It’s unclear what Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said to US President Donald Trump when the former called the White House on 11 February. Reportedly what sealed the presidential trip to India was Modi’s promise that some 5–7 million people would be lining the route from Ahmedabad airport to the new stadium in Motera to greet him.
Ahmedabad is the largest city of Gujarat, the state where Modi ruled as chief minister for over a decade. For a showman like Trump, the prospect of dawn-to-dusk US television coverage rich in colourful imagery featuring millions of Indians attesting his international popularity and exotic locales like the Taj Mahal must have been too intoxicating to turn down, especially in a year in which he is seeking re-election.
Optics is clearly the driver of this visit.
Yet in getting Trump to visit India, Modi may have exaggerated the crowds that his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will be able to muster. What may transpire is a repeat of Trump crowing that his 2017 presidential inauguration attracted ‘the largest crowd ever’, despite cameras showing otherwise. The President may claim ’millions’ welcomed him in India, when evidence might only reveal a few thousand waving flags held by school children and public employees instructed to line the roads negotiated by the Trump motorcade.
Before Modi’s phone call, Trump had publicly made the India trip conditional on a ‘real trade deal’. But Trump relented despite the lack of any substantial trade agreement.
The Modi government stuck to its stand that exports of US dairy goods to India require the US government to certify that these products were not sourced from animals fed with feeds produced from ‘internal organs, blood meal or tissues of ruminants’. This rules out most US dairy items. This deliberate complication of the certification process is another way of ‘protecting’ the 80 million Indian rural households involved in the dairy industry whose interests no government in Delhi can ignore.
Still, India is expected to agree to a face-saving deal in return for its retaining beneficiary status in the US Generalized System of Preferences. India may reduce tariffs on certain niche agricultural products such as cherries and blueberries and on other items like Harley Davidson motorcycles that Trump is so hung up on. But only a small dent will likely be made in the US trade deficit with India (running at US$16.9 billion in 2018–2019) as a result of the Trump trip.
The US failure to pressure India on dairy exports shows the limits of US coercive policies on trade. But it also mirrors the closing down of the US H1B visa channel that Modi pleaded with Trump to keep open. It may convince Trump to further twist Modi’s arm to buy vintage military hardware that the Indian armed forces are unwilling to acquire, such as the venerable F-16 fighter aircraft in service with the Pakistan Air Force for the past 40 years but refurbished with new avionics and numeral designation (F-21).
Washington’s case is that manufacturing the 1970s vintage combat plane in India under license would be open sesame to more advanced military technology deals in the future. But it has failed to convince India because modern combat aircraft and other military technologies are readily available from Russia, France and Sweden. A consolation contract is in the works for the sale of 24 SH-60 Seahawk helicopters worth nearly US$2 billion from the United States to India.
The F-16 symbolises US reluctance to transfer high-value technology. Its reluctance was also highlighted by the 2012 Defence Technology and Trade Initiative that was meant to facilitate collaboration in cutting-edge military technology development but has not resulted in a single project to date.
For Modi to throw Trump a bone and consent to F-16 production as a flagship venture in his stillborn ‘Make in India’ program would risk ridicule and weaken his political standing. It would further fuel an opposition drive against his government that is already buoyed by the BJP’s successive electoral defeats in Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Delhi. It may prompt Modi to move slowly on Trump’s request to remove the case-by-case approval for US forces to use Indian military facilities under the 2018 Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA). Another reason is that Modi is simultaneously cultivating relations with China.
In lieu of invigorating LEMOA, Modi may agree to sign the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) to share geospatial information via digitised maps for accurate terminal guidance of projectiles. BECA will complete the set of three ‘foundational accords’ that the United States has been hankering for, the other two being LEMOA and the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement.
Modi and Trump are alike in that they are both narcissistic, autocratic and hate to lose. Trump’s India trip may put both of them to the test. Neither will want to be seen as backing down or accepting accords contrary to India First and America First rhetoric for fear of domestic backlash. Personal bonhomie between Modi and Trump is real but it cannot plaster over the deep India–US differences in trade and technology or in geostrategic interests and calculations.
While the national interests of India and the United States overlap a little, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald J. Trump are personally in sync. This last is, perhaps, because they are alike — self-centered, autocratic, and relentless in playing to their political bases. So drama attends on any cooperation they can muster, especially in the foreign policy field because differing geographies dictate divergent approaches, tactics and strategies.
