Tuesday, 30 January 2007

From Russia with love!

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 30th Jan 2007

For half a century, the best-paid analysts in America, including the now-famous Condoleezza Rice and Zbigniew Brzezinski, were those who specialised in the arcane discipline of Kremlinology. Today, notwithstanding the end of the Cold War, a new generation of American Russia-watchers still interprets every syllable emerging from that opaque, inscrutable government. We in India would do well to follow suit.

Take Russian defence minister Sergei Ivanov’s words, urging India to stop talking and get on with jointly developing the high-tech 5th generation fighter aircraft. On 24th January, sitting next to his Indian counterpart AK Antony, Ivanov declared, “The programme, based on a Sukhoi project, is in its third year in Russia and draws substantial funds from Russia’s national budget. The fighter will be airborne in 2009. Some time back, India showed interest… India has now informed us that a final choice (to join the project) has been made. We can now open up contractual work for Indian accession to the project.”

The weight of Ivanov’s words for the 5th generation fighter project can only be understood in the light of Russia’s recent defence R&D history. Simply put, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the bankrupt but highly capable Russian military R&D establishment survived mainly on financial life support from the Indian defence budget. While three-quarters of the old Soviet-era design bureaus folded up, putting over a million Russian scientists on the streets, others like MiG, Sukhoi and Severnoe kept afloat by designing weapons purely for Russia’s export market, predominantly India.

The figures, drawn from open Russian sources, tell the story. In 1989, as the Soviet Union hurtled towards meltdown, 2.03% of its GDP was being spent on R&D; some 4,600 research institutions were producing a range of technologies and products. A year later, serving Russian soldiers were begging on Moscow’s underground; there was simply no money to pay them. Military spending plummeted, in real terms, to one-thirtieth of the 1989 figure. Hardest hit was R&D; what little money there was went towards salaries, pensions and housing. R&D spending dropped from 18.6% of the handsome Soviet budget, to 5.7% of the Russian pittance. The famous design bureaus were gasping for oxygen; 1,149 individual R&D projects were cancelled by the bankrupted state.

In this financial nightmare, most of Russia’s R&D spend concentrated on the ultimate security bulwark, the strategic nuclear programme. As NATO absorbed former Warsaw Pact allies, Russia focused on keeping its nuclear arsenal on par with the US. The results are evident today. Russia’s nuclear missile submarine force of 13 vessels could soon technologically leapfrog America’s. Russia’s land-based force of nuclear-tipped missiles has kept pace with America’s, thanks to one of Russia’s greatest R&D successes of the past decade: the Topol-M ICBM, soon to be equipped with multiple warheads. Russia’s air force maintains its edge with the strategic Tu-160 Blackjack bomber.

But the problem remained of funding the dozens of design bureaus that deal with conventional weaponry. Russia did not make any significant conventional arms purchases until 2005, when money flowed in from windfall oil revenues. Until then, it was India that bankrolled the design and production of Russian conventional arms. Over the last decade, India has bought over 300 T-90 tanks, large numbers of Sukhoi-30M and Sukhoi-30MKI fighters, and frigates from Russian shipyards; and India has conducted large-scale modernisation programmes of Russian equipment like the MiG-series fighters. In contrast, the Russian military bought no planes, no ships and just 62 T-90 tanks. Russian expert Ruslan Pukhov estimates that by 2000, as much as 70% of non-nuclear military R&D in Russia was directed towards specific export orders, mainly the following:

  • MiG’s project to modernise India’s old MiG-21 fighters into the MiG-21-93 (aka Bison).
  • Sukhoi’s radical rebuilding of its old Su-27 fighter into India’s Su-30MKI advanced fighter. Its success translated into orders from other countries like Malaysia and Algeria.
  • MiG’s development of the MiG-29K aircraft carrier-based fighter for India. It was test-flown for the first time last week.
  • Severnoe, the St. Petersburg-based ship design bureau, designed and built three Talwar class warships for India; India has now ordered three more.
  • Sukhoi’s development of its Su-27/30 fighters into China’s advanced Su-30MK2 and Su-30MKK. These may be exported to Vietnam, Indonesia and Venezuela.
  • Indian orders funded the development of the Uran-E and Club anti-ship missiles, eventually bought by both countries’ navies.
Over the years, Moscow has discovered the benefits of “burden sharing” in R&D. Despite its new oil revenue-fuelled State Armaments Programme that will spend close to $50 billion on R&D from 2007-2015, Moscow is keen that India picks up a share of the enormous tab on risky new projects like the multi-role transport plane and the 5th generation fighter. If you listen intelligently, Ivanov is saying that even though Russia has already financed part of the development of its 5th generation fighter, Moscow still sees benefits in getting India on board. 

Russia is, of course, also driven by the need to lock India into purchasing these products by going through the fiction of “joint development”. While “co-producing” the BrahMos missile with India (all resemblance with Russia’s Yakhont missile is purely coincidental), Russia learned that India’s nightmarish arms buying procedures --- excruciating trials, cut-throat negotiations, prolonged delays --- can be bypassed under the new mantra of “transforming a buyer-seller relationship into one of joint development and production”.

But that’s a story for another day!

Make the Holy Cows moo!

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 16th Jan 2007

The other day, listening to a dinner conversation between an Indian official and a foreign diplomat, I was struck by how differently each perceived the acrimonious public debate over the Indo-US nuclear deal. While the official saw it as an embarrassing case of laundering dirty linen in public, the diplomat was all praise for the way an esoteric and complicated subject was knowledgably dissected in full public view. If India pulls off a really good deal, concluded the diplomat, it will be because public awareness forced the government to lay down its red lines transparently.

Contrast the raucous N-deal debate with the eerie silence surrounding the finalisation of the government’s single biggest expenditure item in the forthcoming budget: defence. Astonishingly, for a mature democracy, close to Rs 100,000 crores will be disbursed without any public discussion of even the broad direction of Indian defence policy. The Chief of Air Staff admitted, in a press conference last month, that while the MoD has issued him a secret directive on the air force’s long-term direction, it was not for public discussion. The army and navy chiefs too have, in their office safes, copies of the top secret Raksha Mantri’s Operational Directive.

Neither the people of India, nor their elected representatives, nor even parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence, are trusted with any of this. The public’s role in defence, apparently, is only to pay for it. In his last budget speech, the Finance Minister took 87 words to allocate Rs 89,000 crores to defence; in 2005, a Rs 83,000 crore allocation merited 72 words. As holy cows go, this is hard to beat. 

Everyone understands that operational matters must remain secret. But shouldn’t the broad direction of a country’s strategy spring from general public consensus? Take, for example, the vital debate on who should man India’s defence forces: long-service professionals, short-service volunteers who serve 5-7 years, or all citizens of military age serving two years of compulsory national service? Manpower policy is fraught with issues: pensions and salaries, almost 40% of the defence budget, and set to rise further with the Sixth Pay Commission, must be cut down; high-quality individuals must be inducted into defence; and the military’s potential as a nation-building institution must be exploited. 

But instead of publicly examining these vital questions, strategic decision-makers simply brush them aside. As most governments demand, military production functions should show the standard economic input-output relationship. Inputs of capital and labour (soldiers, weaponry and technology) should combine effectively to produce defence output. 

This relationship can never be examined in India. By simply declining to define defence output, except in unquantifiable platitudes like “safety of our citizens” or “protection of our territorial integrity”, the government avoids having to justify the tens of thousands of crores that are pumped into defence.

To make defence spenders more accountable then, defence output must be quantified, which is something that every advanced democracy does. The United Kingdom, for example, has laid down in a 2004 White Paper that the British military must be capable of sustaining two small to medium scale conflicts, in addition to its commitment in Kosovo. The United States is even more transparent. Every four years the Pentagon publishes a Quadrennial Defense Review that specifies a strategic aim and the forces required to sustain it. The latest, QDR 2006, reorienting towards the war on terror, specifies that the US military must be capable of waging a full-scale conventional campaign (such as an attack on Iran) in addition to sustaining a long-duration Iraq-like conflict.

India’s Raksha Mantri must drop nebulous terms like “safety” and “protection” and must clearly lay down quantified outputs, such as “the ability to sustain a war on the western as well as eastern fronts for a period of four weeks”, or “the ability to fight and win a war against Pakistan in three weeks, while defending against a Chinese attack”. This exercise must flow from a realistic assessment of India’s neighbourly relations, its internal security needs, and its leverage with allies and global powers. These quantified aims will then dictate our requirement for forces, technology, equipment and weapons systems. 

But the Raksha Mantri’s Operational Directive contains no such specifics, because it is a political document, and not a military one. Instead of specifying whether India should structure to fight a one-front or a two-front war, for how long, and to what end, the government takes the easy approach: we’ll try to fight a one-front war, but also be prepared for two fronts. For the military, institutionally bound to prepare for the worst, that translates into: prepare to fight Pakistan and China simultaneously, on an open-ended basis, alongside continuing counter-insurgency operations in J&K and the north-east. 

