What India must do to achieve ‘great power’ status

What India needs to address to achieve ‘great power’ status

While banning of imports may sound like a good idea, what we actually need is a ’50-year technology roadmap for India’s defence industry’

Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd). Credit: Special Arrangement

As we finish celebrating the 50th anniversary of India’s historic victory in the 1971 Bangladesh War, there is a strong urge to use this conflict as a benchmark for extrapolating India’s future trajectory as a putative ‘great-power.’ A great power is, by definition, a sovereign state that possesses the ability to exert influence on a global or regional scale, by virtue of its economic, technological and military strengths, as well as its diplomatic adroitness and cultural (or soft) power.

Therefore, without detracting in any way from the brilliant success of Indian arms, and the gallantry of our soldiers, sailors and airmen in the 1971 war, we need to reflect whether a single military victory by itself is enough for a nation to anoint itself as a significant or great power.

While analysing this conflict, two factors need to be kept in mind. Firstly, it was the breathing spell, from March to September 1971, granted by then prime minister Indira Gandhi at Gen Sam Manekshaw’s urging, that enabled the armed forces to remedy serious equipment voids through a massive airlift from the USSR. Secondly, even though ‘jointness’ as a concept had not been formally introduced, the tri-service military leadership of the day showed enormous sagacity, which enabled close cooperation and coordination and ensured success of operations. However, the military operations undertaken, with the exception of the navy’s missile attack on Karachi, were rooted in WW II doctrines, and would have little relevance in the 21st century, high-tech battlespace.

Also Read | 1971 war: 50 years on, has India emerged a leader?

Moving on from the triumphalism of this conflict, we also need to take note of the lack of doctrinal clarity, diffidence and self-imposed constraints, that have, traditionally, marked the manner in which the Indian state has wielded force. A few examples, before and after 1971, bear mention in this context.

The inconclusive 1947 Indo-Pak conflict and the disastrous 1962 encounter with the Chinese were a preview of what was to become a trademark of independent India’s tentative approach to national security issues earning for it the pejorative label of a ‘soft state.’ In 1987, a large Indian Peace-keeping Force was hastily despatched to Sri Lanka without adequate forethought or planning, both at the political and military levels. The flawed political rationale that had underpinned ‘Operation Pawan’ collapsed with a Sri Lankan ‘volte face’ and the venture ended up as much a political disaster as a military failure with considerable loss of lives.

In more recent times, the Kargil conflict of 1999 brought us face to face with loss of vital territory, nuclear blackmail and national dishonour. This grave situation could only be retrieved by the sacrifices of our gallant soldiers in suicidal uphill assaults. Two years later, in 2001, India mobilised a million men in response to a terrorist attack on Parliament, only to de-mobilise them after 11 months, with significant loss of life, but without tangible gains, political or military.

The June 2020 border intrusions by the Chinese PLA, in eastern Ladakh again took us by surprise, and while the army responded with alacrity, there persists a complete lack of clarity in New Delhi about the nature and extent of Chinese incursions as well as the motives behind their actions. The story in the asymmetric-warfare domain is not much different. The poorly handled hijacking of IC-814 in 1999, the 2008 attack by seaborne terrorists who held Mumbai hostage for 96 hours, and the 2016 penetration of military units in Pathankot, Uri and Nagrota, exposed the lack of crisis-management expertise in India’s security establishment.

The September 2016 cross-border commando raids and the 2019 post-Pulwama air raid, into Pakistan, marked a welcome change that would have conveyed strong signals of national resolve and retribution. Regrettably, the absence of a policy underpinning, to these actions, and their exploitation for political gains, trivialised them, diluting their deterrent value.

Having undertaken this rapid scan of systemic security shortcomings, let me pinpoint four critical factors which need to be addressed by decision-makers before India can respond effectively to security challenges and stake a claim to great power status.

Firstly, it is the responsibility of statesmen and diplomats to ensure that nations resort to application of force, only as a measure of last resort, and after they have exhausted all other avenues of dispute-resolution. In this regard, India is in a most un-enviable situation being sandwiched between two hostile nuclear-armed neighbours with both of whom we have fought wars over territorial disputes. It should be a matter for reflection, for our diplomats, that they have failed, for decades, ‘post-bellum,’ to negotiate ad-hoc boundaries into stable, mutually agreed upon international borders. They must also reflect on the fact that India has rarely been able to dissuade any neighbour – Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal Sri Lanka or even tiny Maldives – from undertaking actions inimical to Indian interests. The loss of all friends in our close neighbourhood should weigh, heavily, on the minds of our statesmen and diplomats.

Secondly, a term heard consistently in India’s national security discourse is ‘surprise,’ used in the context of the 1947, 1962, 1965 and Kargil conflicts, as well as the latest Chinese incursions in Ladakh and episodes like the IC-814 hijacking and the 26/11 Mumbai terror strike. The phrase implies ‘intelligence failures’ on account of flaws in collection, collation and analysis as well as timely dissemination of crucial information. Consequent to the 1999 Kargil Review Committee Report, India’s intelligence system has been overhauled and received an infusion of technical wherewithal of great sophistication. However, if the armed forces are still not receiving timely and actionable inputs, there is need for government to exercise greater oversight in this domain.

Thirdly, we should be under no illusions that India’s claim of ‘strategic autonomy’ will remain a meaningless slogan as long we are dependent on external sources for military hardware and systems. We must also be extremely wary of a false sense of confidence that can be induced by incorrect claims of ‘indigenous production.’ In their rush to seek credit for ‘atma nirbharta,’ organisations and individuals are not above passing off licence-produced and even assembled items as indigenous. Here again, oversight and close monitoring of scientific projects would yield better results.

While banning of imports may sound like a good idea, what we actually need is a ’50-year technology roadmap for India’s defence industry,’ and a wholehearted embrace of the private sector.

Finally, two vital steps, on the path to great-power status, are: the conceptualisation of a vision for the nation, and the formulation of a Grand Strategy to attain it. Both lie in the purview of statesmen, but soldiers and diplomats can lend a hand.

(The writer, who was awarded Vir Chakra for his gallantry in the India-Pakistan war in 1971, retired as the chief of Indian Navy and the chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee in 2006)

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