Dealing with the mercurial Trump is like traipsing through a minefield. He threatens termination of trade and US military presence abroad to get his way. He perceives India as a soft target and is ranging on it, complaining about unbalanced trade, Indian software companies exploiting the H1B visa regime, Delhi’s delay in activating the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement that will permit US forces to use Indian bases, and about India’s reluctance to manufacture under license the 1970s vintage F-16 fighter aircraft outfitted with new doo-dahs and designation (F-21). Trump’s bargaining method is to insist the other side meet his demands or face pain. It has fetched him success with NATO allies (anteing up $400 billion in additional defence spending) and China (removing $75 billion in tariffs).
To prevent Trump tilting against India, Modi’s strategy is one of placating the US with periodic buys of non-lethal, defensive, capital military hardware – P-8I maritime reconnaissance aircraft and C-17 and C-130J transport planes, Sikorsky SH-60 Seahawk anti-submarine warfare helicopters (a contract for 24 of these rotary wing aircraft may be signed to mollify Trump), or outdated weapons systems (M-777 howitzer) that don’t occasion controversy abroad or scrutiny in the US Congress. However, far from softening Trump’s attitude, it has strengthened his belief that he can keep pushing because Delhi has nothing to pushback with – a view Modi apparently concurs in. How else to explain that in the last four years vis a vis the US there has been no give and take, just give and more give on India’s part?
Toting up the pluses and minuses and weighing the outcomes, a dispassionate assessment shows meagre returns on Modi’s policy. On Pakistan-sourced terrorism – the PM’s signature tune, the US has limited itself to making anti-terrorism noises at the Financial Assistance Task Force and other forums amounting to ineffectual posturing because it is not followed up by hard pressure on Pakistan and China. This pressure the US won’t impose because it needs a helpful Islamabad to extricate itself militarily from Afghanistan. For the same reason, Delhi’s longstanding request for “raw intelligence” on Pakistan-based terrorist gangs has been denied, with only “processed”, meaning appropriately diluted, possibly doctored, information being onpassed to Indian agencies.
Further, despite Modi’s pleas, Trump is closing down the H1B visa regime, virtually eliminating the comparative low labour cost advantage of the $181 billion Indian software industry, and is pressing India to lift restrictions on US agricultural commodities and dairy products. With respect to the Indian government’s perennial hope of collaborating in advanced military technology development, the 2012 Defence Trade and Technology Initiative set up for the purpose has not resulted in even a single project. Delhi fails to appreciate that America won’t transfer in-date technology for love or money or disturb the military balance in South Asia it helps sustain.
And what of the shared geostrategic objective? The US is determined to avoid armed conflict with China at all cost. In practical terms, therefore, for India there’s little beyond arms sales and simple military exercises. The annual Malabar naval exercise, for example, graduated to joint fleet air arm maneuvers only in 2019, its 24th year. But huge diplomatic energy is expended in the “dialogue” process – frequent Modi-Trump meetings, 2×2 summits, etc.. If dialogueing mattered all that much, the Indo-US “strategic partnership” would be flying.
High time India explored an alternative security coalition organic to Asia of “rimland” states and offshore countries to strategically hamstring China. Such as a modified Quadrilateral involving the littoral and maritime assets-rich India, Japan, Australia and a Southeast Asian group of Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, an arrangement that would minimize an unreliable America’s role.
[A truncated version of this article with the title “Buying peace with useless arms” is published in The Week, issue dated March 1, 2020]
Heart sank when soon after his appointment as the first Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat talked of the CDS in India working to a different tune than its counterparts elsewhere especially with his hint that he would adopt a collegial mode of decisionmaking with the Services’ Chiefs of Staff. This suggested a familiar mode of operations where the Service Chiefs would exercise their veto whenever their service interest was “compromized”.
So, it was a pleasant surprise to find General Rawat, moving very fast to embed the CDS system in the system of systems, announce three seminal developments. That these are three issues I have elaborated and analyzed at length, and fiercely advocated over the years, most recently in my 2015 book Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet), is particularly gratifying and indicates how ideas, through a process of osmosis, get injected into policy deliberations and get to the implementation stage.
