New Delhi: Equally disconcerting is the wide publicity that attends India-Pakistan border skirmishes, often with the enthusiastic and ghoulish encouragement of the Narendra Modi government. The trend began with vast official advertisement of the “surgical strikes” which Pakistan rather unconvincingly denied, and it has carried further this year to army videos of Indian gunfire pulverizing Pakistani posts in the midst of preparations to infiltrate terrorists into Jammu and Kashmir. While state publicity of army operations may occasionally be necessitated to shore national morale, a condition likely fulfilled by the saturation coverage of the “surgical strikes”, it is at the same time highly inadvisable and potentially dangerous to repeat the spectacle. The line that separates national morale-boosting and swaying and managing public opinion is indeed thin and hazy. Breaching the line to manipulate national mood by means of publicized army operations is not only criminally irresponsible but a indubitable recipe for disaster, The Narendra Modi government may have crossed the red line with the latest distributed video of the destroyed Pakistani terrorist launch stations.

Pakistani terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere in the country requires strategic redress. This writer would refrain from enumerating the strategic plans and devices to contain Pakistani terrorism. Strategic plans also incorporate several tactical options which are located in the beginning, middle and at various other points of the strategic course. The strategic course cannot be a single one to neutralize an adversary of seventy years. The strategic plans have to be interlinked, set to rational timelines, and charged to motion after obtaining broad domestic political consensus. Indian politicians are wise and deep. If the government of the day can keep geopolitical strategies above and beyond partisan politics, there is a good likelihood of obtaining political consensus. The consensus is both necessary and imperative because the strategic plans require continuity and autonomous existence unconstrained by changes of governments at the Centre. “Surgical strikes” and destruction of terrorist launch pads qualify as tactical actions. They have to be wedded to larger strategic plans to irredeemably cripple Pakistani terror capacities. On their own, they can only provide temporary respite, and perhaps not even that.

Unfortunately, the Narendra Modi government has assumed tactics for strategy. Packaged with the right publicity, it believes tactics can substitute for strategy. That will not happen. Another menacing strain has been added to this tragic and explosive narrative. The Indian Army is being primed to release footage of operations whenever public pressure on the Central government becomes acute. On this course lies calamity. The government has to employ political persuasion to calm public opinion. It cannot stoke ultra-nationalism on one hand and expect placid public opinion on the other especially after a spectacularly vicious Pakistani terrorist attack on an Indian garrison. The army must be left alone to plan and effect the counter-strike and not be dragged into propping up nationalism. Nationalism is odious and produces no winners.

In the end, it boils down to leaving professional war-fighting to the army after thoroughly educating it in respect of the political objectives. Being among the large armies of the world, the Indian Army is really a creature of collective leadership. Highly pyramidical in hierarchy and promotions, nearly only officers of outstanding abilities gain superior ranks. At the top, choosing one commander from another is scarcely easy because little separates them in terms of professional skills and competence. Counterintuitive as this may seem, the Chief of Army Staff does not lead the army quite in the way of the past. For example, only the very best in all respects get to head the Northern Army Command. If the political objectives given to the Northern Command are clear and lucid, the army chief in the circumstances becomes more of a facilitator than a leader. If this pattern of thought is followed with the other army commands, it enables a proper perspective to be gained on the position of the army chief. While a dud would be unacceptable, in all other respects, following the seniority principle in the chief’s appointment is sensible. An exception may be made in the case of thinking generals like Krishnaswamy Sundarji or Sundararajan Padmanabhan who anyhow became chiefs. Thinkers are usually strategists. If all the shortlisted commanders for promotion to the top are competent tacticians, it is best not to tinker with the seniority principle.

Advisedly, this writer is taking no current names here. But it must be emphasized that the Central government must stay out of regular issues of the army and indeed of the armed forces as a whole including in the appointment of chiefs. A chief promoted out-of-turn may feel obliged and be less able to resist political pressure damaging to the force. Secondly, the Centre must keep a distance from the operational role of the armed forces after setting the political objectives. Nationalism must be shunned and the armed forces kept insulated from such excursions. The Narendra Modi government’s record in all these matters is murky but it is never late to change. Conservatism on issues concerning the armed forces and in particular the army as an institution is greatly advised.

To be continued....

Read “Rating the PM - 1,” “2,” “3,” “4,” “5,” “6,” “7”and “8” here , here, here, here, here, here, here and here.