Friday, 21 March 2014

A Socially-Engineered Loss Of National Confidence

A recent article by Jeff Smith in The Diplomat ("Andaman and Nicobar Islands: India’s Strategic Outpost") underscored to me yet again that India's strength and strategic potential are underestimated by its own leaders and strategic thinkers. Foreign analysts like Smith who look at India with unbiased eyes (and with none of the baggage that Indians carry) see a much more powerful country than Indians themselves do, and are frankly surprised that India hasn't done more to exploit its potential. Smith says about the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI):

With such premier real estate, Western observers might expect the ANI to be a cornerstone in India’s maritime strategy; a firewall against threats to the east and a power-projection platform serving India’s interests in the Pacific. And yet, by all accounts the ANC is only modestly equipped militarily.

Where Indian voices are heard arguing for boldness, they often tend to swing to the other extreme, of bravado and over-reach.

Others in the military establishment see the ANC as a “trump card” against China, ideally positioned to interdict Chinese oil supplies from the Gulf and Africa in any potential Sino-Indian confrontation. Some 80 percent of China’s oil imports currently pass through the Strait of Malacca. Retired Rear Admiral Raja Menon argues: “Today they are merely SLOCS [Sea Lines of Communication]; tomorrow they will be the Chinese Jugular…. [$10 billion] spent on strengthening the Indian Navy’s SLOC interdiction capability would have given us a stranglehold on the Chinese routes into the Indian Ocean.”

To quote Darryl Kerrigan from The Castle, "tell 'em they're dreamin'". A "stranglehold on Chinese routes" is probably a pipe-dream, but a credible threat to Chinese shipping in the Indian Ocean can definitely elicit more accommodation from China in its territorial claims on Arunachal Pradesh, for example. A more measured assessment of what lies within India's reach is lacking.

It takes a foreigner to see with both clarity and realism what Indians cannot. India has lost the ability to think boldly and strategically, yet realistically. I think 600 years of foreign conquest and domination have turned Indian planners and thinkers into timid, risk-averse souls who only think of defence and survival, and who occasionally compensate with grandiose plans full of bravado without the wherewithal to carry them out.

I have commented before on the carrot-and-stick lessons that Mughal and British rule must have taught Indian rulers. Those who opposed the foreign conqueror were mercilessly hounded and crushed (e.g., Hemu, Rana Pratap, Tipu Sultan, the Rani of Jhansi, Kittur Chennamma). Those who cooperated with the foreign conqueror were rewarded and allowed to flourish (e.g., Rana Man Singh of Amer and Maharaja Sayyaji Rao Gaekwad III of Baroda). I believe it was a form of social engineering that taught successive generations of Indians to be servile and never to raise their head or their voice against authority.

From time to time, a worm will turn, but this rebellion is often impulsive and driven by momentary bravado, rather than by longstanding confidence, and such attempts at "lashing out" are ultimately unsuccessful. India's greatest heroes are tragic ones. Indians see greater romance in tragedy than in success. Undefeated kings like Raja Kumbha and Maharaja Ranjit Singh are not feted as much as tragic losers Prithviraj Chauhan, the aforementioned Rani of Jhansi and sepoy Mangal Pandey. The Indian chararacter is to either live with dishonour, or die with honour. Living with honour doesn't seem to have as much appeal.

The recent publication of the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report on the Indo-China war makes pretty much the same scathing critique of the Indian leadership in 1962 and earlier. They lacked the imagination and confidence to settle the border question with China in an amicable fashion when China approached India as one newly liberated country to another. And they thought, without justification, that they could take on the superior Chinese military. They paid the price, and the 1962 war probably reinforced the lessons of history in the Indian psyche, that Indians were an inferior race of people who could never hope to prevail militarily against "real" powers, and would have to negotiate in obsequious fashion to survive. Even against a smaller adversary like Pakistan, India has shown a level of restraint that is surprising. It may be fair to say that with almost any other country in India's position, a hostile and India-baiting Pakistan would have quickly ceased to exist.

Thus it continues to the present day. A quiet confidence and a realistic assessment of one's strength, as well as a multi-decade plan to become a Great Power, seem beyond the ken of today's leaders and thinkers. A recent strategic defence publication from an Indian think tank is typically reactive and assumes that India is always in the position of responding to situations outside its control ("The Long View From Delhi" ). It doesn't seem to strike the authors that India can do things to change its security environment and doesn't have to fearfully wait and watch to see what the US and China do.

What a decline from the time of the Cholas! That was when Indian naval power was projected as far afield as Cambodia, and vassal states like the Khmer were protected from their enemies by an Indian naval task force of several hundred ships. In relative terms, the India of today appears in sorry shape.

It is said that confidence is the sweet spot between despair and arrogance. It's high time Indian thinkers and planners found that sweet spot.