Monday, April 20, 2009

WHAT WILL INDIA DO AFTER THE NEXT 26/11?

India is likely to face another Mumbai 26/11 type of attack in the near future. That is the assessment of Startfor, a US intelligence think-tank. Really, do we need anyone to tell us that this is something that is inevitable? Or do we naively believe/hope that the US is going to protect us against such attacks with the power of the dole that it is giving to a sinking Pakistan? Or that the Pakistanis have been sufficiently sacred by the shrill "all options are open" war cry and empty threats of surgical strikes that Indian leaders unleashed after Mumbai was attacked?

Nearly five months after India faced its deadliest terror attack, everything is back to normal. Everyone has forgotten about the horror that the country faced for three days. Everyone, almost, is relieved that the 'foolish hawks' who were irresponsibly talking of war with a nuclear Pakistan have become quiet. Also everyone, well not quite, has also heaped praise on the government for the very mature manner in which it has handled the crises and defused tensions.

All that is fine. But, no one is asking the two critical question that need to be asked: What has India done since then to deter state/non-state actors - call them what you like - from Pakistan from launching more such attacks? What is India going to do when, not if, another such attack does take place?

Narendra Modi has been ridiculing the government for running to Obama after the Mumbai attacks rather than doing something tangible to sort Pakistan out. Stratfor is also of the view that the UPA government was too soft and that India is likely to deliver a more forceful response should the BJP come to power after these elections. Is that really so? Yes, the general view is that the UPA has been ignoring the increasing threat of terror that India faces from Pakistan. But, would a BJP government have really responded very differently to Mumbai 26/11, and will it do so if it comes to power?

The response of the government of any sovereign state to an act of war depends mainly on two related and somewhat interdependent factors: its tolerance threshold and the relative combat power of the states involved. While there is certainly a difference between the tolerance threshold of the Congress and the BJP, they both have the same military at their disposal. The weakness of latter is what has made repeated terror attacks on India an almost zero-risk option for Pakistan for decades. As Pakistan knows better than all armchair analysts, that is going to make it virtually impossible for India to exercise a limited military option even in the future. Why? Because should the war escalate into a full blown conventional affair, India's defence forces are not in a position to give an iron-clad guarantee of success. And, failure - even a stalemate - is simply unacceptable for a country that has seven times the population of its adversary and wants to believe that it is about to become a super power.

There is a lot of uninformed talk that the era of wars is over and that it is economics and not military strength that matters in the 21st century. Those who talk on these lines are obviously blind to what the Americans and the Chinese are doing. China is not much larger than India. It has a border dispute only with this country and faces no threat from any of its other neighbours. If the Chinese leaders were Indian, they would probably have taken the Nehruvian route and almost mothballed their defence forces. But, being realists who know history and the role that power will continue to play in shaping it, they have done exactly the opposite. As a result, their military might has grown to a level that even the Americans are beginning to see a real threat to their uni-polar dominance of the world.

India, on the other hand, despite having been invaded and humiliated by the Chinese in 1962, have simply done nothing to match China's military might. And now the asymmetry is so great that whenever the Chinse decide to use force to annex Indian territories claimed by them, as indeed they will at a time of their choosing, it will be an almost no-contest.

Worse is what we have done vis-à-vis a much weaker and smaller Pakistan. We have allowed that country to militarily match up to us to a point where it can deter us from using the military option. India has the economic strength to simply make it a no-race for Pakistan that cannot spend beyond a point on defence. This would have happened on its own had India's sights been fixed on a maintaining a similar balance with China. But our leaders, devoid of any strategic vision, chose to ignore the role and relevance of the military as a key instrument of state policy. As a result, this is the only nation in the world that is happy maintaining an edge over a far smaller neighbour while pretending that a slightly bigger one, who has consciously chosen to become very powerful, does not exist!

It is because of this thinking that rather than India deterring Pakistan from launching and sustaining a proxy war, it is Pakistan which has successfully deterred India from reacting militarily in a manner that puts the cost-benefit ratio indisputably in India's favour. And Mumbai 26/11 was not the first time that India was provoked, almost taunted. Kargil and the attack on Parliament should have woken up a drowsy security establishment to the realisation that Pakistan was going to keep at it as long as it was sure it was going to get away. And how was it going to come to that conclusion? The cowardice of India's leadership, as former ISI chief Hamid Gul called it, coupled with the continuing absence of an unbridgeable military gap. Since India is even now simply not interested in doing anything about it, its tolerance threshold is per force very high. And Pakistan is going to test it to the limit. It knows only too well that the "zero tolerance" to terror that its politicians loosely talk about is just gas.

When there was serious talk of war after 26/11, the realisation hit that India's military was not ready for it. There were critical shortages of combat equipment due to which the military was perhaps weaker than it was at the time of Kargil. No wonder military commanders refused to go to war; you can't fight a real war with words.

Has anything changed nearly five months later? Major shortages of combat aircraft, air defence systems and artillery guns still exist. May be changes and preparations have been made, where they can be within limitations, to give a swift riposte to Pakistan should another attack be launched. But my sense is that the moment Pakistan gets to know through its intelligence network that India has both the political will and the military wherewithal to defeat Pakistan in a limited conventional war below the nuclear threshold, it will change tactics and opt for less spectacular attacks or go in for attacks carried out by Indian citizens only. If Startfor is to be believed, that has clearly not happened.

Narendra Modi might ridicule the Congress; the BJP may arguably display greater political will to retaliate. But the hard fact is that even if there are 10 more Mumbai 26/11s, no government will be able to make Pakistan pay in the only manner that will compel it to abandon its present course. This is the price this nation has paid and will keep paying for the failure of all governments to build and use the military as the cutting tool of coercive diplomacy and deterrence.

So, when the next 26/11 takes place, India will still be found running helplessly to the US, crying "Obama, O ba, O ma", as Modi has been saying to ridicule the Congress. Even if Modi himself is the Defence Minister then.
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Readers may also read:
1. Making India safe: cosmetic changes will not stem rot
2. Mumbai 26/11: will India use the miltary option?
3. Kashmir and Afghanistan are two sides of the same coin
4. India and Pakistan are not victims of the same terror