cooperation instead of harbouring suspicion at (sic) each other.”
Obviously, Wang and his foreign policy team in Zhongnanhai are convinced the Indian government is a fool and will, once again, play it, and do China’s bidding. And, who is to say, they are wrong? After all, the Indian forces — steered “expertly” by the China Study Group (CSG) and MEA — withdrew post haste from the high points on the Kailash Range without requiring the PLA to reciprocate in like terms, didn’t they? The PLA pullback eastwards from Finger 4 to the Sirijap plains on the Pangong Lake shoreline can almost instantly be reversed by motor-mobile Chinese troops using metalled roads to reoccupy all the Fingers up to the Indian Dhan Singh Thapa post on Finger 3. Will the Indian Special Frontier Force commando be able to as quickly regain, unmolested, the highpoints on the Rezang La-Rechin La Ridge?
Then again, the geniuses in CSG and MEA didn’t discern the historic pattern (outlined above) in the Chinese policy in Ladakh and evidenced elsewhere as well. Like in the South China Sea. Had they done so and alerted the Indian military, the latter’d have been better prepared for, and not been surprised by, the PLA moves in eastern Ladakh in April-May 2020. So now mull over what Wang said vis a vis the South China Sea.
“Countries in the region and around the world in recent years can all see clearly that the factors for instability and security risks in the South China Sea come mainly from outside the region,” Wang said, referring to the US naval ships, including nuclear aircraft carriers, loitering in the sea expanse within the ‘9-dash line’. Such American sailings almost dared the Chinese Navy to do something and thus establish an operational baseline. The Chinese Navy did not rise to the bait. Instead Wang lied saying China and ASEAN had reached common understanding on maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea. The truth, however, is that there is no understanding and agreement that Beijing itself has not repeatedly violated. It did not deter Wang from charging the “the US and some other Western countries” with thereby creating “instability in the region”.
In a similar situation with regard to the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Island chain in the East Sea, he responded to Japan’s concerns about a new Chinese law permitting its Coast Guard to fire on ships not respecting Chinese territorial claims on the sea by assuring Tokyo that that law was not targeted at any particular nation, especially not Japan.“The key to Sino-Japanese relations is to have perseverance, and not to let short-term events cause disruption,” he clucked soothingly.
The prompt for Wang’s statements was seemingly US President Joe Biden’s promise to beef up US military presence and security arrangements involving traditional allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific, and the upcoming virtual meet Washington has scheduled with Narendra Modi, Yoshihide Suga, and Scott Morrison, heads of government respectively of the three other member states of the Quadrilateral — India, Japan, Australia, a loose grouping Wang has dubbed the ‘Indo-Pacific NATO’. “An improvement in Sino-Japanese relations”, Wang concluded, “would be mutually beneficial for our people and regional stability and peace. It should not be taken for granted and we should treasure it.”
It is clear what Delhi must do. As I have long maintained, assuming that strategic mindset and sensibility are absent in the Indian government, members of the CSG and MEA should stop taxing their little heads and simply emulate China strategically, do what Beijing does which is this:
Step 1: Stop talking about how the Indian army CAN occupy vantage points along the Line of Actual Control, including sites well inside Chinese claim lines, and task the army to do precisely that, without losing time, in short, surrepititiously occupy these strategically located high points.
Step 2: Play up the 1962 Resolution of Parliament, which has force of law; better still, legislate a new law — call it ‘Restoration of Territories Act’, to sanctify all actions, steps and measures implemented to restore the India-Tibet border as existed in 1950 when the PLA invaded and occupied Tibet, and voice the country’s determination to implement bother the letter and spirit of this law, and call out Beijing to respect Indian sovereignty and to not heedlessly jeopardize the traditionally warm and friendly relations between the two countries by resorting to any precipitate actions leading to the breakdown of peace, etc. and here MEA can do what it does best — wax abstract, rhetorical, whatever. In Mandarin.
Step 3: Accelerate the buildup of infrastructure and forces on LAC buildup, and enlarge the system of provisioning and logistics system to enable sustained warfighting. After all, now with two offensive mountain corps (I and XVII) in the field a far larger, longer and stronger supply chain becomes necessary.
Step 4: Forward deploy nuclear-tipped short and medium range Agni ballistic missiles in Ladakh theatre as tripwire in case a conventional Chinese military advance gains traction. And pre-warn beijing about the Agni missiles and talk of them as a like response to the augmentation of Chinese SRBMs and MRBMs on the Tibetan Plateau — the densest such concentration outside the Fujian coast opposite Taiwan.
Step 4: Quite literally dump bunches of the Brahmos supersonic cruise missiles on priority basis on the militaries of all countries disputing Chinese claims on the South China Sea, including states that have not sofar been active/aggressive in advancing their claims — Brunei and Malaysia. And make the deals for the Brahmos unrefusable by making them available at low to very low “friendship prices”. This will require the tripling and quadrupling of Brahmos missile production. This can be facilitated by handing over the job to the more productive and efficient private sector. And along with these missiles should be sent, as per the deals, Indian army artillery teams to operate and service these Brahmos batteries and to train host country crews
As advocated in my 2018 book (‘Staggering Forward’), this single measure of bulking up littoral and offshore Southeast Asian states with the Brahmos missiles will “narrow the seas” to the Chinese Navy’s detriment and the advantage Beijing thinks it has gained by constructing new islands out of coral reefs, sand and cement mid-channel will be instantly neutralized. Because now Chinese warships passing through these narrower waterways on either side of these ersatz islands will be easy targets for the coastal Brahmos batteries of numerous nations. It will have the effect in crisis of bottling up the powerful Chinese South Sea Fleet in its Sanya base on Hainan Island.
Step 5: While all this is taking place, Delhi should take the offensive in bewailing the record of Chinese aggression and its history of inhumane activities, including the ‘ethnocide’ of the Tibetan people in Tibet and, in recent years, the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and take their case to the International Court, etc. At the same time, MEA should weekly enjoin Beijing to not let any of this spoil bilateral ties, and to even out the playing field for Indian companies in the Chinese market.
Step 6: Ask of Chinese companies what Beijing asks Western companies in China to do — sell in the Indian market but only on the condition that they transfer the technology-set whole — designs, source codes, and process and manufacturing technologies to Indian government certified Indian commercial entities. And not permit them to escape this obligation by doing what Huawei is trying to do now after the imports of its 5G system was banned. Correctly reading the atm nirbharta campaign as a sham — the Huawei India head says the company would be happy to jointly manufacture all its 5G telecom equipment in India by transferring its “production nodules” to an Indian firm — which is another way of saying — screwdriver tech. No way, Jose!
Such are the sort of steps India must implement to take the game to China on the pain of being driven from the Asian strategic field altogether. But will the Indian government, even in these dire circumstances, do any of this? Nah!
2021 is India’s turn to chair and host the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit. These are annual meetings held in rotation by the heads of government of a group that was self-consciously knitted together as counterweight to the US and West-dominated multilateral organizations and as peer influencer of global affairs. That more details about the 15th summit are being withheld suggests there is trepidation within the Indian government.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is hoist with a dilemma. Of course, he would like to convey the impression to the world that, under his management, all’s well with India, and to use this event to project normalcy. Except there is a serious downside, especially with the Chinese government cock-a-hoop about getting the better of India in the underway military disengagement agreement in Ladakh and with President Xi Jinping preparing to grandstand at the BRICS forum on Modi’s turf!
Consider this. Delhi’s summit announcement was almost instantly welcomed by the Chinese Foreign Ministry as an occasion “to consolidate the three-pillar cooperation” that China is committed to. The “three pillars” being “policy and security”, “economy and finance” and “culture and people-to-people exchanges.” With a strong military and economy, Beijing expects to continue dominating BRICS. To prevent the Indian government from backsliding on the summit decision that Beijing believes helps China’s international standing, Qian Feng, director of strategic research at the elite Tsinghua University, harped on the contradictions in Modi’s foreign policy. He pointed out to Global Times, a Chinese Communist party-controlled newspaper, how India uses BRICS to both “enhance its status as a major power and participate in global governance” and to “better balance the country’s diplomacy” tilted towards the US-run Quad. Had India conspicuous gains to show from this forked stance, Modi would have won Beijing’s respect for “riding two horses” at the same time. Alas, the Indian government seems unable to get atop either horse!
This much is clear from the conversation last week between foreign minister S. Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on the partial de-escalation in Ladakh. While there was pullback of forces in the Pangong Lake area, with the Indian Special Frontier Force troops vacating the heights on the Kailash Range, the issue of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ending its blockade of the Y-Junction on the Depsang Plains to prevent Indian patrols from accessing the strategic Indian territory northwest-wards of it, was not even on the agenda. Far from restoring the status quo ante the Ministry for External Affairs was aiming for, it amounts to India, in effect, ceding some 1,000 sq kms to China. It is a situation Beijing means to perpetuate, and was the reason for foreign minister S. Jaishankar’s calling his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi last week. Except Wang did not relent even a bit, sticking to Beijing’s position that the bilateral relations should not pivot on resolving the border dispute! All the give has been on Delhi’s part, leaving India militarily worse off than before the disengagement began.
The problem is India’s perennially timid approach that has freed-up a hard-nosed China to pummel India at will. Meanwhile, to silence even a squeak of protest from Delhi about the territorially skewed military disengagement, Beijing has dangled the carrot of increased investment, hoping it will also deter a frustrated Modi from choosing hard options, such as arming states on the Chinese periphery with Agni rocket systems and nuclearized Brahmos cruise missiles as a belated tit-for-tat gesture for China’s equipping Pakistan with nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Absent such Indian counter-mesures Xi and his cohort feel confident of having their way with the usual soft-headed Indian leadership.
It is time to arrest India’s strategic drift by weaponizing BRICS and the Quadrilateral comprising the four Indo-Pacific powers – India, Japan, Australia and the United States. In the first instance, by pulling the BRIS states in this group into a loose security coalition to contain an over-ambitious China of which Russia too is apprehensive. And, in the second case, by forging a modified quadrilateral – ‘mod Quad’, by getting a bunch of capable Southeast Asian nations, such as Vietnam, Indonesia and Philippines fronting on the South China Sea to replace the US; and easing the latter into its traditional role as an extra-territorial balancer. Donald Trump’s presidency proved just how unreliable an ally America really is. President Joe Biden’s “Indo-Pacific czar”, Kurt Campbell, is reinforcing that posture by voicing his opposition to militarizing any conflict with China. The strategic logic of BRIS and Mod Quad is that countries proximal to China with the most to lose have the biggest stake in containing this menace.
