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Let’s Avoid Television Wars, or How the Indian establishment succumbed to jingoistic hysteria during the LoC crisis - former Indian Navy Chief

29 January 2013

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By Arun Prakash
If the incipient Indo-Pak crisis of the past fortnight had any lesson to convey, it was that the road to perdition is lined with shrill, hysterical TV anchors, bloodthirsty politicians and a seemingly somnolent national security establishment. In the dangerously incendiary atmosphere that was allowed to build up recently, the last thing the subcontinent needed was a chest thumping xenophobic verbal exchange between the leadership of India and Pakistan – civil or military – because it could have easily spiralled into a ‘patriotic’ war. Fortunately, both nations stepped back from the brink.

India and Pakistan can do without another war, because it would render grievous harm to both economies. For India, conflict would mean a serious setback to its ambitious developmental plans; but given Pakistan’s faltering economy and its emerging ethnic and sectarian fissures, it could cause this fragile entity to self-destruct; with immense collateral damage to the neighbourhood. Pakistan’s bluff of a nuclear riposte in the face of conventional setbacks was called in Kargil in 1999. Yet, this unstable country persists with the farce of a tacit ‘doctrine of ambiguity’, and has taken the bizarre decision to stockpile tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) in the hope of intimidating India.

In this context we need to bear in mind that Pakistani generals are not exactly the brilliant strategists they project themselves to be. Four Indo-Pak wars have shown them up as intellectually sterile, their brash overconfidence and myopia have produced nothing but military disasters. They lead an army whose savage and dishonourable conduct in erstwhile East Pakistan, 42 years ago, brought ignominy upon their nation. India must, therefore, reiterate full faith in its conventional military options, backed by a ‘no first use’ nuclear-deterrent which promises a devastating response to any nuclear strike; including that by a TNW.

It is against such a background that we need to introspect deeply about our muddle-headed and inappropriate response to violation of the LoC by the Pak army; and the barbaric act of mutilating the bodies of Indian jawans killed in action. By indulging in a full-fledged public dissection of a military engagement on the Line of Control (LoC), the so-called experts (from both sides of the border) as well as hyperbolic media-persons not just robbed the two brave soldiers of dignity in death, but raised jingoism to feverish pitch. The haste with which ministers as well as opposition politicians rushed to make inane and populist statements clearly demonstrates the inadequacies of our netas. With every successive crisis we are painfully reminded of the absence of statesmanship on our political horizon. Such is the Pavlovian response of our politicians to provocation by the media that the fourth estate seems to dictate our national policies. Since this is not the last crisis that we are going to face, how should we respond to similar situations in the future?

Ceasefire violations on the LoC and the desecration of soldiers’ bodies are clearly matters that the two armies should have handled between themselves. In view of their gravity, the issues should have been taken up at the highest level; with the Indian army chief formally asking his Pak counterpart to have the two incidents investigated. Courts of inquiry, on both sides of the LoC, could have ascertained facts of the matter, exchanged information and then tried to affix responsibility at battalion, brigade and division levels. This may have obviated the need for the Indian army to display ‘evidence’ of ceasefire violations; only to have it trashed, on TV, by Pakistani ‘experts’. Nor would ministers have had to fumble for want of a sensible response in public. Regrettably, the only trans-border communication available, currently, is a ‘hotline’ between the Directors General of Military Operations. Knowing full well the influence that the Pak army wields at home, and the sensitivity of the LoC, the Indian security establishment has been seriously remiss in not establishing a system of regular contacts between the two army chiefs.

No government, since Independence, has considered it necessary to promulgate a National Security Doctrine or Strategy. Consequently, every crisis catches the Indian state unprepared and flat-footed. Whether it is kidnappings, hijackings, terrorist strikes or any other assault on India’s sovereignty, we have been found wanting for a plan of action because there are neither ‘bottom lines’ nor standard operating procedures to guide government functionaries. The recent crisis was no different. Forums like the National Security Advisory Board and the Strategic Policy Group have rarely been mobilised to justify their existence. The huge repository of security expertise resident in the armed forces HQ is wasted; because it lies outside the ministry of defence and the two communicate only through files. A ‘single point of military advice’ has been consistently spurned for six decades.

The vital importance of ‘strategic communication’ has been completely lost on the Indian foreign policy and security establishments. Even if suave Pakistani ministers and diplomats make a splash in foreign capitals, it is essential to ensure that we do not lose the subcontinental plot. In the event of a crisis with security implications, the national security adviser must instantly confer with the chiefs of staff committee and the secretaries of defence and external affairs, to evolve a ‘crisis management plan’ for the PM and the defence and external affairs ministers. Once a spokesperson has been designated to speak on behalf of the government, everyone else must be told to hold their peace. The media have assumed a vital role in not just keeping the people informed during a crisis situation, but also in conducting a national discourse and moulding public opinion. There is need for the national security establishment to acknowledge this reality; by making available authentic information as well as expert perspectives to the media – in real time if possible.

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