India is well placed politically, geographically and economically to be an effective counterbalance to China's expansionist policies in South Asia. The author says that an Indian Marshall Plan would help countries in the region resist Beijing's hegemonic ambitions. Image: iStock

In ancient India when philosopher Chanakya spoke of “Akhand Bharat” (undivided India), it was to unify all kingdoms against foreign invaders – unity of mind and territory. In recent years, India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) talked of Akhand Bharat, describing it as “unity of mind” among India, Bangladesh and Pakistan without eyeing each other’s territory. This was utopian considering unity of mind within India remains elusive, with territorial matters relegated to political masters.

The 2013 Shyam Saran Task Force on National Security reportedly concluded that China had sliced away 645 square kilometers of Indian territory over the years. Former ambassador Phunchok Stopdan says that of this total area, 400 square kilometers is in Ladakh alone. Indian governments seem to overlook the strategic significance that is evident when it refused the United Nations Security Council membership offered twice, Nepal’s offer to join India, Gwadar offered by Oman, and gifting the Coco Islands to Myanmar. China’s illegal claims include 90,000 square kilometers of Arunachal Pradesh, but India’s border infrastructure remains pathetic in that state with the army sitting scores of kilometers behind. This may be because India is yet to acknowledge the threat along the Sino-India border.

In fact, under the present government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there has been a systematic downgrading and denigration of the Indian armed forces. Moreover, the government has twice attacked peacefully protesting veterans with brute police force using batons.

When did India see unity of mind?

In 1962, Indians huddled together, shocked by the defeat dealt by China, but their political masters remained largely unaffected. However, the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war was a spectacular victory for India that liberated East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.

But after that war, the opportunity to resolve the Kashmir issue was frittered away when India returned 93,000 Pakistani prisoners of war without securing the release of 54 Indian POWs in Pakistani custody. Recently, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman in Pakistani custody provided this opportunity very briefly, but no steps were initiated.

Similarly, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was inducted into Sri Lanka in July 1987 on the latter’s request. The late Jyotindra Nath Dixit, India’s high commissioner to Sri Lanka from 1985 to 1989, said in an interview, “The intelligence agencies said don’t worry about the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam], they are our boys, they will not fight.” But India’s foreign intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), had completely misread the LTTE and fighting broke out. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government in India’s Tamil Nadu state called the IPKF traitors and launched an anti-IPKF campaign. The IPKF withdrew its forces after two years of fighting.

The magnitude of the Kargil intrusions in 1999 should have brought Indians together. But the opposition and India’s deep state, fearing that defense minister George Fernandes would reorganize the Ministry of Defense (MoD), breaking the politician-bureaucrat monopoly, falsely implicated him in corruption. He was absolved of all charges in 2015.

At present, we have the government telling the Supreme Court that top-secret papers related to Rafale deal should be ignored because they were “stolen” from the MoD. This raised a lot of questions regarding the authenticity of the papers and how these “classified papers” reached the media. The Supreme Court would probably only debate whether the correct procedure was followed in the Rafale deal and whether Congress or the BJP was getting the fighters more cheaply. The vital issue that the court may not touch is India paying US$9.5 billion for 36 Rafale fighters at a $263.88 million per unit cost. This when the US Air Force is procuring 141 lethally armed F-35 fighters for $11.5 billion and Japan is procuring 100 F-35s for $8.8 billion.

For a government that has given five successive defense budgets that are “negative” in actual terms and a finance minister who excels in annual financial allocations below the 1962 levels, why was no bargaining done to procure 100-108 Rafale fighters within the same price of $9.5 billion? Is that the reason related papers of the Rafale deal are being projected as “stolen”? But the pressure mounted on them has been sidetracked by the attorney general, who told the court that the said papers were not stolen but are “authorized photocopies.”

Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told Parliament last year that her ministry would not withdraw litigation cases against pensions of disabled and widows of military personnel. A battery of lawyers, each paid 200,000 rupees from the defense budget, were employed to fight these cases despite the government not having won a single case to date. In reply to a Right to Information application in 2017, it was revealed that the MoD had spent 470 million rupees ($6.85 million) fighting cases against pensions of widows and the disabled. Recently orders have been issued to withdraw such cases on a “case to case” basis. But given the precedence that government has at times not even implemented Supreme Court orders in favor of the military, this may just be an election gimmick.

(This is the first article in a two-part series.)

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