Why hasn’t PM Modi picked up the phone and spoken to his ‘friend’ Xi?

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh was made to speak to his Chinese counterpart in Moscow and Indian army has apparently been given a free hand to sort out a problem that PM says does not exist

Photo Courtesy: Social Media
Photo Courtesy: Social Media

Aakar Patel

India does not have a national security policy. To the extent that it can be understood from BJP’s manifesto, the policy is “India First” (a line used in 2014) and “Nation First”, used in the manifesto of 2019. But what these words mean is not explained. In the manifesto, Amit Shah wrote: "Friends, this election is not merely to elect a government, it is an election to ensure the country’s national security.”

Under 'National Security’ the manifesto lists two items: purchase of modern weapons to strengthen strike capability and local production of defence equipment. There is no reference to any security threat. India has under Modi focussed on counter-insurgency, particularly in Kashmir, as being the core problem of India’s national security. This has been articulated by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval in his talks.

His thesis is terrorism from Pakistan is a strategic threat and has to be countered by offensive measures. This is what the surgical strike of September 2016 and airstrikes of February 2019 were about. They came after attacks on Indian army camps and a suicide bomb attack on the CRPF. According to Doval’s theory of deterrence, the two Indian attacks would work to stop and possibly end Pakistan’s support to the insurgency in Kashmir.

The numbers show that this has in fact not happened. Total fatalities in militancy related violence in Kashmir were 265 in 2016, rising to 357 in 2017 and 452 in 2018. Doval’s national security doctrine needs to be looked at closer, but this has not happened internally in any formal sense

Both the chief of the Indian army Gen MM Naravane and the chief of defence staff Gen Bipin Rawat are counter-insurgency experts. The threat from China has not for this reason been fully appreciated by India.

There is another problem and that is the political leadership’s refusal to own the national security policy. The army has suggested it is ready for a two-front war. Is that India’s national security policy? We must assume that is so because there is no BJP policy on this. Is India’s national security threatened by Pakistan? The answer appears to be yes, though the threat is clearly at the moment on the other side.

In 2012, Manmohan Singh’s National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon asked a group of people to draw up a foreign and strategic policy for India. The group included historian Sunil Khilnani, Lt Gen Prakash Menon, military scholar Srinath Raghavan, diplomat Shyam Saran and Nandan Nilekani.
The document they drew up was called Nonalignment 2.0 and issues including border management, cyber security, the defence industry, how to engage neighbours and so on.

In a chapter on a potential conflict with China, the document says "China could assert its territorial claims (especially in the Arunachal sector or Ladakh) by the use of force. There is the possibility that China might resort to territorial grabs. The most likely areas for such bite-sized operations are those parts of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) where both sides have different notions of where the LAC actually runs. These places are known.”

The document then looks at the current military thinking on this issue and says that “the better way of responding to limited land-grabs by China is for us to undertake similar action across the LAC: a strategy of quid pro quo. There are several areas where the local tactical and operational advantage rests with us. These areas should be identified and earmarked for limited offensive operations on our part.”

A quick capture of Chinese land is what is being suggested here, which will add to diplomatic pressure on them to return our land. The operative word here is ‘quick’. It has been over three months now since the intrusion has happened. We have not acted, and thus have ignored the previous national security strategy of the Manmohan Singh government. And not only do we not have any strategy of response, we have not even acknowledged the problem. This has led to the absurd situation where our defence minister is talking to China’s over a problem that the prime minister says does not exist.

Analyst and former soldier Sushant Singh said in an interview with Karan Thapar that Modi should have owned the problem by picking up the phone and speaking to Xi. Instead what has happened is that the government has said the army has been given “a free hand” in executing operations. The muddle is clear. The government has denied there is a problem, but given the army a free hand to solve it.

It is astonishing that such a serious issue is being handled in so casual and cavalier a fashion, but this has become what is expected of this government. It hides behind vague and meaningless phrases and slogans like “nation first” and “India first” and refuses to lead when we are in the middle of a real national security crisis.

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