The present sentiment in the country is that India has, once again, managed to ward off the China threat. It indeed is fortunate that the tensions on the borders are coming under control. However, we need to take a more realistic view of the situation than most TV anchors do these days.
The present thinking is that India will significantly ramp up its overall military strength and presence in forward areas to prevent another misadventure by its enemies. The immediate fallout has been a firm commitment to several large-budget purchases of war machines.
The defence ministry has already approved an additional purchase of 33 new fighter jets including 12 Su-30MKIs and 21 MiG-29s along with the upgradation of 59 MiG-29s at a cost of Rs 18,148 crore. The Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) also approved acquisitions of various platforms and equipment required by the Indian armed forces for an approximate cost of Rs 38,900 crores. It also cleared the acquisition of 248 Astra Beyond Visual Range air-to-air missiles for the Indian Air Force and the Navy. Design and development of a new Land Attack Cruise Missile with a 1,000 kilometres strike range by the DRDO has also been cleared.
It is also no secret that the Indian Army will now be forced to keep far more forces deployed in the high-altitude areas of Ladakh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, than those at present. Most analysts agree that two or three divisions will now be additionally deployed in these areas. (How these troops will eventually be treated by the nation can be gauged by a report of the Comptroller and Auditor General, which shows that the Indian troops do not have snow glasses and multi-purpose boots to wear or requisite sanctioned food to eat in high altitude areas in Siachen and Ladakh, exposing them to inclement weather and causing ailments.) In addition, significant assets of the air force will also have to move up. The navy too will have to keep more of its fleet at sea.
This approach calls for a serious review of the government’s present approach to national security in the present economic situation of India.
Where will the money for this come from? It is not a question of national will but one of the national purse.
The Indian economy is presently at its worst. The GDP growth projections for India are grim. The forecast for the current financial year is that the GDP will contract by 6.4%. The finance ministry has already frozen new projects due to lack of money. In a statement, it said, “In-principle approval for such schemes will not be given this financial year. Initiation of new schemes already appraised/approved will remain suspended for one year till March 31, 2021.”
A known threat
The threat from China was always known. Ravi Rikhye in his book Analysis to Fight India’s Ability to Fight a 2-Front War 2018 warns of this possibility in the introduction itself. “In my opinion, the next crisis will be at another point, perhaps Siachen side, and possibly not until 2019 or 2020,” he says.
To this end, India sanctioned the mountain strike corps in 2013 a “non-defensive role” to create capabilities to deter China’s aggressive behaviour along the border. However, the fate of the proposed strike corps is an indicator of what happens when money is not available. The first division was raised in the eastern sector but the second division at Pathankot was never completed. The exercise was stopped due to lack of funds and “rethink within the Army” prompted by the limitations of the border infrastructure.
It is thus clear that India simply does not have the money to guard its borders by military means. However strident and seemingly resolute the present tone of announcements made by the government are, the economic maths just does not add up. It is known to everyone intuitively, not needing help from charts or statistical data.
So, what can be done? Can the borders be guarded well enough by military means that India can afford? Indeed.
The answer lies in having borders that are, more or less, not disputed by India’s neighbours. Yes, it means giving up some of the country’s claims. There is an understandable aversion to this. The territory of the nation is always portrayed as sacrosanct, as is our body. Who would willingly give up an eye, or even a finger? However, the nation-state is not the sum of all our bodies. Writing in The Wire, Itty Abraham informs us that countries – including India and China – have given up territory in the past for better relations without any “diminution of the nation-state”. He says:
“It is a dangerous fallacy to see the country as a scaled-up version of the individual body… The more national territory is seen as a body, the less possible it becomes to see any “loss” of land or at sea as anything but a crime against the state, deserving of war.”
The nation must not squander away its territory. However, it must be accepted that the prime objective of a nation-state is to provide a good life to its citizens. If territorial integrity helps achieve such an objective, the struggle to retain integrity is justified. But if efforts to retain every inch of the territory result in unacceptable hardships to its people, it would not be.
In the past too, Indian has squandered away opportunities to reach a border settlement with Pakistan. A settlement with Pakistan had almost been reached but was scuttled. In an interview to CNN-IBN in 2009, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said he should have “moved faster on the Kashmir resolution with Pakistan”. “We had come very close to a non-border, non-territorial solution, and I regret that we didn’t go ahead with it due to certain events at the time.”
To sum up, the Centre’s present approach to raise more and more forces to counter the threat to India’s borders is clearly not working. Every rupee that is now spent on arms will be at the cost of basic welfare of the citizens. And, even then, it is likely that the country will not reach a reasonable level of satisfaction. That makes it a double whammy.
The welfare of citizens can be achieved by shedding the notion that the nation-state must not give away even an inch of territory. In any competition between territorial integrity and the welfare of citizens, the latter must win.
Col Alok Asthana is a veteran, presently a consultant on leadership and innovation. He is author of two books – Leadership for Colonels and Business Managers and Reclaim your Democracy. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org