Is it any wonder that 14% of government expenditure goes towards defence? In the absence of public debate and legislative oversight, the armed forces have raised several proposals that, in effect, seek to build force levels even higher than what we already have today. India is malnourished, impoverished, under-developed, under-educated and lacking in basic health facilities. But it is secure against every possible threat.

The holy cow of the nuclear establishment suffered no damage from being brought into the open. The holy cow of defence spending must graze in the public gaze too.

New year, evolving strategy

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 02nd Jan 2007

The dogs of war look increasingly frustrated and undernourished. Over a year ago, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh officially took war off the list of Indian options in dealing with Pakistan. At a recent meeting of the Defence Acquisition Council, the top-most MoD body on weapons purchases, defence minister AK Antony brushed off an urgent request to make up serious operational deficiencies in India’s strike corps, which would spearhead any attack on Pakistan. Deciding to wait for T-90 tanks to roll off India’s assembly line in Avadi rather than urgently buying some more, off-the-shelf from Russia, the defence minister reasoned that war with Pakistan was unlikely soon. If the hawks need more bad news, it’s there: the Finance Ministry has no big arms purchase proposals before it this financial year. That points to a large surrender of funds from the MoD budget this year.

For the India-Pakistan dialogue, there could not be better news. For too many years, the existence of war as an option for India and terrorism as one for Pakistan has occupied the space that would otherwise have been taken up by a realistic consideration of more viable options. India rightly refuses to negotiate under threat of cross-border terrorism and Pakistan has agreed to create a joint anti-terror mechanism in order to assuage those concerns. India, too, must address the deeply felt apprehensions of a weaker dialogue partner that war is high up on New Delhi’s option list. Realistically, cross-border terrorism for Pakistan and war for India remain options of last resort when all else fails. But the rattling of sabres cannot disturb the hum of dialogue.

For Pakistan, therefore, it is important to convince India that the joint anti-terror mechanism is more than a symbolic gesture; New Delhi, in turn, must address Islamabad’s fears that its arms build up is directed at Pakistan. One way of doing so is by dropping Indian protests each time Pakistan gets some new weaponry. Building a constituency for peace within Pakistan must be as much a part of Indian strategy as bringing people on board in this country. Actively blocking Pakistani defence acquisitions, like engines for the JF-17 Thunder fighter planes, only hardens attitudes in Islamabad while achieving little in terms of the military balance.

If changed mindsets are evident in dealing with Islamabad, little has changed in dealing with the Kashmiri separatist leadership. This is an internal issue that requires no negotiations or external concurrence. It is, therefore, hard to understand why the giant strides being made in back channel negotiations with Pakistan are not reflected in New Delhi’s relationship with the Kashmiri separatists. After the second Kashmir Roundtable in May 2006, the public dialogue has almost entirely given way to back channel attempts to broker a cease-fire with the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen.

New Delhi’s problems in dealing with Kashmiri separatists are two-fold. The first is a crisis of credibility in which nobody wants to talk to New Delhi because each time someone has made a proposal, New Delhi’s curmudgeonly response has left that group wondering why it risked so much for so little. In violent separatist movements breaking ranks is no recipe for longevity; former Hizb leader, Abdul Majid Dar, who entered into an aborted ceasefire with New Delhi paid with his life. The second problem is New Delhi’s reflexive insistence on entering into dialogue with only those groups that toe its line to an acceptable degree. Such an outlook rules out of the dialogue a wide range of separatist opinion, leaving those groups or individuals with little choice but to oppose reconciliation with all the means at their disposal. In J&K, groups like those of Syed Ali Shah Geelani are, consequently, treated no differently from the most radical of jehadis.

In situations like J&K it is seldom possible to be selective about those one negotiates with; circumstances, often shaped by previous negotiations, do that instead. An instructive example is the Israel-Palestine dialogue, where Tel Aviv now finds itself in the incongruous position of paying Egypt to supply arms to the Palestinian Fatah group to fight Hamas. When Fatah ruled Palestine under Mahmoud Abbas, Israel missed the opportunity to talk, making increasingly stiff demands for curbing Palestinian attacks. Now, compared to Hamas, Fatah seems an attractive partner. In a rapidly radicalizing J&K, delay will only spawn a harder line.

In trading terminology, it’s a rising market. New Delhi has to buy now. By the end of 2007, in the current trajectory of the dialogue, the landscape of India-Pakistan relations may well be unrecognisable.

Deadlines, headlines and breadlines

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 19th Dec 2006

In November 2005, with the nuclear negotiations weighing heavy on his head, PM Manmohan Singh appealed to India’s strategic community to generate analysis and long-term options that could guide government in making decisions such as the nuclear deal. “Policy making in most countries is often reactive,” confessed the PM; “Governments are driven by deadlines and events.”

It has long been fashionable within the intellectual cabal that styles itself as India’s strategic community to bemoan this country’s absence of what they term a “strategic culture”. But while the political cacophony that accompanied the US-India negotiations was only to be expected, the absence of a strategic culture has seldom been better highlighted than by the so-called analysts, who abandoned even lip service to the concepts of even-handedness and dialectic consideration. The quality of India’s domestic debate on the deal over the last eighteen months has brought little credit to a country known for its intellectual edge.

The inputs for this debate have been narrow viewpoints from sources with personal stakes in the success or failure of the negotiations. For irate members of the nuclear autocracy, fission and fusion and their fraternity’s interests loom far larger than diplomatic or economic interests. For economists in the Planning Commission and diplomats in government, largely free of their predecessors’ nuclear outlook, India’s indigenous nuclear gains can be conveniently encashed for more immediate benefits on the international stage. The military generals, long excluded from nuclear decision-making, mutter from the sidelines. The political uberclass has a long term vision extending all the way to the UP elections.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, wide-ranging analysis of a multi-faceted and technical subject has not been forthcoming. This has allowed anti-deal protagonists to dishonestly blur issues of sovereignty to whip up anti-deal feelings, e.g. the outcry against “intrusive US inspections” on our civilian nuclear plants, as opposed to “benign” and acceptable IAEA inspections. No analyst points out that IAEA inspectors are actually US (or for that matter any country’s, including Pakistan and China) inspectors on a three-year deputation to the IAEA. Incidentally, if you would like a job as an inspector at the IAEA, please apply before 7th January 2007, through the IAEA website http://recruitment.iaea.org/vacancies/p/2006/2006_912.html.

In similar style, the vacuum of focused analysis has allowed pro-dealers to side step the question of America’s reliability as a partner in nuclear commerce. Instead of a detailed and public scrutiny of America’s backtracking on Tarapur, and its applicability in the future, there are banal statements about the absence of choice. India does have an alternative and that is to walk away from the deal; like stock in a rising market, India will only be more attractive tomorrow. But that option must be evaluated analytically rather than ideologically.

At the root of the problem is government failure to facilitate the creation of credible and independent think tanks. Token attempts in this direction have resulted in paper tigers like the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) whose 54 research scholars consume crores of rupees from the Ministry of Defence to churn out status papers that could be produced in a day by any regular newspaper reader who knows how to Google. The IDSA’s recent work includes generic summaries like: “State of Militancy in Manipur”, “Uncertainty in Sri Lanka”, and “China’s claims over Arunachal”. With the Indo-US nuclear deal providing so many facets to research scholars, the IDSA offers just one paper on the subject, a predictable recounting of how the Hyde Bill differs with what the Prime Minister stated in parliament.

Part of the problem is the way India’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has excluded from academic institutions the study of nuclear engineering. Contrast this with the US, where serious analysts come with degrees in this discipline from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which is operated by the University of California for the US Department of Energy. Dr R Rajaraman, Professor Emeritus of Physics at the JNU points out, “there is no real way to study nuclear engineering, except in institutions run by the DAE. An analyst studying nuclear issues would have to take anything the DAE says at face value.”

Across the world research is often polarised along ideological lines, but can still remain credible when based on rigorous research and analysis. Not so in India. The failure of the government, private industry, and the military, to create and support a rigorous strategic culture has meant that the final decision on nuclear cooperation with the US will be shaped by one dominant viewpoint within government and by political alliances rather than a considered assessment of the long-term interest. As India grows and its stakes rise, such an approach could prove unbearably expensive.

Rewriting the rulebook

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 5th Dec 2006

European teams rewrote the rules of hockey, favouring power over skill, to triumph on the new Astroturf hockey landscapes. Now, in Afghanistan’s grim struggle, Pakistan is making new rules that load the dice heavily against those same NATO countries. The 26-member alliance that won a forty-year cold war against the Soviet Union without firing a shot, signalled last week that it does not have the will, the resources, or the political unity to fight beyond a point in Afghanistan. NATO’s structural weaknesses contrast with Islamabad’s skill in shaping the conflict to guarantee eventual Pakistani victory.

