Dragon on Our Doorstep: Managing China Through Military Power is a vast book covering virtually every aspect of India’s defence policy, from 1947 to the present. It examines issues as diverse as China’s grand strategy, the demolition of Babri Masjid, to building military power and the succession of the Dalai Lama. But its focus is quite clear, managing India’s real security problem – the rise of China.
Given the enormous asymmetry that has already developed in the comprehensive national power of China and India, there is no resolution that is possible, the issue can only be managed and the authors suggest that to even begin that process, India must set its defence system right. This is not, as its name may imply, a hawkish call to arms, but a sober analysis which argues that military power is an important part of the mix of any country’s geopolitical perspective. But India has diluted this ingredient, has suffered the consequences and will continue to do so till it changes its approach. So, it is critical of those who speak blithely of a two-front war with China and Pakistan, arguing that even a one-front war was not an option. What it advocates is an effective military capacity as a precondition of building durable peace with Pakistan and China.
This is a provocative book and deliberately so, aimed at shaking Indian complacency. As the editors of Force magazine, the authors have traveled across the country, visited numerous facilities and units, and spoken and interacted with a large number of military officers in key positions. A great deal of this is evident in the material that has been marshalled in the book, as well as in the assertions that they make in the book. You may or may not agree with all of them, but they definitely provoke thought.
Over the years, political leaders, bureaucrats and even military leaders have begun to work with the assumption that no external force can dare to attack India, not just because we have nuclear weapons now, but that we are so big and populous that it would be a foolhardy enterprise.
They may not have understood the character of defeat. More often than not, it is a state of mind – within two weeks of the German offensive in 1940, with Paris and most of France still to be conquered, the French government threw in the towel and accepted defeat. This was not very different from November 1962, when a broken Pandit Nehru wrote off Assam and appealed to the US for military assistance, or the slow defeat of the US in Vietnam between 1968 and 1975.
At the root of India’s problems, the authors write, is the erroneous belief that a large and well equipped military alone can win wars. Given the fact that wars are an extension of politics, the one thing that India has not been able to get is its politicians to understand this. Not only do politicians tend to shun things military, but they also systematically exclude the military from higher defence management.
Carl von Clausewitz is well known for his observation that, “war is nothing by the continuation of policy with other means” – in other words, without political ends, war is meaningless. And repeatedly, as the authors show in India’s case, those political ends have not been clear – the most recent being the 2002 Operation Parakaram. If fighting must have a political purpose, surely it behoves those who are involved to closely integrate the political and military means. It is not just a question of political ends, but the necessity of the political leader to control every aspect of war – its intensity, its direction and length etc.
Given this, it is vital for the politicians to have a grasp of military affairs, or, at least, clearly understand what the military is all about. Of course, it goes without saying that military leaders, too, need to understand national policy. So while the politics must always be in command, the military must be in a position to influence the leader. But the leader and his political ilk must make it a point to understand why their country is spending a vast fortune in buying guns, tanks, maintaining millions of men in arms. They cannot depute this function to the civilian bureaucracy as they have done till now, to the detriment of the security of the nation. Only the political leader can take decisions that may simultaneously span diplomacy, trade, military operations and politics.
In some ways, for example, the success of the Allies in World War Two arose from the ability of an arch imperialist (Winston Churchill), a half democrat (Franklin D. Roosevelt) and a dictator (Stalin) to work together towards a common goal. They coordinated their diplomatic strategy, military offensives, military assistance while their adversaries were an axis only in name, with little coordination and diplomacy.
India’s official defence budget is now over Rs 3,59,000 crore, including pensions. If you add the nuclear and space activities it is even greater. It is vastly more than what we spend for health, social welfare and infrastructure.
Surely, this would mean that the politicians in-charge would take the task of purposefully spending this money, managing the men and ensuring that the country gets the best bang for the buck. But, as we know, this is far from the case. Indeed, the country’s defence system is seriously dysfunctional, making it unfit for a major war as became evident when the challenge came – following the terrorist attack on parliament in 2001 and the Mumbai attack of 2008. By their own reckoning, the modernisation of the three wings of the armed forces is delayed by at least a decade. There is no point trying to blame a single minister or government – the problems are systemic. Efforts have been made by expert committees and even the standing committee on defence in the parliament to recommend change, but the government has been firmly proof against any advice.
Things have not changed much with the Narendra Modi government. The authors note that the ambitious ‘Act East Think West’ slogan raised by the government has no place for military power in its planning. In their view, “thinking strategically and developing an appreciation of military power are two major shortcomings of India’s foreign policy.”
This foreign policy weakness is compounded by the fact that India does not have a defence policy either. For the past decade a small group of strategic specialists have been trying to push the government to adopt a strategic defence review, duly approved by the cabinet committee on security, to outline India’s priorities in the area of defence and provide a coherent narrative as to how it plans to cope with the challenges. The main aim of this is to ensure that the entire governmental system is on the same page when it comes to the vital area of defence. Though documents have been drafted by the National Security Advisory Board, the governments of the day have not seen it fit to study, let alone accept or reject them.
This is an impressive piece of work and beyond the actual recommendations, there is a wealth of information that an interested reader can gather about the way India’s defence system works (or doesn’t).
Manoj Joshi is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.