Welcoming Putin

New Delhi should treat the Russian president with the usual respect

Samanth Subramanian of The National asked me to comment on Vladimir Putin’s visit to India. My response:

Putin’s visit is part of a longstanding tradition of bilateral visits. It comes at a time when there is greater convergence of interests between India and the United States, than between India and Russia. That said, Russia bears greater responsibility for the divergence in relations with India, for it has almost gratuitously pursued an arms-sale relationship with Pakistan. Those sales have little utility other than sending unwelcome signals to New Delhi.

New Delhi should welcome Mr Putin with great warmth and the traditional respect, despite his recent actions. Russia has been and can be a useful partner for India. For his part, Mr Putin would do well to reflect on how Russian industry can take advantage of Mr Modi’s “Make in India” initiative, especially in the defence and technology sectors.

Samanth’s article is up on The National’s website.

Insuring your policy

Defence expenditure is the premium paid to insure against the failure of foreign policy

A good defence strategy is one that manages the risks of foreign policy going wrong for one reason or the other. It might turn out that foreign policy was based on the wrong presumptions, or unexpected events might upset the geopolitical balance and so on. In these circumstances, a state should have the military capacity to ensure that its interests are protected. In other words, work for the best, but prepare for scenarios where the best doesn’t happen.

It follows that there is a good reason to keep the foreign & defence policy establishments at a sufficient distance in order to prevent confusion on their respective objectives. They must co-operate and co-ordinate at some levels, but it must be recognised that defence expenditure is essentially premium paid to insure against the failure of foreign policy.

There are two mistakes states can make: subordinating defence strategy to foreign policy and vice versa.

Nehru’s policy of non-alignment (as distinct from participation in the Non Aligned Movement) in the years following independence was infused with realism. But he failed to (and indeed refused to) invest in building the necessary military capacity to hedge against the chance that non-alignment might fail. In the event, he had to seek urgent military assistance from the United States in 1962 after the Chinese invasion.

Pakistan is an example of the other mistake. Its foreign policy is completely subordinate to its military strategy. It is eminently sensible for Pakistan to develop military capacity to defend itself against India. But it is high folly to then pursue a foreign policy of relentless hostility and antagonism towards its eastern neighbour.

The takeaway from this little post is that an essential question that foreign policy analysts must ask is—are the goods sufficiently insured?

The Filter Coffee – a new blog on The Indian National Interest

Perspectives on foreign policy, defence, strategic affairs and governance

Rohan Joshi joins us on INI with The Filter Coffee, a blog “dedicated to raising awareness of issues relating to foreign policy, defense, strategic affairs and governance so that India’s citizens can demand the accountability they deserve from their elected representatives on the pursuit of India’s national interests.”

Smell the coffee. Better still, sip it every day.

The change of NSA is a manifestation of deeper change

India’s national security reform is in the second stage

Going by most media reports, you will be forgiven for believing that M K Narayanan’s movement to West Bengal as governor has got entirely to do with an energetic home minister winning turf battles and the Congress party president going one up on the prime minister. Or even that he was removed for obstructing prime minister’s move towards a (US-brokered) deal on Kashmir. It is entirely possible that some of these reports are true. They are, however, more the consequences of the change, rather than the change itself.

That change—and the India media have missed it almost entirely (save honourable exceptions)—involves the revamp of the national security apparatus in the wake of the terrorist attack on Mumbai in November 2008. The first stage was a relatively quiet series of administrative and operational changes introduced in the home ministry, intelligence agencies and related security forces. Home Minister P Chidambaram’s Intelligence Bureau Centenary Endowment Lecture was titled “radical restructuring of security architecture.” Restructuring in any organisation involves, shall we say, ‘staff movements’, the radical type even more so. Mr Narayanan’s departure and the appointment of a new NSA has to be seen in this light.