At a NATO summit meeting held in the Latvian capital of Riga last week, the alliance could agree only on sending 1,000 additional troops from Poland to reinforce its 23,000 embattled soldiers in insurgency-wracked southern Afghanistan. Only four alliance members --- USA, UK, Canada and Holland --- have sent troops to the south; countries like Germany and France still impose caveats on NATO that confine their soldiers to low-tension areas, except in dire emergency. It’s a paralysis of will that’s been dubbed “Riga mortis”.

Through a summer and autumn of pitched battles in the southern provinces of Helmand, Oruzgan and Kandahar, NATO’s Canadian, British and Dutch troops inflicted heavy losses on the Taliban. Few hearts and minds had been won, but battles had, and Afghan respect.

Then, in early autumn, came an electrifying rule change from Pakistan: Islamabad signed a peace accord with the tribal elders in troubled North Waziristan, ending five years of army operations against Al Qaeda and Taliban militants along the Durand Line (the Pakistan-Afghanistan border). The logic, they explained to the US, was to snuff out fundamentalist leadership and influence in tribal areas, and replace it with the traditional leadership of “greybeards” or tribal elders. Islamabad argued that routing development funds through secular, moderate tribal elders would re-empower them at the expense of jehadist mullahs.

In addition to pulling its own troops out of a bloody NWFP campaign, Islamabad made it clear that it wants a corresponding NATO and US troop pullout from Southern Afghanistan. This would leave the Taliban largely in control of the south, and well positioned for a drive to Kabul. Pakistan’s governor of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), Lt Gen Ali Mohammad Jan Orakzai, who was the Corps commander in NWFP before he was promoted to governor, publicly declares that the US and NATO have already failed in Afghanistan, with their presence fuelling militancy rather than curbing it. “Either it is a lack of understanding or it is a lack of courage to admit their failures,” he says.

This is not the ranting of a maverick general; Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri has endorsed the new rules. On the eve of the Riga summit, several NATO diplomats reported that Mr Kasuri had advised them in private briefings not to send more troops to Afghanistan, as the Taliban had already won. Kasuri also reportedly urged NATO to negotiate with the Taliban and replace Karzai’s government with a coalition that includes the Taliban. While Islamabad denied these reports, the Afghan parliament strongly condemned Kasuri’s alleged interference. Bringing the Taliban camel into the tent arouses little enthusiasm in Kabul; this is a camel with guns.

Having learned in Iraq that dialogue with insurgent groups is as important as fighting them (jaw-jaw instead of war-war, as Churchill put it) the US has cautiously endorsed Pakistan’s Waziristan peace. But with NATO fighting an enemy that operates from Waziristan havens, this is a perceptual rift within the alliance. The US and its European allies have never seen eye-to-eye on Afghanistan. In the wake of 9/11 the alliance had invoked its collective defence clause, by which an attack on one member is an attack on all. But a belligerent America chose to go it alone, and now finds only reluctant support.

With only lukewarm support forthcoming from “old Europe”, Riga saw a renewed US initiative for expanding NATO to include members more responsive to American blandishments. President Bush announced that Croatia, Albania and Macedonia would enter NATO by 2008, and that Georgia might come on board at a later date. The US, the UK and Holland, eager for reinforcements in Afghanistan, dropped objections against Serbia and Bosnia’s early membership on grounds of war crimes.

Orphaned by the end of the Cold War, NATO has tried to relocate its raison d’etre in the Afghanistan operation. A new document, still under negotiation, tasks NATO not just with the defence of national borders, but also with tackling global threats like terrorism, the spread of WMDs, and the emergence of failed states.

New rules all around, for a new playing field.

The 100,000 crore Rubicon

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 21st Nov 2006

Foreign Secretary level talks with Pakistan; the US-India nuclear legislation passed by the US Senate; Chinese President Hu Jintao visiting India. This fortnight makes a useful diplomatic freeze frame, illustrating India’s growing stability in the neighbourhood, region and global environment.

Now contrast this reality with New Delhi’s threat perception. It is difficult to measure a country’s apprehensions accurately, but one fairly good indicator is the trend in its defence spending. As President Hu lands in Delhi, South Block is finalising estimates of the Rs 89,000 crore defence budget for 2006-2007. Then they will finalise next year’s budget demand, likely to be just shy of Rs 1,00,000 crores. With the military, like all militaries, asking for more, and the strategic community clamouring to spend 3% of GDP on defence (which would be Rs 1,20,000 crores) the Rs 1,00,000 crore Rubicon no longer looks uncrossable.

In itself, that would merely be a statistical landmark. When a country’s security is under threat, it spends whatever it takes to restore wellbeing. And since there is no way to accurately measure either security or wellbeing, a comparison is useful to assess whether India’s current threats justify its spiralling defence spending.

In 1999, India paid 48,500 crores for defence, including the cost of the Kargil conflict; today we are looking at twice that amount. That’s a sizeable jump, considering that inflation is high mainly for foreign weaponry, and no pay commission has raised salaries since then. This rise in defence spending raises two key questions. One, have India’s levels of external threat or insurgency climbed proportionately in the seven years since 1999? Two, is our spending directed towards our greatest concerns, or are low-threat spending areas eating up most of the budget?

A series of recent events and statements answer the first question. Three years into a peace process with Pakistan, the PM has declared it irreversible. While the parliament attack in 2001 and the Kaluchak attack in 2002 brought India to the brink of war, the Mumbai bomb attacks this year evoked no more than a two-month sulk. Terrorists, we are told, can no longer hold the peace process hostage. A ceasefire holds on the Line of Control. And with nuclear deterrents in place all around, structure underpins the statements.

In step with growing trade relations with China, the Sino-Indian border is entirely peaceful. Both countries have not just scaled down their soldiers, but also their interaction, replacing patrol clashes with volleyball matches and friendship toasts. Wen Jiabao and Manmohan Singh’s agreement last year on political principles for a solution to the border issue is a great leap towards a final solution; the outcry against China’s recent reiteration of its claim on Arunachal come from those unfamiliar with Beijing’s negotiating history. Chinese maps now paint Sikkim in the same colours as India. Compared to 1999, war on any front—Pakistan or China—is a remote possibility.

What about insurgency? The Nagaland ceasefire has stabilised and peace emissaries are talking to ULFA. In J&K, a halting dialogue with separatists has moved forward since 1999. Despite two failed ceasefires with the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, ongoing back-channel negotiations could soon result in a successful one. A border fence is checking militant infiltration. J&K and Manipur remain crippled by militancy but their situation is considerably better than in 1999.

In mature democracies with vibrant civil societies, a transition from hostile confrontation to dialogue and stability provokes a demand for defence cuts. In India, a “guns versus butter” debate is controversial ground that few want to tread. But with war increasingly unlikely, and militancy not quite dead but in retreat, can a doubling of real defence expenditure pass unquestioned? When will it be time for a peace dividend?

Even more worrisome than growing defence spending is India’s pattern of spending. The most cursory analysis of ongoing programmes shows a marked trend towards “warfighting” equipment like tanks, submarines and fighter aircraft, which have no utility in the counter-insurgency operations that appear to be our primary defence requirement. This bias also exists in indigenous R&D, where big-ticket programmes like missiles, anti-aircraft guns and tanks mop up a mind-boggling Rs 5,000 crores. But then, big-ticket items mean bigger research budgets!

Serious defence preparedness has become the neglected step-child of a jingoistic and xenophobic polity, whose members find it easier to wave the tricolour and throw big money at defence rather than sit down to a rational assessment of India’s defence needs. While strategically sophisticated countries like the USA and the UK carefully scrutinise their defence aims and requirements—Washington publishes a comprehensive Quadrennial Defence Review every four years–India’s defence needs have never been coherently formulated. A public debate remains a distant dream.

Myths and half-truths: Muslims and the military

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 7th Nov 2006

The Justice Rajinder Sachar Committee findings have prompted a media outcry about the status of the Muslims in the country. But no tears are being shed for what the Sachar Committee was never allowed to address: the status of Muslims in India’s defence forces. A clamour from the right, astonishingly supported by well-reputed secularists, has stifled what should have been a considered debate about how India could benefit from giving its Muslim citizens a proportional share in the country’s defence. The thinking was simple: this Holy Cow is delivering the goods, so let it graze in peace. So on 21 February this year, India's defence minister told Parliament: “No survey has been conducted or is proposed to be conducted for the compilation of any other statistics than those maintained on the existing database of the armed forces.”

Pranab Mukherjee's statement was the misleading conclusion to a largely misdirected debate. The defence minister knew well that no new survey is required to determine Muslim representation in the Indian armed forces. The existing database already has the figure: between 2 and 3 per cent, much lower than in most other government departments. 

