The unending cost

Print edition : July 31, 1999

The quality of the "victory" in Kargil is such that India is paying a heavy price: 400 lives, thousands of crores of rupees, external meddling, jingoism, and explosion of a territorially-obsessed national chauvinism.

BEHIND every successful, "sweet", military operation lies a not-so-sweet calculus of risk - and failure. That is why no wars are cost-free, and most involve high risk. This is also true of technological feats planned with military precision. Exactly 30 y ears ago, we know the Apollo-11 mission to the moon was backed by a military-style, cold-blooded, contingency plan. This was, after all, a mission without prototype or pilot project, driven by Cold War pressure to establish a lead over the Soviet Union.

Apollo-11 landed on the moon with 17 seconds of fuel left. President Richard Nixon had an alternative speech ready in case the mission failed.

More nastily, the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) had elaborate schemes in case it was unable to bring Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin E. Aldrin back to earth: it would have cut off communication links to the stranded astronauts and let t hem perish - painfully and alone, as the oxygen ran out.

As we recall the hair-raising risks in one of the greatest events of this century - and an undisputed technological landmark - it should be no great surprise if the costs of repulsing intruders from Kargil turn out to be much higher than earlier estimate d, and way beyond the admitted 410 dead and 594 injured. (The official figures do not sound very convincing either in the light of New Delhi's own figure for Pakistani casualties (698 dead) - given the latter's higher-altitude advantage - or in relatio n to normal dead-to-injured ratios in such operations.)

Operation Vijay was costly in other ways too. It deployed three divisions and top-of-the-line equipment, using over 1.5 lakh rounds of Bofors shells, each costing $1,000. Going by the figures attributed to defence sources, its direct costs were a huge R s.10,000 crores to 15,000 crores.

To be fair, Indian troops succeeded in repulsing Pakistani intruders, whom they outnumbered 30:1 or 40:1. On the plus side again, India managed to isolate Pakistan diplomatically, particularly among the Group of Eight (G-8), and ensure that China would maintain its neutrality. India received acclaim for not crossing the Line of Control (LoC). Defending its integrity was a medium-term gain, although that hardly settles the long-term future of this disputed boundary, leave alone the Kashmir issue in whic h it originates.

These gains have to be balanced against the losses/costs incurred. The losses, as repeatedly argued in this column, are heavy and numerous. The government initially failed to use diplomacy. It committed a serious security breach by ignoring intel ligence reports - confirmed repeatedly, most recently on July 17 by the Chief of the Army Staff, Gen. V.P. Malik - and by not acting even after the incursions became visible. The National Security Council was given reports on the build-up in March. It ig nored them. This lapse came on top of the mysterious suspension of reconnaissance flights early this year.

This is not all. Going by Gen. Malik, the Army was (mis)informed that up to 40 per cent of the intruders were "militants", when all of them were Pakistani army "regulars". The Cabinet Committee on Security took one leisurely fortnight to meet after the a larm bells rang. It did precious little. Worse, the government hurriedly drafted into Kargil whole regiments without acclimatising them or providing them adequate clothing and snowshoes. By this time, several hundred jawans had probably perished. Only a Brigadier and a Colonel were (belatedly) transferred for these lapses.

Operation Vijay was launched in panic, the air-strikes raising its profile. But there was no reckoning of their costs and efficacy, now revealed to be extremely low, since the emphasis was not on attack helicopters. Its launch was accompanied by a ham-ha nded attempt on the part of Defence Minister George Fernandes and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee himself to exonerate Pakistan's Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, and even the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and blame the Pakistani army alone for the Kargil incursion.

Conventionally superior India was bound to succeed militarily. But New Delhi invited external intervention which it may have to regret. Whether the United States was said to merely "facilitate a dialogue between the parties" (the exact formulation for it s heavy mediatory role in Palestine) or to "mediate", the truth is that Washington has acquired, and been granted by New Delhi, a role in South Asia quite unlike anything it earlier enjoyed.