Firstly, is the imperative of inter se prioritization; Rawat has made it the CDS’ prerogative. Deciding between the three Services’ expenditure priorities was always icky business given that the Defence Ministry shied away from its responsibility for choosing the programmes to fund from among competing demands and military requirements. Interestingly, Rawat has by way of curtain raiser selected, correctly, to emphasize the Indian Navy’s sea denial mission, i.e., submarines, over the sea control role performed by the aircraft carrier. And he has nixed the third carrier in favour of the Project 75i submarine and the nuclear powered hunter-killer subs, which together will cost the country a pretty penny. And this is in the face of an aviator, Admiral Karambir Singh, heading the navy. It speaks as much for the CNS’ foresight as Rawat’s long view and both need to be commended. The real test of Rawat’s design for an integrated military will be if he successfully pushes for the rationalization of the armoured-mechanized component of the land forces to obtain a single composite strike corps supported by several independent armoured brigades with the surplus manpower and war materiel from the demobilized two strike corps shifted to outfitting two additional offensive mountain corps for a total of three such formations for the China front.
Second, Rawat’s (and presumably Modi government’s) expressed need is for external bases. Such bases in the extended Indian Ocean region are absolutely necessary to ensure that China’s presence is always at India’s sufferance, meaning that India can keep out the Chinese Navy from “India’s lake” if that, at any time, serves its purposes. Have elaborated on the need for India to have forward presence in the oceanic proximal expanse — in North and South Agalega (in Mauritius), northern Mozambique (where India has a radar station), on Gan Island in the Maldives, Chahbahar in Iran, Trincomalee in Sri Lanka, Singapore and Na Thrang in central Vietnam, and to explore with Philippines basing options at Clark’s air force and Subic Bay, and to permanently deploy a naval flotilla in the South China Sea constantly patrolling those waters, rather than bulk up the Andaman Command. Further, Rawat also hinted at beefing up the military-use infrastructure in that area, like lengthening the tarmac in Campbell’s Bay to take Su-30MKIs which should be accorded priority. Because once the base infrastructure and prepositioned stores and fuel depots are up, rotating naval surface combatants and strike aircraft will be easy.
And finally he talked of a “Peninsular Command” as a theatre command headed by a naval C-in-C, realizing in the process the geography-dictated notion of a unitary military operational space that I have long advocated. This is to follow the air defence command he means to establish by 2021 and five other theatre commands that are to be set up by 2022. This will streamline military planning, operations and operational logistics and thin down the manpower now positioned in 19 odd top heavy commands.
It is a pity Rawat has not so far been persuaded by the larger national benefits accruing from compulsory military service for the youth segment. It will not only help tackle the impossibly difficult pensions problem — which will not be resolved by raising the retirement age for several categories of skilled personnel that he has argued for. What will, other than compulsory service, is the army reverting to 7 years colour service with no pension but a handy monetary reward (of rupees one crore or more). Compare this with the permanent drain on the exchequer owing to pensions for the lifetime of soldiers that may be for as many as 40 years after retiring from service. There’s, in the event, no escape from the deluge of military pensions other than by the means mentioned above. The sooner Rawat gets down to accepting it the better it will be for the country. It will essentially require our shortsighted politicians to not look on the armed services, the army in particular (and, even more, the para-military forces) , as easy employment generators.
[Bharat Forge’s 155mm 52 calibre artillery displayed at Defexpo 2020]
Defexpo 2020 ended its run at the swanky new exhibition ground, created especially for the purpose by the UP government in Lucknow, drew praise. A UP minister declared it a great success on the basis that some 200 MOUs were signed compared to just 40 during the previous version of the Expo held in Chennai in 2018. The minister needs to dunk his head in a bucket of iced water to wake him up to reality. MOUs mean next to nothing. Literally thousands of MOUs have been signed in the last decade, but the foreign direct investment in defence ventures is still almost zero.
But those who participated — and there were more than 200 of the most important Indian and international companies that displayed their wares or tried to cut deals for them, complained that having built the tremendous fair ground infrastructure, the Adityanath regime fouled up in a crucial area — in providing powerful telecommunications coverage to facilitate bulk data transmission for instantaneous displays on screens, laptops and especially smart phones which defence industry representatives these days use to conduct business. With no smart phones working — the telecom service coverage being nonexistent around the trade fairground or so spotty as to be useless any way, the Defexpo was a disaster. As a throwback to paper usage, interested customers demanded brochures, physical documents, and the like that have long since become passe’ and which no self-respecting company rep lugs around anymore! In short, Defexpo 2020 was a communications fiasco. It could have been averted by the UP government installing a bunch of microwave comms towers all round the defexpo grounds.
