A Short Interaction With Indian Brass

Called to Mhow as one of the speakers at the Army War College’s high command training programme for the third year running, I did my “military service” earlier than normal.

Traditionally the programme holds the lecture series in the autumn. This time, I was asked to come and speak just as the new year began. Which had one benefit: Delhi temperatures were plummeting to 4 degrees Celsius; Mhow was warm enough to allow me to wear a T-shirt outside in the afternoon.

Previously I was tapped for my views on US foreign policy or on Afghanistan-Pakistan. This time I was asked about US-China relations. I gave a crude perspective, tracing the different phases of US-China relations. I began with the Nixon-Reagan years when the common strategic concern about the Soviet Union kept the two together. Bush Sr to Clinton saw economics come to the fore. And with Bush Jr and Obama there was a steady rise of an Asian balance of power theme.

I argued that there was always a counterpolicy running simultaneously during these phases, generating noise and interference, sometimes derailing the more dominant basis of the relationship. So Taiwan kept popping up like a bad penny during the anti-Soviet phase. Human rights at times trumped the economics in the second period. Economics and balance of power vie as to which is the policy top dog in the US’s China policy today.

I put about a quarter of the officers to sleep, but an assiduous few did take notes and there was no shortage of questions afterwards, including over tea and lunch.

But in this session and other sessions by other speakers on other issues, one got a glimpse of what the military had on its mind.

One, was an acceptance that given what was going on in China and Pakistan (a number of officers mentioned how they had had the opportunity to hear the Pakistani military’s number one, Kayani, and how he merely confirmed what has been repeatedly reported since: he is unremittingly hostile to India) the US would willy-nilly be India’s main military partner for the foreseeable future. They weren’t all happy with it. The US had a rep for playing a double game – they found its Pakistan policy bewildering. And they were wary of being used for a larger US geopolitical game. But the US was, more or less, the way to go.

Two, they saw the AfPak war as one overflowing with Indian interests. If Islamabad got its way in Afghanistan, it would then turn the terrorists and guns being used against Kabul against Kashmir or India in general. Better for India to fight in Afghanistan now rather than fight on Indian soil later. And it would be in largely friendly territory given the relatively positive views most Afghans had about India. If only we could send a couple of brigades, one said. They accepted they would face casualties, but that didn’t faze them.

Three, everyone had a story about the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the ministry of defence and other organs of the Indian government. Fun fact: it takes over 50 individual signatures on a file to clear a visit by a foreign military dignitary. And only one of these individuals has to say No for the process to start all over again.

Four, as is generally the case with experienced military officers, I found a fair amount of common sense about a lot of national issues. Quite a few were critical of the Binayak Sen sedition case. Whatever Sen had done with the Naxalites, they said, it wasn’t serious enough to draw a sedition charge. This was the type of case that undermined the legitimacy of a counterinsurgency campaign. Best keep sedition charges for bigger fish.

I flew back to Delhi’s fog and cold suitably warmed by my experience, and my shoes shiny and suit carefully ironed thanks to the exertions of what was once called a batman. And my system heavy with that great British colonial tradition: bed tea.



Copyright © 2011 Hindustan Times.

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