India: A strategic audit does not really matter
India, long a power in its own right, has been reckoned as an emerging great power. In Barack Obama’s words of the mid 2010s, "India is not simply an emerging power, but a world power." Perhaps that was a bit of over-the-top diplomacy on Obama’s part, trying to pull India into his ‘pivot to Asia’ reconstruct of United States (US) strategic policy. The pieces of that policy, that involved a shift of focus on a central strategic balance in Europe to the Indo-Pacific, are only now falling into place. Even though the Russian invasion of Ukraine could have potentially put the clock back, that it has floundered, has fortified China as the principal and implacable challenger to the US’ interests and hegemony.
India, playing along to the extent its multi/pluri-lateral foreign policy provides it leeway, has a foot in both camps. Its locational advantage gives it some eminence as a potential frontline state in the new Cold War. Wooed by both sides, India also has a sense of self-importance. However, its pronounced bias towards the US-led one makes of it a subordinate partner. Condoleeza Rice’s public promise once to make India a great power, prematurely let the cat out of the bag.
India: Not quite a great power
What’s certain is that India is not a great power. While this could once be qualified by the caveat ‘as yet’, today it is a far shot. Its development indices are not up to it. Absent checks, India’s A2 policy, aping zaibatsu and chaebol, is crony capitalism run rampant. The threat to democracy is evident from the bid of the ‘deeply overleveraged’ Adani group, on behalf of political mentors, reaching out last week to stifle the lone outpost in India today for free media. Also, from the government’s fudging of the statistical score-card, it is unclear that India can get back as an economic race horse any time soon.
Significantly, it is regressing on state formation – with institutions hollowed out - and nation building – with its social cohesion in question. A critical viewing of the latest Aamir Khan hit, Laal Singh Chaddha, tells as much. The fact that Khan takes care to circumnavigate the ‘malaria’ being spread by Hindutva and uses the usual Muslim-denigrating tropes – such as Muslim mafia’s control of Bollywood - to advance the film’s narrative is a giveaway. The very intelligent artist that he is, Khan tacitly messages that the times are unsuitable for the movie to refer to, for instance, the most significant incident of this century (as it has turned out): the Gujarat pogrom.
Clearly, soft power based on democratic values has been traded for an authoritative profile for its leader, appropriately viewed elsewhere as authoritarian. The national security implications of the democratic deficit have elided strategic commentary. The silence itself indicates this as a area of concern. An instance is the absence of discussion on the national security fallout of a pet project of Hindutva: the National Population Register and its implications for Muslim India.
India persists with a single-point foreign policy fixated on terrorism – at a time when terrorism has been roundly defeated – makes its contribution to forums - as most recently by the defence minister at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation - two-bit (do kauri) worth. India’s foreign policy resources that are notably slim in relation to its size are inordinately invested in placing notables onto the terror list in order to embarrass terror sponsor Pakistan and Pakistan sponsor China.
This tells something of the regime’s national security system in which the fixations and expertise of its national security adviser pervade both defence and diplomacy, making it an intelligence-predominant one with the attendant pathologies that can be expected to go with such an arrangement. Since information access and institutional billets are now controlled by this cabal, there is little incentive for the media to expose or veteran fraternities to feed policy.
Consequently, India’s contribution in the Security Council during its ongoing non-permanent membership has been pedestrian. In keeping silent on egregious Russian violation of international law, it has traded its vote on normative issues for oil. At the fag-end of its two year tenure, for the first time it voted against Russia in a procedural vote allowing the Ukrainian president to address the Council virtually. The war dragging on into its sixth month, the Permanent Five cannot alone be blamed.
India: A regional power?
Even as a regional power, India’s credentials are in doubt. India has been an insignificant player in the most prominent regional conflict through the two-decades of the conflict’s duration, Afghanistan. At one time it had only biscuit distribution to Afghan school children to boast of. It has been a non-entity in the end-game there. Though it had two years to reach out to the resurgent Taliban, it scooted past a closing door. Retracing its steps now has lost India’s voice some four years.
It continues to be absent in addressing the crisis in Myanmar, though its resolution is central to India’s Act East policy, that is part of its Indo-Pacific policy package. It is checkmated by China in its own backyard, the latest episode being the docking of a Chinese surveillance ship in Sri Lanka over India’s objections. Bangladesh has risen economically with little Indian buoy. Bhutan is on its own trip in engaging China, though India claimed to have staked out Doklam on its behalf.
Militarily, its military actions – ‘surgical strikes’ on one side and defence of territory on the other - have been less than enthusing. Though faced with a Chinese intrusion - at the most remote part of its land frontier - India chose to use its military for talks across a table, rather than on the battlefield. An occasional ‘tu-tu-main-main’ does little to embellish India’s power credentials, even if China deigns to reply or open a round on its own. The latest is India’s lite take on the Taiwan crisis – after over a week of dithering - being followed by Chinese decrying Indian military exercises with the US in vicinity of the contested boundary in the central sector.
