Every weekend, I write a column for ABP News(abplive.in). Here’s the collection for May.
Why foreigners see India differently now
Sun, May 31, 2015
Very often, domestic politics and TV studios-based media narrative makes us forget the fact that for the first time in 30 years, there is a single-party majority in Lok Sabha. One year after Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister riding on a huge wave of expectations, opinion polls have tended to show a decline in his popularity. Many hours of studio discussions have been devoted to dissecting the Modi government’s 12 months in power. As is their wont, there is no conclusion at the end of those acrimonious shouting matches that play out on our TV screens.
Non-Indians however look at the developments in the past 12 months and the rise of Modi completely differently. Two conversations over the past two weeks with two foreigners have been rather revealing. A British expatriate, a staunch conservative supporter, commenting on Narendra Modi’s one year at the helm, remarked: “He reminds me of Mrs (Margaret) Thatcher. Strong-willed, opinionated and focussed totally on what he has set out to achieve, not bothered about constant carping and criticism heaped on him.” Taken by surprise with the observation, I asked him to elaborate a bit. “Mr Modi, like Mrs Thatcher, has that streak of stubbornness which infuriates the opposition but is effective in producing desired results from the often reluctant administration,” he explained.
While one can debate and differ on the observation, there is no doubt that Prime Minister Modi evokes strong feelings. But most people watching the Prime Minister’s Office also admit that he is clearly focussed on what the government wants to do in the next five years and does not get distracted with all the sniping and criticism that is natural in as raucous a democracy as India’s.
But it was not until Modi’s China visit was over a fortnight ago that one realised how foreigners, especially the Chinese, look at Modi’s persona differently than we Indians do. Astute observers of the Sino-India tango now tend to agree that a subtle but important change in the Chinese approach towards India is primarily propelled by their assessment that Modi brings the necessary heft to the office of the Prime Minister. After all, who else but the Chinese leadership, more than anyone else in the world, would understand the importance of single-party majority?
So, post-May 2014, Beijing’s dealings with India have been different than their earlier stand. They laid out a red carpet for the Prime Minister with President Xi personally welcoming Modi at Xian, not very far from Xi’s own village. Diplomats have observed that the Chinese were rather surprised by the degree of directness and candour displayed by Prime Minister Modi during his interaction with President Xi Jingping and Premier Li Keqiang.
Not just the Chinese but the world at large is looking at India with renewed hope and confidence, thanks in large measure to Modi’s persona and the fact that there is a single party majority government in Delhi. So no matter what his opponents say–they often describe his trips abroad as nothing more than showmanship and PR exercises–from Tokyo to Washington and from Mongolia to Mauritius, Modi has managed reenergise India’s diplomatic outreach.
Strengthening the Andaman Nicobar Command
Sun, May 24, 2015
India’s farthest outpost in south-east–the Andaman and Nicobar Command or ANC–is finally getting the attention it deserves. The government is now planning to double the size of the Army troops there from the current strength 3,000 and also augment the Naval and Coast Guard strength for the ANC. A base with facilities for operating IAF’s fighter jets and transport aircraft like the C-130J meant for Special Forces operations is now ready.
Formed in 2001 as the country’s first tri-services ‘theatre’ command, the potential of the ANC to be India’s sentinel in the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal was never fully understood by either the previous NDA government (during the last two years of its tenure) and then for a decade by UPA-I and UPA-II. The Vajpayee government must be credited with quickly sanctioning and creating the ANC following the report of the Group of Ministers (GoM) on Reforming National security in 2001 which had recommended ANC as a theatre command. But in its last two years, the necessary support for the Port Blair headquartered command was lacklustre. The devastating tsunami of December 2004 also created a major setback for the expansion plans.
However, despite various internal reports and assessments by both the Defence Ministry and Intelligence agencies identifying the rising presence of Chinese ships and Chinese origin fishing boats in the area overseen by the ANC, the Command did not get the attention it deserved. Closer to Indonesia than mainland India, this group of islands has been treated as an outpost for a quite some time. However, now the thinking in the Indian government at the highest levels is changing and there is a plan to use Andaman Nicobar as a spring board to south East Asia, Malacca straits and other sea lanes of communication.
A larger naval fleet including a couple of submarines and naval aviation assets is to be inducted into the ANC, recent reports have suggested. This has become necessary because of recent developments in South China Sea and the Malacca Straits. The increasing Chinese foray into the Andaman Seas is further likely to intensify once a canal is built through the vital Isthmus of Kra.