So, what to do with the upcoming BRICS summit? Tweak it by downplaying the affair and ensuring Xi is not accorded any special treatment. Further, under no circumstances should Modi seek a one-on-one meeting with the Chinese supremo; MEA should hum and haw if the Chinese request one. The idea is to undermine the half-risen BRICS edifice and simultaneously to raise the stock of the security-oriented BRIS – an idea whose time has come and which Modi should explore with Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa.
If a meeting with Xi becomes unavoidable, Modi should remind him that the principle of reciprocity requires Beijing to accept the ‘One India’ concept, inclusive of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu & Kashmir, including Gilgit, Hunza and Baltistan, in return for Delhi not disavowing the ‘One China-two systems’ concept, and to demand genuine autonomy for Tibet – the original basis for India’s acknowledging Chinese suzerainty over this ethnically and historically distinct nation that has been subjected to “ethnocide” using means Beijing now deploys against the Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Q 1: Do you see the ongoing military disengagement in Ladakh between the Indian and Chinese troops as having helped the Chinese consolidate on the gains they have made in Ladakh in 2020?
A: Definitely yes. The military advantage the Indian army had gained by the Special Frontier Force occupying the heights of the Rezang La-Rechin La ridge on the Kailash Range is lost without the PLA withdrawing to east of the Khurnak Fort line – where the Indian claims lie, rather than only some distance from Finger 8 on the northern shore of the Pangong Lake to the Sirijap Plain. And the Chinese continue to obstruct Indian patrols seeking legitimately to access Indian territory northwest-wards of the Y-Junction. Having achieved success at the negotiating table in getting Indian troops to climb down from the Kailash range hilltops, and India to accept Finger 3 as the limit of its army’s presence in the Pangong area (forsaking, in the process, Indian claims over the entire swathe of land stretching from Finger 4, past the Sirijap Plain, to way east of the Khurnak line and then, as expected, stalling the 10th round of talks (that occurred) a couple of days back at the Corps commander-level talks when it came to discussing the steps to lift the blockade and allow Indian patrols to Hot Springs, Gogra and other points northwestwards, the PLA is sitting pretty. And because the Chinese are big on symbolism, it may be noted, the PLA have fielded its so-called “southern Xizang (Tibet) military district” head Major General Liu Lin, junior in rank to Lieutenant General PK Menon, commander of XIV Corps at these border talks. Having recognized the rank-asymmetry — meaning the PLA had assigned less importance to realizing peace then the Indian side did — after the first such meeting last year when the then Leh-based Corps Lt Gen Harinder Singh officiated, the Indian army should have immediately followed up the next time around by sending Liu’s rank equivalent — some Major General, any Major General, from that formation. Losing out thus in both symbolic and substantive terms, how’s any of this a success for India?
Q. 2: I am going to quote from a recent article of yours which stated ` New Delhi’s desperation has led to a peace process of impermanent but linked des-escalations, which Beijing may convert into opportunity for annexing territory in small parcels’.Can you elaborate on this given that several defence analysts believe China is already sitting on over 60 square kilometres of Indian land taken in 2020 while the fate of the land taken in the Depsang plains is hanging in the air. Your comments.
A: Depending on how scrupulously one tabulates exactly how much Indian territory has been ceded, lost, or simply been eased out of Indian control by the inattentiveness and laxity of Indian forces – the army and ITBP — over the years compounded by the la di- dah attitude of the Indian government to such loss, the actual territorial gains to China may be quite considerable over the 3,400 km length of the Line of Actual Control. So 60 sq kms here, 1,000 sq km there (in Depsang) could only be the proverbial tip of the iceberg!
Q.3: Up to last year, India was patrolling all eight Fingers on northern shore of Pangong Lake as these were on the Indian side. Today this has been reduced to the area between Fingers one to three. Can you elaborate.
A: The astonishing thing is the Indian army stopped contending for the land east of Finger 8 for many years until now when Indian army has effective control only up to Finger 3. In effect, the Sirijap-Khurnak expanse has been permitted to slip into China’s lap without so much as a squeak from Delhi! India and its army seem to have no answer for this Chinese policy generally of creeping territorial aggrandizement.
Q.4: It is believed that this disengagement and the ones to follow after subsequent talks is taking us to the 2013 line. Do you think that is so? Then how are we going to see any kind of status quo ante at all in Ladakh?
A: I fear that the manner in which India has accepted the process of, and the conditions for, the mutual “verifiable” pullback by the forces, the Indian government may be preparing to accept the expansive Chinese claim line articulated by Premier Zhouenlai in his November 7, 1959 letter which Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru roundly rejected. This Chinese line was to protect the Tibet-Xinjiang Highway the PLA had completed by 1957, which cut through the northern part of Indian Aksai Chin, with the additional territory sought as buffer.
Q.5: About ten days after India occupied the Kailash Range within the areas held by it, the Foreign Ministers’ of India and China reportedly met in Moscow on the Chinese request. It is believed that the Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar and his counterpart had arrived at an agreement about the broad terms of disengagement. Is this perception correct and what are your views on this?
A: Not sure what agreement Jaishankar hammered out with Wang Yi in Moscow. But it certainly did not achieve then, or in subsequent meetings at various bilateral civilian and military levels, what he repeatedly and publicly identified as the Modi government’s priority – “restoration of status quo ante”.
Q.6: There is a perception in the Indian army that the Ministry of External affairs is always ready to give up any military advantage it has obtained where China is concerned, but does not require the army to back down vis a vis Pakistan. It leaves the Indian army weaker in future discussions with China?
A: This may be the case because of higher political direction of Pakistan policy by the PMO whereas in the case of China, it is usually left to the China Study Group (CSG) and MEA to cull the options and even choose one. Except the CSG is made up of Mandarin-speaking diplomats, intelligence officers, and the like and has long distinguished itself as a den of China appeasers.
Q.7: You talk about how India should have adopted a more proactive approach against Beijing such as having cleared the Y-junction by use of force and counter-blockading the PLA in Depsang. But how will it work when the Chinese army is effective in the use of force?
A: The Indian government and army have to decide whether, because they fear tensions escalating into hostilities owing to the Indian reaction, they are willing to let China have its way. If sticking by India’s traditional claims of the LAC in eastern Ladakh and elsewhere is important, then it is time the army made a stand. Its Special Forces acting covertly should be ordered to vacate the PLA blockade and, to give Beijing pause. Simultaneously should be announced the deployment of the N-warheaded 700 km-range Agni-1 medium range missile units to the theatre. All military actions have risk, but being institutionally risk averse has not served the country’s interest and has earned India the reputation of being a country that can be pushed around by China. It has hurt India’s regional and international standing. Time to change that image with some decisive action.
Q. 8: Why has China refused to discuss Hot Springs, Gogra and Depsang? What kind of bargaining power can we now hope to exert to get the Chinese to move out of these three places?
A: Realistically-speaking, India has no leverage to compel the PLA to end its blockade except to signal its willingness to escalate matters, whatever the cost, which Delhi seems loath to do.
Q. 9: Has this happened given that the Indian army is the second largest military force in the world with 1.4 million active military personnel? Would you attribute this to a lack of up to date fighting equipment, ammunition, or logistical support or is it a lack of political will? Surely, we are better prepared than in 1962?
A: The real Indian weakness is not due to any shortfall in deployable military power or even the shortages but in the lack of political will and gumption.
Q.10: What is the fall out of this going to be on our eastern borders between Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh?
A: None, if we keep our proverbial powder dry! Unless the developments in Ladakh are taken by the army to mean that the government will countenance territorial losses in the northeast as well.
Q.11: What has India done to secure Doklam if China forces Bhutan to vacate its claims on that area?
A: The Indian government has successfully encouraged Thimpu to stand its ground, and the Bhutanese government has complied and rejected Chinese claims on a large part of what is its ecologically protected national park area.
Q.12: What lessons has India learnt from Armenia’s recent defeat and what is India going to do to counter what Pakistan and China are doing to follow the tactics and strategies used by Azerbaijan to defeat Armenia with ease?
A: No real lessons other than this was the first instance of extensive use of armed drones in warfare (by Aizerbaijan against Nagorno-Karabak) and alerts India to what drone warfare may look like and the possibility of the PLA using them on the LAC.
After talking with the Chinese supremo Xi Jinping, a rattled US President Joe Biden warned that China will “eat our lunch”. Considering the underway military disengagement could end up consolidating Chinese territorial gains in eastern Ladakh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ought to worry about China feasting on India’s dinner.
Delhi’s desperation has led to a peace process of impermanent but linked de-escalations, which Beijing may convert into opportunity for annexing territory in small parcels. Consider the withdrawal of forces from the Pangong Lake area. Until not too long ago all the eight mountainous features – the ‘Fingers’ abutting on its northern shore — on India’s side of the Line of Actual Control were notionally under Indian control; today only Fingers 1 to 3 are. So why is People’s Liberation Army’s moving to its Sirijap staging area east of Finger 8, which is also inside Indian territory, reassuring or proof of China’s good faith?
Since last August when Special Frontier Force troops preemptively occupied various hilltops on the Rezangla-Rechinla ridge inside the Indian claim line, China has tried to reverse this development because these posts afford a 360-degree view and help the India army get a fix on potentially adverse Chinese military activity in the extended Pangong area. This advantage will be lost with the pullback, especially because the PLA is not thinning its forces from the Moldo garrison. In any case, the past record of Chinese chicanery — easing tensions the PLA itself creates as at Nakula, suggests that once Indians depart the commanding heights, the Chinese will fill the vacated space.
Meanwhile the issue of PLA’s de facto control over 1,000-odd sq kms of Indian territory in the Depsang Plains in Sub-sector North, of utmost significance to India, is deferred. Here PLA’s blockade of the Y-Junction has rendered the area northwestwards of it inaccessible to Indian patrols, enabling China to bring this vital piece of land within its control without contesting India’s claims — a neat little trick of occupation by indirect military means! This area adjoins the Xinjiang Highway whose branch — the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, veers south at the nearby Karakorom Pass and, hence, is of strategic value. The Indian army could forcibly evict the blockaders but Beijing is betting Delhi lacks the guts and the gall to order such action.
Chinese adventurism, foreign minister S Jaishankar said, has “profoundly disturbed” India’s trust, but apparently not the Indian government’s gullibility and habit of taking Beijing’s professions and commitments seriously. Thus, the China Study Group making policy for the government seems satisfied with a “written agreement”!