Strange that no media outlet reported on this astonishing snafu! This even though print and electronic media were present in strength what with prime minister Narendra Modi, defence minister Rajnath Singh and UP chief minister Adityanath attending along with their retinues of PMO, Defence Ministry and Department of Defence Production babus and other hangers-on.
What was, however, a success was the confidence in evidence of Indian private sector military hardware producers who exhibited extraordinarily advanced, streamlined and sophisticated products. Foreign experts and company reps were impressed particularly with the sleek gun systems — Bharat Forge’s 155 mm 52 calibre long range gun, and this company’s ultra-light weight howitzer weighing a ton compared to the next lightest, which is a 3-4 tonner! The price too is something no foreign gun supplier can match — Rs 15-20 crore per piece for the 155 mm gun versus Rs 50-55 crores for an imported gun. A former Israeli general called it the “best gun of its kind in the world!” The Bharat Forge ultra-light weight howitzer with soft recoil technology, ideal for mountain ops, was likewise available to the army when the Modi government opted several years back for the American M-777 howitzer instead in a “government-to-government” deal. In other words, Modi chose to please Washington than put teeth in his own “Make in India” programme upped by Bharat Forge to the much higher value “Made in India” — design to delivery. It cost the country multiples for an old gun system when the locally designed, developed, tested and proven new generation piece was available for the taking.
The other product line that drew oohs and aahs from foreign visitors was, surprisingly, the stall of Adani Defence & Aerospace featuring a range of 7.62 mm assault rifles, machine guns and light machine guns manufactured in a unit in Gwalior set up with 49% equity partner — the Israeli company IWI. This unit has been established to meet current and future Indian demands, and for export. This was such strikingly modern stuff it left many an expert observer goggle-eyed. Obviously, the Adani majority partnership helped the defence ministry plonk for an initial order of 41,000 Adani assault rifles, an item the public sector Ishapore ordnance factory has struggled mightily for years to design and develop.
So the army’s need for two of the biggest and most basic goods — artillery of all kinds in mobile and towed mode can be locally met with the Bharat Forge guns that together with L&T’s K-109 Vajra form a formidable battery, and the military’s requirements of basic infantry weapons by the Adani assault rifles, etc.
If the army means what it says about going increasingly indigenous, a third item — the tank too can be fully home supplied. The Avadi DPSU produces the Arjuna main battle tank which the Indian government, if it was serious about its professions about advancing the Indian defence industry factory, should designate as the only equipment to outfit the country’s armoured formations (with the Russian T-72s/90s under phase out) and restrict the purchase of tanks to the Arjun MBT.
That will leave the field clear for an Indian light tank developed by mounting the Bharat Forge 105mm gun on a light tank chassis that Mahindra, with its expertise in armoured combat vehicles that also impressed at the Lucknow Defexpo, can easily design and produce. What will thus obtain is a 45 ton light tank to equip the first two Divisions of the mountain offensive corps under raising, with two more mountain corps hopefully in the offing, to adequately meet the contingent Chinese threat ex-PLA-occupied Tibet. Kirloskar can perhaps be roped in to design and develop a high torque engine for this light tank to operate optimally in the thin air at Himalayan heights. It is the sort of consortium approach, coupling the different competences of Indian firms that Bharat Forge, Mahindra, and Kirloskar can pioneer in the private sector.
Such consortia can, moreover, offer capital weapons platforms outputted within contracted time frames and cost parameters in deals that the imports-besotted defence ministry simply cannot refuse, and the defence public sector units are inherently incapable of matching.