Mr Mukherjee’s statement of half-truths is deceptive to an audience unfamiliar with recruitment issues. Take this part: “The existing policy of the Government on recruitment in the Armed Forces is based on merit and is open to every citizen of the country including the members of the Muslim community without any discrimination on the basis of their caste, creed, religion or region.” 

Recruitment is, indeed, based on merit. The armed forces are, indeed, open to every citizen of India, including Muslims. But dishonesty lurks in what Parliament was not told: that recruitment has for over a century been based on, and continues to be based on, quotas. Not just quotas to states in proportion to their populations, but also specific allocations to castes, ethnic groups and even religions. 

To see how quotas are applied at the ground level in the army, consider a random combat unit: 73 Armoured Regiment. This regiment consists of three 100-men squadrons: one reserved entirely for Sikhs, one for Muslims and one for Rajputs. Not only are recruitment vacancies balanced between these three groups, but so are promotions at every rank. When a Sikh havaldar is promoted, his place is taken only by another Sikh. And when a Muslim soldier retires or lays down his life, only a Muslim can replace him. 

A similar logic of caste, class and religious-based reservation applies across most of India’s 29 infantry regiments, including the famous Gurkha, Rajput, Jat, Madras and Naga regiments. Only two are free of recruitment quotas. A large part of the army's other branches are also structured along class, caste and ethnic lines. For example, large numbers of vacancies within the artillery, engineers and armoured corps are reserved for Sikhs.

While there is no entirely Muslim unit, vacancies for Muslims are reserved within several groups, notably the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry. But what the Sachar Committee was not officially told is that while minorities like Sikhs are represented in a greater proportion than their overall numbers, Muslims serve in a remarkably smaller proportion than theirs. 

Those opposed to allocating more recruitment vacancies to Muslims frame their arguments in inflammatory terms such as “communalisation of the army”. But for the soldiers of the army’s hundreds of “fixed-class” units, recruitment based on religion, caste and ethnicity is purely an administrative matter. To argue that more vacancies for Muslims will communalise the army overlooks the military’s enormous success in identity integration. The defence services manage to make each soldier simultaneously a follower of his religion, a member of his unit and a citizen of India. Before any important activity a unit prays together at a puja, namaaz or ardaas; but, rising from prayer, even multi-faith units operate as secular arms of the government of India.

A more substantive --- and equally diversionary --- argument made is that too few Muslims, particularly from UP and Bihar, meet the physical and educational requirements for enrolment. Why so is a larger sociological question that should be addressed, but many Muslims in other states do meet those qualifications. In J&K, hordes of enthusiastic young men flock to recruitment rallies --- 300 candidates for each vacancy --- but most are turned away since J&K has a tiny number of vacancies. The shortfall of Muslim recruitment from other states is of no benefit to them because vacancies for one state cannot be transferred to another. Vacancy transfers are an immediate way to both bring more Muslims into military service, and assimilate the youth of J&K into mainstream India, denying militancy that pool of manpower. 

Political opposition to such measures is inevitable, because one state's gain is another's loss. But the larger issue is strategic, of taking deliberate steps to give communities on the geographical and demographic fringes a visible and viable stake in the concept of one's nation. The Indian army, unlike Pakistan’s predominantly Punjabi Muslim army, represents equity and balance; the shortage of Muslims is a glaring aberration. New Delhi has taken some tentative first steps by raising units like the J&K Light Infantry and the Ladakh Scouts. It must now openly discuss ways of enabling more Muslims to bear arms for India.

Hoo Haa India…

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 24th Oct 2006

While the Blue Billion sit glued to Champions Trophy cricket, their sixteen lakh American cousins would do well to keep their eye on the ball too. Indian immigrants in the US have already put much of their considerable money and voting power behind making the US-India nuclear deal a reality. Now, with the legislative home stretch of the deal likely to depend on a lame duck session of the US Congress after mid-term elections in November, they will have to keep reminding US senators and representatives that their interests lie in turning the draft into law.

The Indian immigrant community has some sense of its influence on US policy, but has not yet come close to tapping its full power. The US-India Business Council (USIBC) represents 180 companies doing business in both countries, but its primary focus remains commercial. The professional lobbying firm Barbour, Griffith and Roger (BGR), headed by former US ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, pushes the India cause with well-timed op-ed articles in the mainstream press and through lawmakers on Capitol Hill, but its orientation is primarily republican. There remains in the Indian conscience, and certainly in the Brahminical worldview of South Block, a distaste for anything as crass as lobbying. The Indian ambassador to the US, Ronen Sen, has been quoted as saying that he doesn’t need any door-opening; he can just pick up the phone and call any US lawmaker he wants to.

This reticence contrasts sharply with the unabashed clout of the America Israel Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a 5.5 million strong group of Jewish Americans variously called the Jewish lobby, Zionist agents, or the most successful lobby group on the planet. The Indian community, which has thus far only aspired to AIPAC’s lobbying power, has now contacted the group for some advice on how to multiply its own clout.

The first secret of AIPAC’s success is its simplicity of purpose, namely, to promote the interests of Israel in the US. In this endeavour AIPAC is bipartisan, both internally and in its outreach, wooing Democrats and Republicans with equal fervour. The American Jewish community is no less divided than the Indian American community in many ways, but when it comes to Israel, AIPAC sets aside local differences to work for the benefit of Tel Aviv. In contrast, various sections of the Indian American community tend to work with various likeminded political parties in India towards various goals, which exacerbates rather than overcomes differences.

Secondly, AIPAC always frames its global aim in local terms that strike a chord within a constituency. As a prominent AIPAC lobbyist puts it: “The average American legislator does not wake up thinking about Israel, or, for that matter, about India. The first thing he thinks is, what do my voters want?” And since voters want different things in different places, AIPAC functions through a country-wide network of local offices that are in touch with voter concerns in every electoral constituency. To voters concerned about homeland security, Israel is the frontline in the war on terror. To heavily immigrant communities (and America is predominantly immigrant) Israel is the ultimate immigrant homeland. To defence manufacturing constituencies, Israel is the biggest buyer. So well-informed is AIPAC’s network that the Government of Israel has consulted them on likely US reactions before passing important legislation in Tel Aviv.

Thirdly, AIPAC’s brilliant organisation makes up for small numbers and demonstrates that while being visible is vitally important, functioning effectively is much more so. The group monitors all legislation, pending or in process, and evaluates where its support is needed. Its workers cover every meeting on Capitol Hill that deliberates on matters relating to Israel, and hold some 2000 meetings with US congressmen each year. Through email, snail mail, flyers, community hall meetings and ballroom galas, it passes on to voters and congressmen the facts that support Israel, particularly each congressman’s voting record on Israel. AIPAC thus helps to pass about one hundred pieces of pro-Israel legislation annually, and ensures the smooth passage of $2.4 billion in security-related aid to Israel. Indian communities, by similar record keeping, could make their local congressmen realise that a vote against India will not be forgotten.

AIPAC’s advice to Indian groups is to leverage the commonalities between India and the US: democracy, the rule of law, multiculturalism and multi-ethnicity. Americans tend to value these linkages highly while New Delhi consistently underestimates them. According to an AIPAC official, “A visit to Israel touches the soul of an American congressman the way a trip to Europe or Japan can never do. India touches American souls even more directly.” New Delhi, AIPAC believes, must invest far more in bringing US legislators to India.

The US-India nuclear deal enjoys bipartisan support and may well go through without lobbying. But the nuclear deal is just one component of a growing bilateral relationship that will span not just security, but commerce, culture and even ideology. The power structure of the American state, divided equally between the White House and Capitol Hill, demands from India a close and ongoing engagement with the US legislature. As the Indian American community tries to build an effective interest group model, New Delhi should gratefully cultivate its partnership in gathering American support from the grassroots.

No strategy, no consensus, no plan

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 10th Oct 2006

The inglorious buildup to the 1999 Kargil war is back in the headlines. In a literary version of the seven-year itch, the opposing army chiefs who directed that war, Generals Pervez Musharraf and VP Malik, have in quick succession produced autobiographies that unsurprisingly recount very different versions of the conflict. What is noteworthy, though, is last week's sharp rebuttal of General Malik's account by Air Chief Marshall Anil Tipnis, who led the Indian Air Force (IAF) during that period. General Malik’s book insinuated that the air chief was reluctant to support army operations at high altitudes. Now Tipnis has hit back with the charge that the army chief had lost his nerve and was hiding the gravity of the Pakistani intrusions from the government.

