No matter what cosmetic gloss (or acne ointment) is put on the recent stand-off between the Indian border police and the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA), India is perceived as having come off second best in test of wiils, as the Chinese intruded across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, and camped in ‘Indian territory’ for 20 days. As a regional power of substance, with robust armed forces and a nuclear arsenal, India has available the full spectrum of policy options, ranging from war to capitulation.
However, the diffident and fumbling Indian reaction to this crisis, once again, brought into public focus questions about India’s political resolve and military preparedness in the face of repeated provocations by neighbours.
Those in Delhi, who tend to downplay recent displays of brazen Chinese truculence, need to recognize the contrasting national mindsets, as symbolically represented by the ancient Indian game of chaturanga (or chess) and its traditional Chinese counterpart, wei qui. Whereas chess is about manoeuvre, direct attack and total victory by checkmate, wei qui is about seeking relative advantage through occupation of vacant spaces and strategic encirclement of the adversary. In the words of Henry Kissinger, the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict was, for Mao Tse Tung, the “exercise in wei qui in the Himalayas”. The Depsang Valley probe could well be part of a continuum.
It has taken six decades of maladroit diplomacy, combined with a dearth of strategic thinking and planning, for matters to reach this pass. In 1950, Indian statesmen viewed China, somewhat patronizingly, as a fellow developing nation, struggling to find its place in the international order. China’s hard-nosed Communist leadership, having emerged victorious from both the Civil War and World War II, had different ideas. In their realist vision, not only would China brook no rival for leadership of Asia, but it would seek parity with the great powers through build-up of military strength and early acquisition of nuclear weapons.
China has made Pakistan the centrepiece of its anti-India grand strategy and, by arming it to the teeth with conventional and nuclear weaponry, it has completely skewed the natural balance of power on the sub-continent, and placed India in the jaws of a pincer. The Machiavellian Sino-Pakistan nexus has not only checkmated India militarily, but also stymied Delhi’s ambitions to be a leading Asian power. Substantive PLA presence in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and its frequent attempts to alter the LAC are some of the sinister manifestations of this nexus.
While a totalitarian China, steadily surging forward, on the back of a burgeoning economy, is now within sight of great-power status, India’s unique brand of democracy has created political conundrums leading to policy paralysis, economic slowdown and social unrest which will have long-term repercussions for national security. Strategic vision has been substituted by an ostrich-like approach which perseveres in the hope that if we maintain status quo, all our problems and adversaries will melt away.
It may seem unrealistic to expect a politically beleaguered government to focus on national security issues at this juncture. The fact, however, is that the citizen-voter has become acutely conscious of security issues and would like to know why a defence budget of over US $ 45 billion cannot insulate him from the depredations of aggressive and arrogant neighbours who pose a continuous threat of terror strikes, stake territorial claims and repeatedly violate our sovereignty? With a general election looming large, there would be an electoral price to pay for such adverse perceptions.
In the time remaining to it, there are three areas in which the government can initiate urgent action to assuage widespread public disquiet apropos security shortcomings.
Firstly, India’s overwhelming dependence on imported weapon systems, missiles and ammunition is a crippling debility which constrain the armed forces from undertaking sustained operations. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the Ordinance Factories Board and the Defence Public Sector Undertakings are all blameworthy for this reprehensible situation, 66 years after independence. A mission-mode national campaign encompassing private and public sector must be launched with the utmost urgency to attain 60-70 percent self-sufficiency in defence hardware within 25 years.
Secondly, two different governments, for sound reasons, convened bodies, to examine shortcomings in national security and suggest remedies. While the recommendations of the 2001 Group of Ministers were partially and half-heartedly implemented by the previous NDA government, the 2012 Naresh Chandra Committee report lies buried deep in the maw of bureaucracy. The UPA government needs to act with resolve and implement reforms; disregarding obdurate bureaucracy and caviling soldiery alike. Only a drastic overhaul of our archaic and dysfunctional national security framework will enable us to fight a 21st century war.
Thirdly, India’s political establishment must cast aside its distrust of the country’s military leadership and dispense with the superimposed layer of generalist, itinerant bureaucracy. The armed forces HQs must be (genuinely) integrated without further delay with the Ministry of Defence (MoD). This would be best done by according recognition to the roles and duties of the Service Chiefs in the Government of India Rules of Business and by cross-posting civilians and soldiers between armed forces HQs and MoD.
These measures will not merely provide reassurance to the voter in 2014, but also convey a patent warning to neighbours and adversaries that India is serious about national security. There is no doubt that it is the total absence of such resolve that has encouraged arrogance and adventurism on their part over the years.
– Arun Prakash (IANS)