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No one can discount military power

The real test for defence minister Rajnath Singh will be in looking at our national security challenges as issues that could outlast his government, and crafting strategies with a long-term vision

analysis Updated: Jun 13, 2019 18:20 IST
DS Hooda
DS Hooda
In 1990, Joseph Nye put forth the idea of soft power as an important force in international relations. There is no doubt that in this information age, soft power has its uses, but military power still remains the most essential component of a State’s ability to defend its national interests(Mohd Zakir/HT PHOTO)

After weeks of heated political activity, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has led the Bharatiya Janata Party to an unprecedented victory. The cabinet has been sworn in, and it is now the time for robust governance. After a period of rapidly changing defence ministers in South Block, it is hoped that Rajnath Singh, a wise and mature leader, will provide stability and vision required to tackle the numerous security challenges facing our country.

The increasing rivalry between major powers dominates the international landscape. The bitter trade war between the United States (US) and China has both an economic as well as strategic dimension. The US ban on import of oil from Iran and weapons from Russia could leave India having to make some very tough choices. And even as US President Donald Trump tweets, “Great things are in store for the US-India partnership with the return of PM Modi at the helm”, there is a veiled threat from a State Department official that if India went ahead with the S-400 deal, “it will have serious implications on the defence ties” between the two countries.

Our neighbourhood remains troubled. A hostile Pakistan continues to patronise anti-India terror groups, and Afghanistan is mired in violence, with 2018 recording the maximum civilian deaths since 2009. The threat of transnational terror to the subcontinent was brutally brought home with the bloody Easter bombings in Sri Lanka. This was followed by the Islamic State announcing the establishment of a new province in India called “Wilayah of Hind”. There is only a minimal footprint of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in India, but it requires just one extremist lone wolf to create mayhem and panic.

Strategic competition with China is our most significant security challenge. Two rising neighbours, with an unsettled border, makes for an unstable combination, particularly when one State is significantly more powerful than the other. As John Mearsheimer points out in his book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, “when you have power asymmetries, the strong are hard to deter when they are bent on aggression”. I am not suggesting that we are staring down the barrel at an India-China conflict, but if the capability gap between the two countries continues to expand, resisting Chinese coercion would become difficult.

Jammu and Kashmir continues to be our biggest internal security challenge. Events in this state have the potential to spark off a limited conflagration between India and Pakistan, as was almost witnessed during the Balakot airstrikes. Today, counterterrorism operations are restricted to only a few districts in the Kashmir Valley, but the fallout of these operations resonates in every corner of India. Similarly, the branding of all Kashmiris as anti-national adds to the alienation of the local population and provides fodder to the elements who are systematically engaged in radicalising the youth.

In 1990, Joseph Nye put forth the idea of soft power as an important force in international relations. There is no doubt that in this information age, soft power has its uses, but military power still remains the most essential component of a State’s ability to defend its national interests. The military capability of a country is judged in terms of its defence budget, weapon systems inventory, force structure, human resource management, training standards, doctrines, defence industrial base, research and development efforts, and the nature of civil-military relations. India’s shortfall in many of these areas is well known and documented.

These are some of the crucial challenges that Singh faces, but these are neither new nor unknown. The real key to success will lie in formulating coherent and comprehensive strategies, and this is where Singh can draw some valuable lessons from the performance of the National Democratic Alliance 1.0.

The previous government has had some significant achievements in foreign policy and has displayed a firm resolve in dealing with terrorism emanating from Pakistan. This was a major plank on which it had a resounding electoral victory. However, its record in taking reformist, long-term steps is somewhat patchy. That is the reason that there have been no higher defence reforms, Make in India has had limited success, Kashmir is on the boil, and relations with Pakistan are at an absolute low.

There is also a criticism that many actions of the government were undertaken more for an immediate, visible impact rather than being part of a comprehensive strategic framework. There is some truth in this, but to be fair, this is the reality of our digital age, where popular sentiment spills out on social media and demands instant gratification. Politicians cannot ignore this.

In this backdrop, the real test for Singh will be in looking at our national security challenges as issues that could outlast his government, and crafting strategies with a long-term vision.

(This is part of a series of articles on India’s priorities as we head towards 75 years of Independence)

DS Hooda is former General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Indian Army’s Northern Command.

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jun 13, 2019 18:20 IST