How should the NSA’s job description change? K Subrahmanyam makes the case:

The present model gives too high a profile to the NSA, and impinges on the effectiveness of his role.While Kissinger and Brzezinski had high profile roles and were innovators focussing on one policy (Kissinger on China and Brzezenski on Afghanistan), they were not the ideal NSAs for the system. In India, Brajesh Mishra was resented by most Cabinet ministers. Cabinet secretaries are not resented since they play a low profile role. Condeleezza Rice was a prima donna as the Secretary of State and so was Colin Powell. But they played a low profile role as NSAs.

For the new NSA , much of the executive role for intelligence will shift out of his hands and so also internal security management, which will shift to the revamped home ministry.But it is necessary to ensure that all intelligence inputs of DNI are routed to the PM through him. The NSA should continue to have his coordinating role in respect of internal security in order to apprise the NSC of the continuing developments in the internal security situation. Our cabinet system functions on the basis that each minister is autonomous in respect of his own jurisdiction.The NSC concept is based on the recognition that on national security, the ministries need to be coordinated and that responsibility vests with NSA. Shedding of various executive responsibilities and assuming an expanded coordinating role will make the NSA more effective and permit the PM to implement his strategic vision better.

Civil servants have a preference for hands-on administrative roles.The purpose of NSC is to function as a thinktank for the strategic advancement of the nation. Such visions have to come from the political leadership.The most important challenges currently facing India are the rise of China and the new industrial revolution consequent on climate change on the external front, and terrorism and problems of left-wing extremism, ethnic sessionism and good and effective governance on the internal front. For an NSA or NSC to tackle this, India needs more thinking and planning, and a hands-on administration. [IE]

That the UPA government is embarking on a radical reform of the national security architecture is to be welcomed. But to the extent the media focus is on the superficial politics, on ‘frontrunners for the position’ and on perceived turf wars, there is little public scrutiny of the actual reform itself.

Modelling the armed forces on the railways

Mountbatten, Ismay and their outdated legacy

My article in this month’s issue of Pragati, on reforming India’s national security policy, is titled “Start by burying Lord Ismay“.

But who was Lord Ismay and why does he need to be buried? Well, General Hastings Lionel Ismay was a British general and post retirement from the British Army, served as chief of staff to Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last British Viceroy to India.

In a Rediff.com article, Lieutenant-General (retd) Eric A Vas wrote:

Nehru, who was honest enough to admit that he knew little about military matters, left the setting up of the newly established defence ministry to Admiral Mountbatten and Lord Ismay. Nehru was advised by Mountbatten to organise the defence structure on the council system [each of the services having a council, composed of military staff] presided over by a politician and run very much on the lines of the Railway board, with military heads as chiefs of their respective service staff or boards. Under this system, there would be no need for a bureaucratic defence secretary [whoever hears of a railway secretary?] This would require the establishment of a Chief of Defence Staff to coordinate the three services at the defence minister level. But Nehru was unwilling to do that.

Lord Mountbatten has stated in a letter that ‘although Prime Minister Nehru agreed with me in principle, he said it would be difficult at this moment to get through the appointment of a CDS as it would give to the Indian politician the impression of perpetuating the idea of the great Commander-in-Chief in India. Lord Ismay and I worked hand in hand on these proposals but I thought it would come better from him than the constitutional Governor General as I then had become. He [Ismay] also tried to negotiate a CDS but met with the same opposition from Nehru and for the same reason.’ [Rediff]

The higher defence setup in India, therefore, was not only modelled on the Railway Board—even that model was not fully implemented. Nehru might have had his blind spots and valid considerations, but what is truly astonishing is that India has left the system substantially unchanged for the last 62 years.

No one can reasonably argue that a set-up that didn’t even work very well in the twentieth century will somehow be effective in the twenty-first. A comprehensive strategic review is in order: the structure, composition, role, service conditions and pay structure must be reviewed in the light of the twenty-first century strategic environment.