The process of penny-packeting the ‘phased’ mutual withdrawal has helped China evade the eight “guiding principles” defined by Jaishankar as the basis for negotiation, including the two principal ones of respecting the sanctity of all past accords and of the LAC, which China violates on a whim. It has permitted Beijing to dictate the pace, tenor and content of interactions. For Delhi to proceed regardless is, in effect, to legitimate a new tabula rasa for resolving the border dispute and for Sino-Indian relations generally, one in which whatever China wants goes.
At heart the problem is the Indian government’s terminal diffidence. It has foresworn the option of discomfiting China by strategic missile arming states on its borders as a belated payback for Beijing’s equipping Pakistan with nuclear missiles, and shies away from using its leverages (Taiwan, Tibet, trade, Uyghurs). This attitude infects the Indian military as well. In an alternative universe, army Special Forces would long ago have cleared the Y-Junction and counter-blockaded PLA on the Depsang. While there’s talk by military brass about reorienting Indian forces China-wards, there’s little initiative on display. The Indian response in Galwan Valley, it may be recalled, was reactive and SFF is run by the external intelligence agency, Research & Analaysis Wing (RAW).
Accustomed to supinity the Indian government nevertheless believes it will not lose out to Beijing. How is anybody’s guess!
It is indicative of something that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has literally said not a word against China’s deliberately provocative behaviour and the aggressive military activity by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in eastern Ladakh since April last year. In the months since, the confrontation has sharpened with the Indian army – which’s traditionally focused on the minor foe, Pakistan, suddenly realizing it has another live border, this time with China, to contend with. It scrambled the best it could to pull together a credible force to the theatre in the higgledy-piggledy manner the usually unprepared Indian military behaves in a crisis.
Whether and how much of a worst case the Army assumed as its operational baseline for the purposes of filling the severely depleted WWR (war wastage reserve) of spares and petroleum, oil and lubricants and of war stock (ammunition of all kinds and chemical munitions), is unclear. But non-wartime shortfalls of around 60% are normal. The replenishment of these ‘voids’ was carried out frantically without the army really knowing whether the PLA would lurch into hostilities and then fight for how long. With the situation hotting up in the XIV Corps area, Modi maintained his public silence as did the Chinese President Xi Jinping at the other end of the redline telephone installed not too long ago between Delhi and Beijing. It was left to Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to mouth the traditional inanity about “not an inch of territory” being lost.
It is another matter that on the ground some 1,000 sq kms of land in the Depsang Plains are actually lost to China. This has been achieved by the simple expedience of the PLA blocking the Y-Junction and hence the route Indian troops took to reach Indian posts. Any piece of your land on the border you are denied access to isn’t yours anymore. And because the Indian army failed to breach the blockade because, per news reports, it didn’t want to “open another front”, it has lost that entire area to China for good. Elsewhere, we may soon find that with the Special Frontier Force (SFF) troops vacating the high points on the Rezang La-Rechin La ridge in the Kailash Range as required by the “verifiable” mutual withdrawal agreement, the PLA, which neither respects the letter nor the spirit of any accord, will occupy them too. The SFF at these heights severely discomfited the PLA because the Indians overlooked its garrison at Moldo and, from that perch, monitored Chinese military activity in the extended Pangong Lake area.
The most troubling aspect of the pullback accord, however, is how readily the Indian government accepted the Chinese offer to draw back its forces to the Sirijap expanse east of Finger 8 on the northern shore of the lake as some kind of concession by Beijing. This is a particularly surprising development considering the Indian claim line runs way east of Sirijap, even east of the landmark in that area, the dilapidated Khurnak Fort, which Indian and Chinese troops patrolled as late as 1958, and marks it as both the midpoint of the northern shore of the Pangong Tso and the mutually-recognized India-Tibet boundary. An Indian Brigade based in Chushul protected that entire territory and in 1962 1/8 Gorkha Rifles held the Khurnak post.
Indeed, India’s claims are really strong, bolstered by documents from as far back as 1863 showing the fertile Ote Plain featuring this fort as territory contested between the inhabitants of the Pangong area owing fealty to Ranbir Singh, the then Maharajah of Jammu & Kashmir, and the Tibetan authorities in Lhasa. This entire sub-region, in other words, was never part of Tibet even if one assumes, for argument sake, that China now exercises lawful suzerainty over Tibet.
In a November 1959 letter, Premier Zhouenlai first pitched to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru China’s extended claims not only in the Aksai Chin but also in eastern Ladakh – a sector well within the erstwhile Kashmir Maharaja’s domain and hence integrally part of India post-1947. Zhou did so to protect the highway the Chinese had surreptitiously built through northern Aksai Chin a year earlier connecting the mainland to the far western province of Xinjiang. In a tactic that Beijing has repeatedly used of annexing foreign territory, making extensive claims over it, and then offering to withdraw a small distance as a concession and demanding that the aggrieved country do the same, Zhou made just such an offer and was roundly rebuffed.
Recognizing the Chinese fait accompli for what it was, Nehru responded by saying “There is no sense or meaning in the Chinese offer to withdraw twenty kilometers from what they call ‘line of actual control’. What is this ‘line of control’? Is this the line they have created by aggression since the beginning of September? Advancing forty or sixty kilometers by blatant military aggression and offering to withdraw twenty kilometers provided both sides do this is a deceptive device which can fool nobody.” It is a line he never retreated from and, 50 years later, is proving a real problem for Modi.
PLA’s build-up and aggressive manuevers along the LAC in the last nine months or so intimidated Delhi but were insufficient to get Modi to buckle under pressure as Beijing had hoped would happen. The next best option that both Modi and Xi concurred in was to stitch together an accord for both leaders to ‘save face’ and so the unsatisfactory mutual withdrawal accord materialized.
Supposing this agreement is the basis for a final solution for the dispute along the lines of Zhouenlai’s 1959 claim line that bisects the area between mountainous terrain features Fingers 4 and Finger 5 on the northern Pangong shore and proceeds south across the lake to encompass the ridge heights from Helmet Top to Rezang La presently in Indian hands before slouching southeastwards to meet up with the Indian claim line, how will Modi get around the inconvenient fact that he will have surrendered an enormous amount of Indian territory here and in the Depsang, something Nehru – whom he, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and its chief ideological influencer – Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh revile, never willingly did?
The high point of the recent AeroIndia air show in Bengaluru was the announcement by the Government of the purchase from HAL of 83 Tejas light combat aircraft MK-1A for Rs 46,898 cr, with the first delivery to begin three years from now. This decision by the Cabinet Committee on Security comes almost five years after the then Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha flew in a Tejas (on May 18, 2016), pronounced its performance impressive and said it was “ready” for induction, and 13 months after Defence Secretary Ajay Kumar promised the contract for this aircraft would be signed in 2020.
The LCA project definition was initiated in 1987, the design for a small, delta-winged, fighter aircraft was settled in 1990, full funding was approved in 1993, the first technology demonstrator (TD) rolled out in 1995 and the Tejas first took to the skies in 2001, and improved TD-2 flew a year later and in 2003 the aircraft broke the sound barrier, achieving Mach status. (For the full timeline of the Tejas project, refer https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_HAL_Tejas ) Up to this point the Tejas development had done quite well considering the project had to proceed from a zero baseline in terms of in-house competence in aircraft designing experience and R&D skills.
Dr Kurt Tank, the lead designer of the world famous Focke-Wulfe series of fighter-bombers for Hitler’s Luftwaffe, built up a capability in the country alongside the Indian team led by Dr Ghatge-Patil. Tank developed and had the first prototype of the supersonic multi-role HF-24 flying by 1961, i.e., within 4-5 years of being commissioned by the Nehru government to do so. It made India the first country outside North America and Europe to accomplish this feat! That IAF pilots who flew the Marut still swear by it and go ga-ga over its fabled handling qualities. That it could supercruise (reach supersonic speeds without afterburners) tells its own story!
The dive of this tested and proven indigenous capability from that technology height to zero by the late 1980s is solely because the IAF, successively under Air Chief Marshals PC Lal and OP Mehra, mercilessly killed off in the early to mid-1970s the advanced Mark-2 variant of the indigenous Marut. This murder of the advanced Marut was facilitated by the government working in cahoots with the IAF brass. Designed by Dr Raj Mahindra, the most gifted protege of Dr Tank and stellar member of the Ghatge-Patil team, the HF-72/73/74 — the numeral is unimportant — was ditched whole in favour of the British Jaguar. This so-called ‘deep penetration and strike aircraft’ (DPSA), I had pointed out at that time, could either penetrate “deep” — and for the IAF that meant into Pakistan, or strike hard (carry a heavy ordnance load) but couldn’t do both at the same time — which attributes made this aircraft a dubious buy and an operational liability.
The Jaguar DPSA was bought by the Morarji Desai government and was promptly accused by Maneka Gandhi (in Surya magazine she edited) of huge corruption for okaying this transaction with British Aerospace. Maneka’s charge was that defence minister Jagjivan Ram raked in hefty commissions. It set the trend of commission-mongering as a distinguishing and permament feature of all Indian government deals in all spheres with foreign companies thereafter. The Indira and Rajiv Gandhi regimes, for instance, that followed stood out, in this respect, for the scale of corruption attending on massive multi-billion dollar contracts with the Italian firm Snamprogetti for turnkey fertiliser plants, with Sweden for the Bofors howitzer gun and for the HDW-209 submarine deal with Germany.
But, to revert to Tejas, up until 2003 or thereabouts things were as good as could be expected, with the short time taken by the LCA project to reach that stage in the Indian context (sketched out above) being creditable. Indeed, it compares well with the development schedule of the latest combat aircraft in the American inventory — the F-35 Lightning II, whose delivery was 15 years behind schedule and over-budget by literally hundreds of billions of US dollars and that too in a milieu, if anything, of an over-developed aviation industry with long entrenched global supply chains. By comparison, Tejas is a steal!
So, what happened post-2003? Well, everyone in the procurement loop — in the IAF, Department of Defence Production, Defence Ministry, Government of India, and in defence public sector units (DPSUs), including HAL, began getting the heebie-jeebies when faced with the prospect of a home grown product. The IAF brass wedded to the outmoded idea that everything foreign is better found the Tejas disconcerting, particularly because the younger pilots who flew this plane couldn’t be more effusive in their admiration for it. It robbed those in the defence procurement loop including in the IAF, defence ministry and government of India, of periodic trips to Europe and points farther afield and the many joys and considerations these provided them, and confronted HAL and DRDO outfits that had grown lazy over decades of screwdrivering foreign aircraft — under license manufacture contracts and, when not buying foreign items and putting their insignia on them and selling them to the armed services as Indian-made goods, with now actually having to work to deliver on the technologies they promised and received dollops of funds to develop.
This to say that Tejas upset the vested interests and stiffened resistance to this aircraft up and down the defence establishment, inclusive of DPSUs. Every one so hurt buckled down to derailing the project.