The new standard for career advancement in MEA is now clearly laid down: the success achieved by Narendra Modi’s mass interface with NRIs on foreign tours, particularly to Western countries (US, UK, Australia, et al) and which events, featuring host country notables, are seen by the PM as affirming his personal worth and standing in the world. The ambassadors lucky enough to be posted to countries where they were asked to manage these circuses have been uniformly rewarded. Modi’s interaction with “students” of the Tsinghua University in Beijing mightily helped S. Jaishankar to occupy the Washington ambassador’s post the latter craved and which, in turn, and with a little help from friends in the US government, eased his passage into the Foreign Secretary’ chair. Likewise, Navtej Sarna, who as High Commissioner to the UK impressed Modi by pulling off the massive assemblage of NRIs at Wembley Stadium with British PM David Cameron in attendance in November 2015 was promptly dispatched to the US as ambassador to work the NRI crowd there, which efforts eventuated in the “Howdy, Modi!” event in Houston last year, benefiting his successor Harsh Vardhan Shringla now promoted as Foreign Secretary. True, Rajiv Gandhi installed his favourite PK Kaul, ex-IAS, former cabinet secretary, and paid-up member of the “Kashmiri mafia” that surrounded his mother Indira Gandhi, as ambassador to the US in 1986. But success in arranging big events with a lot of hoopla has only now become a unique standard for promotion to FS-ship. As far as IFS officers are concerned, they have to be in the right place to cash in. That and pure luck with the timing of the PM’s tours!
But why this digression on the MEA promotions policy when the topic is the restructuring of MEA? No reason at all except to put down a marker (because by itself the topic of which diplomats make it to the top and why doesn’t deserve a separate post)!
An administrative shakeup or a reshaping of the decision making schematic is usually undertaken by a government when it finds the previous system failing to deliver. With substantive success in the external realm ranging from thin to scarce in the past 6 years, the Prime Minister, hoping for better results, has approved this restructuring to turn things around. But because in the Modi dispensation Modi alone matters, the contribution by careerist babus, including the incumbent external affairs minister, is limited to filling in the details of policies laid down by the PM. This fact won’t alter with the changes that have been rung in. What will is the process with more people involved in it. The restructuring may just muddy it up some more. How?
Well, the new scheme supposedly emulates the decision making system in corporations with “verticals” in well defined issue areas — cultural diplomacy, trade & economic diplomacy, policy planning & research, Africa, Europe, Indo-Pacific, international conferences, development partnership administration, new and emerging strategic technologies (NEST), etc. But look more closely and this rejigging exercise that has been in the works for some time now, appears to seek to remedy a problem faced mostly by senior ambassador-rank echelon whose members, at the additional secretary-level, found themselves with time on their hands and very little to do. But this was like elsewhere in the rest of the Government of India where Joint Secretaries run the show. The Joint Secretary-level officers are the sword arm with Secretaries being the public face, taking credit for things going right and the blame for things going wrong usually being carried by Joint Secretaries. The Additional Secretaries (ASs) in the middle in this setup end up twiddling their thumbs.
So, essentially the new MEA scheme is make work for ASs. They are being asked to “direct”, be directors of, the policy verticals which means what exactly, especially in the context of Jaishankar’s ambitious idea — taken from the American system — of placing mid-level diplomats in various line ministries — defence, trade and commerce, economic affairs, etc.? This raises questions about the basic problem even the unstructured MEA, with little presence outside its own ambit, confronted, namely, the remarkably small numbers of diplomats in service, just 930 or so. This is so small a figure, it barely surpasses the size (850) of the Singapore foreign service or that of New Zealand (885), a country with a population of 4.8 million (a figure equaling the population of just South Delhi!). Compared to Japan’s diplomatic corps in excess of 6,000 officers and, even more, China’s with 7,500 diplomats, and America’s 14,000, India’s foreign service is so dwarfed it is laughable to consider India and these latter countries as being in the same game. And yet the Indian government expects that somehow — perhaps by some tantra or magic, this small number of personnel available to MEA will be able to produce the outcomes their gigantic counterparts in Japan, China, and the US do. This is madness.
The Modi regime can restructure MEA all it wants, can experiment with this or that, but short of actually enlarging the Foreign Service ten-fold for a start, the results will still be the same — pitiable. That the annual intake into IFS tops off at 35 officers tells it own sad story. Then there’s the problem of entrant level quality. Civil services generally, and the IFS is no exception, have over forty years now stopped attracting the best and the brightest in the country with college graduates, who choose not to go abroad, understandably gravitating towards business schools and entrant level corporate salaries many times that earned by newbie babus and, even more, by the huge responsibility they are asked to shoulder in the very early stages of their careers with commensurate rewards and advancement of career prospects to follow. Other than transnationals, with more and more Indian companies having presence in foreign countries, senior positions abroad are almost a matter of course. So why would any bright, right thinking, young adult want to be a diplomat when he can do so much better in the private sector and hop, skip and jump to high positions — something simply not possible in government service wedded principally to the seniority principle, with merit and performance as secondary factors? Tumhara time ayega. Tees saal baad, ayega!