This would be a mere historical aside, were friction between the armed services the exception rather than the rule. But the unseemly squabble between the Kargil chiefs is only the visible tip of a nasty iceberg. Sadly, the army, air force and navy find themselves in an increasingly unhealthy fratricidal competition for attention, roles and resources. The government has never appointed a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), the senior-most military officer who can coordinate the requirements of the three services, and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has neither the technical expertise nor the inclination. Many senior generals believe that this is a divide-and-rule strategy to keep the military weak and under civilian control.

Whether or not the conspiracy theorists are right, and whatever the fallout on inter-service camaraderie, the financial outcome is that India's vast defence budget --- Rs 89,000 crore this year --- is spent in a planning vacuum, distributed between the three services in a historically constant ratio. Mature democracies with experience of security planning, also called strategic cultures, plan top-down in order to get "more bang for the buck". National aims and political objectives, formulated by a country's political leadership, are translated into a defence policy by the MoD. This becomes the military's bible; an integrated headquarters under the CDS, with real control over planning and financial resources, translates the MoD's directive into actual operational plans. To implement these plans, the integrated headquarters allocates responsibility and finances to the army, navy and air force.

How would this tried and tested system work in an Indian context? First, a body like the National Security Council (NSC) would make the big (and difficult) strategic decisions: for example, should India retain the capability to beat Pakistan quickly in a conventional war? Or, with Pakistan's nuclear capability making full-fledged war unlikely, should India concentrate on combating insurgency and terrorism? If the NSC chose the latter, it could throw in a caveat: retain the ability to strike terrorist camps in the border vicinity. India's nuclear deterrent would also need careful and regular review at this top level.

Why must these priorities be spelt out clearly? Because India simply cannot afford to cater for every possible military eventuality. No developing country can pay for both the mind-numbingly expensive tanks, air-defence systems and logistics needed to support deep thrusts into Pakistan, and simultaneously for building capability against cross-border terrorism: surveillance and intelligence systems, special forces, and high-tech personal equipment and communications. It must choose between the two options.

Armed with clear priorities, the military would then do its planning. Assuming the government chose to focus on low-intensity conflict (insurgency and terrorism), the CDS would spell out the capabilities needed. He would lay down specific military requirements, such as surveillance levels, firepower, and what forces are needed to physically take out a terrorist camp. Inter-service coordination is crucial to deciding who is allotted what task. A terrorist camp can be struck with the army's long-range artillery, or with air force ground attack aircraft, or with Special Forces infiltrated across the LOC. Since these capabilities come from different services (Special Forces could someday be an independent service) a CDS would decide who does what.

Instead, today, we retain all options --- nuclear war, conventional war and insurgency/terrorism --- without building conclusive capability in any. The political leadership refuses to provide a clear direction because tough decisions are politically vulnerable; it's much easier to look away. The army, navy and air force, instead of planning cohesively to build a finite set of capabilities, stock expensive arsenals that make each feel good, but that overlap functionally. Glossy brochures from arms companies are key drivers of weapons procurement in each of the three service headquarters, fuelling grandiose visions of "blue-water" or "strategic" capabilities. But rather than appoint a CDS who could optimise the contribution of all three services from a single headquarters, government after government has chosen to fuel the fratricide.

Historically, inter-service rivalry has always hindered military efficacy. In the Pacific campaign in World War II, the friction between the US Navy, Marines and the Air Force almost brought the campaign to a halt. India cannot afford such a lack of strategic direction: higher decision-making and military planning between the services urgently needs to be harmonised.

Choosing your devil

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 26th Sept 2006

October could be a bad month in India for brand name Musharraf. Yesterday’s release of the general’s autobiography, In the Line of Fire, which includes a characteristically unapologetic justification of his 1999 Kargil intrusion, is a godsend for sceptics of the peace process. “General Musharraf is trying to justify stabbing India in the back,” goes the cry, “we knew we couldn’t trust a man like him!”

It’s not just TV audiences that are polling indignation, nor just analysts suggesting that Indo-Pak peace is impossible because Islamabad is controlled by a vicious coterie of soldiers and bureaucrats who subsist by railing at India. In an astonishing allegation made in the RSS-affiliated publication, Panchjanya last week, former PM Atal Behari Vajpayee described the Manmohan-Musharraf statement at Havana as a “conspiracy against India.” 

Vajpayee was the editor of Panchjanya when it was launched almost sixty years ago; age appears to have crept up on him since then. But even if one could ascribe to senility the former PM’s suggestion that his successor is in cahoots with Pakistan to do the dirty on India, one point seems unarguable: a BJP-Congress consensus on the peace process is receding into the distance. It seems that Pakistan can safely blame democracy for India’s slow movement towards any settlement.

But Pakistan is not blaming New Delhi as much as it’s blaming Musharraf. The general is, bluntly put, taking a beating at home. One columnist in the daily newpaper Dawn, summed up what most Pakistanis believe: “(Musharraf is one day) glorifying Kashmir's freedom struggle and then overnight dancing to India's tune. India has turned the composite dialogue into a joke and yet by every word and gesture at our command we are trying to please India.” Ironically, the general is taking flak on both sides of the border. On the Indian side he’s seen as a hawk; on the Pakistani side, a dove.

Amid this shrill polarisation, New Delhi has resumed its measured and increasingly nuanced engagement with Islamabad. By calling off talks in the wake of the Mumbai blasts, the government did what was needed to placate domestic public opinion. Now, in Havana, the joint anti-terrorism mechanism has provided a face-saving way to get back to the table. After years of being the prisoner of its own rhetoric, New Delhi has learned to convey displeasure without downing shutters altogether. It now realises that reflexively rejecting any form of engagement is a self-defeating process. New Delhi painted Musharraf in the colours of infamy for years before realising that it would have to do business with him. Now it is engaging not just the general but also India’s favourite villains--Pakistan’s intelligence agencies.

To complain that the joint anti-terrorism mechanism will bring no terrorists to justice is to state the obvious. But interaction of this kind will give New Delhi a far better idea about Pakistan’s most important institutions than it has at the moment. Today, most Indians erroneously see Pakistan’s military, intelligence, diplomatic and bureaucratic institutions as a monolithic whole, single-mindedly busy trying to destroy India. The reality is far more complex, with various strands of opinion vying to influence policy --- groups of anti-India die-hards urging jehadi violence, others arguing a more rational line. The ISI is a splintered outfit. Sections of that intelligence agency obey directives from General Musharraf; other factions, deeply compromised by other interest groups, scuttle their own agency’s operations.

New Delhi must also directly engage the Pakistani army. Sections of its officer cadre are deeply resentful of Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamization programme which they believe has diluted the army’s professionalism. To think that the Pakistan army derives popular support solely from “the India threat” is terribly simplistic. Just like the Indian army, the Pakistani army is respected for its integrity, honesty and excellence, an island of professionalism in a sea of governmental mediocrity, and this regard will not suffer from the absence of the India bogey. 

It is these divided Pakistani institutions that India has begun to engage, and not a day too soon. If New Delhi insists on basing its participation in talks on Musharraf saying sorry about Kargil, or on the ISI handing over bands of handcuffed militants to Indian border posts, or on the Pakistani Army focussing on a China rather than an India threat, then we should gracefully withdraw from the dialogue and reconcile ourselves to endlessly containing Pakistan, each country an albatross around the other’s neck.

The BPJ today is a party on autopilot, set on a suicidal dive towards irrelevance, and its thinking processes are inevitably drying up. It no longer finds it convenient to claim authorship of the peace process; in the present atmosphere of suspicion, it will use Musharraf’s book to fan the fears of a public for whom Kargil symbolises Indo-Pakistan relations. While the UPA has embarked on a bold course of action, therefore, it is vitally important to sell its vision and to build public consensus for a difficult process. This Dr. Manmohan Singh’s government has failed to do, as it failed to do on the Indo-US nuclear deal. And unfortunately, good moves that find no backers are unsustainable in the long run. 

Weapons? Equipment? Main hoon na!

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 12 Sept 2006

Hallelujah! A new bible is here to govern the expenditure of some 50,000 crore rupees a year on weaponry for India’s defence forces. On 1st September, the Defence Procurement Procedure and Manual, 2006 (DPP-2006 and DPM-2006) superseded its equally inconsequential predecessor, the DPP-2005, unveiled just a year earlier. Despite the fanfare that attended its release, the latest manual is little more than a compilation of existing regulations, now set out in consolidated form. The DPP-2006 makes some attempt to create bulwarks against corruption, but it fails to address a fundamental issue in arms procurement: the systemic bias against the private sector that has prevented it from carrying the values of cost-efficiency and accountability into a Palaeolithic landscape dominated by public sector dinosaurs.

