The Death of Civilised Debate and Objective Analysis Doesn't Bode Well for National Security

Analyses of geopolitical, military, economic and internal security factors impinging thereupon must not be coloured by political and ideological affiliations.

Intense religious and political polarisation unleashed by Hindutva protagonists has resulted in the discourse on public and social media sinking to abysmal depths. TV discussions have degenerated into insults and abusive outbursts. While this boosts TRPs and strengthens vote banks, intolerance, abuse and violence are getting entrenched in our society, inflicting lasting damage to national unity.

In contrast, military officers have always stood out for their dignity and incisive analysis. However, some veterans have been embarrassing themselves and the services with their intemperate rants. In their anxiety to further the agenda of their political patrons, they have no qualms in shedding objectivity and renouncing the secular ethos imbibed during military service.

Intolerance for opposing views manifests as sly innuendo and attribution of motives without naming people, which shows a lack of moral courage. More reprehensible is labelling opponents as China or Pakistan lobbyists, anti-nationals, or conversely, as the government’s apologists/propagandists.

Genuine scholars and researchers deem all this sacrilegious. On a personal note, upon taking early retirement from the Army, I joined the PhD programme in International Business Strategy and Management at the University of Texas at Dallas. My professor ,Steve Guisinger, who was once the World Bank-appointed economic advisor to the government of Pakistan, advised me to avoid the sub-continental propensities for sharp rebuttals and innuendos. He said that one must contest arguments even of distinguished scholars with conviction, using logic and evidence, but strident criticism and insinuation are strictly taboo.

Ancient India had a rich tradition of scholarly debate or shastrarth in various disciplines right from the Buddhist and Vedic eras. The Nyāya Sūtras of Sage Gautama had codified types of debates, aims, rules, and methodologies of determining winners. Our news anchors and panellists are recklessly violating those norms.

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Crossing that line

Regrettably, media discussions and articles by some veterans have also crossed that line. In early May, when some veterans broke the news about Chinese intrusions in Ladakh, many anchors and veterans denounced them viciously, accusing them of fear-mongering. This was despite satellite imagery clearly showing heavy PLA build-up. The government too was in denial and downplayed these. 

The tragic death of the commanding officer of the 16 Bihar regiment and 19 of his soldiers in the June 15 clash infuriated the battalion and precipitated the crisis. However, it fortuitously revealed the extent of Chinese build-up, exposing their designs. India mobilised post-haste, and both countries now stare at a major escalation.

That clash exposed deep fissures among the experts. A large section decries the intelligence failures and the top hierarchy’s downplaying of the threat in the belief that the Wuhan concord guaranteed peace. Others support the government, not through cogent arguments, but by questioning the motives and patriotism of the detractors.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s shocking statement, categorically denying Chinese intrusions or occupation, aggravated the divide. In the past, whenever India faced national crises, the ruling party invariably forged national consensus and unity. Unfortunately, the PM did not strive for it, allowing political considerations to override national security.

Who advised the PM to state something that was blatantly false, easily refutable, and would subject him to worldwide ridicule? He could not have said this on his own volition; hence was he deliberately set up? Or, was someone trying to conceal his own lapse(s)? Why has he not been fired for this misstep?

PM Modi during his address on June 30. Photo: Video screengrab

The role of various think tanks merits examination. Sponsored by different organisations and corporate houses, they promote scholarly research in various domains and employ distinguished retired professionals to guide the process. It is imperative that they ensure objectivity through rational analyses and empirical validation, and not become lobbyists for their sponsors.

This principle is sacrosanct for a domain as critical as national security. Analyses of geopolitical, military, economic and internal security factors impinging thereupon must not be coloured by political and ideological affiliations. Strategic analysts cannot toe the government’s line blindly or defend its lapses. Furthermore, questioning the patriotism or motives of veterans who have opposing views is highly repugnant.

Also Read: What Rajnath Left Out: PLA Blocks Access to 900 Sq Km of Indian Territory in Depsang

Chinese motives and India’s military strategy

What were Xi Jinping’s motives in precipitating this crisis? Whether his intent was to assert Chinese pre-eminence in Asia, punish India for its dilution of Article 370, or ease domestic pressure upon himself is geopolitically relevant for the top echelons, but not too material for military strategy. The PLA’s likely game plan was heavy mobilisation for the major exercise, swift diversion into Aksai Chin and seizing critical territories in Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO), Pangong Tso and Chushul sectors.

