July 2019 marks the 20th anniversary of the Kargil war that caught India by surprise in the summer of 1999. Pakistani troops under the guise of being ‘irregulars’ violated Indian territorial sovereignty in the Kargil sector of the Himalayas and, to the credit of the then Vajpayee led government, despite various constraints – lack of appropriate resources being the most visible – the Indian military was able to ensure a victory that compelled Pakistan to withdraw from the mountain peaks it had illegally occupied.
The fact that the Kargil war took place a year after India and Pakistan had acquired nuclear weapons added to the distinctive nature of the conflict : two nuclear armed neighbors in a war-like situation, albeit in a limited geographical area and a territorial dispute was at the core of the conflict.
While then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif dashed to Washington DC and met with US President Bill Clinton on July 4 to negotiate the terms of the unilateral Pakistani withdrawal, India celebrated the Kargil “victory” later in the month, when all the intruders were evicted. The 20th anniversary celebrations this year will be spread over three days from July 25-27 and. given that national security was a major plank for the emphatic electoral victory of the Modi-led BJP in the 2019 election, this event will receive a high degree of political attention and involvement.
Kargil remains a tactically audacious intrusion into India and a high-stakes gamble by the Pakistani army chief at the time, General Pervez Musharraf, who later became that country’s president. However, the resolve and restraint demonstrated by the Indian leadership ensured that the more abiding strategic gain accrued to India. The global community led by the USA admonished the Pakistani military for its adventurism against a nuclear backdrop and commended New Delhi for its prudence in the face of grave provocation. One may even aver that the manner in which India conducted itself over Kargil burnished its profile as a ‘responsible’ nuclear power and laid the foundation for the Bush-Manmohan Singh nuclear rapprochement that was concluded in the fall of 2008.
Kargil was a case of India being ‘surprised’ and this had happened earlier in October 1962 in relation to China and the brief border war that followed. Thus in the immediate aftermath of the July victory, the Vajpayee government set up a Kargil Review Committee led by the late K Subrahmanyam (father of the current Foreign Minister S Jaishankar) and its principal recommendation was that the higher defence management of India and the intelligence grid of the country needed a major review and revamp. However, it is a matter of deep concern that the Kargil Committee report submitted in the summer of 2000 and its many recommendations remain mired in political stasis. Thus, 20 years later, the higher defence structure of India and the re-wiring of the intelligence network of the country remain relatively unchanged. The only major change that has been effected in Modi 2.0 is that the National Security Adviser has been accorded cabinet rank and has become the de facto single point security czar of the country.
But 20 years after Kargil, the tangible military capacity of the country and the quality of the intelligence apparatus and the skillset of its myriad operatives remains well below the required median. The 26/11 terror attack on Mumbai in late 2008 is illustrative of this abiding chink in the national armor. The modernization of the Indian military remains woefully unaddressed and it is part of the parliamentary record that the country does not have adequate war fighting inventory by way of ammunition and relatively modern platforms. Acquisitions are piecemeal and the military as an institution is being relegated by way of its institutional relevance.
The just announced budget highlights the fiscal resource constraint that bedevils the national security aspiration. India’s trans-border military capability is predicated on the technological index of its air force and navy. In this financial year, the air force has been allotted a capital budget of Rs 39,302 crores while its committed liabilities are Rs 47, 413 crores.
For the navy the comparable figures are Rs. 23, 156 crores and Rs. 25, 461 crores. In other words, the current financial allocation for the military will only enable payment for that inventory which has already been committed to and no significant new induction is possible. This is the grim reality of how bare the Indian military cupboard is – 20 years after Kargil.