According a report in Times of India, Vice Admiral PK Chatterjee, Commander-in-Chief, Andaman Nicobar (CINCAN) has been quoted as saying: “”There are far too many interested parties and the canal through the Isthmus of Kra will certainly become a reality. Once this happens, the distance from the South China Sea to our territory will be reduced by nearly 1,300 km. The distance of the Andaman and Nicobar Island from the mainland will remain the same though. In this way, our reaction time will be comparatively reduced. I am sure that the Government of India is aware of this issue and taking necessary action. I feel things will happen.”
There are about 572 islands in Andaman and Nicobar. Many of them are uninhabited and therefore tougher to guard. India needs to dominate these islands to prevent any inimical activity. Currently, frequent patrols go out to familiarise the area.Called jaan pehchaan, the patrols have the representatives from the Army, navy, coast guard, the police and forest department. The composite patrols go to different islands, stay for nights and ensure that area is intact and dominated.
Meanwhile INS ‘Baaz, a Naval Air Station established at Campbell Bay on Great Nicobar Island, in 2012 will also be upgraded with more assets. INS Baaz, about 300 nautical miles from Port Blair, is the southernmost air station of the Indian armed forces. It offers a vital geostrategic advantage to India. Not only do they provide the Nation with a commanding presence in the Bay of Bengal, the Islands also serve as our window into East and South East Asia. It also sits astride some of the busiest shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean, most carrying strategic cargo for East Asian economies.
The previously sanctioned plans to fortify infrastructure also includes establishing forward operating bases in Kamorta (Nicobar Islands) and Diglipur (Andaman) as well. India’s co-operative maritime engagement with South East Asian and East Asian countries is also being constantly enhanced through initiatives like the MILAN series of exercises, co-operative patrols with countries like Indonesia and Thailand and other Navy-to-Navy linkages with ASEAN countries as distant as Vietnam. Clearly, the ANC is now set to get the attention it deserves for keeping the Indian naval dominance in its own backyard intact.
How Indian troops won Kargil 50 years ago
Sat, May 16, 2015
For the past 16 years since 1999, every year, 26 July is celebrated as Vijay Diwas to commemorate the hard fought victory of the Indian Army over the intruding Pakistani forces. The battles of Tiger Hill, Tololing, Three Pimples, Munto Dhalo are still fresh in people’s minds and so are the names like Vikram Batra, Manoj Pandey, Sanjay Kumar, Yogendra Yadav—the four Param Vir Chakra winners in the Kargil conflict of 1999.
But few will have an idea or would have been told about an incredible battle that took place exactly 50 years to date right on top of the head of Kargil town. On 16-17 May 1965, Indian army troops wrested Point 13620 (called so because it is at an altitude of 13,620 feet) overlooking the Kargil town and the vital National Highway linking Srinagar to Leh.
Well-entrenched Pakistani troops at Point 13620 were constantly threatening the highway by targeting vehicular traffic plying on the National Highway (much like they did in 1999). The firing from the location was part of the overall plan that the Pakistani Army had followed since December 1964. All across the Ceasefire line (remember the old line agreed to in 1949 was renamed as LoC or Line of Control post the 1971 war), Pakistani army was indulging in intrusions, ceasefire violations and attacks on bridges and posts. Newspaper reports of the time suggest that Pakistan had started to frequently target Poonch, Chammb, Keran, Tithwal and Kargil areas, built new bunkers and brought in reinforcements from December 1964.
But President Mohd Ayub’s cabinet and especially Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto were not willing to give up their plan to create trouble in Kashmir. They had their reasons of course. In Bhutto’s assessment this was the best period to wrest back Kashmir from India. If Pakistan wanted to wrest Kashmir by armed force, Bhutto argued, 1965 was the last chance. He was sure the opportunity would vanish once the expansion and re-organisation of the Indian Army was complete in a few years time. At the opportune time, Bhutto felt, India was badly shaken by multiple factors: its humiliating defeat in the 1962 War with China, Jawaharlal Nehru’s death, his successor Lal Bahadur Shastri’s perceived ineffectual leadership, acute food shortage sweeping India and the start of a virulent anti-Hindi agitation in South India.