On the Pakistan front, with a putative two-front challenge manifesting in the Ladakh intrusion by China, India speedily calibrated its west-oriented military power. This buries the unwritten strategic posture dating to the seventies that in case of two-front war, India would first prevail quickly in the west and then stall China in the east. Now, India appears to be settling for defensive deterrence on the Pakistan front and the traditional deterrence by denial against China.
Though the home minster only this week said that troubles in Kashmir owe to Pakistani proxy war, infiltration figures show the notion up as an effort at passing the buck. Instead, that Pakistan has not upped the ante in Kashmir. Pakistan’s internal focus and stabilizing Afghanistan, keeps it from exploiting the diluted deterrence. Secret talks have kept it placated, indicating that they have expectations from the evolving situation. If unmet, with conventional parity now the order, the future could see a shift in Pakistan’s posture depending on how India plays its Kashmir hand.
Pointers are that Indian hawks will aggravate matters in Kashmir by trying to manipulate the vote, but not in the gauche 1987 mode. Their latest sleight-of-hand was in trying to get voters onto electoral rolls through the back door, by including security forces’ members and outsider labour as voters. An fertile ground prepared by misconceived policies cannot but see Kashmir keep India tied down to South Asia indefinitely.
At the cusp of great power
It is apparent that over the last eight years the reasonably-credible legacy of the much-disparaged previous government has been squandered. In wake of the 26/11 decision by India not to respond militarily had been assiduously used through the subsequent years to do down the then government’s strategic posture. That spurred the government on to revisit its strategic posture, agreeing – if reluctantly – to countenance a ‘two front’ threat. By when it departed it had agreed to a mountain strike corps and beefed up the eastern theatre with two divisions. Patrols on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) visited points that have been placed off limits since 2020. It had sufficient political capital with Beijing to have it revert to status quo ante in Ladakh after the Depsang incident in 2013. In contrast, India has suffered repeated intrusions in the tenure of the current regime – one when the Chinese president was sitting on a swing at the prime minister’s home state.
On the Pakistan front, it shifted to an offensive posture, from the traditional one of offensive deterrence. A national security adviser of the period informs of contemplating a first strike. The circumstance of this would only have been one created by a successful conventional offensive, instigating Pakistani to ready nuclear weapon in a first use mode. This indicates India’s as an offensive strategic doctrine. The Line of Control was occasionally active, with an army chief extolling aggressive tactical level commanders. From the highpoint of unrest in 2010, Kashmir reverted to quietude – without the suppression that now goes with the term.
National security institutions received a structural boost after 26/11. National security debate was at its zenith, with the government at the receiving end. Two episodes of civil-military tension arose, only one of which was militarily relevant (the resignation of a naval chief over non-delivery from the civilian side of the support necessary to keep the submarine fleet seaworthy), though the second one (of the army chief wanting to keep 4, Rajaji Marg, within the family) is the more famous. Today we see what a commentator avers to as ‘politico-military collusion’.
On foreign policy, that government too had its ‘Howdy Trump’ moment in Manmohan Singh expressing India’s ‘love’ for Bush Jr. Even so, its performance in the Security Council was more credible, as the book by a minister in the current government - who was India’s permanent representative at the horse shoe table - testifies. Though it abstained on the resolutions that tarnished the UN’s flagship role back then -Responsibility to Protect – subsequent events proved it apt in its critique. Today its voting behavior contradicts its rhetoric on critical concerns that constitute the normative center of gravity of the UN: non-aggression against political independence and territorial integrity of a state.
There was one blemish to internal security. The government, mindful of the Hindu vote bank being manufactured by supporters of its right wing challenger by using terror perpetrated under false flag operations, was unable to find the gumption to turn the tables on it. It allowed the provincial government under Modi to wiggle out of culpability for the Gujarat pogrom under cover of a judicially appointed Special Investigation Team. It did not follow up on the killing in a black operation of Hemant Karkare, compensating by awarding him an Ashoka Chakra. How this subterfuge led to his widow’s death from brain haemorrhage is easy to see.
This was perhaps out of sensibility for the grandeur of the State. It did not want the State to be besmirched if the truth on both counts spilt out - that elements of the State were participant in the pogrom and partially constituted the ‘deep state’ lending a shoulder for the black operations perpetrated terror. It gullibly hoped for a trade-off in the right wing playing by the rules in exchange for being let off. In the event, it turned out misplaced solicitousness, besides being a historic misreading of Modi’s character.
The slide ever since
Modi’s vaulting ambition was better read by the fierce capitalist forces it had unleashed in a previous avatar in the turn to neo-liberalism. These were now both funding and riding the ‘Modi wave’ to power. The marriage of capital with obscurantism has proved hardy ever since, and isn’t done as yet. Current-day Enforcement Directorate raids and toppling of state governments by moneybags has portents of worse to come. The combine can do without democratic urges, the thirst for freedom quenched by Azadi ka Mahautsav jamborees and visions for the future satisfied by the mirage of Amrit Kaal.
