By Praveen Swami
Sep 16, 2013
“No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country,” the great general George S Patton told the soldiers of the United States army’s Armoured Division as they prepared for the final offensive into Nazi-held Europe which would claim so many of their lives. “You win it by making the other poor, dumb bastard die for his country.” This Sunday gone by, Gujarat chief minister and aspiring Prime Minister Narendra Modi rightly saluted the sacrifices of India’s soldiers. He lavished praise on Haryana for giving a hundred martyrs, and more, in at least three of India’s major wars. The thing is, Modi had very little to say on precisely how he intends to make India’s adversaries die for their country.
For the most part, the speech was boring old vanilla, sexed up with red-hot-chilli-pepper words.
Perhaps this is inevitable: Modi has had almost no experience of geostrategic and military issues, despite his adolescent veneration of soldiers. It’s worth examining some of the key arguments he made, though, to get a sense of the challenges.
1.We made progress on Kashmir because Atal Behari Vajpayee persuaded the great powers that double standards on terrorism wouldn’t do. No, not quite: There’s either a misrepresentation of history here for political reasons, which I can understand, or an actual misreading, which could have tragic consequences. 9/11 changed everything — but not because it changed the world’s moral stance on terrorism. The United States has no in principle problem with terrorism even now: it’s actually arming Syrian rebels who are conducting large-scale acts of terror in Syria.
The key factor was that 9/11 drew United States troops into the region. Following the December 13, 2001, attack on Parliament, India mobilised its troops — achieving two things. First, the crisis threatened the United States, since an India-Pakistan war would have disrupted its war in Afghanistan. This led the United States to exert tremendous pressure on Pakistan to scale back terrorism. Secondly, the crisis made clear to Pakistan that it would itself pay asymmetric costs for a crisis. The thing is, India also paid a cost for the crisis — a cost which, in strained economic circumstances, is unviable as a template for future crisis response. The second thing is, the United States is leaving Afghanistan. The third thing is, Pakistan is in meltdown, so its state may be less able to rein in jihadists in the future.
We could, conceivably, face not just an escalation of terrorism in Kashmir, but even a Lebanon-style border war led by jihadist forces. How do we deal with these altered scenarios? The United Progressive Alliance government hasn’t had anything that might be called an answer. Modi, his speech suggests, doesn’t have one either. It’s interesting to note, though, that Modi refrained from calls for full-scale war with Pakistan, showing he’s a lot smarter than some of his cloddish fans.
2. We’re importing too much military hardware. We need to step up defence production — and dream of being a state which sells hardware internationally. The problem isn’t our ability to dream — it’s the ability to deliver on the dream. Everyone shares Modi’s dream, including Defence Minister AK Antony and the Defence Research Development Organisation chief, Avinash Chander. All the dreaming, though, has ensured we’re decades behind schedule. Laxman Behera, an expert, has noted that while India was committed to meeting 70% of its defence hardware needs by 2005, it’s still up to only about 35%. The thing is, making defence equipment costs money — big money. China spends 15% of its declared defence budget on research; India spends about 5%. Even if India spends more, it’ll have to make smart choices on what to import. For example, the specialist Tatra trucks the Indian army uses have got a lot of stick for having left-hand drives.
However, setting up an assembly line for right-hand drive vehicles makes very little sense, given the small numbers that will be produced. It makes no sense, either, for the Indian private sector to set up factories to make specialist multi-axle trucks, when the market is so small. In fairness, export efforts have had some small successes. India’s Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter, though dogged by technical problems, has registered some sales overseas. The Tejas Light Combat Aircraft may, if things go well, sell abroad. The point is that this is a complex economic debate — not something involving good-honest-generals and bad-corrupt-bureaucrats, or some Hindi film variant thereof.
3. We need to draw “radiant youth” into the army to prepare for future wars, like cyber-war. Yes, sure — but this totally misses the point. Cyber-war isn’t actually as big a deal as it seems. All wars have involved, and will continue to involve, disrupting the adversary’s critical infrastructure. Little of India’s critical infrastructure, unlike that of the United States, is currently networked. This will, however, change in time — so yes, it’s vital that both the military and the intelligence services get their digital act in order. The strategic big future, though, will be painted in oil — not zeroes and ones flying about in cyberspace. In decades to come, India and China will need more and more West Asian oil. The United States won’t, because new technologies allow it to tap vast domestic shale-oil reserves. It will, thus, likely scale down its long-standing commitment to containing crisis in West Asia. How does India mean to protect its energy interests in the region? What kind of out-of-theatre capacities do we need, and what political structures will we have to intervene when needed? There was nothing in Modi’s speech about any of these substantial issues — not even broad-brush indications of his thinking.
4. China’s stopping the flow of Brahmaputra waters. PTI Nope, it isn’t. China’s building three massive dams on the Brahmaputra, at Jiexu, Zangmu and Jiacha. These are all now known run-of-the-river projects, which don’t actually stop the flow of rivers. India worries that they’ll hold back water in harvesting seasons, and release too much in the monsoon — but it’s not in much of a position to protest, since this is precisely the argument Pakistan makes about similar projects India is building. Earlier, there was panic over reported Chinese plans to divert 40 billion cubic metres of water from the Brahmaputra, but there’s no evidence from satellite imaging that any such project is actually underway.
This still begs the question: what will India do about if China does block waters? Going to war with a richer, more powerful adversary is, generally, a prescription for defeat—something Pakistan has learned to its cost over the decades. How will India react to a limited Chinese war? What geo-strategic alliances will it build to hedge against Chinese aggression? 5. We need to rethink how soldiers are treated by the country, and show respect to them. Yes, he’s right — but isn’t doing what he advocates. Modi did, in fairness, have plenty of constructive ideas — among them, incentivising smart young people to join the armed forces by institutionalising post-retirement career opportunities. Modi suggested, sensibly, that city fire brigades could recruit and train retired soldiers. To this list, you could add things like the traffic police — a job that needs patience and some integrity, not the physical energy of youth.
However, the fact is Modi hasn’t implemented his own excellent ideas even in Gujarat — and that’s because every politician, cutting across party lines, wants to feed out of the giant trough of public-sector recruitment. He didn’t, either, touch on serious problems within the army—notably, its lack of focus on technology, which has played a role in retarding its modernisation relative to the air force and navy; its refusal to outgrow colonial-era hierarchies which have led to revolts in some units; its stultifying opposition to knowledge-based innovation. The real issue is that much of what Modi says is characterised by small-‘c’ conservatism: it doesn’t challenge the received wisdom at all. His calls for more indigenous defence production, for example, would have made Jawaharlal Nehru proud. It isn’t good enough.
Modi’s lost an opportunity to move forward a critically important debate, though. India’s military establishment, even more than others, is always preparing to fight the last war, not the ones it will have to fight. We need leaders to forge a new vision. It’s naïve to expect Modi to give answers to all these highly sensitive questions — but it would have been reassuring to know he’s at least asking the right questions.