Overseas military deployments & defence decisionmaking

India needs to rethink its defence decisionmaking system

It is usual to conduct navel gazing after failures and fiascos. But it is good to do so after little successes. Even as the Indian Navy demonstrated the utility of its deployment in anti-piracy operations far from Indian shores, it is opportune to examine a debate that has been taking place in the background. As Manu Pubby reports the “Navy feels that it needs greater authority to tackle piracy off the Somalia coast. While the Navy has proposed that the Chief of Navy Staff be given the direct authority to sanction action against pirates in the high seas, the ministry has said that all permissions should be routed through the South Block.”

The navy’s case is based on allowing its commanders the operational flexibility to employ the appropriate assets to achieve its mission. This need not be inconsistent with the political leadership and top defence ministry officials having oversight over the broader strategic and policy issues. There is, obviously, a tension between the two, arising from where operational control ends and strategic policy starts. But the fact that there is contention between the naval headquarters and the defence ministry suggests that such issues have not been satisfactorily ironed out (perhaps because of a paucity of unilateral overseas military deployments).

Sushant Singh and I have previously argued that India must rethink its policy on overseas military deployments, and have advocated sending forces only to theatres—such as Somalia and Afghanistan—where its interests are involved. Such a policy requires development of guidelines that achieve the twin objectives: strategic alignment with geopolitical goals and operational flexibility for military commanders.

The decision of where and when to deploy is primarily a political imperative and should rest with the legitimate constitutional authority: the prime minister, the appropriate cabinet committee and the defence minister. The national security advisor, the defence secretary and the chief of defence staff must inform and advise the political authority. Of course, this means that the political leadership can task the armed forces with a particular mission. But it should not exclude the armed forces from submitting proposals to the political leadership, through defence ministry channels, seeking mandates to conduct particular operations. It is up to the civilian component—political and bureaucratic—to define the mission, sanction the capacity and approve the rules of engagement.

So empowered, the armed forces will have the mandate to conduct a particular military campaign with full operational autonomy for almost all levels of conventional warfare. Within the sanctioned capacity and rules of engagement, the military commanders will have the latitude to decide the best course of action to achieve the mission’s objectives.

It also needs changes to the structure of the armed forces. As Sushant Singh & Rohit Pradhan argue in this month’s issue of Pragati it is important to distinguish the roles military advisors and military commanders. So while the chief of defence staff (CDS) should rightly be the government’s chief military advisor, in this capacity he should not have operational control of the troops. Operational control, as K Subrahmanyam has pointed out, should be vested in theatre commands that combine army, navy and air force resources, along the lines of the US model.

Both the political leadership and the military brass might find it seductive to merely seek “control”: but what India needs is both a policy framework that defines roles and responsibilities of the top echelons of India’s defence setup, as well as a restructuring of the armed forces themselves. Until this happens, India’s approach to emerging military threats will be reactive, ad hoc and sub-optimal.

Don’t rule out military options

The navy shouldn’t have its hands tied in the fight against pirates

That the Indian government is ‘finalising’ a strategy against piracy in the high seas is good news, although that a special strategy is being contemplated suggests an absence of an effective, comprehensive maritime strategy. Pirates, after all, have been around for almost as long as there have been ships, and tackling them should actually be old hat.

So while we await what the government will finalise, we know that it has already ruled out some options. According to Defence Ministry A K Antony “as a policy, the government would not carry out hot pursuit of pirates, as it had wider implications.” Mr Antony’s statement ruling out one option or the other is not prudent, not timely and wholly unnecessary. Not least when negotiations are in progress to secure the release of Indian crew held hostage by Somali pirates.

What Mr Antony should have said is that “all options are on the table.” Ideally the ‘finalised strategy’ should say so too. But now pirates, terrorists and Indian naval commanders know that the Indian Navy’s hands are tied behind its back.

My op-ed in the Indian Express: Bring the troops back

The case for India to scale down its UN peacekeeping contributions

Sushant K Singh and I argue that controversy in Congo is a wake-up call for India to review its policy on UN peacekeeping. A slightly edited version of the following appears in today’s Indian Express.

