In Ladakh, India’s problem is bigger than China

In Ladakh, India’s problem is bigger than China

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For India, the trouble in Ladakh is much more serious and profound than what meets the eye. The reported bludgeoning to death of at least 20 Indian soldiers in a conflict with soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army of China is of course, as serious a disruption in China-India relations as one can remember. The wider South Asia region, and the world community at large needs to do everything they can to urge restraint and calm between these two Asian giants.
But the problem in Ladakh for India is much more profound than simply being overwhelmed by the onslaught of Chinese muscle in the Himalayas. As Indian mourns its fallen soldiers, it also exposes the slow but unmistakable undoing of two decades of the meticulously managed arc of India’s strategic trajectory, in the region and around the world.
The last time India suffered an embarrassment of the kind that it has experienced in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley in the past week was over twenty years ago in the mountains of Kargil, at the hands of the Pakistan Army. The Kargil conflict that ended in the summer of 1999 was the last major conflict Indian soldiers faced in the Himalayas. That conflict eventually consumed Pakistan’s political system, leading to the overthrow of then prime minister Nawaz Sharif in a military coup, but it also left all of India in a daze: How could this happen to India? How could India be so lacking in preparation?
Those exact same questions echo through the hallowed halls of India’s South Block, where its foreign policy, national security personnel and political leadership converge to protect and enhance India’s place in the world. As the flag draped coffins of India’s soldiers killed in Ladakh began to stream through the television news channels, it was those same questions about the standoff against China once again: How could this happen to India? How could India be so lacking in preparation?
When India’s political leadership sought to answer these questions after the Kargil conflict in 1999, it reached out to a man known as K Subramanyam.
Subramanyam died in 2011, but is widely seen by India’s friend and foe, as the architect of the strategic arc that India has followed since the turn of the century. Among Indian strategists, he is considered a hero. For good reason, Indian’s strategic trajectory has been on a constant upward curve since 1999. This curve has a number of moving parts, from India’s new intimacy with the United States, to its economic muscle, to its success in burying its brutal actions in Kashmir beneath an avalanche of cultural and economic power. But at the core of this curve is something much more prosaic and uncomplicated: it is the long-standing Nehruvian principle of a strong and capable Indian republic.
The Kargil conflict came as a major surprise to India, and was widely seen as a major intelligence failure. The Kargil Review Committee that Subramanyam chaired recommended a wide array of measures that would strengthen India’s ability to anticipate, respond to, and counter the hostile actions of its enemies. Many of those recommendations were immediately implemented, and some were aligned with a broader shift in how India’s government was structured that had begun in the early 1990s and picked up pace by the turn of the century. One of the outcomes of the Kargil Review Committee was a more coherent means of collating military and civilian intelligence.
The Committee recommended the establishment of a range of organizations and institutions whose overarching singular aim was to maximize and streamline the availability of high quality information for India’s decision-makers. Among the only major recommendation of the Committee that was not implemented in the years following Kargil was the creation of an office of Chief of Defence Staff, who would be the single point of contact for the Indian prime minister on defence matters. The Indians call the principle behind the need for this office, jointmanship.

In Ladakh, India’s political and military leaders may decide that it is better to swallow the bitter pill of humiliation than to escalate matters with the 2020 version of Xi’s China. But these leaders do not make decisions based on intelligence reports, or wisdom and the principle of living to fight another day. They make decisions based on how it will play in the peanut gallery of India’s oft-cartoonish mainstream news networks. This should worry regional and global actors with stakes in India.

