India’s growing military muscle leaves neighbours unimpressed

by Sandeep Dikshit

LAST week, India commissioned a new submarine after 17 years. This was yet another opportunity for some joyful, vigorous back-slapping in the national security crowd. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman all but made PM Modi the star of the show till social media informed her that most of the project spanned the tenure of the UPA government.

Yet, the breaking of waters by the solitary, though strikingly deadly submarine, was made out as a watershed event in India’s march at military muscle-building. There was little word about the existing capability — down to 13 undersea vessels and less than half operational at any given time and in no match to China’s 50-plus submarine fleet.

National security is admittedly a sensitive subject and involves some self-censorship. But not a single commentary dwelt on the severely compromised characteristics of the submarine after the last September leak of 22,000 pages of its sensitive operational data. Veteran submariners say a submarine becomes naked and exposed if the enemy captures its distinctive noise, heat and electro-magnetic emissions. Did the government apply correctives as it had promised? Were they adequate? If the embarrassing exposure of all its operational characteristics had been modified, why is there no follow-up order on three more submarines?

The might of the Indian Navy has become something of a myth, especially in the undersea. Neither are there adequate submarines nor deep-sea rescue vessels to extricate our submariners if one of the undersea boats packs up. India is reportedly entering the nuclear era of submarines but its sole Russia-leased nuclear boat is in the dock after busting its sonar panels, its eyes in the murky sea.

Yet there is tall talk about how a brave India is plunging into uncharted waters in concert with the US, Japan and Australia to counter an aggressive and abrasive China, keen on dominating its peripheral oceans.

Forget the compromising of operational data of the submarine, the cyberspace is surprisingly silent on the results of the probe the French government had promised; the issue is why each submarine is Rs 1,000 crore more expensive and if there was any penalty for the five-year delay in its launch.

Instead, the Indian security establishment and its cheerleaders have happily moved on to the next major cherry on the defence acquisition calendar — a $8 billion project for more submarines. There will be another new acquisition-related excitement this month — the purchase of anti-missile missiles from Russia. Each battery will come packed in its original crate and there is not even a token technology transfer envisaged in this multi billion dollar deal. But there will be another round of jubilation over India joining an exclusive club of countries with a missile defence shield. No questions will be asked about the fate of DRDO’s several tests of our own missile defence shield or the worth of the late Missile Man’s claim of having made India self-sufficient in defence.

If this vigorous flagging of India’s military muscle was intended to impress the neighbours, three developments last week should dampen our exuberance. The Foreign Office was compelled to issue two thinly veiled warnings. Sri Lanka was testily asked to keep India’s security concerns in mind: an allusion to the 99-year lease to China of the Hambantota port juxtaposed with Colombo’s procrastination on an Indian request for the same favour for the Trincomalee port.

The Maldives was the next to get the rap. It seems no longer ready to adhere to the “India First” dictum, especially when the largest number of tourists bankrolling its economy are from China. It largely operates India-gifted military hardware and is networked in the Indian Naval surveillance system. Yet India was uninformed when its Majlis approved an FTA with China. Worse, the Maldives is now viewing the Indian ambassador from the same lens used by PM Modi for the Manmohan Singh-Mahmud Kasuri dinner meeting. It suspended three employees for a conversation with the Indian envoy in Mali.

The third setback has happened in Nepal where the election results from the mountains, its political heartland, have brought a new elite to the fore that is under no past obligation to the Indian security managers or the RSS cadre that had worked together in vain to refashion social equations in the Nepalese Parliament.

The absence of criticism, scepticism and constant questioning in national security debates has left the common citizen uninformed about India’s true place in the global constellation of nations.

The Kargil War was one where the national security apparatus was tested and found wanting. The 1962 War was an earlier occasion for meticulous self-examination of the state of our military responses. Both led to salutary changes in the way we conduct our defence affairs as well as a reappraisal of the alternative tools of persuasion and dissuasion at our disposal.

This faculty of introspection; of ascertaining where we truly stand is now in a short supply. This inhibits not just an honest appraisal but stunts our problem-solving abilities and prevents a sincere appraisal of the future.

Embarrassing developments are allowed to fade, unquestioned. December is the Russian season, when there is a flurry of high-level meetings in the run-up to the annual summit. But there has been no examination of the impact on Moscow’s psyche about an alleged hush-hush tour by either the Americans or the British to examine a sophisticated submarine leased to India.

Of course, India does not have a parade ground Army. Neither are its armed forces predominantly symbolic. It is as lethal and responsive as the best in the game. But the incessant talking up of the armed forces — there is no let-up in the celebrations of the surgical strikes — while dissuading the public scrutiny of its warts does the cause of nation-building a disservice and shields the security managers from being called out for their bloopers. 

The testosterone-infused narrative is shaping public perception: Talks with Pakistan are disfavoured; Nepal can be brought to heel with a few spies and RSS cadre; frequent invocation of the Buddhist link will keep Sri Lanka in good humour; and, regime change in the Maldives will resolve all issues. All these easy-fixes are conceived under the misplaced assumption of a massive Indian military umbrella that has the others, presumably, impressed and in awe.

India lives in a tough neighbourhood and it makes sense to remind the more adventure prone about its military muscle. But the macho man needs to take a back seat occasionally. An occasional, if spectacular, military operation also does not stir this tough neighbourhood.