Thursday, 6 February 2020

Modi must sack those misadvising him on national security

Two stalwart strategists – Shekhar Gupta and Manoj Joshi - have rightly trashed Narendra Modi’s claim made in a speech at the traditional closing of the National Cadet Corps (NCC) Republic Day camp that India can bring Pakistan to its knees in seven days of war. This bit of common sense does not require the departing chief of Pakistan’s Inter Services Public Relations to reiterate.
Nevertheless, dispelling the notion in no uncertain terms is necessary to ensure that India does not try to do so. It must therefore be contested tooth-and-nail lest the political master believe his own rhetoric, forcing the military, in their yea-master game these days, to feed him what amounts to music to his ears. It should not be that India learns the hard way what Ayub Khan did: that his fantasy that one martial class Pakistani was equal to ten Indian soldiers was just that, a fantasy.
To expect Modi not to milk yet another opportunity at the mike for political dividend, unmindful of the nature of the audience – in this case tender-aged NCC cadets - is also delusive. At the function he was at his narcissistic best, bemoaning his opponents’ defrocking him publicly causing him to lose appeal abroad. Perhaps he was reacting to The Economist’s forth right take, ‘Intolerant India’, in its Republic Day week edition.
Since the good sense of Modi’s speech writer has been little in evidence over the past six years, it would be a waste of word space to call for her ouster alone from 7, Lok Kalyan Marg. Instead, the one who has Modi’s ear on national security needs to go for publicly letting down Modi by feeding him such nonsense.
Even if, as observed by Manoj Joshi, Modi was perhaps in election mode – with defeats in Delhi and Bengal staring him in the face – his over estimation of the Indian side and contempt for the Pakistani side is going a tad too far. In fact, it should be an election issue if India at all has the right security minders in place.
The only excuse for this latest Indian national security misstep is that it may have a deterrence rationale. His ministers having shot their mouth off on retaking Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, echoed by his two senior most generals that it only takes an order from him to undertake this chore, it was his turn to grind it into the Pakistani military’s dense mind that Indians have turned a new strategic leaf with surgical strikes and should, on that count, be taken seriously. 
Even so, as theory has it, deterrence messaging must be credible. Else, the opponent will likely brush it off with a shrug or, worse, a guffaw. The Pakistanis were decent enough to spare India the latter, merely reminding India of the dust up over Rajauri-Naushera early last year.
India lacks the conventional edge necessary, brought out by Shekhar Gupta in his reference to the Mig 21 scrambled on that occasion. This however is not the only reason Modi got it wrong. Even if India had the Rafale on that day – as the former air chief repeatedly rues to whosoever cares to listen to him in retirement – India cannot still count on laying Pakistan out for the count in seven days.
This is easy to establish. Quick victories of the kind Modi imagines have been obtained earlier. The German blitzkrieg laid low the French in double quick time. Just as the English Channel saved the British, General Winter came to the rescue of the Russians once again, the earlier instance being when they faced Napoleon.
Only an ardent nationalist of bhakt levels of ardour would place Indian prowess at the operational art level at like capability levels. It is not an isolated view that Indian levels of generalship are simply not of this order. A new, labouriously researched, book on India’s civil military relations by Anit Mukherjee, ‘The Absent Dialogue’, has a chapter on shortfalls in professional military education that inter-alia make this self-evident. 
While India has had its share of Sagat Singhs, it does not have the necessary operational ballast in terms of numbers of officers of such mettle. Manstein, the general who thought up how to break through the Maginot Line by using the Ardennes forest as cover, had his plan implemented by the likes of Panzer generals, Guderian and Rommel. India’s military culture has thrown up such generalship but once, in 1971.
To expect lightning to strike twice is wishful, especially since the 1971 success resulted from the training and professionalism following the 1962 drubbing. The last decade instead has at best seen Operation All Out, the surgical strikes and the standoff at Doklam. As the cognoscenti well know, the last three were more hype than substance, while the first was against a hapless set of untrained, but motivated, Kashmiri youth.
Then is the issue of political pusillanimity. Take the case of the fine general at the head of a strike corps who was sacked for taking his orders to race to the borders too seriously right at the outset of Operation Parakram. Closer in time, recall Modi chickened out from missile strikes though it was India that had a bloody nose from its Balakot-Rajauri episode.
For now, India is virtually dysfunctional at the military-strategic level. A whole-of-government approach that war demands is wishful in light of the ‘mutual incomprehension’ (a phrase front-benched at the release of the mentioned book in New Delhi last week) between the brass-bureaucrat-political master institutional triumvirate in the defence sector. At the book release of Mukherjee’s book, the bureaucrat once in charge of the department of defence, tried to duck criticism claiming that in times of crisis it all falls together, it needs no reminding that there is no comparing war to crisis.
Four years into Modi’s term, the adviser, Ajit Doval, thought it necessary to bring his magic to bear on energizing defence by displacing the cabinet secretary from heading the strategic policy group and by overshadowing the defence minister and preempting the chief of defence staff by heading the defence planning committee.
Two years on the results are beginning to show. The integrated battle groups, reference to which was first made fifteen years back, were put through their paces on both fronts. The defence minister consecrated the first Rafale aircraft in a publicly broadcast Hindu religious ceremony, presided over by two religious men robed for the occasion, on a foreign land.
Any expectation that either initiative will turn the tables on Pakistan any time soon is an unrealistic hope, in light of headlines today reminding us that defence allocation continues to record levels lower than that preceding the 1962 War. On this count, perhaps Modi might have added that he would be able to bring Pakistan to its knees only at the end of Modi III.
Even then it would be a tall order. The forming of mission-specific integrated battle groups (IBG) over the coming decade is itself admission of failure. It is to tacitly admit that Indian mechanized forces are unable to form up into combat commands and combat groups from ‘the line of march’. The ‘surgical strikes’ by land and air are no precedent on the how the pincers will perform in enemy depths.
This owes in part to the imposition of an infanteer’s template across the army – signified by the elevation of a supposed counter insurgency specialist to head the army over two mechanized generals as the initial misstep. Instead of deepening Auftragstaktik - mission tactics under directive style of command – India has made a virtue of a necessity in tailor-made IBGs.
The counter insurgency expertise counted for little in preventing India’s shooting itself in the foot with its constitutional initiative on Kashmir. The price of this caper can only be in more-of-the-same infantry hegemony. India’s Kashmir commitment is only set to deepen here on.  India’s mechanized forces shall only be increasingly hobbled.
Modi has to be speedily disabused of his expectation that they will bail him out. In any case, even if he had fire breathing operational commanders, he would be well advised to keep them in check since the need for political control increases exponentially in a nuclearised conflict. This may be missed by Modi’s security team since they strategise with ideological blinkers on, as their seven day war assumption suggests.
It needs no reminding that the closer India gets to Modi’s knockout punch, the closer it gets to being brought to its own knees alongside. There is no cultural-psychological study of Pakistan and its army that suggests that it would adopt a kneeling position without first firing off its nuclear trump card. If it does, a prostate Pakistan would be no consolation in a nuclear circumstance, when India itself would be brought to its knees.