In 2001, defence manufacturing was opened to the private sector, with conditions that still apply: compulsory licensing and a ceiling of 26% on foreign shareholding. Despite many private companies being keen to enter the defence business, they were allowed no more than a peripheral role by entrenched patronage networks between defence production officials in the MoD and the government research and production agencies (the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the 9 defence PSUs and 39 ordnance factories). Using the rhetoric of self-reliance as a smokescreen, these monoliths anointed themselves keepers of the faith, with creative accounting and cross-subsidies hiding a sorry tale of inefficiency. Last year, the far-sighted Kelkar Committee recommended that private industry be tapped to create an integrated defence industry. DPP-2006 does nothing to unshackle the private sector. 

The dominance of government agencies like the DRDO rests on the veto power that they wield in the procurement process. When the military requests for any new equipment, the DRDO gets to decide whether that demand should be categorised as “buy” (purchase outright from the international arms market), or “buy and make” (buy technology from a foreign vendor and manufacture in India) or “make” (develop the technology in DRDO laboratories and then manufacture it in defence PSUs or ordnance factories).

A frustrated military does not dispute the need for foreign purchases to be weighed against the possibility of indigenous development. But there is bitterness at the DRDO’s unchallenged power to hold up desperately needed equipment by opting to make it, dragging on research for years, and finally delivering a shoddy product. There is growing realisation that the DRDO has a vested interest in opting for development; the vast establishment of scientists, laboratories and a generous budget has to be justified somehow. This conflict of interest goes unquestioned. Rarely, if ever, is research passed on to the more sophisticated private sector. With characteristic gallows humour, army officers suggest the DRDO motto should be: Main hoon na!

While the government dinosaurs grapple unsuccessfully for decades with sophisticated systems like tanks, air defence missiles, night vision devices and radio sets, there is nobody to provide the simple, low-tech kit that the army needs most desperately --- boots, helmets and bullet proof jackets. Soldiers in J&K wear cheap, off-the-pavement motorcycle helmets instead of the Kevlar helmets that are standard protection for reputable armies. Frontline combat units still do without bullet-proof jackets for all their soldiers. It is easy to see why ordnance factories or defence PSUs have failed to provide such basic necessities: the budgetary allocations would not be as lucrative as they are for high-tech projects. 

DPP-2006 fails to address the DRDO’s discretionary power to cherry-pick projects. Also unaddressed is the unfair clout of the defence PSUs, establishments like Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL), whose institutionalised role in MoD decision-making effectively elbows out the private sector. The Deputy Chief of Air Staff received a communication from BEL earlier this year, (letter 4860/2/DCMS/HQ dated 15th March 2006) demanding business favours in contracts for twelve critical projects, including electronic warfare equipment, radars and navigation systems, many of which were already being procured from other companies. BEL did not explain why it should be given preferential treatment. It was enough to say, “main hoon na!”

Compare this marginalisation of India’s private industry with mature powers like the USA and the UK, where defence research and production are entirely privatised. The US is developing a high-tech Future Combat System (FCS), comprising of a light, air-portable force of 150,000 soldiers who see a far-away enemy through a network of satellites, make decisions through secured communications links and then use high-tech weaponry to hit the unsuspecting enemy. The lead contractor for this $500 billion project is Boeing, which is harnessing the efficiencies of several other private corporations. The Pentagon will provide Boeing $21 billion for research till 2014; Boeing will answer for any delays.

Similarly, in the UK, privatised corporations like BAE Systems do major R&D and also operate many of the systems that are required to keep the British military functioning, such as aircraft maintenance and pilot training. South Block scoffs that India’s private sector lacks the capability to execute major defence projects. If private companies are kept on the margins forever, that will always be the case.

Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee, while releasing DPP-2006, declared, “we have effectively opened the doors for the (private) Indian industry to participate in defence research, development and production.”

Not really. The chorus in South Block is undiminished: “main hoon na!”

In the arms of Israel

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 15 August 2006

Long before the CPI(M)'s recent demand to scrap India's defence ties with Israel, governments in New Delhi have finessed difficult questions about that growing military relationship, with politically correct formulations in support of the Palestinian cause. But with Israel's latest foray into Lebanon, the questions could get more searching and, with Tel Aviv already frustrated at India's reluctance to hold hands in public, there is the potential for growing discord. 

Both sides truthfully aver that the military relationship is separate from the political one. But of all commercial dealings, arms relationships are by far the most political. A country can trade in food grains, software or leather for purely economic considerations; Soviet Union gas supplies warmed West Europe through the coldest days of the Cold War. But arms supplies, by their very nature, extend beyond the economic realm into the political. Israeli arms sales have always rested on a common security perception with Raisina Hill: Islamic extremism is the favourite nightmare of decision-makers on both sides. But this security convergence has never translated into open political support for Israel; on July 26 th, India's parliament strongly condemned the Israeli bombing of Lebanon. The arms relationship lives in the shadow of this contradiction between security convergence and political divergence.

The numbers, though, make fine reading for Israel. In less than a decade, its arms sales to India have made Israel the fifth biggest arms supplier in the world. Only Russia sells more weaponry in India, because the Indian military is locked into a dependency: our vast arsenal of traditionally Soviet-origin weaponry must be replaced or upgraded with systems that match its technical characteristics. In practical terms an armoured division equipped with T-72 tanks cannot be upgraded with British Challenger or American Abrams tanks. Only the Russian T-90 (in effect, a new-generation T-72) has the communications links, operating characteristics and logistical similarities that enable it to function seamlessly alongside that armoured division's other weapons systems. 

In penetrating the Indian market, Israel has used the only workable strategy: riding piggyback on the Russian bear. India's major weapons platforms --- tanks, air defence guns, warships, and fighters ---- will remain principally Russian for at least two decades. For Israel, that's not a problem; its defence industries do not specialise in major systems. Instead, Israel swells its bottom line in India by giving a new lease of life to outdated Russian systems. The principle is simple: a major platform, say a Russian MIG-21 fighter, will continue to fly for up to three decades. It's fighting capability --- which depends on its radars, avionics and missile systems --- will get outdated in half that time. Replacing those with state-of-the-art systems (retro-fitment and mid-life upgrades are the technical terms) often costs more than what the fighter did when it was bought. It is here that Israel excels. Cash registers in Tel Aviv are still ringing from upgrading India's old MIG-21s into the Bison fighter, now usable for another fifteen years, and from transforming India's vintage Russian 130 mm artillery guns into modern 155 mm howitzers.

Working to Israel's advantage are the mix-and-match deals now on offer in the global arms supermarkets. India may opt for a mazboot-sasta-aur-tikau Russian platform --- a T-90 tank, a Krivak-class frigate, or a Su-30MKI fighter --- but it no longer has to buy the less-then-cutting-edge electronics, surveillance and missile systems that Russia fits. After problems with the T-90 night vision and fire control equipment and the Krivak anti-missile defences, India's military is wary of Russian electronics. So the three new frigates that India is buying from Russia will be fitted with an Israeli anti-missile system: the Extended Range Barak (ERB) that Tel Aviv says it will co-develop with India. 

The agreement to co-develop the ERB shows how Israel is learning from Russia in exploiting the less-than-ethical working of India's defence production organisation. When Russia wanted to bypass the unpredictable realm of competitive bidding in capturing the Indian market for its Yakhont cruise missile, Moscow signed up with Delhi to "co-develop" the Brahmos. Billed as a triumph of joint development, the Brahmos is little more than the Russian Yakhont with a joint label. Similarly, the Extended Range Barak, "jointly developed" by India and Israel, will be an up-rated version of the old Barak missile, with India firmly locked into the deal. 

Israel's greatest achievement could be its entry into the innermost portals of Indian defence: the shadowy anti-missile defence programme, that detects and shoots down incoming ballistic missiles (presumably armed with nuclear warheads) before they hit Indian targets. India has bought billion-dollar Green Pine radars from Israel that already scan threatening Pakistani launch areas, such as a 500 km sector around Islamabad. Now, if America clears the sale, India could spend more billions on Israeli Arrow missiles that will severely erode Pakistan's nuclear deterrent, perhaps forcing Islamabad to step up its productions of nuclear bombs.

With billions of dollars in the balance, Israel has chosen to quietly accept being politically spurned by India. But with the two establishments clearly in sync on the military and the strategic fronts, Israel could be correctly calculating that New Delhi's public distance from Tel Aviv will inevitably diminish, gradually transforming mistress into wife. 

Dramatic changes in Lebanon

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 01 August 2006
Dateline: Beirut, Lebanon

In the eye of the storm raging across the Israel-Lebanon border is a battalion called 4 SIKH, comprised of about 800 Indian peacekeepers. With over a century and a half of enviable history 4 SIKH is credited with some of the most stirring exploits in the annals of warfare. Its defence of Saragarhi Fort in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province in 1897 is one: attacked by ten thousand Afridi and Orakzai tribesmen, a detachment of just 21 jawans of the battalion fought to the death rather than surrender. When the news was announced the British House of Commons rose to their feet and clapped for the heroes of Saragarhi. Historians have compared that last stand with the celebrated Battle of Thermopylae, in which a handful of Greeks held off the army of Xerxes of Persia. 