Bhutto’s logic did appear persuasive. Bhutto later told his biographer, Salman Taseer: “I wrote to Ayub Khan saying that if he wanted to pursue a policy of confrontation with India, time was running out. We had to act now or it was late.” So, even as the top-most decision-makers in Pakistan discussed and debated the ways to wrest Kashmir from India, the Pakistani Army stepped up its ceasefire violations and attacks from January 1965 onwards. SN Prasad and UN Thapliyal in their book, The India-Pakistan War of 1965 say as many as 1347 ceasefire violations took place between January and May 1965 as against 522 in the corresponding period the previous year!
It was against this backdrop that the 121 Independent Brigade Group, headquartered in Kargil, was faced with the task of silencing the Pakistani guns located on the utterly dominating heights of Point 13620. The 4 Rajput battalion, which had won the ‘Battle Honour Zojila’ on 15 Nov 1948 at Dras, just 64 km from Kargil, was the only Infantry battalion available to the 121 Brigade Group. The Bravo and Charlie Companies of the battalion launched a well-planned and perfectly executed counter-attack on 16-17 May and captured the well-entrenched Pakistan posts at Pt 13620 and the adjacent Black Rock peak.
The capture of Point 13620 and Black Rocks in a way proved to be morale booster for the beleaguered Indian Army reeling under the recent humiliation in the Kutch area. SN Prasad and Thapliyal write in their book: “The Kargil operation was in the nature of a counter-offensive, undertaken by Indian troops in many years. Its success gave a fillip to the troops in Jammu and Kashmir and the Army as a whole. Politically, it bolstered the image of the country.”
It’s another matter that like Haji Pir, both the political and military leadership of that time, succumbed to international pressure and returned both the peaks to Pakistan by 30 June. In yet another daring operation, Point 13620 was again recaptured in September that year only to be returned again. It was finally in 1971 that India recaptured the peak and has stayed in firm control since then.
Enhancing security on the Western Sea Board
Sat, May 9, 2015
Incredibly, despite Gujarat’s vulnerability as a frontline coastal state closest to Pakistan on the Western Sea Board, the Indian Navy’s on-shore presence in the state was so far negligible. Remember, Gujarat has the longest coastline–880 NM—in India. Besides it shares 532 Km of land border with Pakistan. With the Commissioning of INS Sardar Patel, a critical gap in Gujarat’s defence is being sought to be filled. The new base will have a couple of Indian Naval ships stationed here permanently besides a complement of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and a Dornier aircraft for reconnaissance and surveillance.
The establishment of INS Sardar Patel has not come a day soon.
Consider this: In the past decade, the maritime infrastructure along the coast of Gujarat has grown manifold. Several civilian ports have come up along the coastline, which collectively handle 300 million tonnes of cargo annually. One estimate says these ports handle about 30 per cent of the total cargo handled in the ports of India. Besides, according to study, there are 12 single point moorings (SPMs) in the Gulf of Kutch, through which about 120 million tonnes of crude oil is supplied to various refineries located along the Gujarat coast and refineries slightly deeper in the hinterland. These SPMs handle over 70 per cent of India’s oil imports.
Given the strategic importance of these installations and infrastructure, Gujarat’s importance as well as its vulnerability cannot be emphasised enough. Although a small detachment of the Indian navy was available at Porbandar since 1997 and a Naval Officer In Charge (NOIC), Gujarat was posted at various locations in the state, not enough attention was given to a larger naval presence in Gujarat. However, events like the attack on Mumbai in November 2008 and recent attempts to send in hostile elements on fishing boats into Gujarat, perhaps a hastened the plans to improve Indian Navy’s ability to counter such threats along the state’s vulnerable coastline. So, during the last few years, conscious attempts have been made to increase in the Navy’s presence and operations in the North Arabian Sea and off the Gujarat coast. A ‘Defence of Gujarat’ Exercise led by the Navy along with participation of other agencies, such as Indian Coast Guard, Indian Air Force and State Authorities has been an annual feature for the past few years. These exercises have helped in enhancing coordination and bolstering the maritime security preparedness in Gujarat.
According to the Indian Navy, it has plans to base more ships in the ports of Gujarat, besides augmenting air assets at Naval Air Enclave, Porbandar. In order to ensure the security of maritime traffic plying through the Deep water Channel (DWC), off Okha and Gulf of Kutch against threats from enemy submarines/ mines, the Navy is also in the process of acquiring Shallow-Water, anti-submarine warfare (ASW) Craft and Mine Counter Measure vessels. These vessels will operate from various ports in Gujarat in the eventuality of any hostilities.
