Decoding the Logic Behind the Shelving of India’s Mountain Strike Corps
The media reports that the Indian army’s much vaunted mountain strike corps (MSC) has been put in cold storage. An insinuation attributed by the media to unnamed sources has it that the MSC’s being put on hold owes to it being a result of institutional interest rather than on strategic necessity.
According to such sources, the army officer corps was looking to feather its nest and accessing a greater slice of the defence budget. By blaming the army for inflating the threat perception in order to make itself the prima donna among the three services suggests however that the sources at the behest of the government are set on diverting attention away from the implications of the decision for the Modi government.
The government, well past its honeymoon period, has been coming in for criticism lately. Its actions following the prime minister’s end-April dash to Wuhan for an ‘informal summit’ with Xi Jinping, such as renaming of Taiwan as Chinese Taipei on the Air India website, reins put on the army’s assertive actions on the Line of Actual Control and distancing from the Tibetan government-in-exile drew adverse comment. There seemed to be turn-around from the policy of self-assertion over the past four years with its highpoint in the 73-day standoff with the Chinese at Doklam last year.
Further, the government downsized the defence budget to its lowest proportion in terms of gross domestic product this year. The government, mindful of the uncertainties that attend crisis and unforeseeable consequences of crisis in an election year, apparently has cold feet on its policy hitherto of standing up to China. It therefore needed to send a signal to China that it is drawing back its claws.
The freeze on the MSC has been the way it has done so, but to scapegoat a politically hapless army by surreptitiously putting it down needs calling out.
But first, a look at the chequered past of the MSC.
The MSC had been cleared by the previous, United Progressive Alliance (UPA), government very reluctantly and rather late in its tenure, when in its second avatar, too weak to fend off the army’s pitch for the MSC any longer, it had sanctioned the corps. The Chinese intrusion that May 2013 in the Depsang sector perhaps forced the government’s hand, with its approval coming quick in wake of the intrusion that July. The first division for the corps started raising beginning January 2014.
The successor Modi government took a view of the new raising early in its tenure, with the finance minister, Arun Jaitley, temporarily double-hatted as the defence minister, going about reviewing its necessity. In the event, the new full-time defence minister, Manohar Parrikar, indicated that the decision was a ‘temporary, not permanent freeze’ on its size.
While on the one hand the Hindu nationalist government wanted to project a tough-on-security image, the prime minister had indicated at the combined commanders’ conference that the army would require turning to technology rather than compensate for capacity voids with manpower as it was wont to do. The decision was despite the Chinese intrusion early in the Modi tenure in Chumar sector, even as the Chinese president Xi Jinping was being hosted by Modi at Ahmedabad.
Even so, the army persisted with its raising, though it was a difficult going. Immediately prior to the 73-day stand-off with the Chinese at Doklam last year, the second division of the MSC was reportedly under raising at Pathankot. The army had to dig into its war reserve stocks to equip it, thereby depleting those stocks as the defence public service utilities and ordnance factories could not keep pace. Its vice chief controversially admitted to the parliamentary committee that the war reserve fell short of the stipulated levels.
It appears that the government has finally taken a call and clamped down on further new raisings, affecting the corps gaining its full complement. Hopes are now pinned on the study underway by the army training command on ‘optimization’, whereby manpower for the completion of the MSC can be created from within existing resources rather than by increase in recruiting as was the case so far.
The MSC can yet be completed without expanding the size of the army. In any case, the completion date had been set for 2021, as the MSC was to be set up under the 12th army plan and part of the 13th army plan, part of the long term integrated perspective plan looking out to 2027. Weapons acquisition has been underway for some two years now, with the 145 ultra-light howitzers cleared for purchase at the cost of USD 750 million under the fast track foreign military sales route in June 2016. In other words, the MSC completion is only postponed, not shelved.
This begs the question as to why so? And, why the perceived need for the government to resort to denigrating the army?
The Modi government has been in election mode all through its tenure. This has placed it in control of over a score states. However, it is hesitant as it faces national elections, with some of its initiatives, specifically the demonetization and the general services tax scheme being poorly conceived and implemented. Its strategy of polarization has been called out for taking India down the Pakistan route to failed state status with religious majoritarianism potentially running riot over governance and rule of law.
Modi is well aware that the feel-good and high-wattage advertising of Shining India had not worked to preserve the pervious National Democratic Alliance government in power. He is also aware that the social outlays of the UPA government had enabled its retaining power over two terms.
Thus, Modi needs in election year to focus domestically and can do without the distraction of a border crisis, especially with a superior foe. He does not need China in the political strategy underway of internal polarization as he approaches elections. Pakistan serves him well on this score.
Thus, he has temporarily toned down the assertive strategy in relation to China, but one to which he can revert once the elections return him to power riding on social spending and a spree of inaugurations in election year. The invite to Donald Trump to grace the republic day lets on that India continues to take its United States partnership seriously, implying that another turn round is at hand once the elections are out of the way.
If election compulsions are behind the decision, placing the army in the line of fire for the decision by implying through ‘sources’ that the army’s organizational pathologies are behind the move inflicts collateral damage on the army’s reputation.
For its part, the army advanced a strategic rationale for the MSC arguing that India faced a ‘two front’ threat. While India had the offensive capability for taming its western neighbour, the army argued that it required a similar capability for tackling its neighbour to its north. The army wished to move from dissuasion to deterrence. While the two defensive divisions that were formed in 2009-10 enabled defensive deterrence or deterrence by denial, an offensive corps would provide the punch for deterrence by punishment.
The UPA’s reluctant falling in line underscored less its agreeing with the rationale than its well-known helplessness in the period. The Modi government’s parliamentary majority enabled over the past four years to challenge the rationale. But it chose not to, using the political fallout of standing up to China to its political advantage, just as it used the escalation on the Pakistan front for its political consolidation in the Hindi heartland.
To, at the fag-end of its tenure, call into question the army’s strategic perspective and advance a reason that deflects any blame from itself for pusillanimity in overseeing it’s defence role is a new low in its political chicanery. Its inability over the past four years to put out an overarching strategic doctrine accounts for its twists and turns in the strategic field, belying its claim to a credible record on defence. It must not be easily allowed to profit electorally from this false claim.