Thursday, November 08, 2018

Lal Bahadur Shastri, Architect of India's Real Surgical Strike and Much, Much More

At a time when we are led by a prime minister with a 56” chest who believes in over-the-top self-publicity, our thought goes out to a diminutive and self-effacing man who once occupied the same office – India’s second prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, whose birth anniversary we celebrate today, October 2, along with that of the Mahatma.
Shastri was born in 1904 in Mughalsarai – the railway station that serves this iconic Uttar Pradesh town was recently renamed ‘Deen Dayal Upadhyaya’ – served as prime minister for just 18 months. Despite his brief tenure, he has left a memorable imprint on the country as a politician, administrator and war leader. Many in the present generation don’t know he authored the slogan, “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan,” which captured the idea that peasants (and their welfare) are as integral to the security of the country as soldiers.
He was a seasoned freedom fighter who spent a total of 9 years in jail. After independence he held various ministerial and party positions. Apart from being general secretary of the Congress, he held the railways, transport and commerce portfolios before becoming Union home minister following the death of Govind Ballabh Pant in 1961.
In a world full of hollow men, Shastri was the genuine article. He displayed his moral calibre when he resigned from office in the wake of the 1956 Ariyalur train accident in Tamil Nadu in which 142 people were killed. That act of his still reverberates in the country. Hard-working but of weak disposition, he suffered  heart attacks in 1958  and again in June 1964, shortly after he took office as prime minister.
In 1963, Nehru and Congress president K. Kamaraj decided that six prominent ministers would resign and devote themselves to organisational work. The goal was to bring in fresh blood into the Cabinet, as well as send a signal to the electorate. This at a time when the Congress’s political supremacy was unchallenged.
Among those who left government were Shastri, who actually insisted that he be in the list, though Nehru did not want him there. But fate took an even more dramatic turn. Prime Minister Nehru suffered a  stroke on January 7, 1964 in Bhubaneshwar. Compelled to put a succession plan into position, he got Shastri back into the cabinet as a minister without  portfolio. Panditji’s death four months later, on May 27, was no surprise, though for a country over which he had ruled as a virtually undisputed ruler, it was a major blow.
Four days later, on May 31, Morarji Desai whose angularities were well known, was persuaded to withdraw his hat from the ring and Shastri was chosen prime minister by the Congress Working Committee. The power brokers of the Congress had hoped that the soft-spoken Shastri would be their puppet, but he turned out to be a man of firm views, decisive to boot.
These qualities had actually been evident in the period he was minister without portfolio, when he was asked to handle the crisis which followed the theft in Srinagar of the Hazratbal holy relic on December 27, 1963. Though it had reappeared after a week, the theft triggered off a popular uprising led by an action committee of people who were the forerunners of today’s separatists. Besides the release of Sheikh Abdullah, who had been imprisoned by Nehru at the time, they demanded a special deedar, or viewing ceremony, by experts to certify the authenticity of the relic.
The spooks and the babus in New Delhi strongly resisted the demanded, but on February 3, Shastri overruled the Union home scretary and ordered the deedar. The action committee duly certified that it was indeed the genuine article, which resulted in a cooling of tempers.
The slightly built leader had to fill the political shoes of the giant banyan, Jawaharlal Nehru. And he did so with a quiet panache. He battled pressure from the powerful men who had pushed him into office, accommodated Nehru’s daughter, Indira, in his cabinet, and made key appointments such as that of C. Subramaniam as the food and agricultural minister. To assist him, he created the Prime Minister’s Secretariat, headed by a secretary-level officer.
