“Wisdom consists of the anticipation of consequences.” — Norman Cousins
Key Neighbours: Innately Animus
Inter-state and regional level political, economic and hegemonic rivalries have ever been the common features in the life of any nation. But the case with India is unique. In this case, rivalries stem from the neighbourly adversaries’ compelling urge, even at the cost self-perjury, to debilitate India’s national integrity and sovereign dispensation. For the powerful one among the two habitual antagonists – the Communist Party of China (CPC) – that urge is aimed at imposition of political and economic hegemony in the region to which end it finds India as the spoiler. Whereas for the nuisance making Pakistan state, India-aversion must be a cause belli of its otherwise tenuously construed and disruptive political-religious ideology based nationhood. Geography makes it certain that for India, there would be no relief from this adversarial combine.
Appropriately therefore, it was for the leaders of independent India to take cognizance of the above referred harsh realities of regional politics. Indeed, ever since India’s independence and partition, and the Communist take-over of China, there were clear signs of the compulsive, deep-seated animus exuded by these two antagonists – one a ruthless Communist and the other an innate disparager of ‘Hindu’ India. But filled with sublime ideologies and good faith, strategic blindness actually, if one may – Indian leaders down the line betted on pleasing gestures and platitudes of friendship to ‘win’ the tormentors over. Thus, began the process of the Indian state eulogising a global pariah China’s cause at one end and offering magnanimous concessions to Pakistan’s aspirations at the other. As we see today, both attempts failed to satiate the duo’s predatory hunger. Contrarily, within a decade of independence, it led to the two joining hands to do whatever they could to destabilise and disintegrate India.
Over the centuries, a severely fractured Indian polity had allowed itself to be stripped to the bones by foreign vandalism of its once powerful society, intellect, spirit, skills and resources…
Debilitations of Systemic Disorientations
Taking a cue from that long and sordid narrative, this paper is intended to focus on a matter of contemporary significance, that is, the root causes of ideological, strategic and military disorientations that have brought the nation to grief and affliction to which must be guarded against for its stable future. The discussion is motivated by clear evidences of the present Government taking the matter of national defence rather seriously and in a farsighted manner. Indeed, there are indications of the national leadership gearing up, to the extent the nation’s political, organisational, technological, industrial and fiscal competence might permit, to revamp the nation’s puerile defence management in all its three dimensions – viz, political management of military power, boost of defence technology and industry, and the cynosure of all that, modernisation of the military organisation.
As to how, when and how much of the Government’s ideals would be fulfilled would be known only in times to come. But to give the noble intent a chance of fruition, there are fundamental disorientations in the Indian system that need to be righted forthwith.
Managing the Three Poles of Disorientation
In order to set the trend of systemic mend for good, India’s strategically awakened top leadership, both civilian and military, would need to deal with three poles of fundamental ‘disorientations’ that have been afflicting the cause of our national defence in all the post-independence decades. These three poles of disorientations are – ideological, strategic and military. Indeed, the start point for the top leadership’s intended systemic reformation of the defence apparatus would be to recover from the said disorientations.
Let us then see as to what the first two of these disorientations might be; discussion over military disorientation would have to be an exclusive follow-up. We may thus begin with a look at the roots of the past 70 years of India’s distractive politico-strategic culture and the damaging effect it has had on the nation’s defence policy.
I – Ideological Disorientation
From Compulsions to Ideological Naiveté
Over the centuries, a severely fractured Indian polity had allowed itself to be stripped to the bones by foreign vandalism of its once powerful society, intellect, spirit, skills and resources. In that situation, the helmsmen of newly independent India had, quite rightly, placed societal and economic uplift of the starving and tottering nation as their sole priority. They sought to accomplish that uplift with what scarce resources the looted and under-developed land could offer. That left little else for national defence to go by, but for a pantomime of sanctimonious proclamations of a ‘non-violent and peace loving’, and by implication military power shunning, Bharat. Defence preparedness thus found the bottom of national priorities. For right or wrong – it is easy to be judgemental in hindsight – the democratically elected helmsmen had the nation’s sanction to take that call.