The enhanced operational tempo along the coast of Gujarat has made it imperative for the Navy to improve the infrastructure on ground. Accordingly, living quarters for its men and officers, schools, hospital, maintenance facilities for various naval assets are in the process of being built, enhanced and operationalised at Porabandar. The Gujarat government has allotted about 750 acres of land to facilitate the new Naval base in the state. As the base gets commissioned, elements of the India Navy’s Western Fleet including aircraft carrier Viraat, destroyers Kolkata & Delhi, tanker Deepak, four stealth frigates, six missile boats, one OPV, two mobile missile coastal batteries and a handful fast interceptor craft lined up today outside Porbandar harbour to mark the big day.
Experts to suggest simplified defence acquisitions
Sat, May 2, 2015
On Friday, an innocuous notification issued by the Acquisition Wing of the Defence Ministry may have gone unnoticed in the flood of reactions evoked by Arun Shourie’s scathing attack on the Narendra Modi government.
Shourie’s criticism will be dissected from different angles by many commentators, depending on their own inclination but to me Shourie’s comments is a welcome development since it will wake up the Modi government’s managers and hopefully prod them into a focused action plan. For, I believe this government has taken many decisions that are far-reaching.
The neighbourhood-first approach on the foreign policy front for instance; the passage of crucial bills in the insurance, coal and mining sectors for one; Bringing in a sense of realism in the defence ministry by enforcing accountability, for another. But all these not-so-insignificant achievements have been overshadowed by an inept communication strategy of the government which in itself is surprising since one of the hallmarks of the Modi campaign in the run up to the 2014 elections was direct and effective connect with the people of all ages.
But to get back to the Defence Ministry’s notification. It has named a 10-member Committee of Experts to suggest amendments to the existing Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) and formulate a new policy framework.
The terms of reference for the committee are interesting: It is mandated to a) evolve a policy framework to facilitate ‘Make in India’ in Defence Manufacturing and align the policy evolved with the DPP 2013 and b) To suggest requisite amendments to DPP 2013 to remove the bottlenecks in the procurement process and also simply/rationalise various aspects of defence procurements.
The Committee, made up of eight non-government and retired government officials and two serving bureaucrats from the Defence Ministry, has been asked to submit its recommendations within 45 days.
The committee was formed after Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, during his interactions with various stakeholders, realised that the existing system was opaque and left no room for flexibility in decision making leading to inordinate delays in crucial acquisitions. It is evident from the composition of the committee that the selection of the members has been done with careful consideration.
Headed by a former home secretary to the Government of India, Dhirendra Singh, it has experts drawn from different fields. Another IAS officer, Satish B. Agnihotri, who retired in February this year as Secretary, Coordination in the Cabinet Secretariat, had been a former Director General, Acquisition, in the Defence Ministry not very long ago. Air Marshal S. Sukumar, who retired a couple of months ago, was known as a specialist in procurement and acquisition throughout his long career in the Indian Air Force. Similarly, Lt Gen AV Subramaniam, an EME officer, recently retired as Director General, Weapons and Equipment from the Army HQ and has extensive knowledge about the obstacles in quick procurement and acquisition and so does former naval officer, Rear Adm. Pritam Lal, who too specialised in this segment at the Naval HQ.
An ex DRDO Scientist, Pralhada, retired Colonel KV Kuber, who has worked extensively with the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) over the past decade and Sujit Hardas, Deputy Director General of the CII’s Defence wing, make up the non-government component of the committee. Two serving Joint Secretaries, Sanjay Garg and Subir Mallick are expected to give the government’s inputs on issues that will come up before the committee.
The Committee is likely to consider many aspects that dog India’s cumbersome acquisition process through a consultative process and come up with a user-friendly policy.
Some of the more pressing issues that the Defence Ministry is keen to resolve quickly are the question of appointment of ‘legal’ or authorised agents by defence firms and the policy of blanket blacklisting of manufacturers. The Ministry wants to use the power to ban a firm only in the rarest case. The previous government had indiscriminately blacklisted over a dozen firms, severely restricting the options of the forces to source equipment. Similarly, by legalising agents, the ministry wants to bring in a degree of transparency in the interaction between defence manufacturers and government officials. Currently, representatives of different firms–legal or otherwise–operate clandestinely since the legal position is unclear.
Given that many such changes are overdue in the Defence Ministry, the recommendations of the experts committee will surely be watched keenly across the defence sector.