Of course, GOI has always had the option of increasing the size of the Indian Foreign Service. This it hasn’t done because of severe opposition from the Service itself as it wants to retain its “elite” status, which is equated by it to remaining small-sized. Why no government has thrust the IFS enlargement decision down the throat of the Foreign Office regardless is a mystery even though the fact of a small and fairly ineffective diplomatic presence being a foreign policy liability has long been acknowledged by the government. Sure, such enlargement plans would require a very large entrant intake and correspondingly large training institutions, such as the Foreign Service Institute, etc.
In the event, collateral entry in massive numbers is the short-term and medium-term answer. To-date the only conspicuous posting in this stream is of a politically connected journalist (who after a stint as media man to President Kovind) was appointed AS in MEA to polish up the Modi government’s public relations (PR). Whether he succeeded in his remit (of improving the perceptions of the Modi regime) is uncertain, but he is now being asked to help promote the country’s cultural diplomacy fronted by ICCR (Indian Council of Cultural Relations). Except, like Policy Planning, ICCR has been good only for providing the Foreign Office with parking slots for officers who wanted to stay on in Delhi pending appointments to better diplomatic stations (than the ones allotted them)! So much for cultural diplomacy.
PR is relatively easy stuff. Not sure if any collateral entrant has been accommodated in any really important position within MEA. This brings up the crucial matter of why manifestly successful persons from the high flying technology sectors or from trade and industry would want to enter MEA using this channel? What job satisfaction could they expect to derive in a situation where IFS(A) officers will be lording it over them and who will, at every turn, try to show them down? After all, one of the reasons the collateral entry scheme has not really taken off is owing to the resistance of the IFS(A) cadre which fears losing ground to technically sound, problem-solving minded, business managers, engineers, and the like, who would do a great job of bringing development assistance projects under the Development Partnership Assistance programmes in Afghanistan, Africa, the immediate neighbourhood, and Central Asia in time and within costs, and who have proved their druthers outside the confines of government and experienced real world problems and solved them (in contrast to UPSC selectees who have known nothing other than serving in government). One can see why such people would be perceived by careerists as threat whose influx in large numbers and regularization in service is to be prevented by any means and at all cost. The intention of IFS officers is to preserve their seniority, perquisites and promotion prospects which, of course, will be disturbed by the collaterals should they want to make a career of it, as some of them might, whence the determination to keep out the interlopers, failing which to minimize their flow into MEA and, in any case, to deny them a receptive and helpful eco-system lest they show success in endeavours where they failed.
The fixing of seniority, etc to ease IFS’ ill will towards collateral entrants have not been addressed by the Department of Personnel & Training or the GOI. It is easier to reconcile the lateral entry of 60-odd officers from other services who have joined the MEA because the presumptive condition is that these other service-wallahs will after short stints or eventually return to their respective cadres, services and ministries, hence, will not mar the promotion prospects of the IFS(A) officers, and therefore can be tolerated.
The seriously troubling matter facing GOI is regarding the collateral entrants. How to get top drawer talent, especially from the technology sectors (artificial intelligence, cyber, bio-engineering, genetically modified foods, quantum computing, robotics, experimental physics, etc.), in particular, into MEA to man the NEST vertical, for instance. There may be the occasional IIT-ian or engineer in the ranks of the IFS but it is unlikely these officers, given the pace of transformative technological change, will have kept up with the cutting edge in their engineering/scientific fields. This renders them as a cohort just as useless as the generalists bulking up the IFS in assessing technology trends, the country’s proven strength in these and allied spheres, etc., and puts them at as much disadvantage when negotiating with, say, Chinese and American diplomats specializing in these fields, as their generalist colleagues. It is the sheer disparity of knowledge and competence that will do in India’s national interest. And what India will end up with is a regular production of unequal treaties that MEA will get GOI to sign on. Realistically, the country will be faced with serial iteration of the 2008 “civilian nuclear cooperation” deal with the US-type of transactions that gut India’s sovereignty and the national interest.