This role does not arise from either a transformation in the overall global posture of the U.S., or a "paradigm shift" in India-U.S. relations. Some analysts argue that Russia's declining importance vis-a-vis Central Asia, and the increasing disutility of Pakistan as a balancing force in West and South-West Asia, have impelled Washington to try out India as an ally. This is fanciful, although Russia's decline is undeniable. Washington's hegemonic project remains unchanged, as do its global prioritie s.

There has been a minor shift in its stance towards South Asia. This is explained by the region's increased importance on account of nuclearisation; by Pakistan's dubious role in supporting Islamicist forces and its attempt at Kargil to disturb the sta tus quo, with potentially dangerous consequences. India's BJP-led government responded to U.S. overtures by indicating its willingness to play along. This is no "paradigm" shift, no radical recasting of India-U.S. ties. Inviting the U.S. to play a l arger role here could mean inviting trouble.

Preparing for an offensive in the Kargil sector. Operation Vijay has shifted the political balance of forces in the government in favour of the military.-KAMAL NARANG

KARGIL'S internal costs are even heavier. They involve militarism and chauvinism, and "loyalty" tests for the minorities; growing intolerance in sections of the media towards those who question the conduct of Operation Vijay; and abridgment of democratic freedom through censorship and manipulation. It now emerges that media manipulation, especially on TV, was far worse than thought.

No reporter moved - or was allowed to move - much beyond National Highway 1-A. Recycled stock pictures were presented as live originals. Much of the media went along with the official "patriotic" spin on reports.

Add to this the bills in the pipeline, including the Rs.8,000 crores in new artillery which the Army is demanding. Again, unless there is an India-Pakistan political breakthrough, which looks unlikely, the armed forces will have to maintain a huge round -the-year presence at Kargil, costing an estimated Rs.15 crores a day or Rs.4,500 crores a year. This is not all. The Kargil operation has shifted the political balance of forces in the government in favour of the military. There is alread y a strident but uninformed demand for raising the defence budget to at least three per cent of GDP (from the existing, declared, 2.5). Things will not stop there. The military will pitch for something bigger under the guise of rapid nuclear weapons man ufacture, induction and deployment. This will mean diversion of thousands of crores away from socially productive uses, as Amartya Sen has again reminded us. Military spending will skyrocket, putting paid to a plan the Army itself recently drew up to re duce its bloated manpower by 100,000.

There are already proposals for a Kargil "cess" of about 0.5 or one per cent of GDP - roughly Rs.9,000 crores to Rs.18,000 crores. This will dampen, if not destroy, economic recovery. The alternative is a larger fiscal deficit - over and above the nearly seven per cent now - and high inflation. The choice is not a pleasant one.

It raises a question-mark over the quality of "victory"- merely recovering Indian territory at the cost of 400 lives, and Rs.10,000 crores-plus, with additional bills still coming.

This makes the ruling coalition vulnerable - provided the Opposition gets its act together. For the most part, the Opposition has not been in great shape, with the Congress still unsure of its orientation, and the Janata Dal splitting. The Opposition ha s not properly countered the BJP's attempt to make capital out of shaurya and sacrifice, and its sordid resort to "coffin politics". The Opposition rightly highlighted intelligence failure, but it did not make bold to criticise the conduct of Oper ation Vijay and go beyond mild warnings about external meddling. It did not take on the BJP frontally on communalising Kargil and demonising Pakistan. For far too long it insisted on a Rajya Sabha session. Unless the Opposition is able to correct these errors quickly, the BJP will cynically use Kargil to its electoral advantage.

THE Opposition has a good chance to turn every argument on its head - if it makes a clean, decisive break with the BJP brand of "nationalism". This it can do only if it resists the temptation to play the "patriotic" card when in doubt and stops lending u ncritical support to Pakistan-bashing. It must actively fight jingoism. Opposition Members of Parliament must talk about the negative lessons of chauvinism and jingoism from the past. The first of these is about how we look at national borders and bounda ries. These were drawn in modern India by the colonial state with its own devious purposes.

The advancing British Empire saw itself in competition both with Czarist Russia and China, as well as smaller Himalayan kingdoms such as Nepal and Bhutan. There were two schools of frontier policy. The "forward" school advocated aggressive British advanc es to meet directly the northern and eastern "threats". The "moderates" suggested that the limits of British power should lie where they could be supported at relatively low military costs.

