There is dust on the mirror – July 2005

Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab

Confusion is a convenient state of bliss in a democracy. Nobody knows anything, yet everybody feels that they not only know anything, yet everybody feels that they not only know but understand everything. In India, successive government have not only encouraged but often perpetrated confusion among the people about the country’s foreign policy, strategic capabilities, defence pre-paredness, relations with the neighbouring countries and economic development and so on by selective leaks to the media. While opacity has its uses in governance, transparency within the country can lead to educated debate which can perhaps help in formulating better policies. Besides, by definition, in a democracy people have a right to know.

But transparency in national security matters is a double-edged sword which can work either way: it can deter as well as expose, depending upon the user. Developed countries, like the US for instance, have used transparency in military matters as deterrence. Given its out of area responsibilities, the more it showcases its military capabilities and the art of war-fighting, the more it will deter the adversary. However, in the case of developing countries like India, Pakistan and even China that have limited military capabilities and rely heavily on improvisations and innovations based upon their genius, opacity implies deterrence. The more they hide the more the adversary is left guessing, and hence, would remain uncertain about what it is pitted against. So while, transparency would be a good idea as far as debate within the country is concerned, in relations with other countries it may not be a very good idea. Hence, India should remain circumspect about the extent of military relations with the US, including opening up its modest research and development capabilities. India should also ensure that it is not militarily dependent on the US, which is its haste for better relations, it may just become.

For some strange reason, India government plays the transparency game in the reverse mode. While it is willing to expose it modest capabilities to the world (by extension, the adversaries as well), it hides the same from its own countrymen. This was evident during Operation Parakram, the 10-month long military stand-off between India and Pakistan, when India nearly went to war on two occasions-January and May 2002-and eventually was the first to blink and recall its forces. It is now known that the government of the day issued no directive to the military leadership about what political objectives were to be achieved by the operation. On repeated insistence by the military leadership, a half-hearted attempt was made, which however, could not fructify as the operation was called off. The big problem with the operation was that it was intended for a war with Pakistan. Before the army’s mobilisation, Prime Minister A.B.Vajpayee himself had cleared the war plan, and January 2002 was decided as the opportunity to go offensive inside Pakistan. At that time, General Musharraf was militarily at his weakest; his troops were fighting the US-led war in Afghanistan, and two corps worth of troops meant for India was unavailable in January 2002. Unfortunately, under US pressure, the army was told by the politically leadership to call off the planned offensive. Subsequently, the government cooked up various objectives that were achieved by Operation Parakram. All this led to the then army chief, General S. Padmanabhan telling the media on 6 November 2002 that: “Whenever there is a situation calling for army’s help, the latter’s role should be clearly defined to avoid confusion.”

Earlier during Operation Vijay (the 1999 Kargil war), the military objective was evident: it was to evict the intruders from Indian territory in Kargil. Realising the impact and reach of the electronic media, the army leadership decided that daily briefing on the operations would be given by the directorate of military operations, the very people who were in the best know of what was happening on the war front. The then defence minister, George Fernandes was unhappy with army chief, General V.P Malik and sought to curtail military side of the war. He was of the view that even when the war was on, briefings on military matters should be done by the defence ministry, leaving the political and diplomatic aspects for the external affairs ministry. In hindsight, the army did the correct things by providing timely, accurate, and comprehensive information on the war to the media. This helped in squashing the enemy’s propaganda during the war.

The same things would happen regarding Jammu and Kashmir, Where the army is combating insurgency. Unfortunately, the government is not losing sleep on the slow bleeding of India by Pakistan in J&K. For this reason, the government has not given the End-State-meaning what exactly is required to be accomplished by military means-to the army leadership. This has made the latter’s task more difficult. In addition to killing terrorists and keeping infiltration across the Line of Control in check, the army has to ensure that it projects a humane and compassionate face so that innocent people are not alienated further. The least this requires is a good working relationship between the army and the media. The Army chief, General J.J Singh understands this well.

Since foreign policy and the armed forces are among the crucial drivers for national security, we look at transparency through their prism. India’s relations with the US, the impending visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the US, the peace process and talks on Siachen with Pakistan and of course, the media-armed forces relationship are the issue that unfold in the coming pages.


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