Response to Shivshankar Menon’s review

My response to Shivshankar Menon’s review was published Nov 24 in ‘’, is reproduced below and is at
Shivshankar Menon, as I have long maintained, is the
“smoothest” most intellectually agile Foreign Secretary and National Security
Adviser the country has so far had, and, hence, able effortlessly to negotiate
himself out of corners he has painted himself into!

For starters, his belief – reflected in the title of his book review, that it is unnecessary for India to “loudly proclaim its intentions” is problematic. Surely, in the context of its historical reticence to assume a larger role and
responsibility (except when it was ruled by the British and its resources
marshaled by London to establish the Raj and expand their empire on which the
“sun never set”) it is better for the country to do so than leave it to friends and foes to guess what they are. This way there will be less misunderstanding; it will reassure friends without affecting our adversaries – all of whom being hard-headed will assume the worst anyway.

Then there’s the mystifying contention by Shankar (made at
the book launch event and again in this review) that he is unable to
“recognize” himself in his numerous utterances featured in the book. There’s no misquotation or “quoting out of context” here – because his statements are all taken from his speeches and addresses in various forums (texts of which he/his office kindly and regularly onpassed to me and are in the public realm), and from recorded interviews with me. His discontent then perhaps arises from the uses his views have been put to in order to buttress my arguments that he disagrees with. In retrospect, he may feel he has been shown up in less than stellar light. The risk of interpretation is, however, what public persons assume when they open their mouths!

The difference in our attitude and approach to the subject
of ‘India as great power’, however, is both clear and manifest. One of the
problems is we see the phenomenon from different ends of the historical
telescope. Menon views India’s rise from the perspective of slumping great
powers and is eager to ensure it doesn’t repeat the mistakes of a “Wilhelmine
Germany and a militarist Japan”. Keeping in mind the emergence of Elizabethan
England, Bismarckian Germany, Czarist Russia, Meiji Japan, and Mao’s China, I conclude that guns, in fact, pave the way for economic power and prosperity and, in any case, need not and should not be sought to be sequenced with the latter coming first as the Indian government has striven to do since 1947 with little effect.There may well be policy similarities in the trajectories of great powers in a certain phase of their rise as well as decline, but it makes no sense to confuse the two as Shankar seems to be doing. Indeed, I emphasize in the book that there was nothing inevitable about the ascending Germany and Japan, having become rich and acquired military prowess, spiraling to their doom as a result of hubris and mindless excesses. And that India can be assertive, forcefully stand its ground, extend its influence in widening circles, install an Indian Monroe Doctrine system of security, and support a stable and peaceful Asian and global order but on its terms (which Shankar depicts fairly in his rendition of the case I make in the book in his bullet points) without tipping over into a spiral of violence and causing tectonic disorder (as Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan did).

Our deep differences notwithstanding Menon strives manfully to align himself with my views on the hard power as primary means for India to achieve great power, saying we differ only on “the timing and the route” and that the “prescriptions” in the book are fine “but not as declared policy”, in
other words, that but for the cosmetic aspects, he subscribes to my substantive recommendations for changing the country’s vision, strategy and policies. Speaking personally, this is a particularly satisfying note for the ex-NSA to strike, except he also reveals his cluelessness (and that of the Foreign Office, generally – the scale and extent of which is elaborated in chapters 4 & 7) about the instrumentalities of hard power. He elides over the main themes about the infirmities and deficiencies in India’s mainly tactically (not strategically)-oriented military capabilities, analyzed in some detail and at great length in (chapters 5 & 6), by saying a bit blandly, that “the best judges of the size and qualities” of the country’s military forces are the armed services themselves. Except, as the book shows the Indian armed services have time and again proved they are not up to job, pursuing their combat arm/service/sectional bureaucratic interests often at the expense of the national interest and, in the absence of political hands-on direction, in extremis.

This is evidenced in Menon’s claim that the Manmohan Singh government had, in fact, sought to “involve Pakistan in our regional integration”, and to majorly focus on China as the primary threat as proposed in the book. The trouble is it tried economically to integrate Pakistan by continuing to hold a gun – the army’s three strike corps – to that country’s head. If the political objective
supercedes the immediate military concerns then shouldn’t Menon, as NSA, have
overseen a radical restructuring of the massive armoured and mechanized forces
— way in excess of need, into a single composite strike corps, as I have been
pleading for years and also in the book, which along with the defensive “pivot corps”, would be sufficient for any Pakistan contingency, and diverted the excess manpower and materiel thus freed up to form two additional mountain offensive corps for a total of three such corps for the China front? This was not even contemplated possibly because of the fear that the BJP in opposition would make political hay out of any such move at reorganization and even more because of the certainty that the armour and mechanized forces constituting a powerful vested interest would oppose any such force rejigging. The result is the firming up of the status quo and an army order-of-battle that can neither
overwhelm Pakistan nor stare down China. The insistence by the IAF on inordinately expensive short-legged Western combat aircraft, such as the Rafale, is another recent instance of narrow service outlook making a hash of economic good sense even as the hapless government of India peopled by generalist civil servants fail to generate any good ideas of its own with respect to this or any other defence issue and perforce have to rely on the advice of the so-called “professionals”.

Shivshankar Menon is too much the establishment man to go against it. But he is also too intellectually honest not to admit that weaknesses in the political, systemic, and military set-ups and especially in the prevailing policy mindset combined with antipathy to hard power impede India’s rise.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, China, China military, civil-military relations, Culture, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian ecobomic situation, Indian Navy, Indian Ocean, Indian Politics, Military Acquisitions, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Pakistan military, SAARC, satellites, society, South Asia, Strategic Forces Command, Strategic Relations with South East Asia & Far East, Strategic Relations with the US & West. Bookmark the permalink.

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