In effect, political control over the military has boiled down to control over petty sanctions and approvals like routine moves and minor procurements, while extraordinary manners of stalling capital schemes are found…
But then nations, even the most advanced ones, are wont to keep military spending as low as possible commensurate with their national compulsions and goals. Many of these have even gone to the extent of lowering their national objectives to reconcile with fiscal priorities and affordability of their desired military power. Given that fact, accordance of low priority to military preparedness, to a carefully calibrated limit, could be viewed as admissible for a newly independent, resource constrained India. However, in minimising their military spending, leaders of strategically envisioned nations appreciate that even if they did not want war, they could not restrain adversaries from imposing one unless they possessed the capability to retaliate with effect. Therefore, they go to lengths to shape their defence strategy by astute optimisation of the nation’s economic affordability and industrial capacity.
In that process, they take their military professionals into confidence and honour their counsel to mutually arrive at measured long-term and affordable policies in upholding the nation’s defence mandate – and then determinedly act on such policies. Thus, even while squeezing on military spending, strategically envisioned states ensure that each coin of defence spending goes into professionally planned, efficiently executed and consistently programmed defence preparedness, with full backing from all other branches of the state. But alas, ideologists of our nationhood did not adorn themselves with that kind of wisdom! Ideological disorientation was thus reflected in their inability to come to terms with a fundamentally combative geo-political construct that India had to live through.
Skewed Culture of Defence Management
India stands geographically boxed-in by two ideologically inimical, militarily over-primed powers who have been intent on breaking her up – in concert with each other. At another end, greater world power rivals have been seeking her out to perform the role of their political satrapy. Against that, our polity had been counting on projecting a passive and ‘good boy’ image to the world at-large. But hollow platitudes apart, that benign image impressed none, not the least our sworn detractors in the neighbourhood, neither the traditional India-baiting Western chauvinists. On the other hand, ensconced in its idealist comfort zone, the Indian state faltered in devising comprehensive and long-term measures to attenuate the ill-effects of the above-mentioned geo-political construct while harnessing its many advantages.
In our case, accordance of low fiscal priority to national defence got, over the decades, steered into a pernicious system of defence mismanagement that debunked visionary defence policy-making, efficient military planning and regular organisational right-structuring. At the root of this disorientation was an exuberant romance with pious ideals of ‘peace and non-violence’, and then flaunting that romance through silly disdain of the military institution. The instinctive fallout of that culture was to exclude military professionals from having any access to the defence decision-making structure.
Besides the neglect of defence preparedness, our strategic disorientation manifests through many shallow and superfluous notions which clearly influence India’s defence policy making…
That culture failed to distinguish between the nation’s ‘military necessity’ and the state’s routine obligations, even though these two pillars of nationhood must be nurtured apart in their purposes and practices. As a result, schemes connected with the serious business of defence preparedness too were consigned to political machinations, bureaucratic obduracy and fiscal jugglery. Examples are galore, few glaring ones being: one, successive governments’ overlook of maintaining minimum holding levels of weapons, equipment and ammunition that it had itself specified; two, freeing the purely military-dedicated undertakings – like Ordnance Factories, Research and Development Organisation, and Defence Estates, – from the military’s lien; three, pushing a fairly competent pre-independence defence industry to atrophy under a romantic ‘aversion to weapons of war’; and four, disavowal of the concept of ‘military edge’, by stalling defence modernisation projects, perpetuating moribund establishments, archaic processes and hibernating on statutory approvals related to environment and budgetary roll-overs.
Indeed, it was – and still is – a system in which the professionally adjudged initiatives put forward by military planners must be ‘cleared’ by a dozen or more ministerial desks, most of these having neither the responsibility nor accountability over the necessity or urgency of such initiatives. It is a system in which even in these fast-moving times it takes a decade or more to effect even minor upgrade of organisations, weaponry and equipment, thus outdating the proposal before it matures. But what defies logic the most is denying the forces of their basic requirements of war wherewithal in the name of clamping down on high level corruption in defence procurements – a case of the soldier being asked to pay for corruption perpetrated by the same system!
It is a common refrain among the state functionaries to cite a lack of budgetary resources as the sole cause of compromise with the nation’s defence preparedness. True only in part, as the strategically conscious community knows, fiscal limitations alone cannot hold hostage a state’s pursuit of defence preparedness. Indeed, history proves that a responsive system of higher defence management, conjoined planning and implementation across the state apparatus, innovative strategising by military professionals and the leadership’s ‘will’ to take a plunge, can optimally accomplish that mandate within an affordable budget.