Among the long-term legacies of the Shastri era has been the attainment of self-sufficiency in food by India. When he took office, Indian agriculture was in crisis. India was, infamously, living from ship to mouth. Between 1960 and 1963, India had imported a staggering 15 million tonnes of US grains and the amount of the imports had been steadily rising.
Subramaniam, with the support of Shastri, took policy decisions that eventually led to the Green Revolution.
In the country today, Shastri is known for something he may not have really been trained for– as a war leader. The Indian military was still licking its wounds from the 1962 fiasco when Pakistan, hoping to rattle a new prime minister, initiated a series of provocations, ostensibly aimed at “liberating” Kashmir.
Pakistan had received US military aid for a decade, and its forces had developed a conventional edge over the Indian military, especially in the area of armour, artillery and the air force. Besides, Pakistan believed in its own myth that the manly Pathan, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, would make short-work of the short, dhoti-clad vegetarian, Shastri.
Hostilities began in 1965 with a feint in the Rann of Kutch, where Pakistan used the fact that the border had been delineated, though not demarcated in the swampy region. There was some skirmishing in the region. But Shastri was not rattled, either by the Pakistani action, nor the uproar in parliament. All through, he emphasised peace and wanted to resolve issues peacefully. He was also acutely aware that conflict with Pakistan would be used by Hindu chauvinists to stir up communal passions within India.
Then began phase 2 of the Pakistani plan, Operation Gibraltar or the invasion of Jammu and Kashmir by Pakistani covert forces on August 5, 1965 with the view of triggering a domestic uprising such as the one that had taken place after the Hazratbal theft. However, that did not happen, and ordinary Kashmiris helped the Indian Army round up the infiltrators. The devastating Indian response came in the capture of the Haji Pir Pass, a key point of ingress on August 30, 1965. This, if anything, was the real ‘surgical strike’.
The Pakistanis upped the ante and under Operation Grand Slam sent in two armoured regiments to cut the road from East Punjab to J&K. The Indian forces fell back in the face of the assault and things were looking grim. Shastri took two key decisions in the emergency committee of the cabinet. First, he ordered the Air Force to assist the Army and second, he gave the go-ahead for the Indian riposte – an attack across the international border towards Lahore, which caught Pakistan flat-footed.
The war carried on till September 23 and despite command failures and setbacks, India came out ahead because Pakistan, which had initiated the conflict, failed to make any gains in Kashmir and suffered a decisive defeat in Khem Karan in Punjab.
Shastri’s cool-headed leadership was vital in those days when, with the US staying away from the region and the British discredited, the Chinese jumped into the fray on behalf of Pakistan. His style was of wide consultation with the military brass as well as party colleagues, parliament and the cabinet.
In the post-war Tashkent talks, brokered by the Soviet Union, Shastri walked the talk of peace and did not rub Pakistan’s nose to the ground. He was willing to return captured territory in Haji Pir and on the Lahore front – real estate that was much more valuable than what Pakistan had in Chamb and Rajasthan.
But sadly, his heart gave out and shortly after the signing of the Tashkent Agreement, Shastri passed away in Tashkent in the early hours of January 11, 1966.
A look back at his life reveals a leader who deserves to be not just remembered, which India does from time to time but emulated too – which no one aspires to do. He was ethical, wise and far-sighted, he was a team-player, large-hearted and pragmatic. The adjectives could go on and on, and still be all true.
The Wire October 2, 2018

