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How 'soft' UPA has compromised our national security

By Col. (Retd) Anil Athale

The leaked Henderson Brooks report on the lapses that led to India’s defeat in the 1962 war with China is timely, for it shows how poorly our political leaders and military strategists have fared in the past. The leak is timely because we seem to have learnt nothing from that debacle, and the current election campaign has not brought forth any intelligent debate on national security.

 How soft UPA has compromised our national security

Representational image. Reuters

This is, of course, par for the course, for India has historically woken up only after the enemy knocks on the gates. In our neighbourhood, Afghanistan is facing a Taliban takeover, Pakistan is destabilised and China has become aggressive around our borders. And our security policy is a tragedy in the making.

The next government’s first task will be to repair the damage done to the whole gamut of national security by an inept UPA government. Our foreign policy comes a close second, with one foreign minister talking of the Chinese aggression in Ladakh as “acne” on the face of India-China ties, and his predecessor reading from a Portuguese minister’s speech. This only goes to prove that a degree from Oxford or George Washington University does not mean much, when political incumbents do not have the will or energy to think deeply on strategic issues.

The three priorities for the next government are to rebuild trust between the political leadership and the armed forces; refurbish defence capabilities by investing in new and upgraded hardware for the army, navy and airforce; and lastly strengthen the credibility of our deterrence – whether nuclear or anti-terror.

The UPA government has, in fact, been tripping over its own feet. It became the laughing stock of the world when, in January 2012, it was ‘spooked’ into believing that a routine training movement by one regiment of our mechanised infantry and another unit of a para commando force might result in a coup. This, when there were already several thousand troops present in Delhi in preparation for the Republic Day parade.

What the panic showed was an utter lack of confidence at the highest levels of government in the army’s intentions. This was the result of a serious lack of communication between the armed forces leadership and its political masters. The proximate cause of this mistrust was the date of birth controversy involving a serving army chief. There were a hundred quiet ways of resolving this crisis. But the government panicked and did incalculable damage to the very important institution of chief of army staff. It also broadcast to the world the paranoia existing in government about potential military coups even after 65 years of having a loyal and apolitical armed force.

It needs to be reiterated that the only occasion on which the country came close to military rule was on 20 March 1977, when the son of the then Prime Minister is reported, in her presence, to have asked the army to take over since their party was on the verge of losing an election. Earlier, in 1959, vested interests had spread rumours of a military takeover by Gen KS Thimayya, possibly the most unlikely soldier to have ever entertained such thoughts.

One must recall an interesting story revolving around Jawaharlal Nehru and Gen. JN Chaudhury in 1963. India was then still recovering from a military defeat in the 1962 Indo-China border conflict. One day Nehru walked unannounced into the army chief’s office (both the PMO and the army chief operate from South Block). After some lively banter, the PM reportedly asked the army chief: “I believe you have plans for all contingencies, so I am sure you have one for the military takeover of the country. Can I have a look at it?”

Gen. Chaudhury was equal to the occasion. “Surely, Mr Prime Minister!” he said, and opened a drawer and pulled out a bottle of Scotch whisky – a plan to just celebrate. During the rest of the general’s tenure, no one ever heard any further talk of an army coup. The only people who talk of military takeovers are young rookie lieutenants or frustrated civilians. With the multiplicity of power centres, developed institutions and our vast size, India is simply military coup-proof.

However, the ghost of military coup has not been buried deep enough. The atmosphere of suspicion and lack of communication and trust between the higher echelons of the military and political leadership that the January 2012 incident showed is cause for worry as it can be disastrous for the security of a nation. The next government has to re-establish trust between institutions on a priority basis.

The recent spate of accidents in the navy revealed the lack of planning and long-term acquisition strategy. Naval ships take a decade to build and all naval chiefs of the last 10 years have been pleading with the government to renew the aging fleet. There is a limit beyond which one cannot operate machinery that is more than 25 years old. Not just the navy, but the army is also short of tank ammunition and night vision devices. The plan for the replacement of the aging MiG 21s of the Air Force has been shelved for lack of money. Rickety and outdated equipment and all-round shortages are the second legacy of the UPA government.

But the most damaging aspect of UPA’s defence policy has been the erosion of ‘credibility’ of Indian deterrence. Nuclear wars cannot be won and should never be fought. The only defence against the threat of nuclear weapons is deterrence. The two vital components of deterrence are capability and credibility.

Recently an arrested Indian Mujahideen (IM) terrorist revealed that his organisation was contemplating a nuclear attack on Surat city in Gujarat. These emboldened plans of Pakistan-supported Indian terrorist groups stem directly from the lack of Indian reaction to the Mumbai train bombings of July 2006 and the terror attacks of 26/11 in 2008.

The 2008 Mumbai attacks took place seven years after the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament. At that time we mobilised our full strength and threatened full scale war on Pakistan. The threat was only withdrawn after Pakistan gave a concrete assurance that neither its own territory nor territory under its control (refers to Pak-occupied Kashmir, or POK) would be permitted to be used for a terror attack against India. This assurance was guaranteed by the Americans.

Once it became clear that the 2008 attack was indeed launched by terrorists based in Pakistan, we should have held the Pakistan government responsible and carried out punitive actions to hurt that country. We also ought to have invoked the American guarantee in this regard and brought further pressure on Pakistan. But instead of any of these actions, no sooner had the public outcry died down we began talks with Pakistan and even separated action against terrorism from the peace process.

The Taliban are on the rampage in Pakistan. While we lament the beheading of two of our soldiers by Pakistan and rightly make an issue of it, it must be remembered that recently the Taliban beheaded 23 Pakistani soldiers who were in their custody. There are signs that finally Pakistan has woken up to this challenge and both the ISI and the Pakistani army may have stopped supporting IM. While, on the one hand, it is indeed a welcome move by Pakistan, on the other hand it also shows the real possibility of a takeover of Pakistan by the fanatic Taliban.

Many short-sighted ‘peaceniks’ have hailed the UPA’s soft approach as a ‘pragmatic’ step. But the logic of deterrence says that through this act of insanity the Indian sub-continent has actually come closer to a nuclear disaster, a disaster that will affect both India and Pakistan.

The next government will this have to re-establish the credibility of India’s retaliatory threat. The ‘how’ of this is not for public consumption and is best left to experts in the field. But the disaster of Manmohan Singh’s economic stewardship and failures on internal security pale into insignificance when one considers his handling of terrorism-related national security issues. The economy can still be turned around but can the nation absorb a future terrorist attack on India with nuclear weapons, or on India’s nuclear installations? This is not some fictional scenario conjured up by paranoid persons, as the IM terrorist’s revelations have shown.

India’s failure to respond robustly to the 26/11 terror attacks has confirmed to our enemies that we do not have the capability or the will to take them on. We are thus inviting greater catastrophe for one-billion-plus Indians.

The author is a former head of War History, and fellow of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses

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Updated Date: Mar 19, 2014 11:29:09 IST