It is indeed a creditable diplomatic victory for India over Pakistan that it got Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar included in the list of global terrorists of the UN Security Council’s sanctions committee under Resolution 1267 on al Qaeda and associated outfits. China had been resisting the move, on behalf of its friend, Pakistan, but finally gave in.
China is fighting its own battles with the US on the trade front and does not have appetite, beyond a point, to keep resisting American pressure on calling out a Pak terrorist. However, by obsessing over Pakistan in the domestic political discourse and in its international diplomacy, New Delhi has brought fresh, bright ink to the hyphen that had been fading between India and Pakistan in global eyes.
India, which should be swatting Pakistan away like a fly is now scoring victories over it in a boxing bout meant for flyweights. China, to become whose counterweight India had been gearing up, is now firmly perched as an arbiter of the match-up between India and Pakistan. This shrinking of India’s global stature vis-à-vis China has been a major diplomatic achievement of the Modi government.
Granted, China’s economy is more than five times India’s and its ability to spend on its military is higher. So, the relative strength of China’s armed forces has been growing. Beijing has not been just spending, but also upgrading the quality of its armed forces. Integration of the air, sea and land forces is far greater than in India and China has moved to downsize its army, spending more money on sophisticated arms and cyber warfare capability.
The sheer size of the Indian army is now becoming a major source of its weakness. The bulk of India’s outlay on the armed forces goes towards pay and pensions. This reduces the amount that can be spared for acquiring arms. It is imperative to bring down the pension bill, if India is to retain its strategic autonomy. The Modi government lost an opportunity to reform personnel policy, when it implemented its version of the One-Rank, One-Pension policy.
Ideally, that was the time to announce that all new recruits to the forces would be put on the National Pension System. Soldiers should join young, serve for seven-eight years, acquiring assorted skills that would enable them to join the workforce on release from the army, and keep adding to their pension pot as other workers do. The government could also fund scholarships for those who complete their short tenure in the army and leave without a defined benefit pension.
They would be replaced by new recruits. The army would consist of young, skilled soldiers and once soldiers on the old pension scheme retire, a big drag on defence spending would disappear.
New officers should continue their tenure as today. Their pension should, however, be linked to their contributions to the pension kitty. The government could offer a top-up to prevent any erosion of living standards. This is how Britain has refashioned its armed forces pensions.
The net result of failing to reform the armed forces has been to let the strategic gap with China widen, under both the UPA and the BJP-led NDA regimes. A notable self-goal of the Rafale deal struck by the Modi government has been to leave India short of 90 warplanes. The UPA deal was to acquire seven squadrons of 18 aircraft each, 26 to be bought in a fly-away condition and the rest to be manufactured by public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, in India. The deal negotiated by the Prime Minister’s Office, after Modi took over, sought to buy 36 aircraft in a flyaway condition, and no plans for the remaining 90 aircraft.
Another achievement has been to spoil relations with Nepal, with which India has a long, open border. Nepal has traditionally been happy to be in India’s sphere of influence, but the BJP-led government’s handling of the Madhesi-led agitation has soured that relationship and Kathmandu has begun to play Beijing off against New Delhi.
The Manmohan Singh government’s mishandling of Mamata Banerjee’s young government in West Bengal prevented a full agreement on sharing river waters with Bangladesh, but since the UPA’s time, India’s relations with Bangladesh have been warm. Dhaka cooperated with New Delhi in denying refuge in Bangladesh to assorted anti-India armed groups, bringing relative stability to the Northeast.
The BJP stands poised to poison relations with Bangladesh, with its Citizenship Bill and party president Amit Shah’s description of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh as termites. This is dangerous territory. Termites call for extermination. In the Rwandan genocide of 1994, Hutu hatemongers labelled the Tutsis cockroaches and snakes, conditioning the Hutus to see Tutsis as non-humans. To visualise people not as individuals with their own character, loves, longings, aspirations, parents, children and anxieties, of the kind anyone could identify with, but as a despicable, sub-human group, is the first step towards collective ostracization and eventual elimination.
China is an emerging giant with lots of money for buying loyalty and neutering friendships Beijing does not like. It has been assiduously at work around India’s neighbourhood. The BJP brand of politics centres itself on Pakistan and India itself gets dragged down into its class.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s throwaway references to nuclear attacks on Pakistan in the course of electioneering has been another setback to India’s effort to pull itself up into the category of global heavyweights. India has never given any cause to be seen as anything but a responsible nuclear power, unlike Pakistan or North Korea.
India was absolutely right to call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff with its aerial bombing of Balakot, in the wake of the Pulwama terror strike. But the casual ease with which Prime Minister Modi brought nuclear threats into campaign rhetoric has dented India’s reputation for nuclear sobriety.
India needs to reverse course and reclaim its place in the global order as an emerging power that alone is capable of providing a counterbalance large enough to keep China’s rise peaceful.