Today, the descendents of Saragarhi can only watch helplessly and pull from the rubble of Israeli air-strikes their dead comrades from the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). Like most UN peacekeeping missions, UNIFIL is a deliberately toothless organisation; its mandate, prescribed by UN Security Council Resolution 425, is to observe and to report, but under no circumstances to fight. Since 1978, when Israeli forces first invaded Lebanon, UNIFIL has reported hundreds of Israeli violations of Lebanon's border. Israeli fighters and warships violate Lebanon's sovereignty almost daily, lashing out at the Hezbollah with air and artillery strikes whenever they find a target. The Hezbollah, self-styled defenders of Lebanon's sovereignty, hit back when they can, with rocket attacks and occasional abductions of Israeli soldiers which are more defiance than destruction. But now, as a condition to end the fighting, Israel wants the entire UNIFIL architecture replaced by a robust force that can rein in the Hezbollah. 

The Hezbollah's tactical success in killing six Israeli soldiers and kidnapping two more could well contain the seeds of strategic defeat. Israel, often an international pariah in times of crisis, has an astonishing coalition ranged on its side. The US, the UK, and several European countries are facilitating the military attrition of Hezbollah fighters. But most astonishingly, the major Sunni regimes—Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan—have chosen to back Israel against an Arab opponent, reproaching the Hezbollah for the "adventurism" that triggered Israeli strikes. For the first time ever, a group of Sunni Arab regimes see a greater enemy than Israel: the steady rise of Shia power. 

While the tensions between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran have long been apparent (and been further sharpened by the Arab-Persian divide), the Sunni statements reproaching the Hezbollah mark the transformation of the Shia-Sunni crack into a potential chasm. Sunni insecurity was already inflamed by the rise of Shia power in Iraq, ironically facilitated by the US. This anxiety reached fever pitch with the Hezbollah, another Shia group, staking a viable—and very visible—claim to becoming the legitimate knights of that holiest of Arab grails: the Palestine struggle. 

But while Sunni political regimes react thus to the Hezbollah's face-off with Israel, their people are breathless with excitement at the sight of an Arab militia battling an Israeli military invasion to a standstill. A very credible poll in Lebanon puts support for the war at 75 percent among all sections of society, including Maronite Christians. The Arab street is thrilled to see its weak and oft-beaten side rejuvenated by the arrival of a new player; that this superstar is a Shia militia in no way dims the exhilaration. Their own governments look weak and effete in contrast.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Saudi, Egyptian and Jordanian governments are scrambling to come into line with this surge of mass opinion. Riyadh has dramatically changed tack, calling for an immediate cease-fire to prevent the Middle East from being engulfed in flames. But the most remarkable compliment to the Hezbollah's success has come from Al Qaeda. That most Sunni of organisations — jt has often declared that Shias in Iraq are unbelievers who should be killed at the first opportunity — has wasted no time in jumping onto the Hezbollah bandwagon. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the Al Qaeda number two, has released a video supporting his "brothers in Gaza and Lebanon." 

The Hezbollah has defined the new heroic model for the Arab masses, regardless of the form of the eventual political settlement of Israel's war on it. Like in the early days of the 1973 war, the image of Israeli impregnability has taken a beating. Contemporary Israel's reluctance to take casualties and Tel Aviv's mistakes in prosecuting its war — notably the killings of unarmed UN observers and the bombing of a shelter in Qana — have left it no time to reach a favourable conclusion. 

It remains to be seen whether Hezbollah will accept any outside peacekeeping force on territory it considers its own; so far it has unambiguously signalled no. Nobody seems clear on who might be part of such a force. Potential contributors — the US, UK, France and Germany amongst them — have signalled their reluctance to send troops. The joke in Beirut is that these countries will volunteer to man the logistics base in Cyprus, but not to stand between the Hezbollah and Israel. 

Battalions like 4 SIKH that have the stomach to take casualties, do not have the mandate to do so. The search for suitable peacemakers could be a long one. 

The Mumbai blasts: cleaning up our act

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 18th July 2006

A week after last Tuesday’s terrorist attacks on the Mumbai suburban rail network, nobody knows for sure --- despite contradicting and barely credible rhetoric about RDX, Lashkar modules, fedayeen and SIMI operatives --- who was responsible for the attacks and how they were executed. What is shamefully clear is an incoherent response across government, driven almost entirely by the fear of opposition charges of being soft on terrorism and on Pakistan. Despite its initial inclination to go ahead with the foreign secretaries’ meeting later this month, New Delhi eventually (and reluctantly) postponed the talks. The Prime Minister is now focusing on an anti-terrorism resolution from the G-8 countries in St Petersburg. And instead of cracking down on the organised crime and smuggling networks and the radicalized modules that translate mere malevolence into actual attacks, we have instead a cacophony of accusations against the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) and, incredibly, after a dubious phone call in Srinagar, the Big Al itself.

It would be a strategic blunder to allow politicised accusations from the opposition parties to entirely shape our response to the Mumbai bombings. National responses must be guided by the long-term national benefit, not by political point-scoring in the domestic and international arena. But while justifiably pointing to Pakistan as one of the global sources of jehadi ideological motivation there are no signs of what could be the only positive outcome of such attacks: putting our own house in order.

It is easy to rail at the convenient target of international Islamic terrorism. Far more productive, however, would be to examine which links in the chain of terror should be tackled with the greatest vigour --- a chain that connects at one end the abstract idea of attacking the foundations of the Indian state, to the explosions that kill and maim at the other end. By now, even the most entrenched Lashkar-bashers admit that the bombs were physically planted and probably even assembled and timed by Indian nationals. Referring to them as “Lashkar modules” or “sleeper cells” cannot hide the simple fact that, just like in the 1993 bombings, Mumbai’s citizens were killed by Mumbai’s criminals using explosives brought into the country by Mumbai’s smuggling network.

But while outrage is easily fanned against the LET, Musharraf, the ISI and Al Qaeda, there is little interrogation of our own policing and intelligence failures. Nor are there any notable calls for a crackdown on organised crime in Mumbai, one of the vital executive elements in organising last Tuesday’s attacks. Does Indian anger only crystallise against identifiable anti-national figureheads like Dawood Ibrahim, who symbolise the Pakistan connection. In the absence of Dawood, the cosy symbiosis between the (now weakened) “bhai-log” and the Mumbai police continues unabated. It is these networks that radicalized groups tap into for executing terrorist strikes.

The BJP’s response symbolises the opportunism that feeds every Indian tragedy. In demanding the re-enactment of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), which had been repealed by the UPA government in December 2004, the BJP does not mention that most of that act’s teeth were transferred to a greatly beefed up Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act that was passed on the day that POTA was repealed. In addition, the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, 1999 (MCOCA) gives ample powers to the Maharashtra police and intelligence agencies, were they inclined to act.

On Sunday, LK Advani said, “I personally advise Home Minister that to prevent incidents like Mumbai Blasts, we need to revive POTA.” Three years of POTA (2001-2004) proved only one thing: that draconian anti-terrorist legislation simply does not cut down terrorism. Soon after the ordnance was enacted in 2001, Parliament House was attacked by terrorists. Weeks after it passed into law in March 2002, Kaluchak army base was attacked in Jammu (May 2002), followed by a string of terrorist strikes on the Akshardham Temple (September 2002) and the Raghunath Temple in Jammu (March and November 2002). And many reports indicate that POTA was used after the Gujarat riots to harass the Muslim community, pushing furious youngsters towards fighting the Indian state, creating disaffection rather than order. 

Demands for installing surveillance cameras, metal and explosives detectors and inevitably sniffer dogs simply push us along a path of paranoia that brings to mind countries like Israel. India’s greatest strength in battling separatism and terrorism is the attribute of a giant country: the ability to absorb bloody punishment without over-reacting or feeling seriously threatened. This week, Israel, that totem symbol for worshippers of the tough state, finds itself in far more dire straits than India, staring into the abyss of a regional conflict. 

Let PM Manmohan Singh chivvy along the anti-terrorist resolutions in St Petersburg. They will be passed and, like so many others, will change little in the short term in either Islamabad or Muridke. But our real battleground remains here in India, and the weapons: sharp intelligence, the wise use of legislation and effective investigations to crack down on domestic elements in the chain of terrorism.