A recent investigation by the BBC’s Panorama found that Indian peacekeepers were among those engaged in smuggling drugs, arms, gold and ivory at the UN mission in Congo. In a recently released report, UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) found three army personnel guilty of minor charges but did not find evidence on the more serious ones. (Indian Express, 11 June).

To be sure, Indian blue helmets were not the only black sheep. But the fact that India finds some of its troops in the dock along with those of the Pakistani army should provide little comfort to defenders of India’s continued involvement in the poorly equipped, poorly mandated and poorly governed operations that characterise UN peacekeeping.

In response, the Indian government has reflexively tried to put a brave face over the allegations, pointing out that the offences are trivial, and that disciplinary action will be taken against those found guilty. Now, the UN itself has little incentive to pursue the allegations aggressively. Given that there is more demand for peacekeepers than its member nations are willing to supply, it is hardly likely to do anything that will embarrass countries—most of them from the developing world—that do contribute troops. So it was perhaps the outcry over the Congo episode that compelled it to announce that “the same (Indian) peacekeepers will not be accepted in future missions”.
Continue reading My op-ed in the Indian Express: Bring the troops back

By Invitation: They didn’t make it to Sam’s funeral

India’s political establishment and its shabby treatment of a national hero

By Commodore C Uday Bhaskar (retd)

Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw whose mortal remains were laid to rest with military honours on Friday, June 27, 2008 in his beloved Nilgiri Hills will remain a legendary figure for the Indian ‘fauj’ and the manner of his departure in many ways symbolizes what he represented to India and its people.

The astute military leader who led India to its greatest military victory in the 1971 war for Bangladesh (the last such decisive military victory for Bharat was under Chandragupta Maurya in 300 BC!) was given an emotional farewell by millions of Indians across the country—and among the diaspora abroad. The mass media did the departed soldier proud and tributes and accolades continue to pour in to pay homage to one of India’s most accomplished yet humble sons.

But the Indian state was less than generous in its response to the Field Marshal’s demise and it has already attracted adverse comment that the UPA government could only send a Minister of State for the funeral—despite the official announcement that in a “rare” gesture, the government would accord him a state funeral. The fact that none of the three service Chiefs participated in the final ceremony—or for that matter that the Defence Minister chose not to go personally—due to ‘political’ compulsions is difficult to ignore. Furthermore, not a single Member of Parliament was able to join the people of India in paying their final respects to a soldier who almost single-handedly restored the ‘izzat’ of the Indian fauj after the debacle of the 1962 China war—thereby instilling a sense of confidence in a very de-moralized nation.

But these are the ‘petty’ realities of the Indian political culture—and maybe Sam Bahadur’s omission was that he was too much of a ‘bahadur’ and the military as an institution has remained marginal to the Indian ruling elite. Continue reading By Invitation: They didn’t make it to Sam’s funeral

Pragati July 2008: A better connection with Israel

Issue 15 - Jun 2008
Issue Contents


“Adamant for drift, solid for fluidity”
India needs leadership and a renaissance in its foreign policy
Harsh V Pant

Business interests vs national interests
As Indian companies grow abroad
Sameer Wagle & Gaurav Sabnis

The myth of illiberal capitalism
Multi-polarity, democracy and what the US might do about them
Dhruva Jaishankar


A survey of think-tanks
The post-American world; Asian geopolitics
Vijay Vikram


The India-Israel imperative
Indo-Judeo commonalities: the symbolic and the substantive
Martin Sherman


Fruits of knowledge
Apply knowledge-economy processes for food security
Mukul G Asher & Amarendu Nandy

Needed: A new monsoon strategy
The focus should be on groundwater recharge
Tushaar Shah


Know your consumer?
A review of Rama Bijapurkar’s We are like that only
Aadisht Khanna

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