Monday, 5 September 2022 Why narratives matter: Arrows in an info war quiver Gautam Bambawale, having been ambassador in China and an official at the foreign ministry’s China desk earlier, is an old China hand. In a recent article he gives his view on the Chinese intrusion in Ladakh. Largely supportive of the government, the view has been elaborated in the book he co-authored. He suggests the Chinese carried out the intrusion in Ladakh in strength. Their ‘shenanigans’ were limited by Indian army’s reaction and mirroring of the Chinese buildup. Mindful that the intrusions have not been vacated fully yet, India is following a policy of not normalizing relations so long as the situation on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) does not de-escalate. There is thus a certain resemblance between the LAC with the Line of Control (LC) with Pakistan with both military’s up in considerable numbers. He recommends holding out till India’s growth reduces the asymmetry with China and external balancing by aligning with countries with interest in containing China. Such narratives have it that China deployed its military to show India its place as part of its bid to displace United States’ (US) hegemony over the international system. Chinese intended to suitably impress India by Chinese military might to keep India out of the Chinese challenge to the US. If India was cowed down, then it would prevent a two front threat to China as it goes about displacing the US and over the long term it would subordinate India in both the region and a Chinese dominant system. Consequently, India needs to stare down China. It needs to sign up with those skeptical of the Chinese challenge to the international system and balance against it. Even as it does so, it must be part of the international effort to domesticate China, co-opting the rising power to prevent it from disrupting the system. This will keep India geo-politically relevant and enables it partners to assist its military rise. Keeping economic doors open allows China a face-saver to back off. The assumption is that India would be able to navigate the unfolding global competition with a foot in both camps. It deliberately does not go the distance from being a partner to an ally in the new Cold War. It can then be a free rider, stepping off any dangerous escalator its democratic partners take in their coping with the Chinese challenge. It can use the border stand off to its purpose of milking the anti-China front for gains in a higher political profile and strategic presence. However, by being rhetorically active and militarily inert on the front, it can ensure that China does not push its advantage. Domestically, the advantage is in the politically useful image of security establishment playing David against a Chinese Goliath. Such a narrative has the policy consequences of yoking India to the West and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy making China a long-term adversary. The policy fallout - already unfolding - is easy to see. India is leveraging its strategic location as a ‘rentier’ state reliant on its strategic location to one side of China to Lilluput-like help tie it down. In doing so, it potentially ends up as a ‘frontline state’ subject to the usual backlash faced by proxies in a global stand-off. Internally, militarization, that has powerful constituencies, is in the offing. Here, stakeholders include commercial sectors interested in military modernization; the military, for the obvious reasons; the security establishment, since China is just the reckonable adversary to displace India’s traditional bogeyman, Pakistan, with; and, the right-wing political spectrum, wanting militarization for ideological reasons. It is with such reasons that the prime minister just this week took the acquiring by India of an indigenous aircraft carrier as ‘a step towards being a developed nation’. By this logic, India will be a ‘developed nation’ – an aim slated for 2047 - when it acquires the third aircraft carrier. Clearly, narratives matter. They have consequences, arbitrating between winners and losers. The official - and therefore popular - narrative on the Ladakh intrusion is one such. In Bambawale’s take, Chinese are painted as the villains who were checked in their villainy by Indian military, forcing India to recalibrate its grand strategy in favour of a tilt towards the US-led side in the unfolding geo-strategic contest. An alternative reading of the genesis – the Ladakh intrusion - of this policy exists. It too has policy significance but its potential consequences do not endear it to the national security establishment. It thus loses the narrative battle. It has little outside political heft, the right wing being dominant in the political spectrum with its weaponisation of ‘anti-national’, relegating the alternative narrative to one of ‘dissent’. The gate-keeping function of strategic commentators is critical to this, making capture of the strategic community a site for prior political contest and precondition for narrative dominance. Internally directed information war targeting the domestic political space for netting the voter through use of the famous troll armies does the rest. The Chinese intrusion in Ladakh was a well planned, deliberate one. Past this start line, the two narratives diverge. The outset of the crisis was with the Chinese diverting the annual military exercise held in a proximate area towards the LAC. This had two instigations. First, India had changed the status quo in Jammu and Kashmir. Though it took care to reassure the