Book review (belatedly reproduced here):
Jaswant Singh, India at Risk: Mistakes, Misconceptions and Misadventures of Security Policy [New Delhi: Rainlight-Rupa, 2013], 292 pages
Published in ‘India Today’, November 11, 2013
“What is history?”, asked Edward Hallet Carr, the English historian in 1961, triggering a debate that still resonates in academic circles between the relativists who believe that all history is virtually fabrication and the empiricists who think there are irrefutable facts to contend with. Siding with the latter, Carr held that there’s such a thing as “objective historical truth”, which view was charged with imposing a narrative. With competing histories, however, “narrational imposition” belongs to those who are first out with an authoritative take.
This bit of historiography came to mind as I read the latest offering by Jaswant Singh, undoubtedly the most cerebral of our political leaders, as did a conversation I had with him soon after the May 2004 elections. Jaswant told me then that he and Strobe Tâlbott, former US Deputy Secretary of State, would be collaborating on a book on the “strategic dialogue” they had conducted over several years. I urged him not to wait for Talbott, a professional writer who can turn out a book in a trice, but to publish his account as “first draft of history” as quickly as possible. That way, I said, his would be the dominant discourse that Talbott and anybody else would have to react and respond to. Jaswant put store by Talbott’s promise; Talbott meanwhile produced his book – Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy, And the Bomb by September of that year, in which account Jaswant comes out sounding smug and foppish.
As regards his interaction with Talbott, Jaswant says un-illuminatingly in the “Epilogue” that he was “disconcerted” by the American’s emphasis on non-proliferation rather than the mechanics of forging good relations. But Washington had made clear its intention to cap India’s weapons capability below the credible thermonuclear level in the immediate aftermath of the 1998 tests. Hence, Jaswant’s perplexity with the “altered order of … prioritization” suggests Washington had accepted New Delhi’s framework only to initiate the dialogue. In the absence of details, such as the discussions on the negotiation strategy and tactics within the Ministry for External Affairs (MEA) he headed and between him and the National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra, especially on the fallback positions, the question arises: Why was the dialogue persisted with when Talbott had upended the agreed agenda in the initial stages itself?
This book is less a memoir than rumination by Jaswant on the nature of wars, near-wars, and other national security crises faced by the country in the last sixty-five odd years, and why the Indian government acted in most of them with characteristic confusion about ways, means, and ends. He sets up the context stimulatingly by placing New Delhi’s search for strategic autonomy in a milieu in which India is at “the epicentre of four collapsed empires” – Qing, Ottoman, British and Soviet, and “trapped between four lines” – Durand, McMahon, Line of Control, and Line of Actual Control, leading to its “strategic confinement”. This is a stunningly original interpretation that his chapters on the 1947, 1962, 1965, and 1971 conflicts and, what Jaswant calls “the destructive decades” of Indira Gandhi’s rule — narratives stitched together from published sources, partially support.
Ironically, it is in his consideration of the BJP coalition government’s record that he founders. If Jaswant had disclosed what really transpired at the apex level of government with respect to the Kargil border war, hijacking of Flight IC 814 to Kandahar, attack on Parliament, and Operation Parakram, and had he deconstructed the eventual decisions in terms of bureaucratic politics and the storied clashes he had on policy content and choices with Mishra, who dominated the Prime Minister’s Office (and the rest of the government), it would have fleshed out history of that period and shone a light on the dark and personalized pathways by which India’s national security policies actually get made. May be he will dilate on these aspects in his next book.
For the reader, however, the mystery deepens on many counts. How and why was the Indian Airlines plane allowed to take-off from Amritsar when – and this Jaswant doesn’t mention — the previous year a multi-agency exercise (“Sour Grapes”) was practised to prevent such hijacking by simply moving a large truck in front of the plane with commando action to follow? Jaswant’s describing his telephonic order to not “let the f****g aircraft leave” doesn’t help, because it left anyway. Or why an immediate punitive retaliatory air strike on terrorist training camps and supply depots in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in response to the attack on Parliament was discarded in favour of the largely futile and wasteful “general mobilization” for war that relied on US pressure to have effect?
Jaswant seems inconsistent on some issues. For instance, he excoriates policy crafted under public pressure but justifies negotiations with the hijackers undertaken chiefly because of the hysterical demonstrations under television glare outside 7, Race Course Road; and pleads for “restraint as a strategic asset” (with respect to Pakistan-assisted terrorist actions) without defining the limits of restraint. He has surprising things to say on nuclear matters, among them, that the 1998 N-tests were “against nuclear apartheid” (rather than to beat the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty deadline and achieve deterrence with China), tactical nuclear weapons are “illogical”, and that “a formally adopted nuclear doctrine” is absent. His oft-used metaphor of the subcontinental states emerging from the “same womb” collides with his belief that nuclear weapons use between India and Pakistan is possible, when the fact is that owing precisely to the organic links between these societies a war of annihilation was not politically feasible in the past using conventional military means; so, how likely is it in the future with nuclear weapons? With his seemingly anti-nuclear slant, moreover, he courts danger of becoming a poster boy for the nuclear Never-Never Land!
Even so, this book delves into difficult issues of war and peace, and spawns a new geostrategic perspective on Indian policy imperatives, testifying to Jaswant Singh’s intellectual fecundity and capacity for high-value forays into the over-wrought world of national security.