The 2015 Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India on the Tejas LCA programme is revealing about just how much the IAF, DRDO, Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and HAL seemingly competed with each other in their attempts to make this project a non-performing asset. There’s not a page in the report where HAL, ADA, DRDO or IAF, singly or severally, is/are not pulled up and held responsible for unconscionable delays and cost-over-runs, and innumerable actions to slow down or otherwise hurt the progress of the aircraft design stage onwards.
Thus, in separate sections of the Report the CAG hammers the ADA — a special purpose vehicle established to bring the LCA project speedily to fruition, for the failure of its Full Scale Engineering Development to produce two prototypes owing to a shut down of all activities for six years in Phase I, causing a delay of 11 years; slams the HAL for the absence of indigenisation plan and for the the “shortfall in creation of production facilities [which] impacted induction of LCA”; the IAF for “lack of user involvement” and for frequently changing the Air Staff Qualitative Requirements (ASQRs), which necessitated major design changes leading to interminable push-forwards of delivery dates, and for just as frequently revising the weapons carriage profile, which entailed structural changes, raised costs and (again) delays in delivery. The CAG report also highlights the failure of the GTRE (Gas Turbine Research Establishment) despite developemnt expenditure of Rs 2020 cr to produce the Kaveri engine forcing ADA “to depend on GE imported engines for LCA” .
In its 114th report, the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament (2018-2019), 16th Lok Sabha, followed up. Having scrutinized the LCA programme and the CAG audit, it iterated the findings and conclusions of the CAG and ended by rounding squarely on the MOD, saying “the [Defence] Ministry have failed to ensure proper coordination among its own different wings, like ADA, HAL and IAF, to develop our indigenous combat worthy LCA aircraft which ultimately resulted in half hearted approach on country’s security and incurring huge expenditure for procurement of fighter aircraft from foreign countries.”
However, Parliamentary admonishment has had no effect. In January 2020, defence secretary Ajay Kumar said in Kolkata that the contract for 83 Tejas LCA apart, the government had okayed the issual of a Request for Proposal for another 110 aircraft to all potential foreign suppliers. Given that just the up-front cost of buying a mere 36 Rafales — a small fleet that I have argued will be good for absolutely nothing in real operational terms — from France was some Rs 60,000 cr, an additional 110 aircraft for IAF could set back the country’s near empty Treasury by another Rs 15 lakh crore at a minimum as total lifetime costs for the Rafales and whatever imported combat planes make up the 110 aircraft complement with spares and servicing support plus various mixes of exorbitantly priced weapons!!
This is at a time when, as I have been writing and shouting from any and every forum available to me, manned combat aircraft as weapon systems are on the verge of extinction, on the cusp of being replaced by intelligent and lethal drones operating singly or in swarms and absolutely effective in air-to-ground and air-to-air missions. But then IAF is a habitual laggard, happy to bring up the rear of every technological innovation in the world! And the MOD as well as GOI are bereft of sound common sense, leave alone expertise, to guide their decisions. It is like leaving the decision on whether tanks and machine guns would be useful to old school cavalrymen who, in the 1920s and 1930s in both the US and British armies opposed going in for these new fangled armaments!
If Rs 15 lakh crores is the kind of expenditure in combat aircraft the IAF is seeking and MOD is willing to back, wouldn’t it be more advisable — from the atm nirbharta (self-sufficiency) angle — to channel most of these monies into the programme to fast-forward the evolving Tejas series of aircraft — Mk-II, AMCA (advanced medium combat aircraft), etc? And if the Modi government is truly into reducing the fiscal deficit and government expenditure generally by going in for systematic privatisation, shouldn’t DPSU be the prime targets? And why did Modi, Rajnath Singh and the present dispensation, in the event, permit investment of thousands of crores of rupees into a second Tejas production line for HAL when the more cost-effective solution that I have been advocating is for HAL/DRDO transferring the LCA source codes to Tata Aerospace, Mahindra Aerospace and/or even Reliance Aerospace, say, and otherwise incentivising these private sector companies to have parallel production lines for the manufacture full tilt of the 4.5 generation Tejas to meet IAF needs, speedily augment its fleet strength to 42 squadrons, and for exports to flood the developing country market so that India is set up as a meaningful arms exporter?
Why, oh, why, can’t the GOI ever do anything remotely out-of-the-box while all the time talking about it (pace Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amitabh Kant at Niti Ayog)!!
India has sometimes treated its foreign policy as morality play when actually it is hard business involving national interests. The Indian government, especially under Manmohan Singh, often jumped on to the Western bandwagon any time a military in some country displaced a civilian regime charging human rights violation, etc. The Modi dispensation has to resist the impulse to side with the US now that Washington is embarked on its usual sanctions diplomacy vis a vis Myanmar — India’s valued neighbour and friend. India should affect a strictly hands-off policy, and do what Myanmar’s fellow ASEAN members have done — claim it is an internal matter that brooks no outside interference of any kind by any other country. But discreetely convey to the senior General in-charge, Min Aung Hlaing, that Delhi is in his corner and can depend on India for help and material assistance.
Aung San Suu Kyi had tremendous democratic credentials but over recent years had almost become a stalking horse for Xi’s China. She rode the Chinese Belt-Road-Initiative (BRI)-derived China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) in the hope of consolidating the hold of her party — the National League for Democracy (NLD), and her personal grip, on the government and country, win popular approval for the prospective prosperity the CMEC is suppoed to deliver and thus gradually to sideline the Generals.
The Myanmar military, it must be appreciated, has always been wary of Beijing and, to the extent the circumstances permitted, sought to keep the Chinese at the proverbial arm’s length. It is precisely the distance that the NLD was unable to maintain and on which subject the two sides were unable to compromise on that led to the Generals, having had enough of Suu Kyi’s prevarication, and simply taking over direct control of government. In real terms, things may not have changed much because, as many critics attest, the NLD was a democratic fig leaf for the Myanmar junta any way. This last contention, however, is not true. The Myanmarese military, under Western pressure, had transferred quite considerable power and authority to the NLD government, in the hope that its leader Suu Kyi would not rock the boat nor depart much from the line the Generals have always taken of prudently cultivating India and Russia as counterpoise to China. Despite many warnings she went off-script, signed numerous CMEC-related and other agreements with Beijing and compromised, in the junta’s view, the national interest.
India is the country the Myanmar Generals instinctively turn to when in doubt or in trouble. Indeed, the revolutionary founder of the Myanmar army General Aung San (yes, Suu Kyi’s father) was succeeded by U Nu and, fearful of China, the latter pleaded with Jawaharlal Nehru in the early 1950s for a security pact. This the Indian PM grandly dismissed as unnecessary and advised him to make peace with China! On other occasions since, for reasons of infirm will in Delhi and lack of clarity about where India’s national and strategic interests lay, Indian actions have confounded the Myanmariese Generals. Worse, the criminally tedious and tardy manner in which the Indian government has rolled out its promised infrastructure programmes — like the Kaladan project initiated more than 20 years ago, which is still not complete, is a case in point.
It contrasts with the record of Chinese construction companies executing complex infrastructure projects apparently in a jiffy, which hasn’t helped India’s cause. Indian strategic interests will be permitted to go down the drain but the Indian government — with MEA in the van — refuses to reform its overly bureaucratised way of doing things, providing other countries with a road map for how not to win freinds and influence neighbouring states. It merely firmed up the Myanmar military’s view that, while perhaps well meaning, India is just too thin a reed to lean on. And that Nyapyitaw (the new Myanmar capital) better rely on another more credible big power to secure its interests. This other power not surprisingly is Russia. Moscow understands that nothing so touches the hearts of the Mayanmar Generals as a bonafide military super power enthused with forging close links.
So in 2016, Russia and Myanmar signed an accord for long term military cooperation. The Putin government expects it to be the wedge in the door to establish itself as the prime supplier of military goods and services to Southeast Asian states. Those in the Indian government — and there are many in MEA and elsewhere who think this way, who believe that China has reversed the rank order and Russia is now its lapdog, have only to look at how assiduously it is building up its presence in the region to know that in the emerging geopolitics China has to contend as much with Russia as with the US. The reason why, I have long been arguing, that Prime Minister Modi’s ham-handed moves in the last few years to please Washington that have alienated Moscow, are the most imprudent thing he has done. Sure, it is a position from which his government is only now beginning to draw back, but damage has been done and requires urgent repairing.
The offshoot of Delhi’s bungling is that the bulk of Myanmar military officers, who used to come to Indian military institutions for training are these days going to Russia instead. General Hlaing has visited Russia more than he has done any other country and, in January this year, signed on for enlargement of security cooperation when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Naypyitaw. General Hlaing welcomed Shoigu in the most friendly terms, and confirmed Myanmar’s willingness to be the anchorage for Russian naval forces in the Indian Ocean — a very big developlment.
Delhi realizing it is on slippery slope, Foreign Secretary Shringla visited Myanmar in October 2020 and extended an invitation to Hlaing to again visit India, his first trip was in 2017. But with Russia and China both upping the ante, the Indian government will have to do a lots more than promising to take the General around to Darjeeling and loading him with packets of Seeyok tea he relishes. MEA-MOD will be well advised to offer him a slate of substantial hardware transfers. Why not lead with half a dozen of India’s very own and modern Tejas LCA — and a slew of advanced training schedules tailored to meet the Myanmarese military’s needs and otherwise build on the recent gift of an indigenously refurbished Russian Kilo SSK submarine along with crew training that has won India loads of goodwill?
Moreover, with CMEC seeking to connect Kunming to Kyaukpyu and Yangon, time for Delhi to propose to Hlaing jointly operated elint and radar stations on the Coco Islands offshore, and for the Modi government to take a whip to recalcitrant babus in various ministries who have stalled on petty financial grounds Indian development projects in the extended neighbourhood and, in this specific instance, are required to coordinate their activities with MEA, to deliver speedily on the Kaladan project before Naypyitaw loses all respect for India, and India loses its toehold in Myanmar.
Despite hostilities last summer and the prevailing tense situation on the disputed border — ‘Line of Actual Control’ — with China, Indian defence budget has actually not increased in real terms from 2018-2019! The defence allocation of Rs 4.71 lakh crore three years ago amounted to about US$65 billion which, incidentally, is the current US$ value of the total defence budget that has nominally increased to Rs 4.78 lakh crore announced yesterday by Finance Minister Nirmala Seetharaman in Parliament. In other words, the defence spend, for all intents and purposes, is both relatively small and static.
