Surprisingly, the biannual jamboree of high brass was held as usual in New Delhi this spring. Surprising not because of any reason but that at its October edition last year, Narendra Modi, perhaps taking cue from venues of party conclaves, had suggested in his address that it be held elsewhere in the country. Sensibly, the brass did not bend over backwards to act on the suggestion since the intellectual repository to service the commanders’ conference is only at Headquarters.

As usual, the conference yielded interesting insights, the most significant one this time around being a dilution of the preparedness on the China front. Media reported that the defence minister had expressed scepticism over the steep requirements, both manpower and financial, stemming from the army’s creation of the mountain strike corps.

The mountain strike corps had been in the works for almost half a decade before the last government, in the fag end of its term, finally approved the corps, no doubt hoping to profit politically from its last minute foray into national security. In its first term, it had approved the raising of two mountain divisions for the north east. However, it had been reluctant for financial reasons to accede to the army’s position that the shift from dissuasive defence to active deterrence on the China front required the raising of an offensive capability for the mountains.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi shaking hands with the Chinese President Xi Jinping in Ahmedabad on 17 September, 2014. Pic: Press Information Bureau

Strategic shifts

The two mountain divisions that were raised late last decade had enabled a shift from dissuasive defence to defensive deterrence. Defensive defence, implying an ability to fight back defensively, had been India’s posture on the China front since the sixties till the late eighties. India upped this posture to dissuasive defence, in which a robust defence was intended to dissuade an attacker, during the Sundarji period with Exercise Chequer Board.

This posture was yet again hiked around the end of the last decade to active defence with the two mountain divisions sucked into a defensive role in Arunachal Pradesh. Active defence is akin to defensive deterrence in which China is to be deterred with the knowledge of an active fight back by India.

The army in a doctrinal revision exercise over the turn of the decade, that was conveniently leaked to the press, alighted on the formulation of the ‘two front’ war. The ‘two front’ threat dates back to the early sixties when Pakistan and China began to see common strategic cause. However, economic factors did not permit India to do anything more than strengthen its fence with China. The steady economic growth of the century’s first decade enabled the army to think more ambitiously.

The army had already made a shift from defensive to offensive thinking on the Pakistan front. Prompted by the Kargil War and Operation Parakram, it had moved from basing its doctrine on a counter-offensive capability to a more proactive and offensive one, termed in the media as ‘cold start’. With increased defence outlays that have witnessed a near four-fold increase from $11 billion in 2001 to $40 billion today, it was possible for the army to transfer the offensive mindset to the eastern front.

This, it proceeded with in two steps. The first was the aforementioned move from dissuasive defence to active defence or defensive deterrence. The second step was to gain an offensive capability in the form of 17 Corps. This would make for a shift to offensive deterrence, in which the corps could be used in a counter offensive role. This would enable India to either choose to retake areas captured by attacking the Chinese or make trade-off gains elsewhere.

The confusing terminology here – active deterrence, dissuasive defence and the like – should not detain us. The take away from the discussion is that India has strengthened its China border progressively. At the current juncture, the corps has led to an expansion of the army and consequent calls on the budget.

UPA II was reluctant to concede this since it was presiding in a period during which India’s growth rate slowed down from its high of eight percent to about six percent. Over the period, the army fought a guerilla action through the media, hyping up the China threat to thirty divisions rolling down to the Ganga-Brahmaputra plains, along with a Pakistani hyena act along the upper reaches of the Indus.

Modi’s government, in keeping with its self-image as being strong on defence, has expectedly been more forthcoming. Arun Jaitley, when he wore the double hats as finance minister and defence minister, had taken an appraisal of the new corps in one of his first moves. The national security adviser too, in a speech late last year, borrowed the army terminology on two-front. And yet, the current minister Manohar Parrikar is shown in media dragging his feet on the advisability of the corps, blaming the UPA for approving the 90000-strong increase in troops and its budget demand of Rs 64000 crore. This raises the question: Why?

Can India sustain the grand strategy?

There could be three explanations. The first relates to the infirmity in the Indian national security establishment in which the doctrinal sphere is mistakenly assumed to be the military’s domain exclusively. It appears that South Block thought up the ‘two front’ doctrine and its requirements without recourse to a ‘whole-of-government approach’ in which North Block could have its say. While a lame duck Antony let it pass, Parrikar has been checkmated by Jaitley.

The second, following from the first, is that the new government is operating to a grand strategy. The national security adviser spelt it out in the same speech in which he mentioned the ‘two front’ threat. ‘Economic development is the best way to ensure security and a 9 percent growth will make us totally secure,’ he said.

This ‘guns versus butter’ logic appears to have had a strategy-fallout with the two adversaries being engaged through ‘economic interdependence’. This downgrades expensive and counter-productive muscle building.

The last is the reciprocation by PM Modi, scheduled for next month, of Xi Jinping’s visit to New Delhi. With an exhibition of decisiveness, if not arbitrariness, in the outright purchase of 36 Rafale aircraft behind him during his last foray abroad in Paris, Modi can afford to signal a mellow view of the China threat through the hint of a slow down on 17 Corps. This could set the stage for the planned ‘economic engagement’. If so, this is of a piece with the grand strategy outlined by his adviser.

Indeed, in terms of such a grand strategy, the UPA was also similarly engaged, but was not able to pull it off, since it had to constantly look over its shoulders at what the right wing opposition would say. Can results be any different this time around?

The fact that Modi has a new man in the foreign ministry in the form of China hand – S Jaishankar, who has inherited a fine strategic mind – gives this line credence. The problem is if this turns out to be only tactical, a pre-visit bit of signalling. When done, it would be back to the business of India, the new kid in the great power race, catching up with China. That would potentially upset Doval’s grand strategic apple cart, revealing it as product of an enlightened speech writer but out of sync with the hyper-nationalist national security policy of the right wing government.

While time will tell, the potential for tripping up is there. When Xi visited, there was an ongoing intrusion in Depsang.  Before Modi’s visit, Xi has scheduled his own trip to Pakistan, heightening India’s ‘two front’ paranoia with his promise of investing $45 billion in an economic corridor through Indian- claimed territory in Gilgit-Baltistan and the sale of nine submarines. The submarines, in particular, enable a diesel electric submarine-based nuclear second strike capability for Pakistan.

While its strong-on-defence image can enable the Modi government to contradict the commentary that it has blinked first with China, whether it can do so under the prevailing political circumstances – an opposition rejuvenated by its electoral control of Delhi and the escalating situation over the land bill – is the question. While ‘acche din’ theoretically follows the grand strategy, the absence of ‘acche din’ in the interim can lead the government to lean once again on defence. In other words, the prime minister can end up a victim of his own self-image.