An alternative strategic reading of Modi’s India
A retrospective on Modi’s crises
“Counterfactually, had Modi not become the prime minister, it is difficult to imagine India responding as robustly and tactfully to China and Pakistan as it has done since 2014 (Sreeram Chaulia, Crunch Time, New Delhi: Rupa, 2022, p. 162).” Chaulia’s book makes the case of a robust and tactful Indian response in the four Narendra Modi-led crises – Uri, Doklam, Balakot and Ladakh. Instead, the proposition could be more accurately phrased to read, “Counterfactually, any prime minister post 2014 could have resorted to the options exercised, but may not have had to exercise these.” Though prompted by the book, this post is not a review of it, but an alternative reading of strategic developments dwelt on in the book.
Let’s begin with the attack on the Uri garrison. It was arguably not quite a ‘terror attack’, not being one targeting civilians in order to overawe a political system. A legitimate military target was taken on by the attackers in the context of hostilities on the Line of Control (LC) and the post-Burhan Wani suppressive template in the Valley. Pakistan had post-26/11 mostly switched to targeting security forces, precisely to escape being called out as a terrorist state – it’s lesson-learnt from that episode. The Uri garrison, though taken by surprise, did a plausible job in wresting back the initiative and taking out the 4 attackers at the cost of some 6 of their own, the others unfortunately perishing in an accidental fire. This helps place the reaction in perspective. Surgical strikes by land that could have triggered off a border war can well be taken as over-reaction.
As for the surgical strikes themselves, had any other dispensation been in power it would have had the option too. Recall, surgical strikes at a smaller scale had taken place earlier. That a military operations head who denied having any records of earlier surgical strikes is now the military adviser in the National Security Council Secretariat should tell its own story. His post retirement sinecure owes to his enhancing the myth that the innovation awaited Modi’s arrival to operationalise. The army commander then - who quoted the military operations head in refuting his retired predecessor admitting to the earlier surgical strikes, only conducted discreetly and discretely, is also ensconced in a sinecure, heading the army’s land warfare think tank.
The surgical strikes at the scale they were mounted could not have been launched had there be no preceding instances. Not only was the enabling doctrinal movement in the preceding government’s period, but the tightening up of the execution was itself done. This is best known to the Modi government since it has the then army chief in its council of ministers. General VK Singh is on record admitting to the army’s felicity with contingency operations that enabled it to furnish a set of options not amounting to war when faced with Pakistani provocation.
This was a natural progression to the Cold Start doctrine, an outcome of lessons-learnt from the coercive diplomacy, Operation Parakram, indulged in reaction to the terror attack on the Indian parliament. The doctrine having been fine-tuned by decade-end, the army moved to more usable military options, referred to by General VK Singh. Cold Start did not have the answers that presumably were asked post 26/11 during considerations on how to get back at Pakistan without triggering a nuclear conflict. It was a conventional doctrine, which though mindful of nuclear thresholds, had built-in escalatory tendencies. Missing were subconventional options which would put additional buffers.
In any case, such options did not require a doctrinal nod. These had been in evidence even prior to doctrine catching up. Stories abound of head-hunting expeditions by both sides on the LC, necessitated by retaining or regaining ‘moral ascendancy’ – a term central to a military’s self-regard in a competitive setting. These took a leaf out the First World War book, when raids were launched across frozen trench lines lest Christmas Truce-like situations erupt across it. An Army Chief in the context of the beheading of a soldier on the LC said that he encourages aggression tactical level commanders, implying that the chain of command had been given full play to get even. In short, landward surgical strikes were not an innovation, but a pre-existing practice, which by the time Modi came to power had doctrinal imprimatur. The subconventional doctrine, dubbing these border skirmishes, steers clear of discussing them for reasons of confidentiality.
What of the effects of the surgical strikes? In the tradition of the Gurdaspur and Pathankot attacks that were prior to surgical strikes, Nagrota, Lethpora, Sanjuwan and finally, Pulwama yet happened. Landward surgical strikes failed to deter. That aerial surgical strikes followed shows landward surgical strikes exhausted their utility in a single iteration. Faced with Pulwama, and having lost surprise with the earlier surgical strikes, a step-up the ladder with the aerial option was next, though that should not really have been the only punitive response option left.
It is true that putting a new idea into an Army’s head is made difficult by the old idea occupying it. The Cold Start concept was based on integrated battle groups (IBGs), but these were not self-consciously operationalised. Strike corps continued their sway well into the nuclear age, due in part to internal turf dynamics of the Army occasioned by its Kashmir commitment. The infantry-artillery lobby reigned at the cost of the mechanized one, making the latter loath to let up on its raison d'être – the strike corps and its potentiality for the mythical Blitzkrieg.
It was only with General Rawat taking over as Army Chief that he turned to IBGs. Incidentally, Pulwama happened just a week after the Army announced, 15 years after the idea was mooted, IBG test-bed exercises. If these were available prior, then a landward strike could also have been countenanced to substitute for Balakot. Also, since Cold Start remained the conventional option, its hypothetical unfurling in wake of a Pakistani landward riposte - instead of Swift Retort - could have pushed the crisis into conflict in short order.
This reinforces the case of an unnecessary risk being run, especially since Pulwama was not a terror attack, targeting as it did a military target in the context of heightened counter insurgency operations that had accounted for over 700 Kashmiri youth. As for Pulwama being a black operation, that a book has come out refuting the idea shows up the info war; only to deepen suspicions on what’s being hidden.