Jaishankar, Modi’s pointman in MEA, will not resolve these issues because as an IFS(A) veteran he will do nothing to hurt his cadre. The MEA collateral entry scheme will, in the event, continue to attract only pliant journalists, media commentators, thinktankers, and such other generalists, who have failed to make a mark. Consequently, MEA is destined to remain grossly undermanned and institutionally incapable of carrying out an activist and comprehensive diplomacy on a global scale of the scale and intensity Modi has apparently in mind.
It is almost de rigueur for a newly appointed military Chief of Staff to ritually make certain statements, for instance, about the supposed readiness of his armed service to fight a “two-front war”. General Manoj M. Naravane, however, displayed a disarming confidence in making them. Asked how he planned to do so, he said the “dual task formations” would switch between confronting Pakistan in the west and taking on China in the north and northeast. “In case of simultaneous threat from both directions,” he elaborated, “there would always be a primary front [where] the bulk of our forces and resources will be concentrated [while] on the other front, we will adopt a more deterrent posture.” Trouble is, the military considers Pakistan the primary threat and accordingly invests in, and deploys, its resources.
A real two-front war-fighting capacity would require India to have unlimited financial resources to afford a comprehensively capable military, self-sufficiency in arms, and the industrial muscle for surge production of all military hardware, nuts and screws up, to quickly fill voids in military stores and lost equipment. But for an army with reportedly only 10 days of ammunition expended at intense rates of fire, Naravane’s is a remarkably sanguine assessment based on flawed assumptions. Namely, that war with China will be limited and unfold linearly and along expected lines, that the terrains in, and weaponry and skill sets required for, the two fronts are similar, and that Indian troops are versatile enough to fight the Pakistan army in Kashmir one day and be airlifted to tackle the Chinese army in the Himalayas the next.
Such views are propagated essentially to preserve and legitimate the existing dated and dysfunctional force structure. Combat arms within this structure constitute vested, often clashing, bureaucratic interests that have reached a modus vivendi they do not want disturbed. Thus, modernising and maintaining three-armoured strike corps with heavy tanks as spear head account for a large chunk (19 to 26 per cent) of the defence budget and, owing to funding constraints, is at the expense of three desperately needed specialised offensive mountain corps. Stuck in plains/desert warfare concepts, shifting resources to, say, Russian T-14 light tank-equipped mountain corps able to take the fight to China on the Tibetan Plateau is opposed even if it means ineffectively working the T-72s from their redoubts on the high-altitude northern Sikkim plains where, on any given morning, 40 per cent of them are unable to cold start.
“Fighter mafias” run major air forces, including the Indian Air Force. In IAF, they phased out the bomber component in the 1970s after the medium Canberra bomber ended service. Short and medium range combat aircraft, however, have been bought pell-mell from every imaginable foreign source. It has obtained, in the process, a fleet without any strategic reach or clout, and so diverse it is nightmarish to upkeep in peacetime, what to speak of in war. In fact, Soviet Union’s offer in 1971 of the Tu-22 Backfire strategic bomber, which would have been a ready delivery system for the Indian nuclear bomb tested and acquired three years later, was spurned and MiG-23BN selected instead. Since the mid-1990s, the Russian advanced intercontinental range Tu-160 Blackjack bomber available for the asking has likewise been ignored. Indeed, dog in the manger-like IAF even prevented the Indian Navy from securing the Tu-22 and the strategic bombing role it had discarded, leaving the country with aircraft optimally usable only against Pakistan.
So, India finds itself in the sorry situation of “cavalry generals” and fighter jocks inflating the negligible threat from Pakistan, skewing the government’s procurement and other military priorities, and using the two-front war scenario to justify this system that has obtained for the country a severely limited, financially ruinous war-fighting capability, increased vulnerability to China and imperilled national security. Such distribution of military attention and resources may suit the government of the day. Whether it serves the national interest is another matter.
