…by failing to evolve a coherent policy towards the use of force in securing Indian economic and strategic interests, says Harsh Pant.
It is a recurring theme at the INI where we lament the lack of strategic vision and poor leadership hampering India’s rise as a nation. Harsh Pant of King’s College, London joins in with similar concerns.
After having finally decided to send its naval warships to the Gulf of Aden, it is to be hoped that Indian political and military leadership will evolve a coherent policy towards the use of force in securing Indian economic and strategic interests.
There is a broader issue at stake. India is being touted as a global military power whose military capabilities are expanding and which has always had highly professional armed forces well ensconced in a liberal, democratic polity. A rapidly growing economy has given India the ability to spend on its defence readiness like never before. India has emerged as one of the largest arms buyers in the last few years. In line with India’s broadening strategic horizons, its military acquisitions are seeing a marked shift from conventional land-based systems to means of power projection such as airborne refuelling systems and long-range missiles. But it remains unclear under what conditions India would be willing to use force in defending its interests.
This question needs immediate answers and the nation’s civilian and military leaderships have let the nation down by not articulating a vision for the use of Indian military assets. If some suggestions are being made, they verge on being facile. For example, ruling out sending troops to Afghanistan, the Indian Army Chief had suggested some time back that “India takes part only in UN approved/sanctioned military operations and the UN has not mandated this action in Afghanistan so there is no question of India participating in it”.
The Army Chief’s statement was not only factually inaccurate but also demonstrated a fundamental misreading of Indian security policy. Much like other nations, India has tended to accept or ignore the United Nations as per the demands of its national interests. India cannot cede authority to international organisations as ineffective as the UN on matters of national security, but if history is any guide India has done exactly that.
Indian leadership has in recent times given the impression that the role it sees for India in global security is not shaped by its own assessment of its interests and values but by the judgements of global institutions like the UN. The Indian armed forces remain obsessed with China and Pakistan while the civilian leadership lacks any substantive and sophisticated understanding of the role of force in foreign and security policy.
A large share of Indian media and strategic experts, especially among the co-opted think tanks, are obsessed with advocating big ticket acquisitions and pointing out undue delays in acquiring weapons systems, to the exclusion of everything else. The other major grudge is about the declining share of defence expenditure as a share of GDP. These experts conveniently ignore the meteoric rise in GDP over the last few yaers which makes the absolute value of defence expenditure very high. So much so that the unexpended money has been returned by the defence ministry and the three services for the last 10 years now.
These experts also do not look at the pathetic ratio of capital to revenue expenditure, which is further distorted by an ever-increasing salaries and pensions bill. There is even lesser critical analysis of the top military leadership, doctrine, strategy and tactics while the subject of reform and restructuring the services remains a taboo in these circles. This has led to a reinforcement of the status quo, which is a comfort zone for the military leadership in the country. Harsh Pant rightly points out –
A lot of attention is being paid to the fact that India will be spending around $40 billion on military modernisation in the next five years and is buying military hardware useful for projection of power far beyond its shores such as C-130 transport planes, airborne refuelling tankers, and aircraft carriers. But such purchases in and of themselves does not imply a clear sense of purpose. Indian armed forces are today operating in a strategic void under a weak leadership unable to fully comprehend the changing strategic and operational milieu. At a time when Indian interests are becoming global in nature, India cannot continue with its moribund approach of the yore. It is up to the civilian leadership to come up with a credible policy on the use of armed forces and it is up to the military leadership to provide them some sound guidance.
The changes that Harsh desires and this nation needs will not happen on their own. They will be driven by a root-and-branch reform of the Indian defence services and the national security setup in the country. It will either need a monumental military failure or a strong political will, that has never been displayed before in this country, to get this process going. Till then, the national security setup in this country — with a rudderless political leadership at the helm, supported by a dysfunctional bureaucratic system and a vacuous military leadership — will continue its downward slide.
Who cares? Let us not even touch upon the urgent need for a Blue Ribbon Commission for defence in this country.