This reckoning in hard currency matters because the Indian armed forces are so completely dependent on imports for almost everything military, even slight force augmentation or filling of “voids” entails heavy US dollar outflow. Such are the straitened circumstances the country finds itself in. In a time of negative economic growth, the country is unable to afford even a reasonable level of security. This is showcased by that little statistic of defence budget accounting for only 1.6% of a slowing GDP growth.
Much has been made by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh about the Rs 1.35 lakh crore or US$18.5 billion (at current US$ value) being set aside for capital expenditure by the armed services. A lot of this money, alas, will not go into shoring up the country’s fighting capability against the PLA on or across the length of the LAC, but is committed expenditure related to the armed services’ pet procurement programmes — buying T-90 tanks, 114 more aircraft that the IAF will try and ensure are additional Rafales, etc.
So come April when snow melts, the Chinese will again begin stomping on Indian toes knowing fully well the Indian military can do damned little about it other than to hold on tenuously to positions they are in, leaving everything else to chance! I mean, how useful is it to bulk up the Rafale and T-90 fleets when the need is for more winter-equipped Special Forces to retake Depsang in the immediate here and now when the foul weather ability of the PLA to transport and maintain a large force is limited, a constraint that will be instantly removed once spring and summer come around?
More importantly, because this latter aspect — retaking Depsang — is not an operational priority these earmarked funds will do little to alleviate the main problem at hand. Namely, the reality of a large piece of Indian territory — some 1000 sq kms in size, in Sub-sector North northwestwards of the Y-junction on the Depsang remaining securely in Chinese custody. The longer this PLA occupation is unchallenged and not forcibly reversed, the more confident will Beijing feel in legally claiming it as part of Tibet and, control-wise, bring it under PLA’s southern sector command.
But to revert to the US$ 18.5 billion capital budget in this fiscal, a goodly sum has already been spent in the usual helter-skelter fashion reflecting desperation — the normal anytime genuine military hostilities loom. In the period July-December 2020, Indian army teams fanned out all over the world to secure at improbably high prices war materiel worth US$2 billion to replenish its war wastage reserve (in terms of critical spares) and war stock of ammunition and artillery shells. Indeed, supplier companies in France, the US, Russia, etc have been licking their chops eyeing the profit in store and stocking up since last summer, certain that India will make a run on their inventories when they anticipated extracting a kingly ransom from Delhi. This they have done. Not to waste an opportunity of the national wallet being opened, the air force indented for 20-odd MiG-29 air defence aircraft and a dozen Su-30MKI multi-role aircraft from Russia for roughly US$4 billion to bolster its force strength. The trouble is neither set of actions will prospectively blunt the edge the PLA and PLAAF can bring to bear in China’s Western Theatre Command when tensions again begin to rise.
True, Indian defence budgeting has always involved juggling with several balls in the air — partially funding a foreign acquisition here, another procurement there, in a patchwork that does little to comprehensively enhance India’s security or its ability to fight sustained, long duration, wars. Reason why, it is the military leaders who voice the need for the government to seek a diplomatic solution with China! Such is the perfectly awful state of strategizing and of resource planning in the PMO and in the Defence Ministry.
Atm nirbharta is, of course, reduced to a joke. It boggles my mind when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Rajnath Singh, on down equate license manufacture with self-sufficiency in arms!! The obligatory noises about self-reliance apart, emergency buys such as the ones India has so far gone in for, only exacerbate the situation. All kinds of planning predicates get ditched, with the impromtu buys abroad especially at premium rates being the chief skewing factor. In the event, the demands for defence expenditures to reach the 2.5% of GDP, and 3% of GDP suggested by a past Finance Commission while rife, are simply unrealizeable. Especially in a COVID-devastated economy that has formally left India poorer than Bangladesh in terms of per capita GDP!
The Indian government is economically reduced to firefighting mode, trying to stretch, the best it can, the too few resources to cover too many domestic demands. It is a political context in which defence will always find itself deprived.
Times of India newspaper in its Friday feature — ‘Times Faceoff’ — in which experts with opposing views debate an issue, the former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran and I had differing perspectives on the topic ‘Will Indo-US ties improve under the Biden Administration’. It was published in today’s edition, at https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/80560705.cms
Every time there’s a change of government in the United States, there is kneejerk reflex here. The incoming Administration is judged trivially by how many Indian-Americans are appointed to high positions. Because President Joe Biden has over 30 of them in important posts compared to Donald Trump, who had less than a dozen, Biden is deemed good for India! More seriously, the theme of two partner democracies, their values and visions in sync, cooperating to strategically constrain China is trotted out. But things aren’t that simple.
American politics is historically divided into two schools and “styles” — paranoid and liberal. The former is angry, nativist, and exclusionary; the latter more open-minded, inclusivist and inclined to engage with the outside world, and are represented by Trump and Biden, respectively. Usually, US policies reflect aspects of both corpora of thought. Thus, Biden is as intent, as Trump ever was, for instance, to revive the industrial base at home and generate employment by getting American and international companies that sell their goods in the US to relocate their manufacturing plants to America, and to incentivize “in-sourcing” as a means of preventing well-paying jobs in high-technology sectors from migrating abroad. This means that for Biden easing up on the H1B visa channel benefitting Indian techies that the Narendra Modi government has been pushing is not a priority; legalizing the status of 11 million undocumented workers in the US, mostly from Latin America, is.
The democratic fellowship thesis, moreover, works better as rhetoric, not when Indian and US national interests clash. Sure, the four actions by the Biden Administration targeting China – inviting the Taiwanese envoy to the inauguration, confirming Trump’s deal with Taipei for 100 Harpoon anti-ship missiles and a bunch of mobile extended range land-attack missiles plus reconnaissance and surveillance drones and sensors worth $4.6 billion, deploying a nuclear aircraft carrier task group to the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, and labelling the Chinese pogrom against the Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang “genocide”, are reassuring. Intended or not, they distract Beijing from focusing on Ladakh.
But juxtapose these moves against the new defence secretary retired General Lloyd Austin’s call for “strategic patience” with China and similar conciliatory noises emanating from elsewhere in the Biden Administration and the conclusion is unavoidable that because the US has lots to lose in actual military hostilities, it may indulge in show of force but will happily fight the Chinese to the last Indian, the last Taiwanese, or the last Japanese. At least Trump was honest in advertising America’s unreliability as ally or strategic partner when he counselled Tokyo to have its own nuclear arsenal and to fight its own fight with China for the disputed Senkaku Islands.
Following that logic, an Indian inventory of tested and proven high-yield thermonuclear armaments obtained by resuming nuclear tests coupled with the threat of contingent first use will permanently neuter the China threat. And, transferring strategic-warheaded missiles to countries on China’s periphery as belated payback for Beijing’s nuclear missile arming of Pakistan in the 1980s, will effectively secure the Asian littoral and offshore ramparts. Except, the Biden foreign policy aims to further non-proliferation goals, which will prevent India from doing any of this, and to realize the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which will result in Washington pressuring India to sign it. As India has all but abjured nuclear testing courtesy the 2005 civilian nuclear deal with the US, Delhi is half way there already; whence cajoling it to walk that last mile won’t be difficult.
After all, the US knows the Indian government buckles easily under flattery or pressure and Indian negotiators habitually give up a lot in return for little as long as India is patted for being a “responsible state” and the carrot of an albeit non-veto permanent seat in the UN Security Council is dangled.
The danger, however, is greatest on the Human Rights front because the charge of Muslims and Dalits being systematically discriminated against in India resonates with Biden’s thinking about empowering the hitherto disenfranchised minorities and the underclass in America. The influential Democrat Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, whom foreign minister S. Jaishankar refused to meet with last year, has frequently flagged the issue of human rights abuses by Indian government agencies. Laws in BJP-ruled states relating to beef eating, “love jihad”, etc. are grist for her mill.
Indo-US relations are heading into a squall, the Indian government better batten down.
Joe Biden’s razzle-dazzle inauguration as US President — Hollywood out in full force, the fireworks — is harbinger of normalcy, which was distinguished by its absence in the last four years of Donald Trump’s occupation of the White House when American policy, because impulsive, and often whimsical, became unpredictable enough to destabilise the world. While a return of normal is, therefore, to be welcomed, for Indo-US relations it meansWashington’s reverting to traditional balancing act however much the incoming American Administration might protest there’s no going back to a rehyphenation of India and Pakistan in the US scheme for South Asia in the future.
If there was any doubt, it was removed by retired Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin, the US-Secretary of State-deignate at his confirmation hearings in the US Senate yesterday. Pakistan, he asserted, “is an essential partner in any peace process in Afghanistan [and] will play an important role in any political settlement in Afghanistan.” Further, indicating he has bought fully into Islamabad’s position he commended Pakistan for taking “constructive steps to meet US requests in support of the Afghanistan peace process. Pakistan has also taken steps against anti-Indian groups, such as Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, although this progress is incomplete”. He added, as an afterthought, that “I will encourage a regional approach that garners support from neighbors like Pakistan, while also deterring regional actors, from serving as spoilers to the Afghanistan peace process.”
This warning to Delhi against interfering in the so-called peace process in Afghanistan couldn’t be clearer. This is the reason why I had said in the last post that NSA Ajit Doval’s recent semi-secret trip to Kabul would evince US demands for an explanation. Here the Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh’s straightforward take on Doval’s quick turnround flight to confer with the Ashraf Ghani regime, that he “Had a pleasant meeting with NSA Ajit Doval of India. We discussed the enemy. It was an in-depth discussion”, may initiate a contentious discussion with the US.
By way of a sop to Delhi, Austin in a pro forma fashion mentioned he “will press Pakistan” to prevent its territory from being used by militants or other violent organisations” and said he would continue to build relationships with Pakistani military to “provide openings for the United States and Pakistan to cooperate on key issues”.
In my December 12 post (“Panda panderers at State and Pentagon”) I had flagged just why Austin, the four star general who retired as commander-in-chief, US Central Command in-charge of the US military in Afghanistan, and soon to be US Defence Secretary, owing to his long association during his theatre command with General Qamar Bajwa and his cohort, would naturally tilt towards Pakistan.
Austin also indicated that punitive measures against Pakistan would be off the table, saying “many factors in addition to the security assistance suspension may impact Pakistan’s cooperation, including Afghanistan negotiations and the dangerous escalation following the Pulwama attack.” It is hardly to be wondered then that Islamabad is ecstatic with these new developments, with high Pakistani officials talking about the situation for the first time “advantaging” Pakistan and, hence, moving quickly to setup a formal high-level meeting with the now suddenly more empathetic regime in Washington.
