India’s poor politico-strategic choices

India’s poor politico-strategic choices
Recently, some in the Indian commentariat have begun talking about India facing a two-and-half front conflict situation. Strictly speaking, this is not new. We first heard the phrase in June 2017, just days before the Doklam standoff between India and China.

It was a comment by then-Indian army chief, now Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat. Rawat was speaking to the media. “The Indian Army is fully ready for a two-and-a-half front (China, Pakistan and internal security requirements simultaneously) war,” he was quoted as saying. He also talked about the 17 Mountain Strike Corps being raised from the scratch, as he put it. This Corps is meant specifically for offensive operations against China.

At the time his statement drew many comments in India. Most analysts looked at India’s previous conflicts and determined that politico-military objectives are best gained when a state can focus on a single threat and neutralise it. Two or more fronts, even for a strong state, can be problematic. Resources, both in men and war materials, get divided; logistics can become a nightmare; focus is lost in planning for more than one front at the tactical, theatre and strategic levels; diplomatic space is shrunk when a state is fighting more than one adversary and so on.

Three years from Rawat’s June 2017 statement, India thinks it faces the same situation again. The difference is that unlike the Doklam standoff, the current Sino-India face-off in Eastern Ladakh’s high-altitude barren heights and valleys has drawn blood, Indian blood, while the Chinese army sits comfortably on its gains. India is in a quandary. Despite Rawat’s boast, India doesn’t have many military options against China, not just in a land war scenario but also, as explained in detail by Pravin Sawhney, a former Indian army officer and now Editor of Force Magazine, across the full spectrum of military conflict.

At the Line of Control against Pakistan Army, ceasefire violations continue, however. That said, here too the Indian Army and more notably Indian Air Force know since February 27, 2019, that a misadventure would be costly. It would have been costlier on that morning if the Pakistan Air Force strike package, under directions from the government, had not shown restraint. PAF dominated the skies and controlled communications. Such was the confusion that the air defence unit near Srinagar shot down an Indian Air Force Mi-17 V-5 helicopter belonging to the Srinagar-based No 154 Helicopter Unit. That fratricidal action was even worse than losing a MiG to PAF.

Corollary: the China front is a militarily hopeless situation for India; the Pakistan front is a costly venture. As for Rawat’s half front, the internal security situation, people in the Occupied and now illegally annexed Jammu and Kashmir despise India to the last man and child. Despite a lockdown since August 5, 2019 and incarcerating thousands across jails in India, India has failed to break the spirit of Kashmiris. That front is already lost, unless Rawat, now at the top of the military pecking order as CDS, thinks that killing, maiming, arresting and torturing Kashmiris is a benchmark of success.

So, the central question is not whether India can or cannot fight a multi-front war. The question the Indians have to ask is a more fundamental one: what is it about India, the nature and approaches of the polity, that puts it in a multi-front war situation? This question is terribly important because Rawat might have been facing a three-and-half front war if Nepal, India’s northern neighbour, were big enough to challenge India credibly.

I give Nepal’s example to establish India’s credentials as a state that does not just meet accidents but goes seeking them. Nepal is a Hindu kingdom, it is landlocked and dependent on India, every Indian army chief is also an honorary general of Nepalese army, the seven Gorkha regiments in the Indian Army make up almost 40 battalions and most soldiers are recruited from Nepal. So miffed is Nepal with Indian intransigence over the disputed border areas that it has put out official maps showing those areas as belonging to Nepal. This is a clear signal that Kathmandu thinks the diplomatic channel and other mechanisms have made a ship-wreck on the rocks of India’s hubris.

There’s irony in this.

At a recent virtual conference of the Russia-India-China trilateral, India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar underlined the need for recognising legitimate interest of partners and following ethos of international relations. “This special meeting reiterates our belief in the time-tested principles of international relations. But the challenge today is not just one of concepts and norms, but equally of their practice. The leading voices of the world must be exemplars in every way. Respecting international law, recognising the legitimate interests of partners, supporting multilateralism and promoting common good are the only way of building a durable world order.”

Sound words, indeed. Except, as Jaishankar knows well, or should, within the region India does everything to disrespect international law and relations, bilateral treaties and the legitimate interests of other states. Its annexation of Jammu and Kashmir not only violates the UN Security Council resolutions on the disputed territory but also bilateral arrangements like Simla Agreement. Its issuance of maps that show the annexed territory as India’s part and the inclusion in those maps of liberated areas of Azad Kashmir, Gilgit Baltistan and Aksai Chin is clear violation of the interests of Pakistan, China and, most importantly, Kashmiris.

Hence the fundamental question: why does India find itself in a two- or two-and-half-front war situation?

While this question needs to be answered by the Indians, raising this question is crucial because India’s actions not only threaten to destabilise the region but also beyond. The world needs a response to this question because it involves the future courses of action of three nuclear-armed states: India, China and Pakistan.

Disinformation and the bluster about a muscular policy can only go this far. India’s diplomacy is now subservient to the poor politico-strategic and military choices it has made. The existential threat India seems to flag for itself is reflective of those choices. How would its relations with Pakistan unfold if New Delhi were to take a different, rational course on Kashmir and Kashmiris? How would its relations with China be if India were to rationalise the border with Beijing instead of claiming Aksai Chin and rethink its policies towards the Tibetan government-in-exile and also Taiwan?

India’s trade volume with China stands at USD86 billion with much greater potential. It could have a peaceful South Asia and trade relations with Pakistan and beyond if it decided to work with Pakistan and China in a cooperative rather than a conflictual framework. But no, it won’t do that. After making poor choices it would double down on them, giving Rawat his misplaced two-and-half-front conflict scenario. If that is not stupid, I don’t know what is.

The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times. He reluctantly tweets @ejazhaider

The writer has an abiding interest in foreign and security policies and life’s ironies.