China would have calculated that due to the COVID-19 and economic crises, India would be unable to mobilise quickly, and hence it would have to invoke the Wuhan spirit to negotiate a face-saving withdrawal. Given its history of pusillanimity, India would not try to evict them militarily and would be resigned to the fait accompli. The Galwan Valley clash, however, forced India to mobilise rapidly, which thwarted Chinese designs.

Close up satellite image of the Y-bend in the Galwan River, site of the recent clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers on June 15, 2020. The Line of Actual Control, shown in red, runs a little west of the Chinese claim line of 1960, shown in orange. But both lines show the area where the clash occurred, and the Galwan Valley as unambiguously on the Indian side. Image: The Wire/Google Earth

Two broad viewpoints are discernible from articles on the current standoff. The doves, including many in the government, recommend exhausting all diplomatic means even if that takes time, and not precipitate escalation. They argue that the raging pandemic and sinking economy make it inopportune even for limited actions in Ladakh, which could snowball into a major conflagration.

The hawks cite typical Chinese tactics of longwinded but fruitless negotiations to enable the PLA to strengthen occupied positions. But, India cannot let the new LAC status ossify; it being very disadvantageous in critical sectors. Hawks recommend negotiations for status quo ante, but without those spilling into the campaigning window. Invoking the principle of jus ad bellum India must evict the PLA militarily from all occupied territories.

My perspective is similar for the following reasons.

  • China cannot countenance India as a co-equal in the emerging world order, as that would impede its hegemonic ambitions. Hence, a limited armed conflict is inevitable.
  • With the PM’s illusions of a Sino-Indian entente dispelled, Chinese sensitivities are no longer a constraint. India should forge stronger economic and security relationships with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Taiwan, show solidarity with the littoral nations in the South China Sea, and actively participate in the Quad.
  • A limited operation in Ladakh would likely end in a stalemate, with losses to both. This would severely damage Xi politically, as would a negotiated restoration of status quo ante. India should exploit Xi’s quandary for a settlement on its own terms.
  • Our mobilisation has achieved near-parity in Ladakh. Troops are acclimatised, fired up, and raring for revenge. We must exploit the momentum and high morale achieved in the Chushul operation and wrest occupied territories. For surprise and speed, the Special Forces should be used, thus putting the onus of climbing the escalation ladder on the Chinese.
  • Since the Depsang plains provide depth to the vital DBO sector, it is imperative that the PLA’s deep intrusions there are rolled back.
  • This must be done before winter virtually freezes respective positions and holdings. While the health workers will keep fighting the pandemic, the economic crisis would aggravate. Even otherwise, that would have required extraordinary measures for its revival and mitigating unemployment.
  • National crises are also opportunities. The government can exploit the patriotic fervour to raise resources through the National Defence Bonds and other means. It can push through politically unpopular reforms and restructuring, especially in the unproductive ordnance factories. Corporatisation, equity partnerships with firms entering defence production, extensive involvement of the private sector for producing armaments and hi-tech systems for own use and exports are imperative for raising resources for defence modernisation.
  • The PM could authorise limited operations also for electoral benefits, which will help douse the all-round criticism he is facing.

The foregoing approaches have pros and cons, and although divergent, both are valid. However, both make assumptions about Chinese actions, but as the trite saying goes, if the analysis indicates the enemy has four options, rest assured he would adopt the fifth or sixth. Commanders prepare for all possible contingencies and retain balance to meet any surprises.

People are obviously very concerned about the current LAC standoff and the media’s analysis is meant to explain complex issues to them in simple terms. Analysts are under no illusion that field commanders would be awaiting their wisdom with bated breath. Where then is the need for acrimony and labelling people as anti-national? Legitimate criticism of the government’s actions and ineptitude does not denote a lack of patriotism.

People watch PM Narendra Modi on a TV screen. Photo: REUTERS/Amit Dave

All regimes like to have friendly media, but the difference lies is in the means adopted and the extent of devious coercion. The problem arises when news anchors and experts act as spokespersons of the government to enjoy the patronage of the regime. The integrity of the fourth estate and journalistic ethics are a casualty in our republic.

Sadly, veterans who have mounted this bandwagon by formally joining the ruling party or as vocal supporters are no longer objective. But, must they also lose civility and decorum in media debates, which have become insufferable? With years of service in the disciplined and highly regarded military, they cannot stoop to the level of obnoxious anchors and nasty politicians. Let them not ape the nauseating conduct of the Arnabs and Bakshis, since they have to uphold the pristine image of the services.

Deepak Sethi is a retired brigadier of the Indian Army and now a Professor of International Business Strategy and Management in the US. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at 30foxtrot@gmail.com.