Wednesday, 3 November 2021

Is the military brass transgressing the diplomatic LAC?

On 27 October, at a function at the Budgam airfield re-enacting the landings on the same date in 1947 for saving Kashmir from the invasion of kabailis, the chief of the Air Force’s Western Command expressed the hope that Pakistan occupied part of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state of Maharaja Hari Singh would be part of India someday.

While delivering the first Ravi Kant Singh Memorial lecture series’ talk, Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat, in relation to Chinese inroads in India’s neighbourhood, said that, "(S)uch attempt and adventure in the neighbouring countries would go against India's national interest and these are potential threats to India's territorial integrity and strategic importance." Almost as if India is not already at it, he went on to note that, “we have to … assure neighbours that we are their permanent friends and we want to engage with them on equal term (sic),” and that, “(W)e need to be able to convince them that we will be your friends in the long term.” 

Late last month, the army vice chief, speaking at a seminar, opined, "(I)f Tibet had strong armed forces, they would have never been invaded." Apparently, he was underlining the necessity for a nation to have strong armed forces. Not naming a country referred to as ‘a big nation’, he claimed, "(T)oday everybody talks about India as the net security provider and it is a security umbrella against a big nation."

From the three illustrations above, it is clear that this plain-speak by the brass on the wider-than-narrowly-military aspects of national security is a trend, or, in officialese, not an ‘aberration’. Coming in quick succession, the statements point to a policy decision to have the brass give voice to matters beyond the narrowly-military pale.

It is not as if the foreign office has not gently pushed back. When the infamous ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis acquired a new subscriber in the CDS, just when the two foreign ministers of India and China were to meet on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation gathering of foreign ministers last month, no less than the foreign minister had to step in to contain the fallout by distancing India from the general’s words.    

However, there has been little public skirmishing on the continuing inroads the brass seems to be making into diplomatic turf. Can it be inferred that the brass has been selectively empowered to participate, if not take the lead, in national security relevant messaging?

Perhaps the coordination on this score rests with the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), so that the two branches of government and instruments of national security – military and diplomacy - do not step on each others’ toes and do not elbow each other in areas of inevitable overlap.

With theaterisation coming up and plurilateralism being the foreign policy mantra, for the military to get into higher gear visibly and bat at a higher than operational level is seemingly unexceptionable. Military exercises and exchange visits are now at a pace difficult to follow. The fledgling Department of Military Affairs (DMA) appears to have heightened the salience of the military within government and increased the scope of activity of the military outside the traditional domain of border guarding and counter insurgency.     

In regard to statements directed at China, the brass taking on an additional duty of strategic messaging gives the foreign office sufficient space to pursue a negotiated end to the continuing crisis. Besides, India perhaps wants to outgun the Peoples’ Liberation Army in its information war salvoes launched in media battles that have followed the fraying of relations between the two states.

As for Pakistan, even as the military presents an implacable front, the national security bureaucracy can continue its below-the-radar engagement, such as that brought about the Line of Control ceasefire and the recent invite to the Pakistani national security adviser to discussions on Afghanistan in Delhi. In any case, Pakistan is fair game since a hybrid war is ongoing, of which information war is a key domain.  

This is a positive interpretation of the new practice. However, the military has certainly gone beyond military diplomacy.

None of the eight bullet points on the ambit of the CDS and the DMA as given in the Second Schedule to Government of India (Allocation of Business) Rules 1961 have anything to do with diplomacy. At best, it is the Department of Defence under the defence secretary that has a role beyond matters that are not strictly military, if the last bullet point in its charter (“Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, National Defence College and any other organisation within the Ministry of Defence whose remit is broader than military matters (italics added)”) is an indicator.

Therefore, the new-found practice begs the question of whence did it originate. There are three possible impulses.

The first is understandable, but only at a stretch. Given the recurrence of military forays into diplomatic terrain, it’s possible the military has been allowed greater leeway, with diplomats acquiescent. This strengthens India’s strategic profile and outreach, particularly since the Foreign Service has been long criticized for having too small a cadre to be able to punch at India’s weight.

The second – uncharitable - one is that these interventions stem from an autonomous, expanded interpretation of national security post creation of the DMA. The CDS has acquired a reputation for speaking his mind on national security. His alleged proximity with National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval perhaps emboldened him. Taking cue, his fellow generals are now more voluble, even in matters other than diplomacy.

The third - seemingly implausible but not impossible to visualize in an India that has seen its institutions been reduced to rump - is that an incipient turf war has been sparked off by national security minders. The resulting bureaucratic politics places them in the position of arbitrating. Could friction between NSA Ajit Doval and Foreign Minister Jaishankar have escalated to levels at which national security bureaucrats using the military to intrude onto diplomatic turf?

While the latter two impulses are obviously undesirable, even the first - a reasoned policy to use the military for sniping at neighbours - is not without its underside.

The underside can be seen through reasoning why China inexplicably intruded into Ladakh early last year. A possible reason could be that there was disconnect between what China was hearing at the informal summits at Wuhan and Meenakshipuram and what it was experiencing on the ground along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The then eastern army commander had said that the army’s transgressed across the LAC twice as many times as China, while General VK Singh put the figure at five times. With the military operating within its domain (patrolling the LAC) leading to a blowback, when it operates outsides its domain, blowback is virtually a certainty.

While military diplomacy does reinforce diplomatic firepower, the military brass shooting its mouth off is not quite military diplomacy. Even if a policy choice to allow the brass latitude, with diplomats onboard, the new found practice calls for review. If impelled by the latter two impulses – military expansionism or bureaucratic politics – then the need is even more so.