‘India’s Strategic Outlook in the Modi Era’ – Talk by Mr R Prasannan

SAM_7673 (cppr) 

The strategic outlook of a country like foreign policy is more or less constant, whereas, strategic initiatives vary with governments.

The talk organised by the CPPR- Centre for Strategic Studies kicked off by identifying this stark distinction between two prime concepts of international relations discourse which are often used interchangeably.

The Chief of THE WEEK New Delhi Bureau, and a seasoned defence specialist, Mr R Prasannan was invited by CPPR, to share his thoughts and opinions on India’s Strategic Outlook in the Modi Era.In view of the National Interest of the country, a progressive strategic outlook is quintessential to position India a force to reckon with in the world order, and the very vigorous foreign policy agenda under the Modi government is indicative of this approach.

R Prasannan is an influential political commentator of India and has been a journalist for the last 30 years. He is currently posted as Chief of THE WEEK’s New Delhi bureau, and also writes a popular column in THE WEEK called “PMO Beat”. His insights on Defence & National Security, Foreign Policy, Politics, Law, Constitutional Affairs, Science, and Current Affairs is well-received in the media and political circles based in the national capital for the last 23 years. Having travelled widely around the world, reporting from conflict zones – the Kargil war, the Siachen conflict, Afghanistan during the anti-Taliban war following 9/11, the anti-Taliban war in Pakistan’s Swat valley, and the political developments in Tibet, to name a few has garnered him a lot of acclaims. His journalistic credentials include having covered major diplomatic events like Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, the Nuclear deal in Washington, & Commonwealth, Non-Aligned and BRICS summits in various world capitals.

Mr. Prasannan attempted to give a historical analysis of the importance of strategic outlook and strategic initiative in the foreign diplomacy of India. Having established this distinction at the outset, he identified the two major strategic concerns of India – China and Pakistan.

The speaker chooses to disagree with the perception of neglect towards infrastructure in the Chinese border post the 1962 war, on the grounds that there have been political initiatives to relook at the Chinese border infrastructure from the 1980s. General Krishna Rao has been instrumental in pushing for this strategic change in the Chinese border. The result was Operation Falcon, which would modernise the northern border. Later, more focus was shifted to the diplomatic front to defuse the crisis with China. By the 1990s, India’s defence strategy in the Chinese border was characterised by unwillingness for any strategic initiatives. This was due to the changing power dynamic in the world with the disintegration of USSR et al. and the various domestic issues that India was embroiled.

The insurgency in Kashmir saw an increased demand for the troops to contain the same. This led to what can be called one of the master strokes in Indian diplomacy with China. India signed two treaties with China, the result of which was a deal by which India could withdraw its troops from the Chinese border and deploy it in Kashmir. The price that India had to pay was calling off Operation Falcon, a project that was already slackening. The speaker also piped in the clever moves resorted by both the countries. If the Chinese took advantage of this and moved the 149 division to Tibet and later the 61 division with its brigades; India responded by moving three squadrons to the border areas. The Chinese technological advancement was such that one operation of airlift could move an entire brigade of troops with equipment whereas India moved one regiment of Brahmos towards the West to Ladakh and one to the East. The revolutionary improvement in the strike range from 45kms to 290kms, and the border infrastructure by constructing roads on an average of 2000kms every year over a period of three years were crucial. This meant an increased mobility for the troops, an advanced landing in the ground area and the possibility of tactical airlifting for the Indian army.

India has moved several divisions to the Northern border at the striking post and two Mountain Divisions. One division was moved to Dibrugarh in the Chinese border and two new divisions were raised and inducted in case Chinese resorted to any adventurism. The advantage that India would have over Chinese if they attacked first is that it would require roughly eight times the troops to launch a credible attack against India from the mountains. This would mean they will have to mobilise 20 divisions that will require two campaign seasons and elaborate preparations for putting up the troops. The railway line constructed by the Chinese on the eastern border is exposed and has a very low military value. The Indian vulnerability in the Sino- Chinese border lies in the western border in Ladakh. While observing the pattern of Chinese incursions into the Indian border, the speaker noted the repetitive nature of this trend.

Furthermore Mr. Prasannan emphasized how the Modi government has been pursuing its defence strategies in the immediate neighbourhood. The policy of economically engaging China so as to ward off the tensions regarding the border dispute was highlighted. However, there has been no neglect of the border. One of the new concepts advocated by the government is that of the use of populace as force multiplier. According to this programme, basic military training will be given to the people living in border territories so that they can act as ground force in case of military incursions.

The China- Nepal railway link when completed will be a significant threat to India as China’s ability to economically engage Nepal is several times more than India because of which there are legitimate concerns of India losing its monopolistic control over Nepal. China can strategically subsidise goods and services flowing into Nepal and bring it under its own sphere of influence. The second major concern is Pakistan. The Modi government seems lost regarding foreign policy initiatives with Pakistan. Diplomacy with Pakistan has almost come to a standstill after the cancellation of NSA- level talks between both the countries. Regarding the defence strategy, the speaker remarked on the laxity of changes in the pattern of deployment of armed forces.

Two major steps have characterised the strategic initiatives of Modi government’s foreign policy. The deeper strategic partnership with UAE will be instrumental in breaking away from the spell of the ‘Look East’ policy. Look East Policy, according to the speaker is primarily looked upon as a policy of economic engagement with the East and not regardingan expansion on the strategic front. The new strategic partnership with the UAEwill entail India to get involved strategically in the Western waters, besidescausing legitimate security concerns for Pakistan. The partnership with UAE becomes relevant considering the US policy of militarily engaging India only on the Eastern waters by virtue of India falling under its Pacific Command

The speaker lauded the redefining of the strategic partnership with Afghanistan with the latter buying four P25 armed helicopters from India. This has served a major blow to Pakistan as the diplomatic engagement of the latter with Afghanistan has been static over the last two years.

The speaker concluded that the various kinds of engagements between two countries such as political, cultural et al ultimately boil down to strategic or economic engagements which may or may not share complementary goals.

Ms Vinny Davis, Managing Associate, CPPR- Centre for Strategic Studies hosted the event.

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