Astute evaluation will reveal the fact that the systemic hurdles against defence preparedness are not entirely attributable to fiscal constraints. Contrarily, professional application of timely upgrades of structural, organisational and equipment obsolescence fosters optimal preparedness across all the parameters of military deterrence within innovative budgetary allocations. Further, focused promotion of defence technology and industry leads to countrywide skill and infrastructural upgrades besides generating substantial revenue. But paradoxically, the Indian state remains stuck-up in committing a substantial part of its limited fiscal resources to keep alive a moribund system of defence management that it finds comfort with, foregoing in the process the optimal return of ‘deterrence dividend’.
Alarms raised by India’s strategically envisioned community on the governing establishment’s obduracy in persisting with an unresponsive and out-dated defence management apparatus, had so far been drowned in that condescending ideological disorientation. The result is that unlike the post-1971 period, India’s ‘hollowed’ defence capability deters no more the puny state and non-state forces from thumbing noses at a nation of 130 crore people, while the powerful ones turn haughty, assertive and aggressive with impunity from retribution. It is also ironical that a policy of down-scaling defence deterrence in favour of up-scaling socio-economic progress has encouraged predatory powers to divert the Indian state from that very quest – by forcing it to commit humungous resources towards border security, insurgency, terrorism and small wars.
It will take long years before the ideological and strategic disorientations in our defence decision making process are righted…
Admittedly, in recent years, geo-political realities have found appreciation in the Indian state’s ideological consciousness. But recovery from the ill-effects of the said ideological disorientation would have to be a long haul. Time now to look at the next category of disorientation to be recovered from – strategic disorientation, to wit.
II – Strategic Disorientation
Notion of ‘Political Control’
By a deliberate policy adaptation, the Indian state believed, in defiance of history, that her noble intents would be enough for the habitual expansionists to let go of opportunities to gobble-up territories, besides imposing heavy political and economic costs to keep her from evolving into a reckonable power in her own right. Herein is manifest a strategic disorientation amongst the nation’s political helmsmen and its bureaucratic apparatus, with the military hierarchy acquiescing under a flawed notion of political subservience.
Maintaining the military forces at below subsistence level to the extent of turning it into little more than an armed militia, having bureaucrats and scientists to rule as to what combat capability would suffice for the armed forces to fight with and barring military professionals from apex level defence planning and management – all these under the misconstrued notion of ‘political control’ – have been rooted at that strategic disorientation which have so far afflicted India’s successive political-bureaucratic-military hierarchies. In effect, political control over the military has boiled down to control over petty sanctions and approvals like routine moves and minor procurements, while extraordinary manners of stalling capital schemes are found.
Manifestations of strategic disorientations are a long roll; here just one is enough to bring out its detrimental effect on national defence. After the 1962 debacle, one of the guerilla forces raised was the ‘Special Service Bureau’; it was manned by military personnel and administered by the Home Ministry. That is an age-old recourse to cover one’s adverse asymmetry of regular military power through adoption of sub-conventional means. But whereas the adversary’s lead in military capability shoots-up by the day, that irregular force, instead of being strengthened and upgraded, was converted for border policing role, namely the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB). There was not even a call for rethink! Diversified control over live border policing, inertia over joint-forces structuring, failure to maintain war wastage reserves, neglect of border infrastructure and politicking with anti-national seedings are just some of the serials in that long roll of strategic disorientations.
Besides the neglect of defence preparedness, our strategic disorientation manifests through many shallow and superfluous notions which clearly influence India’s defence policy making. These notions are reflected by such titillating but worn out slogans like ‘military resists change’, ‘military prepares for last war’, ‘Generals are too demanding’, ‘military hierarchy fails to appreciate political compulsions’ and such similar nonsense. Whereas in practice, with stakes in terms of duty, deprivation, death and national loss so high, the military remains continuously adapting, in quick time, to the excruciating circumstances it finds itself in. Here, unlike the civil charter of governance, the military cannot have any room for ‘flexibility’. Indeed, it is for the political leadership to appreciate its military’s limitations and set its mandate according to the wherewithal it can provide, rather than expecting its soldiery to accomplish tasks for which they are not equipped. Then there are the pompous revelations like ‘economy takes priority over war’ (of course, economics is the cause of warfare), and ‘war solves nothing’ (neither does pacifism unless backed up with power). A recent trend among the strategic apologists is to club military security with other constituents of national security – like health, education, and environment. That allows accountable state functionaries to find ready escape, during their tenure, from the complex, laborious, long-term call to defence preparedness.