Balakot has been on the cards with the Air Force advocating subconventional use of air power well prior. This may have had institutional interest at heart, in that the nuclear age making an unmistakable advent in the subcontinent in 1998, feasibility of conventional war receded. The Air Force grabbed at straws; making itself more relevant to India’s ongoing national security concern in Kashmir being one such avenue. Writing in the 2004 edition of Trishul, a group captain makes the case that air power is relevant across the three stages of insurgency: strategic defensive, stalemate and offensive. It is also useful to coerce the sponsor. Thus, with the concept crystallized and finding mention in the joint doctrine on subconvetional operations, the Air Force had some 15 years of head-start on preparation, constantly figuring among the options when contemplating response to both 26/11 and Uri. That it was unleashed at Balakot and did not deliver quite as planned is another matter. That its showing in the Pakistani riposte - Swift Retort - was also arguably below par is also a matter that need not detain us here.
The choice of target - made much of for being in mainland Pakistan - was a novelty. Even so, the bravado lost its shine somewhat with the Indian statement emphasizing that it as a ‘non-military preemptive’ strike, presumably anchored on the choice of target being non-military - rather than the mode of delivery of the ordnance - and the intent, pre-emptive. Pre-emption is a fraught term borrowed from the Americans. Prevention is the more saleable international security jargon. Sloppy drafting is the least of concerns.
It bears reflection as to what might have been the case had India actually taken out the 300 seminary students it claims. Recall, since Pakistan had taken to privileging the American end-game in Afghanistan, it had already started pulling its punches in its proxy war in Kashmir. India would have ended up willy-nilly bestirring it against its better judgment, since jihadi energy to the Pakistan Army is better directed at India than within Pakistan.
Even so, the escalatory prospects intrinsic in crises were in full play. Narendra Modi avers to an aborted ‘qatl ki raat’, tacit reference to readying for a missile exchange. This was over a relative triviality, supposedly to prompt release of a downed pilot, in any case subject to protections of the Geneva Conventions. Instead, the potential over-reaction was to divert attention from the lost aerial skirmish of that morning, which, incidentally, coincided with India also accidentally shooting down its own helicopter. The possible result of the missile exchange - if it had come about - might well have focused minds enough to have the Security Council take a view on what to do about the bone of contention, Kashmir, that remains on its agenda, albeit latently, and with good reason. It is unlikely that the world will sit by an Iraq-Iran War of Cities replay between nuclear powers. India got away lightly in the misfired missile episode recently only because the Ukraine War was on.
Next, the two crises with China merit attention.
The outcome of the one at Doklam, where India stood its ground for over 70 days, has it that the Chinese are very much back on the plateau and have completed what they set out to. This prompts the question: what was all the hulla-gulla about? Did India concede what it had wished to prevent when it launched into the Doklam crisis to wind up its deployment? That the Chinese activity on the plateau was in full-swing as early as autumn suggests as much.
India’s showing in Doklam evidently did not deter China from its Ladakh intrusion later. Neither did the two informal Modi-Xi summits that followed. Could it be that the Chinese had a measure of Indian resolve through both Doklam and from the two summits, which instead of deterring them, prompted the intrusion? Therefore, unlike in the advertisement that attends Modi’s resolve and international showing as a statesman, is the credibility of Modi’s India not quite as vaunted?
India had completed the doctrinal movement, on over the preceding decade in relation to China. Having a reckonable answer to Pakistani provocations in the mentioned contingency operations backed by Cold Start duly-refined, India had shifted - lock-step with the pivot to Asia of the Americans - to countenancing a two-front scenario. The two-front scenario owed to Pakistan not having gone away, even as India – as the next great power – wished to punch above its weight by weighing against China.
Through the decade, Indian Army valiantly tried to convince two different governments on the desirability of an offensive mountain strike corps (MSC). All it got at decade-end was a truncated corps, debilitated by lack of economic heft in Modi’s India – itself an outcome of the hubris that attended the decision on demonentisation.
Even so, by end 2019, India had practiced the IBGs intended for portions of the China front. Thus, India’s Army, fresh from its test-bed exercises was partially in a position to implement its doctrine by launch of IBGs and the MSC. When Covid did not stop the Chinese ingress, it cannot be argued that it stopped India’s readily available and recently practiced IBGs. That India pushed up 50000 troops soon enough shows that a set of these troops could well have on a short fuse also gone across. That it could occupy heights on own side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Operation Snow Leopard shows that troops could also have occupied unheld heights across LAC. The term ‘defensive offence’ – an unlettered mouthing confusing ‘offensive defence’, the term favoured by the Land Warfare Doctrine 2018 – could have served as cover, but India chose shadow-boxing over stepping into the ring. India settled for an info war directed at its own people, rather than manipulating escalation by offensive action. That interminable talks are on shows how military heft is required for talks to be meaningful.
An alternative reading is necessary since the spin on Modi’s showing in these crises has him as the intervening variable between provocation and reaction. The reaction is hyped-up and portrayed as evidence of Modi’s potential as a war leader, while not chancing escalation is seen as maturity. Instead the reading here is that not only was the reaction insipid, but shying off escalation where warranted shows up the butterflies in the stomach. (It’s for another post to dwell on why the crises came about in first place, brought on by policies impelled by Hindutva, a narrow ideology of the Modi regime.) It is important to put a pin into this balloon lest at the next crisis, we believe the myth of our own creation and the enemy gets to pin the balloon.