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Sunday, April 1, 2012

Keeping India's 'army-government duel' in perspective

Jiwan Kshetry, Kathmandu

As every other nation state, India too is preoccupied with its national security issue and trying hard to arm itself in face of persisting challenges. Is that attempt paying off? Few recent developments paint a grim picture of how India's defense is faring. 

Birth of India and Pakistan took place through a violent paradox. People there fought a protracted struggle to see away the British. But even as the British were departing, the communal strife had reached such an extent that a violent partition claiming hundreds of thousands of lives was thought to be an option less evil than the potential full-fledged civil war.

Ever since, both the states have undergone through many spells in history when paradox of one kind or the other has dominated the national life. While the economic misery of majority of the people under the British rule was the major factor behind the widespread resentment against them, little was effectively done to alleviate the suffering of people on either side of border while the political issues always occupied a center stage.

For Pakistan, as the Generals eventually found it convenient to interfere in the day-to-day politics with the excuse of 'inept and corrupt' politicians, a to-and-fro movement between civilian and military rule became the norm. And particularly ruthless version of military rule was applied during the tenure of Zia Ul Haq because the geopolitical factors surrounding the Afghan-Soviet imbroglio fitted neatly into the Zia's paradigm of using religious fundamentalism to legitimize an otherwise illegitimate and brutal military rule.

When the ghosts of the Taliban, so tenderly nurtured by CIA-ISI for anti-Soviet crusade, came to haunt Pakistan after Musharraf chose to side with the Americans post 9/11, an era of another paradox set in Pakistan: a country living with large number of poor and illiterate people with economy never in good shape, yet fighting a war with a power that was hard to define.

Over the past decade, Pakistan is dogged in a kind of conflict that has escalated many times and eventually receded but never subsided. As the elites in politics and the army have ruled the country in rotation, their preoccupation has been either their own precarious situation, an intensifying conflict with the arch rival India or the sweeping rebels either assassinating a political figure or establishing Sharia law in certain areas.

While India is now in a historical position far different from that of Pakistan and the journey of independent India to this point contrasts with that of Pakistan in many fronts, the two South Asian powers share some important historic realities. First, the infamous period of Emergency (1975-1977) was the expression of cumulative failure of the electoral politics to solve the outstanding problems of the time; a phenomenon seen recurrently in Pakistan.

Most importantly, the issue of national security has dominated the public discourse on both sides of the border so much that the anti-Pakistan sentiment in India and vice varsa in Pakistan have recurrently reached boiling point. Not only the three major wars between the two rivals fought mainly over the contentious border issues, but also the larger geo-political alignments of the two states have reflected the persisting rivalry.

A religion-based partition with one of the largest shifts of human population in history was so problematic that it was nearly impossible to draw the boundaries foreclosing the possibility of any border conflict. And the evolving political reality in the then Pakistan with two separate territories separated by Indian land came as a perfect recipe for a large scale collision between the two powers. India's military assistance to people in then East Pakistan in their freedom struggle increased the bitterness between the two powers to much higher level.

And India's rush to become a nuclear power was reciprocated by Pakistan eventually, making the long-running conflict between the two powers much more complicated and dangerous. During the cold war, while the alliance of USSR and India remained relatively dormant, the alliance between the rivals USA and Pakistan was cemented with the Afghan Jihad. It was after the downfall of the USSR and the liberalization of Indian economy in early nineties that the geo-political realignment became a real possibility.

The reality now stands that even though the US-Pakistan alliance of cold war era has not completely ruptured (indeed it was apparently cemented once again after Bush-Musharraf collaboration in the 'Fight against terror'), some new realities have overshadowed it. While the drift of Indian foreign policy towards more conformity with that of US was epitomized with the signing of the civilian nuclear deal between the two in 2006, Pakistan's drift towards more proximity with China has been perceptible for long by now.

Regardless of the details of the geo-political calculus that is always more complicated than depicted by anyone, one point is clear: national security issue is still the major preoccupation of those who come to ruling or policy-making position in India and Pakistan (of course as in case of most other regional and world powers including China). While the short term priorities have changed over time, the long term priority of Pakistan has been to maintain parity with India in terms of military power, nuclear and otherwise. Pakistan's love-hate relationship with the Jihadists is also a subplot in the larger regional rivalry with India with Kashmir and Afghanistan as the primary fields.

For India, particularly in the post-Cold war era of liberalization and economic growth, the priority seems to be to maintain and consolidate the economic growth so that the resulting political and military clout can be used to address the issues related to national security. At least for concerned middle and higher class Indians, maintaining high growth rate and coordinating with the US and the regional Asian regional rivals of emerging China are two things that should never be compromised. This implies that, that is the only way in which India can safeguard her strategic interests in the long run in face of an increasingly re-assertive (and often aggressive ) China.

