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When should India employ hard power?

China Dragon shadow

There’s an urgent need to answer the question thoughtfully

I write this after the president of the Maldives has arrested judges of the Supreme Court instead of following its orders to release all political prisoners arrested under trumped-up charges. It’s only the latest turn in a drama that started exactly six years ago when the country’s first democratically elected pro-India president was ousted in a coup. Among others, his successor repudiated an airport development contract that had been awarded to an Indian company. The $270 million in damages that international arbiters forced the Maldives to pay was financed through funds injected by Chinese and Saudi investors.

New Delhi’s responses to all of these have scarcely gone beyond monitoring the situation closely. The Maldives regime, meanwhile, has changed its land ownership laws, sold an island close to its capital to the Chinese and signed a Free-Trade Agreement with Beijing bypassing parliamentary scrutiny. Neither the UPA government nor the Modi government seems to care that a strategic Indian Ocean neighbour has been taken over by an autocratic regime so confident of Chinese support that it feels emboldened to go beyond merely thumbing its nose at New Delhi. It’s poking us in the eye.

The case for a hard Indian intervention is so strong, the international context so conducive, the military equation so overwhelmingly favourable that we must ask: if not now, when? Will we wait for construction of a foreign naval base to start at Feydhoo Finolhu near Male before we decide to intervene? What use are grand conferences, declarations of being “an Indian Ocean power”, “a net-security provider” or vasudaiva kutumbakam, when governments in New Delhi are disinclined to forcefully protect India’s own core interests?

Maybe the Modi government will decide to compel the Yameen regime to act constitutionally, follow Supreme Court orders and generally stop being an anti-India dictatorship. It’s unlikely that this is possible without the signalling of the readiness to use force. Even if it does — as the Rajiv Gandhi government did in 1987 — it should lead to a larger national debate over why, when and where will India use military force, beyond defending borders and UN peacekeeping.

As the Maldives has shown us, we cannot duck the question anymore. There is a genocide — and I do not use the word casually — taking place in Myanmar at this time as the Rohingya continue to be under attack despite falling off the world news headlines. Because the business is on the unpopular side of India’s domestic politics, we are joining the rest of the world (which couldn’t care less) in ignoring it. Yet both our interests and our values suggest that New Delhi take a greater interest in the issue. Doesn’t the claim that India is, or can be a net security provider in the region ring hollow when New Delhi is a bystander to mass atrocities?

We are rightly proud that among the reasons for India’s intervention in East Pakistan in 1971 was to halt an ongoing genocide. As a high school student, I recall being elated when I read of how India’s armed forces had foiled a coup in the Maldives and airdropped humanitarian supplies to the besieged Tamil population in Jaffna. That’s not all, New Delhi prevented a coup in Mauritius in the early 1980s and no one heard of it until a few years ago. All this was decades before we started proclaiming — rightly, in my view — our status as an emerging regional power.

The real question for a regional power — which India is — is how to use power to shape the world in a way that benefits us, and benefits others. It’s not about the exchange of fire with Pakistan along the Line of Control or tussle with China along the Himalayan frontier. The former is a strategic distraction even if it allows television patriots to hyperventilate a couple of nights every week. The latter is important only where red lines must be drawn and defended, like at Doklam. The more our political leadership is engaged in military issues concerning the border, the less bandwidth it will have to think of how, why and what it means for India to project power beyond our shores and borders.

Unfortunately, it has been like this through our history. We could call it the Panipat school of strategic thought — “let’s wait until the threat materialises inside our country before we concern ourselves about it”. This school has a huge number of adherents, even if many won’t admit it. While it’s not entirely a bad idea, the problem is that it’s seen as a solution to every strategic problem.

The alternative is what I would call a Hindukush school of thought, where we attempt to dissipate the threat as far from our borders as possible. Nuclear deterrence, for instance, is a Hindukush approach. So is the dispatch of the Indian Navy to waters east of Singapore and shaping the balance of power in East Asia. So, most definitely, would be to ensure that the Maldives does not encourage more countries to use the China card against us.

As India becomes more developed the Panipat approach will become costlier. The United States spends a lot of money to maintain a global military presence. It does so because that is cheaper than the cost of incurring damage on the homeland. We still have a long way to go, but as per capita GDP rises, so will the need for the Hindukush strategy.

Lest we think we can wait, the change in the world order as we knew it makes the question of employing hard power more urgent. In the past few years, almost every regional power has used military force outside its borders in violation of international law. We can neither afford to sit this out, nor believe that we can make decisions on a case-to-case basis. We need a paradigm shift.

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Source URL: Medium

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