This is what someone high-up in the S Jaishankar-led Ministry of External Affairs admitted to a newspaper after the unpreventable debacle at the Paris meeting of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) on January 23: “It was a bit surprising the way US, UK, France, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and even Japan, all of them favoured Pakistan. There is a strong case against Pakistan, as has been since it was put on the grey list, it it was geopolitics at play…seems the changing geopolitical environment helped Pakistan.” (https://indianexpress.com/article/pakistan/changing-equations-in-region-help-pakistan-get-relief-at-fatf-meet-6232408/). That by end-2020 Pakistan will be well out of FATF is also something that has been all but communicated to Islamabad, this even though it has so far complied with only 7 of the 27 conditions but has been “deemed” by FATF, for reasons not clarified, as having met 17 of them.
What is astonishing is that seasoned Indian diplomats, with Jaishankar in the van, are surprised that geopolitics is why so many of the Western countries and Japan that the Modi government has assiduously courted over the past 6 years have turned on Delhi and are now parroting the Chinese view that Pakistan should be rewarded for taking some actions to limit its support for anti-India terrorist gangs (LeT, JeM) active in Kashmir, to curtail the funds channeled to them and to close down the ISI-sourced terrorist money laundering operation generally. It shows just how clued MEA is to the verities of international relations! It is embarrassing the depths to which Indian diplomacy has plunged.
What is geopolitically obvious to every country in the world is apparently invisible to the Modi regime — that Pakistan having made itself pivotal to a solution in Afghanistan is now in a position to dictate how it wants to be treated where the niggling matter of its use of terrorism against India is concerned. Modi, Jaishankar, et al really believe that to the US and the West (with Japan as honorary member) the Pakistan army’s deployment of the LeT and JeM cadres in J&K is more important than Islamabad’s utility to them as the sole conduit to the Taliban! America, of course, sets the agenda with the European states and Japan following it like lemmings. The context is that Trump (like Modi), with little by way of success in his foreign policy bag but facing impeachment and a re-election process, desperately needs to show that it was his Administration that disengaged the US military from its fruitless and expensive thrashings about in Afghanistan — to date costing the US over a trillion dollars! However, to advance this aim Pakistan’s help is crucial.
Islamabad has long recognized the leverage it, therefore, has with the US as long as Afghanistan remains on the boil. But its leaders have often lacked the nerve to play the leverage game, which deficiency is now corrected. The result is that like its mentor China (on nonproliferation), Pakistan is glorying in its position on Afghanistan as a stoker of the problem and as an unavoidable part of any eventual solution which will be delayed as much as is earthly possible by ISI whatever the nature of Imran’s promises of assistance to Trump. That the Imran Khan government is preparing to play this high stakes game at this stage is not little due to the PM appointing as his Special Assistant for national security, Moeed Yusuf, a Washington thinktanker well versed both in geopolitics and regarding Washington’s pressure points, who hitherto had offered clinical counsel through his op-eds in Pakistani newspaper. We can expect more such adroit diplomatic maneuvering by Pakistan and success, and egg on the face of India’s leaden-footed diplomacy.
It is the Indian government’s willful policy blindness to Pakistan’s geostrategic significance to Washington, among other things, as lever to keep India in place and to extort the decisions it desires from Delhi, even in the absence of any US military embroilment in Afghanistan, that makes Modi’s search for “decisive” US-qua-FATF action against Pakistan at once futile and even tragic. Other than revealing the longstanding brain-freeze of the Indian government (that predated Modi regime) when dealing with the US and the West, on the one hand, and China on the other, the fact that it cannot even read the reality correctly, is sobering considering that it can so easily change, obtain and control a new reality were the country’s foreign and military policies not so instinctively and habitually subservient and skewed.
We know why Delhi kowtows to the US and the West (green card, and other considerations in kind, for progeny and relatives of diplomats and senior civil servants manning the Indian policy apparatus), but why does Modi genuflect before China even as Beijing repeatedly kicks it in the face, with FATF being only the latest instance? Hard to make sense of Modi’s bending backwards to make Xi happy unless it is his deep sense of inferiority and hopelessness that he projects — as Indian leaders before him have done — about India’s will and ability to stand up and hit back and, therefore, deciding preemptively to give up, not be in the big power game at all. It is the diplomatic version of the coronavirus sourced from the Chinese city of Wuhan, the site of the Modi-Xi summit and the “Wuhan spirit” that the Indian PM has evoked ever since.
There’s always the thoroughly compromised Jaishankar to offer explanations and rationales, and whose utterances, a former senior foreign service colleague of his dismisses as mere “justifications” of Modi’s policy tilt of the moment.