The internally-directed information warfare agenda does not allow a decent measure to be taken of India’s strategic deficits accumulated since. Strategic analysts deployed to turn out hagiographies of Modi and his national security adviser, Ajit Doval, should be named and shamed for letting their clients, the attentive public, down. Critical analysts, such as redoubtable Gautam Navlakha, have been jailed on trumped-up charges based on insertions of ‘evidence’ into personal laptops by information warriors from the intelligence fraternity. Movies are being churned out - funded from an unaudited intelligence budget - fudging contemporary history, even as some others purvey a politically charged version of more remote history.
It befuddles how nationalism can be inspired by lies, which suggests that the effort is more for enabling a cult status for Modi transferable into votes. A like status for the adviser too is the price for misdirecting tax-payer monies. The tradition of relying on self-regulating intelligence czars set by Indira Gandhi in her reliance on Kao – subject of hagiographies as part of the same perception management exercise - has been self-interestedly maintained.
The initial years found Prime Minister Modi globetrotting. His bear hugs were packaged as India’s moment of arrival. However, from a profile of ‘reformer-in-chief’, it went on to be ‘divider-in-chief’. Modi counts among the world’s authoritarians. India is only notionally a democracy, forcing an opposition leader to observe that with institutions in the bag, votes are easy pickings. Hyping yoga cannot compensate for such loss in soft power and advocating Hindi as a UN language cannot win any friends, especially when there is no consensus on Hindi back home.
Strategically speaking, running with hares and hunting with hounds is now the able handiwork of the ever-dapper minister, Dr. Jaishankar. The information war cover provided by keyboard armies ensures that every twist is justified as prompted by national interest, be it Modi being feted by Nawaz Sharif at Raiwind or ‘katti’ with Pakistan after the entirely predictable Pathankot attack. Diplomacy absent, intelligence-led secret talks with Pakistan and the military in the lead with China, begs the question how the Ministry of External Affairs justifies its budget.
Doublespeak persists with the foreign minister insisting that the LAC is not normal, while the defence minister persists with the ‘no intrusion’ line from his prime minister’s ill-timed all-party meeting at the snow-balling in the Galwan incident of the underreported-till-then Ladakh crisis. Information denial and manipulation with an intelligence hand at the rudder is now a fine art. Directed at ensuring political consolidation of the reigning ideology, Hindutva, and its presiding deity, Modi, it is abuse of the professional ethic and tax payer money.
An instance is hyping of the China threat as one needing warding off by soldiers in the tens of thousands. Though India has the power - husbanded over the past 12 years since India’s own pivot to the China front in a genuflection to its patron US’ shift then - it is unable and unwilling to use it. This reveals a political-strategic infelicity - unfamiliarity with the use of force short of war and limiting war in case of escalation. Making a virtue of a necessity, social engineering through the Agnipath scheme is part of the cost borne by the army, besides the reputational hit.
Equally importantly, the policy choice is myopic in its jettisoning of environmental laws in the cutting strategic roads on the fragile Himalayas. Future generations inhabiting the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin will bear extreme weather events, plus water scarcity from receding glaciers. There is absolutely no attention to environmental aspects of strategy, a field that must be added to the traditional strategic factors: operational, social, economic, political, technological, legal and logistical. Innovation cannot come from a national security establishment which has ideological conformism as leitmotif, judging from the two successive military advisers appointed (the earlier one is now quasi-Chief of Defence Staff). Upping of its budget – a thrice-over hike in 2017 – is only retrospectively understood to have been for the Pegasus that - as events turned out - was for waging war on democracy. Its success is apparent in the Supreme Court - a tangential victim – passing over the matter under the ‘doctrine of sealed covers’.
India not a power in a theoretically sustainable sense
Detoxification appears a surmountable problem in relation to the set back to democracy that the strategic establishment has wrought by its complicity in and silence over Hindutva. It is not the primary national security threat as the princeling rightly, though confidentially, had it once. Instead, Hindutva is the national interest. Re-crafting national interest entails retrieving political culture. Since the other political parties are sent scurrying by gimmicks as revdi and scattered by ‘lotus operations’, there is little hope of rescue of the Constitutional scheme. The upshot is that power is not of consequence externally as much as internally. Internally, the field is conquered. Hindutva consolidated, awaits another electoral sweep for culmination in a revamped Constitution, helpfully already written up in Kanpur by a set of saffronite seers.
In conclusion, a strategic audit of India traditionally envisaged is inapplicable. The problem is similar to that of appraising Hitler’s war-time strategy: Should he have attacked Russia even as the west held out? Should he have gone for investing Leningrad and Moscow or raced for the oil in the Caucasus? Should he have exhausted his military power on untenable frontlines on the Russian front when he could have pulled back to defensible lines?
What this rumination prompts is that though there is a precipitous drop within a mere decade in India’s credentials as a power – from cusp of great power to a questionable regional power – it is inconsequential. In the Hindutva scheme, external appearances only matter to the extent as to how they are received in the domestic space. Domestic perceptions can be managed adroitly; therefore, ratings on power – especially when negative as with other indices as freedom of speech, human rights, economy etc - are passé. The regime’s paradigm dominance compels even a strategic audit as this to bow to its diktat: What matters is Hindutva firming-in; all else, piffle.