Chinese that the rearrangement of governance rearrangement in Ladakh would not affect the Indian position on the LAC, the intrusion shows that the Chinese were bothered by the accompanying rhetoric. The second is that Indian ‘transgressions’ across the LAC had been increasing through the previous decade, with two eminences putting it at twice and five times respectively those by the Chinese. This may have provoked China to settle the scores or to put India on notice on the trend. The two taken together make for as plausible a reason as geopolitical impetus – Chinese attempt to relegate India to subordinate status – for the intrusions. Since the foreign minister has confessed to being unaware of what motivated the Chinese – recounting five reasons that the Chinese had trotted out – the motive ascribed to the Chinese here cannot be dismissed out of hand. It cannot be disregarded just because it is not sexy enough – like India forming a pole in the global faceoff sounds. The Kargil War is illustrative. The Pakistani misadventure was built up as having grand aims, so that India’s counter could then be seen as an epic. However, reality is pedestrian. Operational art was conspicuously missing. Tactical level deficits were covered up by grit in subaltern ranks. Aims attributed to Pakistan included slicing off Siachen, biting off Kargil, distancing Ladakh etc. Instead, the Pakistani intrusion could also be seen as a mundane eastward extension of the typical fight along the LC on at the time, particularly in the Neelam Valley. Since India’s geographical advantage in that sector enabled it to interdict Pakistani logistics, General Musharraf – who was (as it turned out) more comfortable at the operational rather than the strategic level and still smarting from reverses in Siachen where he was a tactical level commander – tried a reverse Siachen. Thus, Pakistan surprised India, but was in turn surprised by the asymmetric Indian reaction – a strategic response to an operational gambit. After Kargil, India used the opportunity to outpace Pakistan and put it in the dog house of international opinion. The outbreak of the ‘global war on terror’ soon thereafter helped. Military reforms were initiated, doctrinal moves made and organizations restructured. Retrospectively, the Agra summit can be seen as an aside allowing Vajpayee and Jaswant Singh to try their hand at turning round the relationship, while hawks like Advani – aided by the Indian ‘deep state’ (then in its infancy) denizens and national security officials with an anti-Pakistani axe to grind – waiting at the wings to sabotage the effort. The political advantage this group sought was on using the Pakistan bogey for expanding hold over domestic politics through the marginalization of India’s Muslims. They lent themselves to the Hindutva ideological project ongoing in society. Along the way they acquired a champion in Narendra Modi. A symbiotic relationship evolved (revealed partially in a recent affidavit at a Nanded court) leading up to capture of the political high ground by 2014. This brings forth the significance of narratives and critical role of narrative dominance in the political warzone. By analogy, the Ladakh intrusion has prompted a similar Indian overreaction, looming as a like landmark in the steam of strategically significant events. As at Kargil, elements of the national security establishment charged with providing strategic and operational warning were missing-in-action. This time the buck stops at the political level, with the prime minister, the foreign minister and the national security adviser culpable in not picking up the cues China would certainly have dropped in the several political level meetings – that included two informal summits - in the run up to the intrusions. The initial intrusion may have been a rerun of the earlier intrusions with the Chinese intending their usual routine - two steps forward and one step back. The Army Chief had played to such a script in early June. However, the Galwan incident precipitated matters. It brought home the scale of the intrusion and grabbed the focus. The prime minister could not extricate himself out of the spot he was in his usual style. Recall the foreign minister washing his hands from the affair saying that the rules did not compel India not to carry arms and use them as necessary. It was then that Indian military over-compensated by a whirlwind of logistic activity of sending up and maintaining environmentally-hazardous numbers of troops. If indeed the Chinese had come in strength – as Bambawale suggests - they could not have been checkmated by Indians who had already bound themselves up with Covid restrictions. Instead, the Chinese had limited aims, achieved with the set of troops they deployed for the purpose – even if more were prudently at hand in the rear. The narrative that builds up India winning the first round is fanciful. It can only be politically driven since we know well by now how the regime likes to profit from military achievement, going to the extent of even dressing up failures – such as Balakot. This leads up to the ‘political-military collusion’ (in words of one analyst) in which the political class’ letting off of the military from accountability suborns it. Though Bambawale does not touch upon it, Indians did not win the second round either. Whereas the Kailash Range occupation and getting on the high ground at Finger Four was laudable as a tactical and logistical feat, it was operationally purposeless. The run up to it had Indians depicting the maneuver as a preemption of the