One major paradox for Indian state today is the fact that a large proportion of population still languishes in extreme poverty while the state has surpassed China to become the largest weapon importer in the world over the past decade(1).

To the utter dismay of those preoccupied by the issue of national security, there has emerged a new paradox within the paradox right now: the admission, or rather disclosure by the Indian army chief General V K Singh in a 'confidential' letter to the prime minister that "India's security may be at risk as tanks are running out of ammunition; air defence is becoming obsolete; and the infantry lacks critical weapons". More importantly the letter was leaked amid a damning uproar in the country after the same General had revealed in an interview(2) that he was approached with a bribe of Rs 14 Crores by an agent of a certain firm.

While the friction between the Indian government and the army (rather the army chief) that started with the age controversy of the General seems now snowballing into a crisis of large scale, many in India have chosen to assume that none of this finger-pointing would have taken place had the relatively minor controversy surrounding Singh's age not arisen. Yet the implications of the expression of the army chief in that fateful letter are troubling in many aspects. 

Compounded by the equally problematic claim that he was approached for a massive bribery, the calamitous claims of the General about the preparedness of the army can be seen in only two ways: either he is an egregious liar and utterly unprofessional man ready to sacrifice the interests of the institution and country for his mean personal ends. Or he is a much needed whistle-blower or even a savior of a deeply rotten system and institution. Some analysts have added a third dimension (3) to the tango by hinting that the larger power games around India's massive arms import may be at play. Either way, the seriousness around the issue does not decrease and indeed the trend of related events is getting more curious by the day as the Indian authorities are now apparently pursuing the lobbyist/company beyond the 14 crore bribe scam. 

If the allegations of General Singh about the Rs 14 crore strong bribe offer comes out to be true, that would be a grisly reminder of what was exposed in 2001 through a sting operation by Tehelka magazine (4). The role of the outlawed middlemen in defence procurement, verified by the collusion of politicians and army officials with the disguised middlemen from the magazine, is shown in spectacular details in a novel 'The Story of my Assassins' by the editor-in-chief of the magazine Tarun J Tejpal. The scale of the swindles was simply dizzying then and it will be merely continuation of that trend if General Singh was actually offered a bribe of that amount by a lobbyist for a particular company.

The two crucial questions that have returned now to haunt any Indian citizen anxious about national security are; first, is it justifiable that the swindlers in government and army siphon off the hundreds of crores of money involved in defence contracts? Should it be tolerated for sake of national security since defence contracts can not be halted for the fear of corruption and corruption is there to stay for long? The second and more pressing question is: is the armed force really suffering from substandard equipment purchased at exorbitant rates thereby risking the lives of the soldiers? And by extension, have the unsavory deeds of greedy politicians and army officers kept the security of whole country at risk?

The third possibility (apart from a lying General and incorruptible General) that other factors beyond India's reach might have been at play in the whole fiasco is even more troubling, particularly in relation to a country like India that depends so heavily on imported arms for security.

While the issue has divided people and politicians in India into those angrily rebuking the General for his 'improper conduct and politician-like demeanor' and those patting his back for daring to speak against institutionalized corruption, fighting the real menace in the system has yet to be started and that task is going to be far more difficult than pointing fingers to each other. The bottom-line is that, even if the allegation of Rs 14 crore strong bribe offer is fictitious and the condition of the army is not as appalling as that depicted by Singh in his leaked letter to PM, Indian defense establishment now needs to answer the hard questions mentioned above. That is indeed why many analysts are now keenly watching how the defense minister of India, A K Antony, a man of otherwise impeccable integrity will navigate through these troubled waters.

Now that the pandora's box has been opened, many questions are bound to be answered in near future, in implied terms if not explicitly. Till then, the flabbergasted Indian public is curiously and shockingly watching the finger-pointing among the politicians and army top brass with a mixed sense of frustration, resentment and confusion. The army chief General V K Singh will be noted in history of India for long but yet it is not clear if that will be for good reason or bad.

As an institution, Indian army is much different from that of Pakistan which apparently runs a giant economic empire of itself inside Pakistan. But pressing question of the moment is: how much does India suffer from brazen loot of state coffers that usually and widely take place through the opaque ‘defense-related’ transactions all over the world? And how consequential will be that impropriety in face of potential conflict with either of the neighbors?

It’s hard to answer these questions correctly at the moment but with time the answers will eventually percolate. For now analysts are keenly watching how the events will unfold amid dramatic developments in Delhi.

1. See here
2. See here
3. See here
4. See here

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