The European Union: the power of weakness

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 4th July 2006
Dateline: Brussels, Belgium

Amongst the elegant architectural delights of Brussels, the glass and steel headquarters of the European Parliament jars the senses. Further umbrage awaits in the lobby of the heavily guarded building: pitched on the plush carpeting is an army-style tent, under a large banner that announces: Kashmir-EU Week. From inside the tent a collection of mannequins, swaddled in blood-stained bandages, gaze up from army sleeping bags. On a wall outside, hang photographs of scenes from last year's Muzzafarabad earthquake. Musharraf in full camouflage uniform holds up an alarmed Kashmiri baby; Mrs Musharraf donates blood. In a leather-bound visitor's book, Pakistan's Minister of State for Defence, Zahid Hamid, has inscribed the first entry: "The exhibition of photographs presents stark, graphic and incontrovertible evidence of the human rights violations and abuses being committed in Indian-held Kashmir in a vain attempt to suppress the legitimate struggle of the Kashmiri people to realize their right of self-determination." 

That propaganda statement by a Pakistani minister is internalized by a steady stream of visitors to this eye-catching exhibition. Has the European Parliament become the new forum for India-bashing?

No, says Neena Gill, the articulate Member of European Parliament (MEP), who chairs the South Asia delegation of the parliament. While that most EU legislators support India's stand on Kashmir, she clarifies, it takes the sponsorship of just one MEP (out of the 732 in the House) for “self-determination lobbies” like Kashmir Centre.EU, an activist group, rooted in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK) and based in Brussels, to hold such an exhibition. With diplomatic and financial backing from Islamabad, these lobby groups focus an unrelenting spotlight on human rights and demilitarisation in J&K.

For South Block, none of this is serious stuff. India's Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has chosen haughty disdain over a public relations counter-offensive, fearing that the latter could grant legitimacy to the ubiquitous Kashmir lobby groups. That might well be the case. But this unwillingness to engage in political confrontation is symptomatic of a larger Indian myopia in Brussels. Viewed through MEA eyes, Brussels is simply not important as a political battleground. Instead, the EU is treated more like an exalted chamber of commerce that just happens to be India's largest trading partner. For years, the imposingly named Indian Embassy to Belgium, Luxembourg and the European Union has been headed not by a diplomat, but by an official from the Commerce Ministry. 

MEP Neena Gill compares Beijing's warm embrace of the EU with New Delhi's detachment. Consequently, China, even with its deficit of democracy and human rights, is a tangible presence that nobody will annoy. While India's recent growth rates have the EU eyeing India, New Delhi spurns its blandishments, looking instead towards Washington, London, Paris and Berlin. "Why can't some of the ministers who keep transiting London, on their way to and from Washington, make a short detour to Brussels?" asks Gill. “It took me five years to get a delegation from the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha to visit the European Parliament. India appears not to want to engage; it's like squeezing blood from a stone.”

The EU, it is true, gives an outward impression of political weakness and division. Member states still don't agree on a draft constitution; two have rejected it in national referenda. When Yugoslavia disintegrated and later during the Kosovo crisis, Brussels vacillated while blood-letting continued. It took NATO forces, heavily dependent on American airlift capability, to intervene on the ground. 

But despite its current weakness in the application of power, it would be strategically short-sighted to treat the EU as a political pygmy. Already half the domestic legislation in 25 member countries' parliaments merely implements decisions already taken in Brussels. It is the world's largest trading block and its combined GDP has equalled America’s. In the political realm, the EU is part of the "Quartet" that brokers the Israel-Palestine dialogue. But most revealingly, in negotiations with Iran, the EU's insistence on dialogue and negotiation has been far more successful than the United States' coercive approach. Strategist Mark Leonard notes that in its non-threatening, consensual, apparently ineffectual approach to problem-solving, the EU has demonstrated the power of weakness and simultaneously exposed the weakness of power. 

New Delhi falls short with the EU not just politically but economically as well. India's premier industry bodies, CII and FICCI, have no permanent representatives in Brussels. The EU has committed 2 billion euros to projects in India, including large amounts to such vital projects as the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. But New Delhi's inability to master the regulations and legislation that govern EU disbursements means that barely 350 million euros have actually materialised, barely one-sixth of the sanctioned amount.

From October this year, there will be welcome counterpoint to the glossy billboards on Brussels’ metro railway stations, lamenting the death of human rights and calling for demilitarisation in Indian-held Kashmir: a four-month festival of Indian culture in Brussels will raise India's profile in Brussels. Using this momentum, a Joint Action Plan, signed during the EU-India summit last year, must be taken forward politically. Strategic ties with rising powers should be forged well in time. And like India, the EU is a potential giant that is already coming into its own.

Nathu La : handshake over the Himalayas

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 6th June 2006
Dateline: Nathu La, Sikkim

The road starts winding upwards even before leaving Gangtok. We will climb more than 8000 feet in the 55 kilometers that separate Sikkim’s capital from the towering 14,000 foot border post of Nathu La. There was little army visible in Gangtok, but the road to the border is full of military signposts. Nathu La has long been one of the most heavily defended borders of India. It was here, in 1967, five years after the 1962 humiliation, that India signalled that it could stand up to China. When a party of Indian jawans, who were fencing the Nathu La pass, came under Chinese fire, India struck back, killing over 200 Chinese soldiers in six days of full-scale battle. The same strand of wire over which that battle was fought still separates two of the world’s major armies.

But Nathu La is increasingly a symbol of cooperation, rather than confrontation. The young Chinese post commander on the pass smilingly posed for photographs with us. A few yards away, history was being created: a single bulldozer knocked away a slim wall of frozen earth between the brand new roads that both countries had taken up to the pass, creating in one blade sweep the first road connection between India and China. Gangs of workers are fencing the 7 kilometres stretch from Nathu La to India’s newly built border trading post of Sherathang. Work has already begun on a new two-lane highway from Nathu La to Sherathang that will carry truckloads of goods to and from the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Actual trading at Sherathang is scheduled to begin in July 2006.

Sherathang Border Trading Post, perched beside the high-altitude Manju Lake, was born out of China’s first concession to India on the border dispute, during Prime Minster Vajpayee’s visit to Beijing in June 2003. With typical Chinese obliqueness, Beijing proposed a trading point at Nathu La, in effect admitting that it was the border between India and China. Sikkim, thus, was recognised as a part of India. But a trading post at Sherathang had to overcome entrenched prejudices. The Indian army has long opposed the construction of roads from the Sino-Indian border into the interior. The logic: China could use them as logistics arteries for invading India. Nor has Beijing been historically enthusiastic about opening up sensitive areas like Tibet and Xinjiang to foreign trade and, by extension, meddling. 

But China, under the pragmatic Deng Xiao-ping, first saw the inevitability of border trade for these regions. Deng’s philosophy of zhoubian zhengce (periphery policy) envisaged the development of the China hinterland by developing trade linkages with the countries with whom they shared borders (zhoubian guojia, or periphery countries) rather than relying on prosperity trickling across thousands of kilometres from the prosperous eastern seaboard of China. First implemented through the South China Growth Triangle and the Greater Mekong Basin Growth Triangle, this policy is now being embraced for its western provinces --- Xinjiang and Tibet --- as well.

There was little choice for Beijing but to allow those provinces to look outwards for trade and growth. A breakdown of FDI that flowed into China from 1987-97 indicates that the inland provinces in the west got only 12.4% of the total, with a per capita FDI of just USD 3.8. Compare that with the coastal provinces that garnered as much as USD 33.5 in per capita FDI. There was clearly more danger in poverty-fuelled unrest in the inland provinces than from opening out to neighbouring countries. 

Any residual reluctance in Beijing or New Delhi was over-ridden by Gangtok’s enthusiasm. A study team constituted by the Sikkim government has projected that trade through Nathu La could cross Rs 200 crores by 2007, Rs 2200 crores by 2010, and Rs 12,000 crores by 2015. For local economies, short of manufacturing and production resources, this trade flow would have a transformative effect on both revenue and employment. And so, Gangtok has created, in a four month burst of construction, all the infrastructure required for trading to begin. In 29 spanking new administrative blocks are the immigration and customs facilities, bonded warehouses, quarantine facilities, offices for chambers of commerce, display shops, a branch of the State Bank of India, a post office, and what is touted as the highest cybercaf√© in the world. And RITES has been given the consultancy for planning a permanent infrastructure.


Gangtok believes that trading through Nathu La is in a different league from the other local trade agreements that India has with countries like Myanmar and Bangladesh. The only other road, the Lhasa-Kathmandu highway, is 500 km longer than the Nathu La route to the plains of India. And when trade linkages shake off the shackles of xenophobic nationalism, the road to Sherathang will also become for Lhasa, the road to Kolkata, providing the Tibet Autonomous Region with a port connection. And for the north-eastern states of India, an increasingly prosperous Tibet will be a closer and more lucrative trading market than the north Indian markets. A similar logic drives Beijing’s support for the Stillwell Road that could someday connect Kunming in China with Assam, through Myanmar.

The 1962 war had destroyed centuries-old trade linkages carrying benefits across these borders. Now, if New Delhi and Beijing handle their border areas with the confidence of major powers, these linkages could come alive again.