The rub with an irrational US

Maybe it is an anomaly, or maybe it is not. India-US relations seem to be running a smooth course in a period whereas Washington’s ties with everyone else are witnessing upheaval. The recently concluded 2+2 ministerial talks were a confirmation that the trend-line of Indo-US relations that began with Indira Gandhi’s meeting with Ronald Reagan in Cancun in 1981 remains positive.
Even so, we need to be careful. Credible reportage of what is happening within the Trump administration is somewhat scary. Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear: Trump in the White House, reveals that the inner working of the most powerful office in the world is verging on chaos. An op-ed by “Anonymous” in New York Times suggesting that there is a band of  dedicated officials, call them adult minders if you will, whose aim is to foil and check  the President’s worst urges, is not particularly comforting.
How then, are countries — friends, allies or adversaries — to deal with the world’s most formidable military and economic power going haywire? We in India, have, so far at least, nothing to worry about. But think of Canada, which had US tariffs placed on its industries on grounds of national security, or Turkey whose currency was sent into a tailspin by one presidential tweet. Think, too, of Iran which thought it had a water-tight deal with the Americans, signed, sealed and delivered at the UN.
And don’t forget Shinzo Abe, who has invested so much in wooing Trump and still remains shut out of the North Korea negotiations, and was told by Trump last June that ‘I remember Pearl Harbor’.
And then think of the Chinese who have in the short space of a year or so been re-designated as America’s principal adversary. Suddenly, the country that believed that it was in an era of its “strategic opportunity” finds itself the object of American wrath.
We don’t know what goes through the minds of leaders like Trudeau, Erdogan, Abe or Modi when they think of Trump. They are all formal or informal allies of the US. The obvious policy response is to hedge and hope for the best. Indeed, despite all the alarums and excursions over the US-South Korea FTA, in the end, the US left the old agreement more or less unchanged. Likewise, the fire and brimstone was more about updating NAFTA than replacing it.
The problems of these leaders pale into insignificance when compared to Xi Jinping’s perspective. So far the Chinese have hung tough with the US, matching tariff for tariff. But there is every indication that they may have miscalculated the US response and what the US is demanding is what China cannot satisfy — to end its dream of becoming a world technological power, a competitor of the US.
If they believe that Trump is, indeed, heading a chaotic administration will they be inclined to offer significant concessions to ward off immediate danger? On the other hand, the Chinese may believe that with the US blowing up the world order it created 70 years ago may, indeed, be ushering a real period of strategic opportunity for China.
 India should not have illusions that it will somehow gain from a full-blown US-China conflict. Too much protectionism will undermine global growth affecting financial flows to India and constraining its exports. And into this, if you inject unpredictable and whimsical policy-making by a US President, we have a recipe for disaster.
We can only speculate, but it is possible that the reported disastrous meeting in Manila with Trump in November 2017 persuaded Modi to seek a reset with China in Wuhan. This may not have altered the strategic trajectory of India’s relationship with the US, but it has sought tactical accommodation, maybe till the Trump era blows over. 
So far the Republican moderates have lined up behind their President and would not want to do anything that would upset the grassroots. But in the two years leading up to the 2020 elections, there could be a shift, engendered not only by the expected losses in November, but also the moderates rediscovering their mojo and a return to the more constitutional forms of checking the President.
But we should not have illusions about the direction of US policy. Trump is merely the convenient and somewhat outrageous vehicle for pushing policies which have considerable support in the US. The idea of a global retreat was there in the Obama administration which worked with all its might to wind down US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and stay away from Syria. There are powerful intellectual voices in the US such as that of Patrick Porter, Graham Allison and others who say that the US should move away from liberal internationalism.
The fact is that the US polity is in the state of a civil war since the Clinton administration with the old conventions of accommodation and compromise between the Democrats and Republicans thrown out the window. The US infrastructure is shot, its foreign policy over-militarised and flailing, yet all its Congress is good for is passing tax cuts. If there were any illusions about what kind of a world this envisages, just hear Trump’s speech to the UN last month. His point was that the US was sovereign, and each country needed to look out for itself. He belittled international institutions and that in their security, economic policy or diplomacy, nations were better off going on their own.
This can only presage a breakdown of the world order as we have known for the past 70 years, the liberal international order championed by the US. Though this order has deep flaws, it is still better than the order that preceded it — the one that gave us Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Tojo.
The Tribune October 3, 2018

What Shinzo Abe's victory in his party's internal election means to India

Mail Today September 24, 2018
 Shinzo Abe’s victory in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s internal election means that he can expect to head the government till the next election is due in late 2021, when he would have been the country’s longest serving prime minister.
In achieving his victory, Abe has overcome powerful headwinds, which include domestic political scandals, a persistently sluggish economy and an unpredictable Trump in the White House.