What’s important to note is that the “head in the sand” approach of the Indian media resulted in no major newspaper or outlet reporting Austin’s testimony at his confirmation hearings. One can only hope the Indian embassy in Washington and Modi’s MEA are not, likewise, in ostrich mode, and are aware about just how bad things can actually get for Delhi, and have begun working on counters. Such as repairing the frayed relations with Moscow and cultivating Russia as counterweight on priority basis. And keeping India’s hand warm in Afghanistan’s affairs in the manner that Doval has been doing, and include in the menu for the Ghani government ramped up transfers of military hardware — longrange guns, ammunition, and attack helicopters.
For starters, America at the UN Financial Assistance Task Force meetings in Paris will be less insistent about getting Pakistan on the ‘Black, list’. So the pressure on General Qamar Bajwa’s GHQ, Rawalpindi, to ease off on cross-border terrorism will be considerably lessened.
Much worse, Austin has articulated a more cautious approach to Asia, calling on the US government to show “strategic patience” with China. So, it is not just India, but all of America’s traditional allies and strategic partners — Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Singapore, and even Indonesia which’s on the cusp of partnering the US, who need to worry, because accommodating Beijing could mean Washington cutting myopic narrowly self-serving deals with Xi Jinping.
The immediate effect of these new wrinkles in US policy will be the definite activation of India’s two fronts. Not sure the Modi government is prepared for it.
Joseph Biden takes over as the new US President tomorrow. It won’t be long before the ridiculous South Asian media and, in particular, Indian newspapers, TV channels and the like, begin tom-tomming the appointment on the Biden White House National Security Council staff of former US foreign service officer Sumona Guha as Senior Director, South Asia, and Tarun Chhabra from Georgetown University as Senior Director for Technology and National Security. Elsewhere, Shanthi Kalathil, a journalist, takes over as Coordinator for Democracy and Human Rights and another ex-diplomat who resigned during the Trump tenure — Uzra Zeya is set to be Under-Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights.
Two women of Kashmiri origin too have found a place in the senior ranks of the incoming Democratic party dispensation. Sameera Fazli, who led the Biden-Harris economic transition team will be Deputy Director of the National Economic Council and Aisha Shah will move over from the campaign staff to be Manager Partnerships in the White House Digital Strategy unit.
These appointments will be hailed as a diplomatic boon for India when the record of Indian-origin US admin staffers suggests they are usually more critical of, and severe on, India than other Americans. Realistically what’s in the offing is that this country’s interests are going to get it in the neck!
Here’s why. The Modi dispensation’s greatest vulnerability is that it is tough on India’s Muslim minority community, and that it finally did what previous Indian governments had shied away from doing, namely, ridding the Constitution of Article 370 bestowing special status within the Union for Jammu & Kashmir, thereby finally and fully integrating Kashmir into the country. Moreover, it permits all Indians to enjoy the same reasonable rights of domicile and residentship in Kashmir as Kashmiris who have settled down in other Indian provinces do.
Donald Trump’s Islamophobia that virtually saw the gates to the United States closed to all Muslims was in sync then with the Modi government’s internal political and electoral leanings. This removed the troubling trifecta of issues of human rights, religious freedom and treatment of minorities that Modi’s “Friend Barak” had flagged during his Republic Day foray some five years ago, and which has perenninally been the source of discord between Delhi and Washington, from contention. Because during the Trump presidency these issues were missing from the bilateral agenda, it enabled the kind of personal bonhomie between Modi and Trump. The Modi regime could brush off the occasional embarrassment of, say, the US Commission on Religious Freedoms putting India on the watch list only because the Trump White House didn’t give a fig about Muslims generally and even less about how they were treated in distant India as long as the Modi regime kept placating Washington with its default option of buying more and still more Lockheed C-17s and C-130J transport planes for the Indian Air Force and Boeing P-8Is for the Indian Navy in a series of multi-billion dollar deals that kept the US defence industry humming.
The situation has turned over. Consider this: There will now be a laser-focus on human rights issues by the Biden Admin that had so far been ignored. This incidentally gells with Biden’s domestic agenda of catering more fulsomely to his black, Latino and immigrant sections of the American society. Guha at the centre of Biden’s South Asia-related foreign policy initiatives will begin coordinating the separate human rights initiatives that Kalathil in the independent human rights agency and Zeya at State Department and their staffs will in the next four years, at a minimum, put together. These will be measures to pressure the Modi government into backing off from its illiberal stance on minority rights and to go easy on pet Hindutva themes — cow slaughter, love jihad, etc. — the sort of exotic issues that readily catch Washington’s eye.
All the diplomatic tap-dancing by foreign minister S Jaishankar around these sensitive subjects won’t impress these more worldly-wise Indian-origin types in Biden’s advisoriate much.
Biden will stick to Trump’s China policy contours for the nonce if only because the rightwing ‘insurrection’ staged at the Capitol last week has Washington establishment agog. Moreover, his priority to get speedy US Senate approvals for senior appointees to his cabinet, and to undo and reverse a whole slew of Trump’s executive orders will keep the new President preoccupied for the better part of the next six months. So Biden is unlikely to pay India much attention other than as the latter impacts Afghanistan, and here what transpired during NSA Ajit Doval’s recent quick trip to Kabul will evince US interest. This six month window also affords the Modi regime the time to clean up its human rights act.
Vice Pesident Kamala Harris notwithstanding, what will not happen is that the switch will suddenly be thrown for India to benefit from a gush of high-value US military technologies, etc. Fact is Chhabra, liaising across the corridor with Guha, will be just as stingy on allowing high-technology transactions with India. This has been the US establishment posture since Reagan’s days in the mid-80s when the ice was broken and the then Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger on his trip talked of India being given open access to US military technologies only for Delhi to discover that the promised flood was but a trickle and then India had to jump through the hoops for it. This is still the case.
Indeed, the US may, in fact, demand from Delhi a whole lot more on the human rights front and trade concessions beneficial to America than is politic for Modi to give. Indeed, with Biden echoing Obama’s ‘in-sourcing’ mantra, the likes of Fazli will flesh out incentives to US companies to shift their manufacturing base and capital investments from China, not to India, but back to the US. And because, like in everything else, the Indian government maintained a tardy pace of reforms that has not to-date motivated global investors to move heavy monies into India or to set up their production hubs here, the window of opportunity that was open for awhile during the Trump interregnum has closed.
The aim of the unprecedented declassification and release of a policy paper by the White House only days before Trump’s departure — ‘US Strategic framework for the Indo-Pacific’ laying out the American policy for Asia was, presumably, to lock Biden into China Trump’s policy. Minor details aside, Matt Pottinger, who drafted this document and was Trump’s main in-house adviser on the Indo-Pacific, expects that Guha, et al will, for instance, conceive, as his paper does, India as “a counterbalance to China” and incline towards building the Indian military up just so it is able “to effectively collaborate with the United States”.
Considering Modi has given no indication of letting go of the close relationship developed with Russia over the decades anytime soon, what does this mean? Well, the tension will come to a head sooner than later when the Countering America’s Adversaries Through the Sanctions Act provisions kick in. India will likely be sanctioned for buying the Russian S-400 air defence system in the face of some quite considerable push from the US against it. The Guha-Chhabra team will insist on the Trumpian condition of India needing to ease itself away from that particular contract. That won’t happen, so it will leave bilateral relations up in the air.
Incidentally, for the same wrong reasons there is elation on the other side of the Radcliffe Line as well. Pakistani media are glowing with reports about Pakistani-origin Americans as Biden appointees. The most significant among them is Salman Ahmed as head of Policy Planning in the US State Department. In policy importance terms, Ahmed outranks Guha and all the other Indians. There’s also Ali Zaidi, who will assume the post of Deputy Adviser on Climate to Biden.
The worst case for the Modi government will be if the Guha-Zeya-Kalathil emphasis on human rights and Kashmir segues with Ahmed’s thinking on the subject, and Aisha Shah from the White House expertly uses the social media possibly to needle Modi. Further, “cross border terrorism” will resonate even less with the Biden government than it did with the Trump Admin for the reason that no one on the US side will be other than reluctant to conflate terrorism with Pakistan. To top it all, Delhi will be pressed to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty — something Obama had continually stressed. With Biden set to continue with so many of Obama-era policies, South Asia will be no exception.
These developments at the America-end combined with the Modi-Amit Shah duo sticking fast to their position at the India end will mean bilateral ties going south fast.
News reports reveal that I Corps, one of the three strike corps, has been redeployed to the eastern Ladakh sector to conform with COAS General MM Naravane’s public declaration that “China is the primary front”. I should feel elated that my nearly 30-year long advocacy of converting the bulk of the three Strike Corps (I, II and XXI) into Mountain Offensive Strike Corps (MOSC) is beginning to be heeded.
As Adviser, Defence Expenditure, to the (Tenth) Finance Commission (1992-1995) chaired by former Defence Minister, the late K.C. Pant, I had proposed, in a classified report, that the three strike corps be reconfigured, in the main, into a single “composite corps” of armoured, mechanized, mobile air defence and self-propelled artillery units with several independent armoured brigades as army reserve, which’d be more than adequate for any conceivable Pakistan contingency. The usable war materiel and manpower resources thus freed up, it was suggested, be shifted to raising three MOSCs for the overlong, thinly-manned, China front. I had pitched this as both an economy and force optimization measure, enabling the otherwise defensively arrayed Indian Army to, for the first time, actually take the fight to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on the Tibetan Plateau. It is a theme I have been plugging away in my books and other writings ever since.
As presently constituted, the three strike corps are way in excess of need because, realistically, they can only be fielded and then only for shallow, meaningless, penetration in the desert sector because the west Punjab plains in Pakistan are too built-up and criss-crossed with irrigation canals and ditch-cum-bund defences — tank traps — to permit Indian armoured and mechanized formations easy or rapid ingress. The only justification for even two strike corps is if their exclusive focus is on ‘Sialkot grab’-kind of operations that I originally envisaged (in my 2002 book — Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security) and which the armoured forces have reportedly adopted — whether as principal objective or not, is unclear.
Obviously, the troops from the Mathura-based I Corps presently pulling duty in counter-insurgency Rashtriya Rifles units in J&K — as the first scheduled for conversion — have come in handy speedily to increase the force strength in eastern Ladakh. They haven’t arrived in theatre from the plains, so acclimating to a higher altitude is a bit less onerous. Behind this move possibly is the concern to forestall PLA’s offensive action, if not in the dead of winter, then as soon as the snow melts starting in April. Transporting the jawans from their J&K sites is the easy part; they’d still have to go through, albeit shortened, acclimatization procedures to be able to handle operational tasks. The time it takes to acclimate the average soldier from the plains, in a phased manner, to fight at high altitudes is some three months without the use of thermal chambers, etc.
