Great power ambition sans the attitude

Although there are people and institutions capable of articulating a strategic vision, bureaucratic lethargy and turf battles prevent them from executing it

April 16, 2013 12:39 am | Updated 12:39 am IST

A reputed international weekly recently devoted a cover article to arguing that India’s quest for greatness would be stymied by the absence of a strategic culture. Ever since George Tanham’s seminal essay on >Indian strategic thought , published in 1992 by RAND, suggested the absence of strategic thinking, many writers and commentators have weighed in, both supporting and contradicting Tanham. Interestingly, what Tanham suggested was that India was indeed a “strong” cultural entity, but somehow the nature and characteristics of that culture either prevented or avoided strategic thought. The article in the Economist (April 5, 2013) goes much farther, and says there are many in India who write and comment on the absence of institutions capable of giving the country strategic direction. But those in power have deliberately taken decisions to deny the country those institutions out of departmental jealousies, lethargy or plain wrongheadedness.

Criticism of our strategic culture is not new, and to those who have worked in South Block for decades, the history of trying to put in place procedures and institutions are most often a case of one step forward, two steps back. Paraphrasing Rahul Gandhi’s speech at the CII recently, he said what is wrong in India is that as few as 5,000 people take all the decisions for a billion Indians. Are there really as many as 5,000 is the first question that comes to mind because the number of people crippling this country’s strategic culture is less than 10.

Defence Planning Group

Between the publication of Tanham’s essay in 1992 and the weekly’s justifiably disparaging remarks, attempts have been made to build institutions. The earliest attempt goes as far back as 1986 when a Defence Planning Group was set up under a rotating three star officer with vacancies for scientists and diplomats. Since the absence of a military input is one of the chief complaints of both Tanham and the Economist , it is bizarre to note that the Defence Planning Group was eventually allowed to wither by the armed forces themselves and inter-services rivalry. So the blame has to be shared pretty widely. Tanham was so bemused by the absence of thinking beyond continental and territorial defence that he blamed both history and culture.

Historically, India was just a part of the greater British Empire, the defence of which was strategised in Whitehall. Within the folds of the empire, India had two roles — one, as provider of troops and, secondly, as a continental command under an army Commander-in-Chief. The C-in-C therefore often saw himself as an independent commander who chafed at the bit at being ‘directed’ by a Viceroy, who according to the C-in-C, was merely the civilian head of government. A classic instance is the creation of the present state of Iraq after the First World War when the troops and government administration departments were sent from India, the political direction came from Whitehall and the naval element from the C-in-C of the Far East Fleet in Singapore. The air force element was under the land force commander. This arrangement was repeated every so often, as to disable New Delhi’s independent strategic thinking and limit Indian army HQ thinking to territorial defence. So crippling was the empire’s straitjacket that in 1939, in the absence of any strategic directive, New Delhi’s first operational order for the Second World War was the digging of defences in the North-West frontier against a Russian attack — a replay of the great game of the previous century! Culturally, Tanham ascribed the absence of forward planning to abstruse theories of Hindu concepts of tomorrow and time.

Since Tanham’s time, India has become a nuclear weapons state, China has risen astonishingly and Pakistan has ceased to grow and turned into a state at war with itself. The Indian armed forces have grown exponentially, but no civilian leader, according to the Economist , has the faintest idea of how to use India’s growing military clout. The army seems most of all to be structured for a blitzkrieg against Pakistan while the navy is preparing to counter China’s ‘blue water adventurism.’

The services appear to have their own strategic plans and the organisation that would centrally direct strategic thinking — the Ministry of Defence — is the most distrusted by the armed forces. A ministry that could provide a centralist view on world affairs and geopolitical initiatives — the Ministry of External Affairs — is described as ridiculously ‘puny’ in numbers. The sanction for larger numbers already exists but the foreign services mandarins refuse to laterally recruit suitable candidates to get on with the job. Vacancies for foreign service officers in the Ministry of Defence to augment their ‘woeful ignorance’ go repeatedly unfilled. The Economist has ignored the six months of happy times after George Fernandes, the Defence Minister, was retired due to a TV sting operation, and replaced temporarily by Jaswant Singh. He inducted Arun Singh, a former Minister of State for Defence, to head a committee to restructure higher defence management. More was achieved for reforms during those few months than in a half century before or a decade since. The crucial reform of integrating the service headquarters under a Chief of Defence Staff failed due to opposition from just three individuals.

Most observers agree that a permanent hurdle to structural reforms and financial streamlining remains the Ministry of Defence. The ministry consists of generalists who are invariably in opposition to the military whose officers are educated for a minimum period of three years (a year every decade) on strategic thought before they are posted in billets where they could contribute to strategy. Curiously, both Tanham and the Economist wrote their essays on Indian strategic thought because both were investigating the possibility of India becoming a great power. The inference from both is that the absence of a strategic culture will hamper India from punching its weight. True, its weight is light compared to that of China but with the advantages India has going for it — the English language, democracy, a military culture and tradition, a fine navy, a small but active foreign office — it could, with the setting up of coordinating institutions, punch well above its weight. It doesn’t, largely because of bureaucratic lethargy, jealousies and turf battles, and an indifferent political class.

Non-alignment 2.0

The Economist notes that the nearest that India’s strategic community has come to writing out a vision of how to match foreign policy with the deployment of the armed forces, whose budget today is near $ 46 bn, is the unofficial document, Non-Alignment 2.0, written by people both inside and outside the government. The document proves that people of the right calibre can be called upon at any time to articulate a vision but there are an equal number of incompetents in government who will prevent the former from executing that vision. Sadly many of them populate the Ministry of Defence and have, for instance, batted stubbornly in favour of defence PSUs and limiting FDI in the sector to 26 per cent when it is 49 per cent elsewhere.

The result is that India, which is at the bottom of the heap in HDI, is also the world’s largest arms importer. To paraphrase Manmohan Singh, “the enemy is within.” The latest attempt to restructure higher defence management — the Naresh Chandra Committee — has put in a report full of sensible recommendations. It is not public yet but it is reliably learnt that the overwhelming opposition to it comes from — where else? — the Ministry of Defence.

(Raja Menon retired as Rear Admiral in the Indian Navy)

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