Similarly, misplaced ideas of pegging defence preparedness by the yardstick of national GDP, percentages of government expenditure, and affordability of pension bill have become a subterfuge of great interest among many of the white collar defence analysts. It is as if the adversary could be obliged to scale, tune and cap his aggression in conformity with such statistics! The fact is that defence preparedness is dictated by the aggressor’s hunger, not by what the victim finds affordable to handle. Vain strategic optimism among the policy-makers, aided by media bombast and ill-informed popular hype, is also encouraged by occasional acquisitions of few modern guns, aircraft, ships or missiles. The euphoria impressed upon the polity and public is such as if these incremental upgrades could win battles even without robust and comprehensive application of the rest of the vast range of less dramatic combat organisations, which remain obsolescent yet.
Then there is the cost-free trend of eulogising the soldiery’s raw valour. One suspects that this trend humours the nation’s decision-makers’ hope of their veer sainiks covering up the hollowness which they have inflicted on the body-military. Arguably, notwithstanding its pristine service ethos, the military hierarchy too cannot be fully absolved from coming handy in promoting the above described strategic disorientation. But that is another issue for forthcoming discussion.
Message to Aggressors
The two disorientations discussed above enjoins the adversaries to see the writing on the wall: the Indian state is not intent on looking beyond possessing just a ‘minimalist’ military power that, according to its judgement, might be just about enough to make it difficult for an aggressor to succeed, in full measure and even then, remains content in allowing that level of ‘minimalist’ capability to deplete. More alarmingly, as successive governments’ acquiescence to the ground situation might infer, occasional grab of bits of remote real estate, export of terrorism and other forms of aggression from the inimical neighbourhood might be overlooked and provocative incidents played down in ‘larger national interests’, so to say. The result is that adversaries have grown undeterred to the extent of going on overt and covert offensive, both diplomatic and military, while own diplomacy turns placatory to the extent of eulogising self-restraint even in face of grave affront to the nationalist prestige.
Signs of Strategic Wisdom?
Of late, there are evidences of some maturing to the realities of national security concerns and the salient role of military institution as well as the defence industry in upholding the nation’s strategic autonomy. Thus, military professionals are being involved more and more in planning and preparedness for national defence that had so far remained monopolised by the bureaucracy and scientific community. In similar vein, there is deliberate forward movement seen in matters of defence technology and industry, research and development, defence diplomacy and many of the modernisation related schemes.
It, however, needs to be accepted that rental culture dies hard. Even if the current government’s recent push to vitalise national defence is sustained in the right direction, given the politically-aggrandising and election-cycle dictated attributes of the polity – our borderlands hardly have votes to offer and the polity’s reluctance to mark the value of military prowess in national discourse, it will take long years before the ideological and strategic disorientations in our defence decision making process are righted. Besides, with the national exchequer severely burdened with people’s rising needs, it would have to be a long haul before the recently instituted measures towards military modernisation schemes, uplift of military science and technology and build-up of the national defence industry come to the stage of fruition. In all that, the biggest challenge against the wisdom of professional defence decision-making would come from motivated bureaucratic tricks – the ubiquitous ‘systemic resistance’, so to say. Equally serious difficulty would also come from our powerful strategic partners’ exploitative terms for selling their hardware and technology. But an envisioned and intent government of the day should be expected to roll-over all such obstacles.
Strategic decisions have long-lasting impact. In this context, the fundamental problem with our ideological and strategic disorientation is that having dug far into stagnation over the past seven decades, it will take some decades for indigenous defence technology and industry to come up to modern standards as befits a rising power. Similarly, having hollowed out the military organisation over the past three decades of political-bureaucratic nonchalance, it will take many years to build it up to the level of a modern, compact and capable flag bearer of national integrity and strategic autonomy–military strength that would deter aggression while inspiring confidence among our regional partners.
Thus, while the incumbent Government reads out its far-sighted measures to strengthen national defence, fruition of these would yet be many years away. Till then, besides remaining strategically restrained and being subject to occasional diplomatic snubs, India must bear with intermittent territorial encroachments on the one end and remain exposed to influx of terrorists and cross-border killings of civilians and soldiers, on the other.