Competition between the two schools often produced anomalies. But the overarching reality was Britain's attempt to consolidate its borders by confirming, and extending the reach of, its colonial domination. The Indian National Congress of the 1920 s and 1930s was not blind to this. It resolved that Britain's policy was "traditionally guided by considerations more of holding India in subjection than of protecting her borders", and "that India as a self-governing country can have nothing to fear fr om her neighbouring states...." It urged them "to refrain from entering into any treaty with the Imperial Power".

However, the rulers of independent India saw themselves - contradictorily - as heirs or legatees of the colonial state. For many of them, India's boundaries ceased being the subject of the Great Game. They became sacred and holy: inalienable parts of the motherland, with a life of their own, severed from the past. This peculiar, cartographically - or territorially - obsessed nationalism can perhaps be explained by the trauma of Partition, as well as the basic continuity the new state sought to maintai n with the colonial regime through the administration, the bureaucracy, the armed forces, the education system, and so on.

Perhaps our leaders were excessively concerned about "national unity" at any cost. Whatever the reason, this powerful territorial obsession grew to the point where independent India refused to negotiate its boundaries with China, citing in support the mo st extreme claims of the "forward" school - for example, the Macmahon Line, which was "negotiated" by excluding China at the Shimla Conference of 1914. (For a fuller account, see Neville Maxwell's India's China War, republished by Natraj, Chandiga rh, 1997).

The territorial obsession also meant citing the Upanishads and the Mahabharata to document the Himalayan sources of Indian culture in order to advance boundary claims; seeing in every reasonable proposal by China a potential menace to security; and pa ssing resolutions, denying even a "square inch" of our "sacred" territory to foreign powers, and so on. The historical context of colonialism was smothered, hidden, lost.

This took perverse forms during the parliamentary debate over the border conflict with China, which witnessed much hysteria and chauvinist breast-beating. Not only did Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru come under - and typically yield to - intense pressure to reject all Chinese proposals, however reasonable, before 1962; after the war, he could not reasonably respond to China's unilateral ceasefire declaration starting November 21, 1962.

Consider this. China has militarily humbled India, some Indian battalions have altogether dissolved. After inflicting this defeat, Beijing declares not just a ceasefire, but withdrawal beginning December 1 to positions 20 km behind the Line of Actual Con trol - positions going back to November 1959. It suggests India reciprocate and negotiate. The Indian Army is relieved and welcomes this move. But our MPs assail the government for saying that "the position as it existed prior to September 8, 1962, shall be restored" before India can start negotiations.

The Opposition was then livid with the Chinese "perfidy" (namely, ceasefire) in which even Frank Anthony saw "a typical piece of calculated Chinese trickery". Screamed another MP: "Decency, dignity and self-respect require that we negotiate only after th e barbarians are driven out..." Opposition MPs, barring the Left, signed a statement: "The Chinese offer of a unilateral ceasefire is only another of their notorious manoeuvres, calculated to cause confusion and disruption in our national front, gain tim e for consolidation and build up for another infamous offensive and prevent us from mobilising resources from inside and outside and create doubts in the minds of our friends in world democracy."

Nehru had to resort to all kinds of manoeuvres: for example, involving Afro-Asian states led by Sri Lanka, to make compromise proposals, which would be mutually acceptable in some way. Ultimately, it is the very same compromise, later called "package dea l", that the Chinese first proposed, that we have now come to accept. So much for the "perfidy"! And the "national interest"!

The short point is this. It is illogical, unwise and unprincipled to make concessions to territorially-obsessed chauvinism. But many of our Right and Centre parties seek refuge in this kind of nationalism. They lend uncritical support to the government's aggressive moves in the neighbourhood too: for example, in Sri Lanka, Nepal and Sikkim. This has allowed the government to "externalise" internal issues and evade responsibility. The Opposition would be wholly ill-advised to let this happen today, when it has so much evidence with which to put this government on the mat.

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