shinzo-modi_092418101945.jpgNew Delhi and Tokyo have a robust relationship. (Photo: Reuters)
Japan is an important economic and political partner of India. Its low-interest loans are invaluable for India’s infrastructure. They are helping connectivity projects across the country and their assistance in urban development schemes is transforming the landscape in Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai. New Delhi and Tokyo have a robust relationship across the Indo-Pacific and are collaborating on the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor to provide a high-quality alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative in the Indian Ocean Region.
Abe’s strategies
When Abe took office for the second time in 2012, the stagnant economy was Japan’s only major problem. He had declared that he had three arrows in his arsenal to fix it — monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and structural reforms.
Since then, in the face of rising problems with the US and China, Abe has achieved a great deal, but he needs to do much, much more to ensure that Japan can meet the economic and political challenges it confronts.
His expansionary economic strategy has brought back a measure of growth in the otherwise stagnant Japanese economy.
It may not be much by global standards, but it is the strongest since the 1990s.
He has used his office to push Japan’s security perimeter beyond the bounds to which it is confined by the constitution and he has initiated structural reforms aimed at raising the retirement age, scrapping tax rules that encourage women to keep away from the workforce and make the wealthy pay for their own health care.
The arrival of Donald Trump in the White House added a headache that need not have been there. Abe has gone out of his way to work with Trump, but the latter has not quite reciprocated.
In his dealings with North Korea, Trump has often ignored Japanese interests.
The US is extremely important to Japan as a trade partner and security provider. But the US has challenged Japan in both these areas.
Trump famously walked away from the patiently negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would have been greatly beneficial to Japan. Now, one of the short-term risks to the Japanese economy is the tariffs Trump has threatened to put on imported cars and car parts. Japan may have to make concessions to the US on this score and we may see some action when Trump meets Abe at the sidelines of the UNGA in New York this week.
shinzo-xi_092418102023.jpgThe Trump factor has encouraged Abe to reach out to China. (Photo: Reuters)
Looking for solutions
Abe needs some skillful footwork in dealing with his problems. On trade, he has joined 11 nations of the Pacific littoral to give life to an alternative to the TPP and, at the same time, has reached out to the EU to create one of the world’s largest liberalised trade zones. The Trump factor has encouraged Abe to reach out to both China and Russia. His October visit to China is expected to normalise ties between the two East Asian neighbours after a decade of tension.
Trump may have dampened the Japan-China tensions, but they are not going to go away so easily. But if Abe is able to successfully fire his third arrow to restructure the Japanese economy, it can have a transformative impact not only in Japan, but the rest of Asia as well.
Among his most difficult problems he still confronts are to find ways of dealing with Japan’s shrinking workforce. The Japanese are notoriously allergic to immigrants and at the same time, they are reluctant to allow women into their workforce. Yet, with its shrinking population, Japan desperately needs additional hands to power its economy.
A pledge to the Army
Another significant domestic issue is his pledge to revise the Japanese constitution to make it clear that Japan’s military is legal. Currently, Article 9 of the Constitution bars Japan from maintaining “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential”, though the country maintains de facto ‘Self Defence Forces’.
Neither of these two problems will be easy to resolve since there remains significant political resistance to change, especially that in relation to the pacifist Constitution. 

