Is India Accepting China’s 1959 Claim-Line As Formal Border?

This photograph provided by the Indian Army, shows Chinese troops dismantling their bunkers at Pangong Tso region, in Ladakh along the India-China border. (AP)
[Chinese troops dismantling their bunkers on the Pangong Tso]

This piece published in my ‘Realpolitik’ column in BloombergQuint, February 19, 2021, and available at


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?


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Questionable commitment of Government and IAF to Tejas combat aircraft series

Image result for pics of tejas lca
[Tejas on tarmac]

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 ) 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)!!

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Myanmarese Generals better for India than Suu Kyi

Image result for pics of Myanmarese General Min Aung Hlaing in Russia
[Myanmar Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu]

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.

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Defence in a financially strained time

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[Finance Minister Nirmala Seetharaman delivering the budget ]

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.

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From ‘in-sourcing’ to red-flagging on rights, Indo-US ties heading into a squall

Joe Biden Inauguration: See Photos as Biden, Harris Sworn In | Time
[Biden and family walking down Pennsylvania Avenue after the President’s swearing-in ceremony]

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


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.

Posted in asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, Central Asia, China, China military, Culture, Decision-making, disarmament, Geopolitics, geopolitics/geostrategy, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Japan, Latin America, MEA/foreign policy, Military Acquisitions, Military/military advice, Missiles, nonproliferation, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, nuclear power, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Pakistan military, Pakistan nuclear forces, SAARC, society, South Asia, South East Asia, Strategic Forces Command, Strategic Relations with South East Asia & Far East, Strategic Relations with the US & West, Taiwan, UN, United States, US., Weapons, Western militaries | 26 Comments

Trouble with the US out the starting gate

[ the new US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin]

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.

Posted in Afghanistan, arms exports, asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, Central Asia, China, China military, Culture, Decision-making, Geopolitics, geopolitics/geostrategy, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Islamic countries, Japan, MEA/foreign policy, Military/military advice, Northeast Asia, Relations with Russia, Russia, russian assistance, SAARC, society, South Asia, South East Asia, Strategic Relations with South East Asia & Far East, Strategic Relations with the US & West, United States, US. | 28 Comments

Indian-origin Americans in the Biden Admin will worsen things for India

Tarun Chhabra, Sumona Guha, Shanthi Kalathil: Meet The 'Incredibly Accomplished' Indian Americans on Joe Biden's National Security Team
[Tarun Chhabra, Sumona Guha, Shanthi Kalathil 0n Biden White House staff]

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.

Posted in Afghanistan, arms exports, asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, China, China military, Culture, Cyber & Space, Decision-making, Defence Industry, Defence procurement, disarmament, Geopolitics, geopolitics/geostrategy, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian ecobomic situation, Indian Navy, Latin America, MEA/foreign policy, Military Acquisitions, nonproliferation, NRIs, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Relations with Russia, Russia, russian assistance, SAARC, society, South Asia, space & cyber, Strategic Relations with the US & West, Technology transfer, Terrorism, United States, US. | 33 Comments

Queasy half-steps in facing up to China

XVII Mountain Strike Corps: Latest News & Videos, Photos about XVII Mountain  Strike Corps | The Economic Times
[Troops of 59th Division of the XVII Mountain Offensive Corps on patrol]

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.

Posted in asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, Bhutan, China, China military, civil-military relations, Culture, Decision-making, Geopolitics, geopolitics/geostrategy, Great Power imperatives, guerilla warfare, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Army, Indian para-military forces, MEA/foreign policy, Military/military advice, Nepal, Pakistan, Pakistan military, SAARC, society, South Asia, Special Forces, Strategic Relations with the US & West, Tibet, United States, US. | 19 Comments

Beacon of Despair and Mobocracy

Hiltzik: Big business discovers the folly of supporting Trump - Los Angeles  Times
[Trump insurrectionists scaling wall of the US Congress]

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.

Posted in asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, Culture, domestic politics, Great Power imperatives, Indian democracy, Iran and West Asia, Islamic countries, MEA/foreign policy, society, United States, US., Vietnam, West Asia, Western militaries | 13 Comments

Peddling a ‘foreign’ policy line (Augmented)

Did not incur expenses for 'Howdy-Modi' event in Houston last year, says  government | India News | Zee News
The September 2019 “Howdy Modi!” event in Houston

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’, )

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.

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