Ever since his retirement from the Indian police service (IPS) last year N.C. Asthana has emerged as a highly regarded commentator on matters related to ‘law and order’. His columns reflect his wide reading and scholarship – he is the author of 48 books, written or co-authored while in service – and his willingness to be sharply critical of the political and bureaucratic establishment.
In his latest book, National Security and Conventional Arms Race: Spectre of a Nuclear War (Jaipur: Pointer Books, 2020), Asthana turns his critical attention to the politics and discourse of national security and war. His conclusion: India has no clarity about its military and strategic objectives vis-à-vis its stated adversaries, Pakistan and China. And that there is a huge mismatch between the militaristic official and media rhetoric, on the one hand, and the reality, which is that India cannot defeat either country militarily. Instead of pouring vast sums of money into expensive weapons imports, India would be better served by finding solutions to the security challenges both Pakistan and China present by strengthening itself internally and pursuing non-military solutions, including diplomacy.
While these arguments may be broadly familiar to security analysts, Asthana also focusses on what he calls the “politics of warmongering” which has consumed public discourse in India over the past six years. Under the delusion that India has somehow, magically become invincible, he notes how a large number of Indians seem to be itching for a war.
This belief is both fuelled and strengthened by relentless arms imports. Asthana puts the figure India has spent on arms import in the five years since 2014 at $14 billion, and the undisclosed cost of the 36 Rafale jets purchased from Dassault Aviation is not included in this. But even this sum pales before the $130 billion India is projected to spend on arms imports in the next decade, including on 100+ even-more-expensive fighter jets to make up for the shortfall caused by the Modi government’s decision to scrap the earlier deal for 126 Rafales.
As the fanfare over the arrival of the first Rafales showed, each of these purchases is hailed and sold to the public by the media as weapons that will flatten India’s enemies. But of course, this is far from the truth. Asthana argues in his book that the frenzied import of conventional weapons will never guarantee a permanent solution to the military problem posed by Pakistan or China because both Pakistan and China are nuclear-weapon states and cannot be decisively defeated on the battlefield.
Given the myth of Indian invincibility, the futility of warmongering should be obvious. Yet, as the past few years have demonstrated, jingoism in India is at an all-time high.
While conventional weapons can provide a tactical advantage in limited theatre conflicts short of war, the danger lies in escalation – which is hard to control at the best of times but especially so when the public discourse has been vitiated by the politics of warmongering.
‘Talks and terror cannot go hand in hand’ sounds reasonable as a diplomatic posture but not when the ensuing hiatus stretches into years and decades. Despite the strategy of ‘no talks’ clearly not helping to end the terror, there has been no meaningful diplomacy with Pakistan since the Mumbai attacks 12 years ago.
Asthana believes that exploiting enmity with Pakistan for electoral benefits has made Indian leaders victims of their own rhetoric, where they are left with a one-dimensional policy – one which is unrealistic in view of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Quoting Napoleon, he notes: “If they want peace, nations should avoid the pinpricks that precede cannon shots.”
India’s army, air force and navy are bigger than those of Pakistan. However, as Asthana notes, the limited number of axes of attack, in which the much-touted Cold Start could be employed, tends to make the whole thing quite predictable. There is no scope for any element of shock and surprise. Moreover, practically all options and counters to them have been debated and explored by both sides.
Pakistan’s compulsion to go nuclear
In any case, the moment Pakistan feels that it is going to lose a conventional war under the weight of a bigger Indian military, it will feel compelled to go nuclear immediately. This is not 1971. Recall what General Khalid Kidwai, head of Pakistan’s strategic command, told a visiting Italian arms control organisation delegation about the country’s red lines in 2002:
Pakistani nuclear weapons will be used, according to General Kidwai, only “if the very existence of Pakistan as a state is at stake”. This has been detailed by General Kidwai as follows:
“Nuclear weapons are aimed solely at India. In case that deterrence fails, they will be used if
- India attacks Pakistan and conquers a large part of its territory (space threshold)
- India destroys a large part either of its land or air forces (military threshold)
- India proceeds to the economic strangling of Pakistan (economic strangling)
- India pushes Pakistan into political destabilization or creates a large scale internal subversion in Pakistan (domestic destabilization)”
According to General Kidwai, “examples of economic strangling of Pakistan included a naval blockade and the stopping of the waters of the Indus river”.
Despite this information that is both in the public domain and confirmed by Indian intelligence assessments, prime minister threatened Pakistan with the abrogation of the Indus Waters Treaty in 2016, saying “blood and water cannot flow together”.
If that was a classic example of the politics of warmongering, executed for the benefit of a domestic audience, Asthana says the harsh reality is that India cannot ‘win’ a war against Pakistan, and the sooner the country appreciates this politico-military reality, the more sensible it will sound to its adversaries and the world community.
Warmongering as a political project also includes assiduously inculcating in the minds of the people the notion that once India goes to war under the leadership of a strong-willed, leader, it will perforce defeat its enemies and usher in a golden age of a never-ending Pax Indiana.
This dangerous notion fits well with the domestic political agenda both as a diversion from, and alibi for, poor governance and other failings.