'Surgical Strikes Day' Is Just a Pre-Election Dose of Patriotic Political Fodder

The University Grants Commission has decreed that all universities celebrate September 29 as Surgical Strikes Day through marches by NCC contingents, pledges, lectures by ex-servicemen and so on.
The UGC is the regulator of India’s higher education system. Its job is to coordinate and maintain the standards of the higher education system. Funding for our universities is channelled through the commission.
It is no mystery as to why the UGC is suddenly discovering the patriotic virtues of celebrating “Surgical Strikes Day”. The so-called surgical strikes have been used as political fodder from the outset.
It has been pointed out repeatedly that such strikes had been conducted across the Line of Control since the mid-1990s. But the Narendra Modi government decided to broadcast what was essentially a shallow raid and make it out to be some kind of a major military victory.
It soon became evident why. Posters hailing the government’s action became a significant feature of the BJP’s campaign for the Uttar Pradesh assembly poll in November 2016.
Now to cap it comes this action by the UGC, which can only be termed farcical, because in following the government’s approach, the UGC ends up doing a disservice to the Indian Army’s achievements and also parades its ignorance to the world.
In India’s post-Independence history, there is no dearth of genuine military accomplishments that deserve to be celebrated.
Forgotten history?
The so-called surgical strikes were a coordinated shallow raid on some shacks used as launching pads by Pakistani militants and there is no doubt that they required bravery and professional skill to execute. Fortunately, the special forces teams managed to come back without any casualties.
But by no measure can they be compared with the accomplishment, say, of saving Srinagar from Pakistani raiders in October 1947. Neither can there be a comparison between them and their Parachute Regiment forbears who were besieged in Poonch for a year by Pakistani forces. Nor, for that matter, did they result in an achievement like the cleverly planned operation that led to the capture of Zoji La pass in late 1948.
It would be embarrassing to compare the so-called surgical strikes with the 1965 war’s superlative achievement – the capture of the Haji Pir Pass, in what was a far more complicated and hazardous operation. Surely, if the UGC needs to celebrate a military achievement, it could have considered the Battle of Asal Uttar in which Indian forces decimated three Pakistani armoured regiments.
Of course, in terms of the sheer scale, military skill and success, the liberation of Bangladesh and the capture of 90,0000 Pakistan Army personnel was orders and orders of magnitude beyond the outcome of the so-called surgical strikes.
And we have not even come to the Kargil mini-war, for which the predecessor BJP government must take its share of guilt. Because of its negligence, Pakistani forces occupied Indian territory and our boys had to make frontal attacks on Pakistani positions, sacrificing their lives in significant numbers in tactics reminiscent of World War I.
Yet the UGC has nothing to say for all these achievements. Indeed, the reality is that our actual wars do not even form part of the curriculum of our universities. True, you study the causes of these wars, the diplomatic action surrounding them, but not the actual conduct of operations and their consequences. Military history is lamentably absent from India’s higher education curricula.
Antidote to propaganda
A little recap of what has happened since the so-called surgical strikes will serve as a useful antidote to this fake nationalist propaganda.
The strikes were carried out in retaliation for the raid by Jaish-e-Muhammad militants on an Indian Army camp in Uri on September 18 leading to the deaths of 19 soldiers.
Soldiers patrolling along the Line of Control (LoC). Credit: PTI
Soldiers patrolling along the Line of Control (LoC). Credit: PTI
The Modi government’s response was the “surgical strikes” of September 29 that struck against launch pads of the militants along the Line of Control. Media reports said that all the Indian personnel had returned safely after killing anywhere up to 50 militants.
Yet, if the so-called surgical strikes were aimed at deterring Pakistan from sending armed militants to attack Indian security forces, they were a failure.
For one thing, Pakistani shelling and attacks along the LoC continued, resulting in a heavy loss of life of civilians and a smaller number of security personnel.
A month after the so-called surgical strikes, on November 29, an Indian army formation was attacked in Nagrota, which is the headquarters of 16 Corps. Seven soldiers including an officer were killed.
This was much more serious than the Uri attack. For one thing, Nagrota is much further inland compared to Uri, which is proximate to the LoC. More important, it is the headquarters of the 16 Corps which looks after the defence of the Jammu, Poonch and Rajouri area. Despite this, and in contrast to the Uri incident, the government did not react.
There was no reaction either, when, on the last day of December 2017, five CRPF jawans were killed in an attack on their camp in South Kashmir by Jaish-e-Muhammad militants.
All that the UGC’s mindless action has done is betray its intellectual bankruptcy in playing up to the fake nationalism that is sought to be generated through repeated invocations of the so-called surgical strikes, which seem to be brought up suspiciously when elections approach.
The Wire Oct 1, 2018

The problem with Narendra Modi’s Pakistan policy is not ideology – but hubris and incompetence