Chinese, which was not quite the case. Though the Chinese side was unheld, that it stopped on the LAC showed up lack of operational gumption. (A bit of langar gup has it that Indian troops who overshot the LAC by either misreading it or due to momentum of their advance were asked to pull back. Perhaps the much-awaited memoirs of recently-retired then-commanding general in Leh will clear the air.) The Chinese occupation of their side of the LAC in face of the Indian advance was depicted as their shying away from a counter attack. The maneuver forever closed the door on an avenue of ingress towards Rudok that could have been possibly been used to influence the Chinese hold over Depsang in ensuing talks. That the Chinese had not bolted the door prior by occupying their side of the LAC bespeaks of their careful reading that the Indians would not offensively react to their intrusions – an intelligence appreciation borne out by events. Overstretched (and the domestic front suitably impressed), the Indians vacated their gains the following summer, couching it as magnanimity to get the Chinese to do likewise. We lost the third round that unfolded on the military talks table. That the military is at the talks table and not the Special Representative or the foreign minister, shows the military has been left holding the can. It has been forced over two winters to boost its numbers on the Ladakh plateau, ostensibly to keep China from further adventures giving equal – though unverifiable - figures of Chinese positioned there. It begs the question why would Chinese, who could have bitten off any thing additional in the first round itself, maintain such numbers. Why would they follow Indians in a do-nothing strategy dressed up as ‘mirror deployment’, when they have better infrastructure to help them fetch up for combat at will? Sure, they would have additional numbers, but only enough to ward off an unlikely Indian grab in deference to a ‘security dilemma’ equivalent at the tactical level. As Bambawale confesses, India is making the LAC resemble the LC. Since a long term deployment is inescapable, it can only be sustained by the Agnipath scheme – fresh blood inducted periodically to allow Indians to sustain deployment indefinitely. This is the only sustainable explanation for the otherwise bereft scheme. On their part, all the Chinese will do is to keep enough forces to enasure ‘all quiet on the Western front’. Since mountains favour defenders in general and the Tibetan plateau advantages the Chinese, they need no more than a proportion of the Indian figure for manning it. Since Chinese infrastructure capacity is legendary, their soldiers can be expected to be better looked after too. Building up the Chinese as a threat – as Bambawale does - enables the opportunity to shift strategic alignments in a particular direction, with a windfall for stakeholders already mentioned. Though the Kargil War was used for turning the tables on the Pakistanis in respect of the US, the Pakistanis got into bed once again with their ‘most allied ally’ after 9/11. India could only remonstrate ineffectually, even though it shot itself in its foot in a black operation on its own parliament. In the rise of Hindutva to center-stage post Kargil War and the role of narratives in it, we have witnessed extensive damage to Indian polity. This time round, there is no competition for the affection of the US, and India has multiple partners, not excluding the Chinese. No political alternative, there is also no tussle of narratives as such. While narrative dominance is complete superficially, there is an element of dissident chatter in non-mainstream quarters in a latent challenge to the meaning of ‘developed nation’. The info war quiver of the dominant side is already expended: a USD 5 trillion-economy by 2024 and a USD 20 trillion-one by 2047. It remains to be seen how the counter narrative catches up, depending on employment statistics, environmental catastrophes, political black swan events, global economic trajectory and geopolitical tectonics. A different national trajectory can be visualized with the Ladakh intrusion as start point. The subaltern narrative pitched here has potential to energise an alternative future. It wishes to avoid adversarial relations that can upset respective national trajectories. Though similarly noted by foreign minister in his allusion to the crisis endangering the Asian Century, it is rhetorical since – as seen – India has turned the military setback and loss in territorial integrity into a strategic opportunity by sheer narrative building. As Bambawale’s endorsement shows, it is now the bedrock of a policy of growth which has the political benefit – elided by Bambawale - of setting up a coalition of advantaged castes and classes to control India. On the contrary, the subaltern narrative start-point precludes expansive aims attributed to China and its demonization. This enables India and China sit down and sort out not merely LAC management but border issues, with a an adjunct track for Tibetans, Ladakhis and Arunachalis. Strategists owe the nation a duty of truth telling, a duty that increases correspondingly with their proximity with and access to power. The strategic community cannot lend its expertise-based authority for political appropriation. It is no one’s case that strategic commentary is not politically coloured. Narratives ‘are always for someone and some purpose.’ Self-regarding analysts need to be wary of falling prey to the official narratives they may end up popularizing and thereby queering the democratic pitch.