Mosharraf Zaidi

In the years that followed Kargil, India has grown both economically and in stature as a regional and global power. While the country faced many national security crises over the two decades since Kargil, none was deemed to be so blatant and explicit a military embarrassment for India as the Ladakh standoff with China has turned out to be. One of the most vital questions that has emerged in the aftermath of the deaths of India’s soldiers in Ladakh is the question of preparation, and inevitably, of jointmanship.
Prime Minister Modi has done a number of things differently than his predecessors when it comes to national security. First, he appointed a National Security Adviser with a well earned reputation as a hawk, especially on India’s relationship with its neighbours. Ajit Doval has been the Indian NSA since the beginning of PM Modi’s first term, and has now been in office for six years.
Second, he picked a non-politician, (and until recently, superstar diplomat), as his new foreign minister at the start of his second term last year. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar is seen by many as one of the most central figures in Indian foreign policy over the last two decades, helping first negotiate India’s nuclear deal with the US, then helping shape India’s economic relationship with China, and then helping broker India’s strategic romance with the United States (Jaishankar also happens to be the son of the father of Indian strategic thinking, the aforementioned K Subrahmanyam).
Third, after two decades of delays and resistance, PM Modi finally overruled everyone and everything to establish the office of Chief of Defence Staff. The rubber stamp for this new office was a committee chaired by none other than his NSA, Mr. Doval.
As India searches for answers about how China was able to mobilize a major troop presence in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh, or how India was unprepared to provide aid or relief to its injured soldiers in the aftermath of the brutal violence between Indian and Chinese soldiers in the Galwan Valley, the question of jointmanship will reverberate most loudly and urgently. Between the most powerful and capable NSA in India’s history, a most suave and sophisticated foreign minister, and a newly appointed Chief of Defense Staff that seems perfectly aligned with his boss, how could India’s massive national security infrastructure fail to pick up the intelligence that led to the Galwan Valley deaths?
The answer to this question may lie not so much in the weakness of the Indian republic and its structures. K Subrahmanyam and his Kargil Review Committee colleagues designed the Indian response from the vantage point of the world they lived in. Governing by “Like” and “RT” was not part of that world.
India has been blindsided by China in Ladakh not because there is anything missing in the Indian republic’s arsenal of organizations, offices and individuals. It has been blindsided because it is now (and has been for several years) governed by the metrics that politicians, bureaucrats and soldiers (in India, and in most democracies around the world) now measure themselves by: how will I look on Facebook? How will this play on Twitter? Will they like me more?
The more vexing problem India faces, that most other democracies currently do not, is the problem of religious extremism. A rabid, angry and hostile religiously tinged discourse of Hindu supremacy colours all of Indian politics and public discourse today. Combined with the governance via social media metrics, this spells disaster for the meticulously designed and beautifully executed strategic arc that has made India a darling for its Western and non Western allies in the last two decades.
Act I of this disaster was the Balakot strike that PM Modi ordered in February 2019—India ended up begging its allies to hand over an Indian Air Force pilot who was shot down by Pakistan. Act II of this disaster was India’s attempt to annex Indian-administered Kashmir on August 5, 2019. Act III is Ladakh—an act that is the natural consequence of the August 5th annexation. All of these acts of aggression expose an India that, despite having material, structural and institutional capacity, cannot cash the cheques of bravado that it keeps signing.
In its faceoff with China, India has entered a dark alley with little to no way out. It has committed itself to an aggressive and expansionist policy in which it regularly makes ridiculous territorial claims over vast swathes of Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and China. Its runaway religious extremism problem means that its carefully cultivated client patron relationship with a country, Bangladesh, gets swept aside in mere minutes when Dhaka is faced with a wave of anti Muslim propaganda across the Indian political landscape. Its governing by Tweet problem means that every genie that has been unleashed by irresponsible and divisive political rhetoric must be followed by more of the same.
In Ladakh, India’s political and military leaders may decide that it is better to swallow the bitter pill of humiliation than to escalate matters with the 2020 version of Xi’s China. But these leaders do not make decisions based on intelligence reports, or wisdom and the principle of living to fight another day. They make decisions based on how it will play in the peanut gallery of India’s oft-cartoonish mainstream news networks. This should worry regional and global actors with stakes in India.
Buried in the morass of the Galwan Valley conflict with China are deeper, more worrying questions about how information is processed and acted on the Indian republic. Despite putting in place the final piece (the office of CDS) in the range of tools needed to sustain India’s defense and national security, intelligence warnings about China’s growing troop buildup in Ladakh were either ignored or not acted upon in a timely fashion.
India’s NSA reportedly visited the head of the Indian Army’s 14 Corps (the corps that was established after the Kargil conflict, to prevent another surprise). In that visit he warned the General managing that corps of the impending tensions with China that he would need to manage. Despite these warnings, Indian troops had no weapons when hostilities with the Chinese crossed boiling point.
When India was embarrassed like this the last time, in Kargil in 1999, it established new structures, organizations and offices and began a trajectory of sustained success and growth. But the cause of the failure of intelligence and jointmanship today is not one of a lack of structures, or offices, or people. It is one of a lack of decency and humility in India mainstream. 
Unless the Indian people put a stop to this, further humiliation may be in store. An embarrassed and unstable India is good for no one. Much now depends on the wisdom of the Indian people. They must resist the juvenilisation and radicalization of their society, their politics and their republic. India is a better country than Narendra Modi and his associates are allowing it be.
– Mosharraf Zaidi is a columnist and policy analyst. He works for the policy think tank, Tabadlab.
Twitter: @mosharrafzaidi​

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