The government’s flip-flop over talking to Pakistan continues. Within 24 hours of announcing that the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers would meet on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, New Delhi has called off the talks.
The official spokesman Raveesh Kumar announced on Friday that the killings of security personnel by “Pakistan-based entities” and the recent release of a series of twenty postage stamps glorifying terrorists “confirm that Pakistan will not mend its ways." 
He said that Islamabad’s “evil agenda” had been exposed “and the true face of the new Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan has been revealed to the world.
Now consider the sequence of events. In his post-victory declaration, Khan declared that Pakistan would be willing to take two steps to any one step taken by India.
Any Indian Prime Minister, especially one who sees himself as being hard-headed and focused, should have known that this was post-election rhetoric, especially since it was also accompanied by the usual call for talks about Kashmir “where we are still on square one”. There was no reference to India’s major grouse – terrorism.
Despite this, Modi rushed into the breach and sent a letter to Khan congratulating him for his victory and seeking “meaningful and constructive” engagement. In turn, this could have been passed off as a formal gesture not worth much comment.
But the problem came up thereafter when Imran wrote to Modi calling for a resumption of dialogue that had been derailed by the Pathankot attack of December 2015. At this point, instead of applying their minds to the situation, the government of India readily agreed to a meeting between Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers in New York, even while clarifying that this was not tantamount to the resumption of the “comprehensive dialogue” process.

Hubris and incompetence

Incidentally, by the time of the announcement on Thursday, the government knew about the incident in which a Border Security Force jawan, Narendar Singh, had been killed and his body allegedly mutilated by Pakistani rangers. As for the postage stamps featuring the likes of Burhan Wani, they should have been aware much earlier since they had been issued in July.
Clearly, the backtracking is an afterthought . But coming as it did within 24 hours, it makes the government look amateurish and not quite in control of the narrative. It is possible that it was the report of the BSF jawan’s mutilation that spooked the government, since it was widely reported and his funeral was attended by large crowds in Sonipat in Haryana.
People often mistake the energy Modi has shown in travelling the world, in pursuit of a foreign policy that only he understands, as success. The reality is that in the most important region for India – its neighbourhood, India’s standing has steadily deteriorated under Modi’s watch.
Since we are talking of diverse countries like Pakistan, Maldives and Nepal here, there is no ideological cause. The only explanation is a lethal combination of hubris and incompetence. Remember Modi’s descent into Lahore on Christmas Day 2015 to wish Happy Birthday to Nawaz Sharif. A week later, the “deep state” responded with the Pathankot attack.
Go back a two decades and you will see the pattern. Whenever India and Pakistan have sought to improve their relations the deep state has struck. Remember when Vajpayee took the bus to Lahore and visited the Minar-e-Pakistan commemorating the founding of Pakistan in 1999? Well, the response was the Kargil attack masterminded by the Pakistan Army. Targeted massacres were a feature of the Pakistani deep-state policy in seeking to foil the Vajpayee government’s efforts to make peace with Pakistan. Among the worst were the killings when a Jaish militant detonated a car bomb near the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly building in October 2001. This was followed by the attack on Parliament House in December that brought the two countries to the brink of war. In 2008, when India sought to build on the dialogue that had seen a potential breakthrough on Kashmir with the new Zardari government, the deep state responded with the horrific Mumbai attack.
Given this background, the government should have been ready for a provocation, and shown some nerve in persisting with a course it had determined. The problem, of course, seems to be that the Modi government itself does not have a set course on anything.

Flip flop

This government began its term with a lot of tough talk on Islamabad. Even before he took office, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval became known for his remark “you can do one Mumbai, but you may lose Pakistan”. Later, in October 2014, he spoke of the need of maintaining “effective deterrence” against Islamabad, presumably doing unto Pakistan what it was doing to India. But in practical terms it was followed by Modi’s workmanlike meeting with Nawaz Sharif in Nepal, and followed by the Christmas Day love-fest in December 2015.
India’s tough response after Pathankot, which included denouncing Pakistan in international forums and capitals and responding to border skirmishes with disproportionate force clearly did not achieve the desired goal and led to great hardship of the people living near the border. Neither did it lead to any appreciable reduction in Pakistan’s cross border attacks. The most recent being the attack on Sunjwan camp in February 2018, leading to the deaths of five army personnel.As a result, earlier this year, the government quietly reached out to Pakistan and agreed to cool things on the border. In part the government’s approach was conditioned by the fact that it was focusing on the coming elections. While hammering Pakistan certainly brings in votes, especially in the north, there is always a possibility that the situation could get out of hand.
Abundant caution had dictated the Wuhan peace with Beijing. The same motive led to the Indian Director General of Military Operations reaching out to his Pakistani counterpart and calling for a renewal of the old 2003 ceasefire that had been in place along the Line of Control till the arrival of the muscular Bharatiya Janata Party government in 2014.
If this article seems to be somewhat harsh in holding up the BJP to a higher standard, it is because the party has itself claimed to be different from the effete Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government. In fact, this writer’s own belief is that talks are good and we must be prepared for the Pakistani deep state (read the Army) to seek to disrupt them.
What we need are nerves and stamina for the long haul. India does no favour to Pakistan by talking to them. These talks need to be part of our own strategy of flexible containment or engagement whose goal is not to defeat Pakistan, nor embrace it – but to manage it in a manner that ensures that it does not derail us from our primary national goal – transforming the economic life of our country and its hundreds of millions of dirt-poor people.
The Scroll September 22, 2018