I Corps undergoing conversion to an MOSC for permanent deployment in Ladakh will permit the newly raised XVII MOSC based in Panagarh to become a fixture on the Sikkim-Arunchal front. [So why were the Corps HQrs located in Panagarh? Perhaps because the considerate army brass decided the senior staff of that MOSC needed to be near the comforts of Kolkatta than far away in the desolate expanse of Sikkim, Bhutan, and Arunachal the formation is meant offensively to defend!] While this is better than not having a second MOSC at all, it still leaves the Central Sector with high passes and more difficult mountainous terrain bereft of meaningful forces to counter the PLA should it choose to make a breach there. A Third MOSC will not only fill this gap but also provide offensive-ready forces to back up I Corps in Ladakh and XVII Corps in the east. Considering how quickly China is enveloping Nepal with Chinese railways prospectively connecting Kathmandu to the Lhasa-Qinghai mainline, with a feeder track already extended to Xigatse on the border, this may in any case be the prudent thing for the army to do.
The Central sector is largely manned by the paramilitary Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). Hardy in many respects and originally trained as Special Forces by the US Army Ranger teams in the wake of the 1962 War, the nature of the ITBP led by Indian Police Service officers, has over the years been blunted. It is treated by the Home Ministry as yet another paramilitary — a’la Central Reserve Police Force, and assigned jobs like quelling the Naxal rebels in the “red corridor”. In the event, the ITBP simply lacks the military grit and resilence and, even more the fighting motivation of, say, the frontline Special Frontier Force filled with Tibetans from the exile community, who preempted the PLA from occupying the Chushul heights in the Kailash Range last summer, by getting there first and thereafter held off the Chinese from dislodging them.
I Corps as MOSC is a good development. Hopefully, Naravane will formally begin the process of rationalizing the existing, entirely skewed and inappropriate Pakistan-front heavy force structure in right earnest. A third MOSC is desperately needed. Going in for an entirely new raising, however, is a prohibitively expensive course of action. Far more economical would be to, say, convert XXI Corps as well.
Writing this at three in the morning, January 6, 2020, I see rednecks from all over the United States streaming onto the Capitol Hill in Washington DC, intent on having the November election results reversed! Wilfully incited by the outgoing knucklehead of a President, Donald J Trump, they stormed the Capitol building housing the two houses of the American legislature which are involved in the formal certification of Joe Biden’s election victory. They streamed past paralyzed police and the paramilitary, National Guard, et al, who by and large are standing around doing nothing, perhaps, because the 30,000-strong mob was doing Trump’s bidding. So much for American democracy, a supposedly liberal system, in action!
Having witnessed such instances of breakdown of democratic norms on numerous occasions during my some 14 odd years spent in that country, I have long maintained that, while democracy as a system is inherently delicate and fragile everywhere, American democracy more than most others is always teetering on the brink of breakdown, hanging on for its dear life by its fingernails. And that US’ over-zealous profession of democratic values should, therefore, not be taken seriously. And I am not saying anything about institionalized racism in the US, most conspicuously targeting the black population in that country.
There is never any shortage of political drama in the US. It is rivetting reality television! Have been up all night watching what is deemed an “insurrection” unfold on CNN. In all my writings, I have always urged the Indian government to show US interlocuters the proverbial finger anytime they bring up the matter of India needing to up its game where the integrity of the democratic process and respect for human rights is concerned. As first order of business this morning, the External Affairs Ministry should wag a finger at Washington, as the latter does when there are riots and other disturbances in India. The MEA spokesperson should unctuously demand that the US government protect the democratic verdict and improve its democratic system. This’d be the appropriate thing to do considering how American agencies routinely meddle in the internal affairs of developing countries, including India, lecturing them on how a good demcracy ought to work. The US Commission on Religious Freedom, it may be recalled, recently put India on notice for violations.
Indeed, watching the mayhem in Washington on TV the former US President George W Bush likened America to a “banana republic”. Let India never again be lectured then on freedom and democratic functioning by a banana republic without the Indian government asking it formally, and diplomatically, of course, to shutup! Erdogan’s Turkey — an autocracy if there’s one — has already stuck a knife in Washington’s side by asking it to protect its democratic tradition!
To see the rule of law sidelined by security officers shrugging their shoulders and letting these crazed yahoos try and exert their will on the US Congress is to be reminded of Indian state and central police, time and again, standing aside and allowing rioters to do their thing undisturbed, simply because the law breaking is orchestrated by minions of the concerned Prime Minister or Chief Minister. Rajiv Gandhi let murderous mobs kill Sikh citizens at will on the streets of Delhi in 1984. And state police in Gujarat, Maharashtra, UP and in other states have frequently acted as bystanders as the Chief Minister’s supporters ran riot.
My initial experience of law & order breakdown in the US was during my first summer there (1968). I saw on TV Chicago Police go absolutely berserk, literally smashing the heads of young people protesting America’s involvement in the war against Vietnam. The scenes were so bloody and heartrending, it shocked my then fairly innocent sensibilities. Nine years later, I found myself on Ground Zero, as it were. It was during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. I was on a sidewalk just outside the UCLA campus early one Fall evening and found an Iranian on the ground being mercilessly kicked in the stomach and head by two young goons. I was still about 20 feet away when I came upon them. They stopped, turned and started walking threateningly towards me. Two feet away, one of them asked angrily if I was an “I-RANEAN”. I responded that I wasn’t whereupon they turned and left!
As I tried to help the bloodied Iranian on the ground to sit up I saw not 8 feet away an LA Police patrol car parked with 2 policeman inside it. They hadn’t moved to prevent the beating of this grad student. I shouted out to them to help me get this grievously hurt person to the UCLA medical school hospital down the road. The dismissive response from one of them was: “Do it yourself!” before they drove off. I somehow managed to do that with the help of two other students. It occurred to me in a flash then just how gossamer thin the law & order pretensions of the US really are; and have been skeptical ever since. My eyes glaze over and I instinctively stop listening when Americans, high and low, talk of their “democracy” as a beacon of anything, least of all hope, in the world.
In the last 40-odd years of attending international seminars and conferences I have been struck by a trend that’s hard to miss. It involves Indian-origin academics, retired Indian diplomats and military officers, and India-based academics and thinktankers, who have the opportunity to speak their mind untrammelled by official Indian Government restrictions and to convey to Western, especially US, audiences India’s core national interests and why these often clash with Washington’s preferred policy, but don’t do any of this. Instead, they usually say things soothing to American ears.
Often times, I have found myself over the last three decades to be the lone Indian voice, airing views contrary to what’s being said, by all the other participants, Indians who have in their careers held high government positions included. Initially I was perplexed. Now it gets my goat.
If the image is consistently projected in US policy circles and among the Western intelligentsia by these Indians and NRIs that India is sympatico with whatever the US is doing in the international arena, then it roots certain expectations in the American policy milieu. As a result, not unreasonably Americans, even those who ought know better, end up believing that Delhi is departing from the mutually accepted script and working against US interests even if India is acting in its own best interests. When US policymakers find Delhi not acting as is expected they slide over to the punishment mode. Whence the sanctions that India has often faced in the past. Most recently in the period post-1998 nuclear tests. In the soon-to-end Trump presidency, for instance, it congealed into an attitude that was more punitive than transactional. In the Biden Administration US foreign policy is likely to revert to America’s liberal do-gooding instincts, albeit in a muted form after two decades of military activism and interventions, which in the George W Bush years led to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and the start of the unending cycles of extremist violence and instability in West Asia and turmoil world-wide sourced to militant Islam that the world has experienced ever since. Talk of good intentions breeding evil.
But why do Indian-origin types feel the need to suck up to Americans? The IT software techies, engineers, doctors and other ‘professionals’, are happy beavering away at their jobs and are not really in the policy swim. The bulk of the Indian community limits itself, when convenient, to attending ‘Bollywood nights’ and “Howdy Modi” sort of political circuses should these come to town as a way of keeping engaged with the ‘old country’ in which, otherwise, they have neither interest nor stake. Their sole focus is on keeping the ‘family reunion’ provisions in their resident visas open to enable them to cart more of their relatives to America. They look to the the Indian government to be helpful in this regard.
Then there’s the growing lot of NRIs on liberal arts faculties in various American universities/colleges, the more conspicuous among them lecturing Delhi, in line with Washington’s commitment to nuclear nonproliferation, human rights, containing China, etc. on the perils of nuclear proliferation, the non-desirability of India building up a strong thermonuclear deterrent, and of fielding intercontinental ballistic missiles, and going with nuclear first use, on the benefits of strategically partnering the US in the Indo-Pacific, and the virtues of respecting minority rights, the special status of J&K, and of retaining a liberal social order. Individuals in a sub-section in this group involved in security studies strive to make a reputation for themselves by replicating concepts and ideas developed by Indian civilian strategists and passing them off as their own in US academic quarters, secure in the belief that no American analysts reads books by Indian strategists anyway! All these academics adhere closely to the offcial US policy line on the issues they advise Indian governments on because not doing so would stunt their careers. Ironically, their writings are then quoted by Indian analysts and media to make the case for a small, inoffensive, nuclear deterrent, for India becoming a cog, in effect, in the US military machine in the Indo-Pacific, etc.
Then there are the US-born and reared Americans of Indian ethnic origin — such as Richard Verma, the sometime US ambassador in Delhi, who are Indian only in their looks but otherwise, unsurprisingly, entirely American in their outlook. The shared Indian looks frequently leads Indian government officials mistakenly to expect a more empathetic hearing than they get. Indeed, I have found in semi-formal interactions with US officials that the US-born Indians among them are the loudest in decrying India’s policies and in challenging Indian policy predicates. The reverse is just as true. The Washington policy circles expect these ethnic Indians placed in South Asia -related positions to have some special insight into India’s foreign and other policies when actually they are no better clued into what’s happening in Delhi and in the states than their average white counterparts. I recall a conference hosted several years ago by the National Defence University in Washington DC on the sidelines of which the hosts arranged for me to meet with the US National Security Council Staff. At this meeting in the Excecutive Office Building adjoining the White House, the head of the South Asia section, Nisha Agarwal, who was later elevated in the Obama Administration to be Assistant Secretary of State for Southern Asia, was the most vocal in slamming the Indian government for not delivering on the 2005 civilian nuclear deal, on not being as receptive to US’ strategic initiatives in Asia, etc. She put on this show possibly to show her colleagues how hard she could be on India — apparently a litmus test that Americans of Indian origin in the US government have to pass!
