Former national security adviser (NSA) Brajesh Mishra spoke in an interview about the controversy surrounding India’s military preparedness and its broader strategic implications in the light of outgoing army chief General V.K. Singh calling most of India’s military hardware obsolete. Mishra was NSA in 1998-2004 during the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. Edited excerpts:
What is the biggest threat facing India today?
China and Pakistan. Putting military pressure on both fronts.
India is lacking in tactical/defensive weapons—so Gen. Singh says—though it has nuclear weapons. How does this fit into the security matrix, especially as Pakistan and China are modernizing their forces?
I will not go into the numbers of nuclear weapons, etc., you should get a fair indication from the missile tests we are doing. So far as Pakistan is concerned, we have the 800km (Prithvi) missile. I don’t ask the government are you following the programme we (the NDA government) had. On other things, we know what the situation is like. It is not as dire as the army chief makes out to be on the eve of his departure. What did he do in the past two- and-a-half years?
Is India in a position to fight a conventional war with China and Pakistan together today?
No. (But) I don’t think there will be a war. I would say if there is military pressure on India from both countries to keep you busy in South Asia, South-East Asia, the Chinese want that for themselves, so that you (India) don’t play a part outside South Asia. They don’t want India to interfere there (South China Sea). On the periphery till Somalia, there are a lot of rebellions. This is our strategic area and China does not want us to get out of South Asia because then its claim to be the leader in Asia is taken out. What I say is military pressure will increase and in a few years’ time, there may be joint pressure. So far as Pakistan is concerned, they have always thought of themselves as better soldiers and better officers than ourselves, and three times they have been told they are not. They keep on trying. The problem that I see today is that China is doing much more with Pakistan in military terms, financial terms and infrastructure. This is not an all-weather friendship, it’s an alliance, it’s a military alliance.
Now if Mr (A.K.)Antony(the defence minister) and the Prime Minister have realized that we could be in a situation worse than 1962, then they have to do something about it and do it quickly. They have to ask the Armed Forces to modernize their procedures. You have to get the best with the money that you have, not that you will save money if you go for the lowest bidder.
And the politicians should now forget Bofors. So I would have supported Gen. Singh if he were talking about what would happen to us in the next three, four, five years.
Should we have a relook at the way chiefs of the Armed Forces are appointed—more on the basis of age and seniority than merit? How do you think we can overcome the leadership deficit?
Automatic succession is not possible. Let me put it to you in one sentence. The chief and the senior commanders who are there all over the country, if they don’t look after the jawans and the jawans are dissatisfied, they don’t deserve to be chiefs, they don’t deserve to be in the army. Now people have been talking about the demoralization in the defence forces. I want to ask them—what is the morale of your jawans? Are you talking about them or are you talking about yourselves? Because all these complaints that come from senior officers, they are about their personal grievances, not about the jawans. So it’s not easy to answer how do you solve this. The solution comes from coordination and cooperation between the civilian authorities and the military top leaders.
Do you think what Gen. Singh has done is unbecoming of a general? If you were in the government, how would you have handled this?
Early on in our time, we had a problem with Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat. Here, in this case, he was not opposing Antony, he was saying my concern is my date of birth. That is how it began. It began as a personal problem. Finally, the Supreme Court threw out his case. Then he went berserk, shooting here, shooting there.
There is no tangible proof to say that the leaks have come from Gen. Singh?
He has just his personal agenda. As far as the leak of the letter is concerned, I have been in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) for six years. The Prime Minister has confidential people who keep sensitive documents. I can’t imagine, knowing PMO, that there is going to be a leak from there. The General saying that we don’t have anything with which to counterPakistan, you think PMO is going to…go out and leak that? Please take my word for it. PMO would not do this.
So what is the way out?
I have already suggested the way out. The government should ask him (Gen. Singh) to go on compulsory leave. If he has to go on compulsory leave, then in two months’ time he retires.
How do you assess the government’s handling of the Gen. Singh’s case?
This government is totally indecisive, it’s a non-government. The middle class of this country, perhaps farmers also, feels there is no government. If we are going to not reform, but resolve the situation which may go on for some years, first thing we need is a strong defence minister.
Are you suggesting that the incumbent is a weak defence minister?
I am not saying Mr Antony is strong or not. I am not criticizing Antony or one politician in particular. But if he is strong, then he must assert himself. The non-governance idea is also in the minds of the people who are concerned with the Armed Forces. This government is so indecisive they can’t answer a question from the press without thinking for 24 hours. The impression is that the government does not act and if it does act after much delay, the ministers quarrel in the open. I have never seen a government so…confused.
What are the implications for national security if an alliance like the Third Front comes to power?
If there is a Third Front with the three ladies and Mulayam (Singh Yadav) and Chandrababu (Naidu), it will not have the majority. The Congress or the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) will have the largest numbers. They will not join the government. So after 12 months or 18 months, next elections will be there. Who is bothered about national security? It is very important. If you are prepared, the world and even your neighbours will come to respect you.
You re-scripted India-US ties— where do they stand now? Do you see the possibility of India-US cooperation in areas such as South-East Asia, for example, when there are differences over Iran?
The partnership between India and the US, to begin with, is going to be very different. They have a global agenda, we have a regional interest. Only in South-East Asia do our interests seem to converge. Now, of course, South-East Asia also means China, so how do we manage that? The point is that if you are at a conflict with Pakistan and China, which country is going to put its boots down on this country to ride on? Americans are already withdrawing from Afghanistan. Until about four years ago, the world was getting ready to accept India as one of the most important (countries) to deal with. Today, (due to) internal problems, we have decreased the rate of growth, next year it might go down. I don’t want to sound like a war hawk, but a country which wants to be counted in the world has to have a good economy and a good defence. Merely having 6.9% growth is not enough, on the other side (China) when you look at the 10.4%. If you want to be counted in the world among great powers, you must have assured security and a good economy which would invite foreign investments.
How far are the Taliban and Islamic fundamentalism a threat to India today?
If the Taliban and the Pakistan government are acting together, then I would see that as a threat, but so far we have not seen any evidence of the Taliban being involved.
It does not mean there will not be differences. It will continue and surprisingly (Syed) Salahuddin (head of the Hizbul Mujahideen and chairman of the Pakistan-based United Jihad Council) is saying they will not send any militants to Kashmir, and what he is hoping is when it becomes independent, it will join Pakistan. Taliban, at the moment, I don’t see it as a threat. If Americans leave, then all the Taliban has to do is wait and at that point of time,Taliban, Pakistan and Afghanistan will have to be together.