In just a matter of a fortnight, India’s national security strategy and foreign policy has taken a 180-degree turn with respect to its two belligerent neighbours — China and Pakistan. The beginning of the disengagement process on 10 February marked a thaw in the 11-month-long crisis in eastern Ladakh while on 25 February, a joint statement by the Indian and Pakistan militaries resuscitated the “informal” 2003 ceasefire along the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir and western Ladakh. Both benchmark decisions are merely the first step in a process that will test Indian diplomacy and understanding of strategic and military affairs.
There are articles galore about the compulsions of Pakistan and China to join the peacemaking process but hardly any on the about-turn by India. What were the reasons for the Narendra Modi government to change its ideology-driven approach towards national security? And what is the way forward?
Failed national security strategy
In 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government inherited relative peace along the Line of Control (LoC) and Line of Actual Control (LAC). Concerted efforts by the Indian Army, 12 years of rule of elected governments and relative peace with Pakistan had contained the insurgency and reduced the number of terrorists to double figures. There were ceasefire violations, including some incidents of beheading/mutilation of soldier’s bodies, but the violence along the LoC remained within manageable limits. Despite the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack, the Indian government had exercised restraint. On the LAC, barring the 2013 Depsang Plains incident, peace had generally been maintained based on the series of agreements signed since 1993.
India’s territorial integrity and recovering the territories usurped by Pakistan and China are part of the BJP’s core ideology even though the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)’s goal of Akhand Bharat was kept out of government policy. Aggressive policy stance against external and internal enemies was an essential part of the BJP’s election strategy that paid rich dividends. After its initial peace overtures from a perceived position of strength, including a surprise visit by PM Modi to Lahore in December 2015, were neutralised by the Pakistan Army and the terrorists, the Indian government shut the door on Pakistan. ‘Terror and talks cannot go together’ became the norm.
Even domestically, in J&K, the government followed a hard policy without a clear political strategy to win the hearts and minds of Kashmiris despite coalescing to form a government with the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Insurgency revived in J&K and the Modi government responded to major acts of terrorism in Uri (2016) and Pulwama (2019) with cross-border surgical strikes and trans-International Boundary air strikes. Rather than deter Pakistan, these actions exposed the limitations of the use of force without a clear edge in military capability.
With respect to China, the BJP adopted a policy of promoting peace through economic cooperation. Much time was spent on the personal equation of Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping, including a couple of one-on-one informal summits. Simultaneously, the Modi government gave impetus to developing border infrastructure and made no secrets of its strategic ambition to recover Aksai Chin. Chinese transgressions into Bhutan were contested aggressively, pushing the two countries to the brink of war in Doklam. Wrong lessons were drawn from perceived and propagated Chinese withdrawal. ‘Stare China down’ became the norm along the LAC. This resulted in the crisis in eastern Ladakh, further exposing our flawed national security strategy.
Fundamentals of security strategy violated
India does not have a formal national security strategy. The National Security Adviser (NSA), who is credited to be the brain behind all strategic and even tactical military actions, has failed to evolve one despite being the head of the Defence Planning Committee since 2018. No strategic review has been carried out and little has been done to reform and modernise the armed forces. A tanked economy has further compounded the problem. Thus, a functional simultaneous hard strategy without adequate military capability against China (a superior power) and Pakistan (a weaker power but with adequate military potential to bring about a stalemate), was bound to fail.
The following fundamentals were violated:
- National security strategy is based on comprehensive national power, particularly the economic and military component. The huge differential of comprehensive national power with China demanded reliance on diplomacy until we catch up to a level to contest it. Pakistan has a similar compulsion vis-a-vis India.
- Nuclear weapon-armed states cannot fight decisive war and certainly cannot change maps. This alone safeguards us against China, and Pakistan against us, unless there is a security lapse that allows preemption. Thus, the thundering rhetoric by Union Home Minister Amit Shah and other BJP leaders to recover lost territories was nothing more than an empty threat.
- To force compellence below the nuclear threshold, a nation requires a clear technological military edge for coercive actions or a limited war. China has this edge over us but we do not have it against Pakistan. Even with a decisive edge, the apprehension of a setback, particularly when the weaker state has adequate military power to force a stalemate, prevents escalation beyond a point. This lesson was driven home to China in eastern Ladakh and to India post the surgical and Balakot air strikes.
- In the current international environment, Pakistan’s state-sponsored proxy war has run its course. It is reeling under the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) sanctions and severe International Monetary Fund (IMF) conditions. Hence, it is prudent for India to put its own house in order in J&K rather than focus on retribution against Pakistan, which offers diminishing returns.
- The geography of J&K and Ladakh, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passing through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir/Gilgit-Baltistan, and China-Pakistan alliance makes the unsettled borders a trilateral issue, imposing a two-front conflict situation on India. Two-front conflicts are not winnable. It is prudent to pursue peace with a relatively weaker adversary, such as Pakistan. China faces the same situation with India in view of its primary focus being Taiwan and South China Sea.
- Not carrying out an ethical assessment of one’s own military capability before pursuing an aggressive national security policy is the biggest failure of the Modi government. The military hierarchy, carried away by political rhetoric and in awe of the persona of PM Modi, failed to give correct advice. India simply did not have the military capability to match the government’s aggressive political aims.
- Aggressive exploitation of national security policy for domestic politics and to whip up nationalism vitiates the relationship with your adversaries, leading to conflict situations. It also makes national security bounden to extreme nationalism, placing severe limitations on decision-making.
The way forward
There should be no doubt that the flawed national security strategy pursued by India over the last seven years requires a course correction. Wisely, the Modi government seems to have decided to do so. Nothing confirms it more than the sudden absence of anti-Pakistan/China political rhetoric, drumbeating by a pliant media, and politically inspired social media campaign. It is heartening to note that, overnight, the image of PM Modi has changed from a strong leader aggressively pursuing ideology-driven belligerent national security strategy to a statesman seeking lasting peace. This is the avatar India needs, to gain time to enhance its comprehensive national power to become a great power.
There is no point in harping on deficit of trust with the two adversaries. A cursory look at their media indicates their lack of trust in us. The first step to bring about peace and tranquility along the LoC/LAC has been taken. The next step is to sustain the momentum despite out-of-control actions that can spoil it, such as those by terrorists. Thereafter, relentlessly pursue diplomacy to find long-term solutions.
The three players — India, China, and Pakistan — understand that maps cannot be redrawn, and that direct use of force and proxy wars have limits and offer diminishing returns. In my view, all three are prepared for a negotiated settlement to convert the existing borders into boundaries. With Pakistan, we have the aborted Musharraf-Vajpayee/Manmohan Singh four-point formula available, which can be modified to accommodate sovereignty issues. Having secured the 1959 Claim Line albeit with buffer zones, China will be amenable to a final settlement and give up its claims in other sectors.
Prime Minister Modi has the mandate, popularity and political skills to bring about lasting peace with Pakistan and China. India needs peace and time to uplift its economy and modernise its military to become a great power. This should be his legacy goal and this is what will truly make him a great leader.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.