A more dangerous lot comprises retired Indian diplomats, especially ambassadors posted to the US, who while in service “cultivate connections” and, after retirement, ease into numerous thinktanks and university faculties around Washington, DC. They produce little of any intellectual or even policy worth but remain in circulation spouting innocuous stuff except on occasions when they have to “sing for their supper” and come out strongly against India’s nuclear buildup or some move by Delhi on the domestic harmony & peace front. These persons are problematic because they are taken seriously by the US policy establishment as having their fingers on the pulse of Delhi (or at least the MEA) and what they say is used by those critical of India for their own purposes. Not to name and shame anyone, but one such diplomat was successively a Fellow at Brown University, “practitioner-in-residence” — whatever that means — at the Rockefeller Foundation-run Bellagio Centre in Italy, Global Fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, and professer offering a course in Sino-Indian relations at Columbia University in New York city, all this without producing a single research paper or any other policy-relevant writing of note, leave alone a book!
More intriguing still is a new stream — of retired Indian military officers who seek a place in the American sun! Many, many, moons ago at a conference called by the then US Pacific Command in Hawaii, the person who was the most vociferous in rejecting India’s nuclear assertiveness was a retired Vice Chief of the Army Staff. To my dismay, he put on a similar show at a conference called by Wilton Park — a thinktank of the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Wilton Park is a vast estate in Buckinghamshire that was used in 1946-48 to “re-educate” World War Two German officers who were prisoners of war! Such “exposure” was parlayed by this Indian General into a year-long stint at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. Since then many more ex-Indian military officers have climbed aboard this gravy train, translating one-off appearances at academic conferences into consultancies with various US agencies, etc.
The more intellectually inclined among them hanker for placement in thinktanks and at universities. I remember some 20 years ago a one-star officer approaching me for advice about what to do and how to go about securing a sinecure at an American institution. By then he had written a book and I suggested he could become a strong proponent for a meaningful Indian military aggressively championing India’s national interest. He knew better. He did the exact opposite and it worked! He spent time at leading security thinktanks in the US run by the Pentagon by essentially tailoring his message to suit his American audiences. More recently, a retired army colonel whom I had respect for has found a second career as a reporter covering Ministry of Defence for an Indian newspaper on which he has piggybagged a third career as lecturer at a US university. Without at all considering the downside of India losing its leverage with Russia and Iran, its role as balancer of power in the international system, US’ record of unreliability as strategic partner, or the better geostrategic options that are available he now argues, as do others within and outside the government, for India to link up militarily with the US in the Indo-Pacific as a means of ringfencing China.
The reason why so many retired and serving Indian government and military officials canoodle with Americans is simplicity itself . It is the same reason why young Indians try desperately hard to somehow find their future in America — it is a damned nice place to live in with none of the daily aggravations of life even in Indian metros! There’s material plenty, life is good, the universities provide unmatched education, the work place ethos is easy even as it is stressful because there are no time-grade promotions (as enjoyed by the civil services here) and only peformance in the job counts, and entrepreneurship and innovative thinking are rewarded. Of course, there’s a glass ceiling but this is melting away for Indians who with their technical expertise and English language proficiency, by and large, find it easier to get along and go along (in comparison to, say, students from China) and are elbowing their way to the top in corporations and other organizations.
Small wonder the whole broad band of civil servants and diplomats manning the top echelons of the Indian government move heaven and earth to ensure their progeny are educated in the US and settle down there or elsewhere in the modern and ‘secular’ West. The flipside of this parental interest in doing good by the children is, as I warned in my 2018 book (‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’) the rise of a distinct Fifth Column within the Indian policy establishment. It peddles and pushes the US policy line without a twinge of conscience, convinced it benefits India too. Its activity is supported in terms of public outreach by a number of American thinktanks — Brookings, Carnegie, Aspen — who have set up shop in Delhi financed by Indian monies! ( I wrote about this in Open magazine in April 2016 — ‘India’s Foreign Policy — The Foreign Hand’, https://openthemagazine.com/voices/indias-foreign-policy-the-foreign-hand/ )
All the Delhi chapters of the American thinktanks studiously plug and propagate the policy line of the Administration of the day. It is an activity in which a bunch of retired Indian diplomats, serving and former secretaries to the government and senior military officers — all the people, in fact, who whilst in government favoured siding with the US, participate. There is now a counterpart presence in Washington of an Indian thinktank — the Ambani-funded Observer Research Foundation (ORF). This would be a welcome development, except far from creatively articulating for the Beltway denizens India’s vital interests and explaining why these on many important issues collide with US interests, ORF Washington seems to be in the business of doing the same thing the US thinktanks do in India but with a slight twist. It embroiders US policy schemes acceptable to the ruling party in Delhi (going by the op-eds in Indian papers — because there’s little else — by its head)! So, what good it does India is anybody’s guess.
One cannot blame aspiring Indians for seeking a better future abroad or Indian officials for wanting the same for their kids, because the Indian system is too stultified to offer the youth brighter prospects at home. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is among those who has been hugely influenced by America and the “good life” it offers its people. At the core of his government’s ceaseless efforts over the last six years to keep the H1B visa channel open to Indians is precisely his fatalistic acceptance of the fact that the Indian system cannot be changed. Not, as he once promised, by him anyway.
Ever since the first reports of Chinese transgressions into Ladakh emerged in early May, experts had been warning India was staring at a formidable security threat.
The fatal clash in Galwan that left 20 Indian soldiers dead and the subsequent troop buildup in the region had led to fears that the LAC could become an ‘active’ security zone for Indian security forces like the LOC has been.
The fact that India and China have not made much progress in disengagement talks means the standoff in Ladakh could continue into the New Year. Unlike periods of tension with Pakistan—such as during Operation Parakram that followed the attack on Parliament in 2001—the trajectory of the Ladakh standoff is hard to predict given China’s strategic heft and goals and motivations. China’s strategic ties with Pakistan, by means of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, have been linked to the current standoff in Ladakh by some analysts, given Ladakh’s proximity to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Beijing has committed to investments of over $60 billion in Pakistan as part of CPEC to develop infrastructure in Pakistan to make the country a hub for Chinese imports and exports.
To make sense of the direction where the India-China standoff is heading, THE WEEK reached out to two eminent strategic commentators: Bharat Karnad and retired Lt General Vinod Bhatia.
Bharat Karnad is emeritus professor, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Vinod Bhatia, an Indian Army veteran, is currently director of the Centre for Joint Warfare Studies.
Why have attempts at resolving the Ladakh standoff not yielded results?
Karnad: Because of two contrasting negotiating styles. The Narendra Modi government is in a hurry for a final solution of the border issue and willing to compromise. The Chinese negotiating style, on the other hand, considers time an ally. So the proceedings are prolonged, its position maintained without compromise or concession, in an attempt to wear out the patience of the adversary in the hope he will fall in eventually with Beijing’s demands.
Bhatia: There has been a constant effort by both China and India to resolve the ongoing situation by dialogue at military, diplomatic and political levels. On account of hardened positions, the resolution will be a laborious and lengthy process. Peace and tranquility along the LAC are in the interest of both nations. However, post Galwan, there is a total lack of trust. We should give it time as we have the requisite resilience to ensure an effective response to China’s aggressive behaviour.
Is the long-term Chinese plan in Ladakh related to its interests in Pakistan?
Karnad: There are two aspects to this. China wants India to vacate the heights on the Kailash Range around Chushul occupied by Special Frontier Force units while consolidating its hold over Fingers 4 to 8 on the Pangong Tso. Whatever the inducements offered, under no circumstances, should Delhi agree to climb down from the Rezang La ridge and the tops above the Spanggur Gap. The other thing is China’s reported revival of the so-called ‘1959 Line’ by firming up its control of the area beyond the Y-Junction. The Chinese objective clearly is to distance the Indian armed forces even more from the Xinjiang Highway, which is China’s lifeline to its other western province, the Karakoram Pass and CPEC.
Bhatia: I think we went wrong in discerning China’s strategic intent initially. China’s forward deployment along the LAC is a part of Chinese ‘military coercion’. China cannot afford any threat to CPEC, as CPEC is central to China’s dream One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. China would also like India to endorse this initiative.
How important is the status of Depsang in the event of a resolution of this standoff?
Karnad: The blockade of the Y-Junction on the Depsang Plains is crucial and has to be lifted by India, by forceful means, if necessary. Because by preventing Indian troops from patrolling the Indian-claimed area north and northwest-wards, it pretty much permits that entire ‘sub-sector North’ in Indian Army’s parlance—some 975 sq kms in all—to slip into China’s possession.
Bhatia: Depsang is definitely critical to our operational interests as occupation by China threatens the Shyok-DBO-Karakoram road. China will like to play this card to coerce India to seek concessions at other places and, more importantly, threaten Siachen as a collaborative strategy along with Pakistan. However, our occupation of operationally and strategically important heights along the Kailash ridge on the South Bank of Pangong Tso has given India an advantage at the negotiations. India aims at ‘status quo’ ante as of April 20 and continued peace and tranquility, ensuring equal and mutual security.
Is there a basis for fears of a two-front war against Pakistan and China?
Karnad: Realistically, a two-front war is less of a possibility; the more worrisome thing is the Modi government agreeing to withdraw Indian forces an “equal distance” as part of a “comprehensive” accord. Such an agreement will seriously handicap Indian forward units, because the PLA, availing of a dense network of border roads, will be able quickly to rush and occupy strategic locations presently in Indian hands even as the Indian units struggle, owing to still-thin border infrastructure.
Bhatia: China has always been a long-term threat. Recent China’s arrogance and aggressive behaviour now indicate an immediate-to-near-term threat, with the probability of manifesting as a China-Pakistan collaborative threat in the conventional (warfare) domain. India will need to ensure peace through military preparedness. A two-front war is a reality. India should also look at like-minded nations to negate the China threat; ‘bind to balance’should be a good way forward. India should also reset and refresh its China policy. However, the reset policy should be pro-India and not anti-China, despite the anger and anguish caused by China’s betrayal yet again.
How much will US policy change with respect to India once a Biden administration takes over?
Karnad: There will be changes. The Biden administration, unlike the Trump dispensation, will emphasise human rights issues: Kashmir, Hindu-Muslim tensions and other social issues. This will alienate the Modi government and likely poison India-US relations enough to make uncertain such US assistance as Delhi would have otherwise relied on in a confrontation and crisis involving China.
Bhatia: The Biden administration’s policy too will be dictated by US interests. There are a congruence and convergence of interests of India and the US, especially where China is concerned. In a post-COVID-19 world order, India will be a global leader and hence the US will need India as the ‘balancing power’ as the balance of power shifts from West to East.