Lean, mean military? Gen Bipin Rawat calls for plan to modernise army, but this will be a long march

As his term winds down, army chief Bipin Rawat has discovered the huge agenda he should have known about at the outset – the need to restructure and reform his force. All this while Rawat was busy fighting other enemies, some real and others imaginary. But a recent report says that he has, at last, called for studies to prepare the army for 21st century conflict.
As part of this the army envisages a cut of some 1,50,000 troops, beginning with a cut of one-third within two years. Some of these would involve cutting and merging existing departments at the army HQ, but others could involve cuts in support units like Signals and Supply Corps. The army, reports say, hopes for a saving of Rs 5,000 crore to Rs 7,000 crore that could be used to boost its capital budget to buy new equipment. All this sounds nice, but is easier said than done.
Such ideas are neither new or remarkable. In August 2017 the defence ministry had announced it was “redeploying” 57,000 personnel following recommen-dations of the Shekatkar Committee, set up to suggest measures to enhance the army’s combat potential and constrain its revenue expenditure. In 1998, the army reduced its recruitment so as to cut its numbers by 50,000, with the hope that the expected saving of Rs 600 crore would help to buy new equipment. But, to its chagrin, it found that the government simply pocketed the money and there was no bonus in the 1999 budget.
As for restructuring, in the early 2000s, when the army formulated its Cold Start Doctrine, it envisaged the reconfiguring of its divisions and corps into agile integrated battle groups (IBGs) which would be roughly the strength of a brigade. These groups were to comprise an armoured regiment, two mechanised infantry regiments, an artillery battalion, specialised units for Intelligence Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTR), electronic warfare (EW) and aviation. But, just as Cold Start was quietly put on the backburner, so was the idea of IBGs, though modern warfare needs such reorganisation regardless of doctrine.
Now presumably the army wants to revive these ideas. The suggestions that cuts will take place in Signals and Supply units actually goes against the grain of modern warfare, which emphasises quick moving forces and long range precision strikes enabled by specialised ISTR, EW and logistics units. Modern militaries have actually seen a reduction of traditional infantry and combat roles for soldiers and an expansion of the roles of laptop warriors – geospatial imagery analysts, GIS entry specialists, IT specialists, cyber network defenders, linguists, to name but a few areas.
Two issues stand out here. First, there is no guarantee that the army’s savings will be given back to them. In India money is retained in the Consolidated Fund, and whatever is saved or left over, goes back into it. It’s not as though the money “belonged” to the army. The government would have to re-appropriate the alleged savings through the Union Budget process. Going by past experience, that is unlikely to happen.
The second is that reducing numbers does not necessarily translate into reducing expenditure. Indeed, in the short run, it will be the other way around. The reason is that there is need to invest in getting higher quality personnel, pay to train them into their new jobs and re-equip the army with an entire new range of weapons and systems.
And before we go too far, it is worthwhile recalling the testimony of the army to Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence earlier this year, that some 68% of the army’s equipment holdings belong to the “vintage” category, 24% current and 8% state of the art. A modern, war winning military needs to be state of the art in every dimension – doctrine, organisation, equipment and quality of its personnel.
The Times of India September 15, 2018