Friday, October 24, 2014

Make the military strong, Mr Prime Minister. Without that, economic progress means nothing

Soldiers deployed on Siachen glacier, had reasons to be happy on Diwali day yesterday.

After all, not every day (or year) does the Prime Minister of the country come visiting laden with sweets and good wishes. Prime Minister Narendra Modi surprised almost everyone by deciding to fly to the Siachen Glacier on Thursday before his scheduled and publicised-in-advance visit to Srinagar.

Siachen by far is the most inhospitable and difficult area to be deployed.

With altitudes ranging from 12- to 23,000 feet and temperatures dipping to 50 degrees below zero, this perpetually snow-bound glacier has been a bone of contention between India and Pakistan ever since Indian troops captured the vital heights in April 1984 under Operation Meghdoot ( For details of that operation read excerpts from my book here:

Over 3000 soldiers are posted to guard the Saltoro ridge that divides Indian and Pakistani territories and gives India the edge since the Indian Army occupies all the strategic heights. The facilities on the glacier have improved way beyond the imagination of the pioneers who worked under most trying conditions (Here's a shameless plug: Please buy and read my book Beyond NJ 9842: The Siachen Saga to understand what Indian army and air force has achieved. Available here:

Yet, Siachen continues to remain the most difficult area to serve in. So it was a great morale booster for soldiers and airmen to have the Prime Minister spend time with them on Diwali day. Going by the Press note from the PMO, it is also clear that Mr Modi spoke of most issues that bother soldiers and reassured them in a way.

"The Prime Minister assured the jawans that wherever they are, and serving or retired, the country stands shoulder to shoulder with them. He said their dreams and responsibilities are the entire country`s responsibility. He said he would do his utmost to ensure a life of dignity for them. The Prime Minister said the promise of One Rank, One Pension had been fulfilled, and preparations were being made for a National War Memorial, that we could all be proud of," the press note at the end of the PM's visit said.

A big assurance from the Prime Minister himself on two major issues bothering serving and retired soldiers. One, they are not treated with dignity that soldiers deserve--which is largely a societal problem, rather than administrative. (Read: He has promised to take steps to lend dignity to soldiering.

The second issue--granting One Rank One Pension (OROP), that is equal pension to all soldiers irrespective of their date and year of retirement--is more tangible and completely within the control of the government. So while one would like to believe the Prime Minister when he says OROP promise has been fulfilled, many veterans have complained that there is no sign of OROP being implemented.  In view of these two totally contradictory views, the government needs to communicate clearly on what the exact status on this issue is.

Welfare of veterans is one major issue but the Prime Minister and his defence-cum-finance minister Arun Jaitley also need to take a call on reforming the country's higher defence management architecture at the earliest. Unless that is done, no amount of good intentions would bring in the much needed spring-cleaning in the obdurate and moribund defence ministry.

Much has been written and spoken about the non-existent synergy between civilian bureaucracy and the military but the latest salvo fired by former Navy Chief Adm DK Joshi, who resigned suddenly in February is worth pondering over. In an interview to me, Adm Joshi was scathing about the reality in the higher defence management structure.

He said: "The root cause is this dysfunctional and inefficient business model that we have, wherein professional competence, domain expertise, accountability, responsibility and authority, these all reside in separate silos in different locations. While professional competence, accountability, responsibility is with the service that is not the case with authority. And by authority I really mean the power to approve something, empowerment to approve something or the other. For example, change of submarine batteries, which are available indigenously or for commencing refits and repairs of ships, aircraft, submarines in Indian yards, the service does not have that empowerment. That's a broad construct as a background. Where there is authority there is no accountability. And where there is responsibility there is no authority.

"You don't have to accept this coming from me. For more than a decade now recognising fully that higher management of defence needs reforms, several expert committees have been formed. Virtually all their recommendations have been identical, but vested interests have ensured that the more substantive ones, which bring authority and accountability together, have not been approved. Some peripheral ones have been progressed but nothing substantive.

"You will be, for example, told listen we have created HQ IDS. But it's a headless wonder, its head was never appointed. I have been CISC, CINCAN tenure. I know it very well. Then they will tell you how the service HQs have been named as Integrated HQs, Ministry of Defence, but as the then Defence Secretary told the Standing Committee on Defence, the changes were mostly cosmetic as indeed they are."

The indictment of the structure that handles India's defence could not have been more severe. Adm Joshi, I must confess, was also unsparing about a section of the media for its motivated campaign against the navy but that's a different story which will have to wait for another time.

For the moment, suffice it to say only a drastic overhaul of the existing system in keeping with the Naresh Chandra Committee recommendations if not earlier reports, can rescue the Indian armed forces from their current state of despair and despondency.

Military bureaucracy in the South Block does speak about a changed atmosphere and approach to decision-making in the Defence Ministry. Service Chiefs, for instance, now meet the Prime Minister once a month, one-on-one in pre-scheduled appointments; the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), which finalizes all purchases, big and small, is slated to meet at least once a month from now on, we are told; civilian bureaucrats who ultimately place orders for weapons purchase and sanction funds for crucial projects are said to call up service headquarters asking for quicker delivery of files in sharp contrast to earlier practice. So things have certainly started happening, but only in small doses.

Like he did with diesel deregulation and labour reforms, the Prime Minister must take the system of defence management by the scruff of its neck and shake it down to get optimum results. There is no other alternative if he wants to see a strong India.

For, no amount of economic progress can make India a force to reckon with if it is not backed by a hard-edged, battle ready military. Therein lies Mr Modi's major challenge.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

It is the de-hyphenation of India-Pakistan that Islamabad fears the most

More than 18 months ago, I was in Dubai as part of a track II effort (my first and perhaps last such participation, given that I am not much of a Pakistan watcher) on how India and Pakistan can overcome their antipathy and strike an enduring, working relationship. The conference covered issues of common interest to the two countries, including trade, business, micro finance, IT, water, energy, climate change, public health, security, and media. I wrote briefly about it in May 2013 (

At the conference I spoke on the Indian military doctrine. In the course of my presentation I asserted that the Indian military has, over the past decade, re-oriented itself towards meeting the bigger challenge from China since it exactly knows how to deal with Pakistan. The underlying theme of my assertion was: India has got the measure of Pakistan's predictable military moves and knows how to counter them. The focus therefore is to try and be prepared for the bigger threat, that is China. A retired Pakistani military officer, who was among the delegates, disagreed demonstrably. "How can India forget that Pakistan is a nuclear power?  How can India ignore Pakistan's military power," he remonstrated with me. I could not, till the end, convince him that India was not taking Pakistan's military threat lightly but was merely pointing out that Indian military has moved on to prepare for a far more potent threat. He however, would not believe me.

I recall that little encounter now since the current situation on the border between India and Pakistan, I believe, is also born out of Pakistani establishment's (read the Army's) fear of losing its relevance in the Indian sub-continent. 

For long, the hyphenation of India-Pakistan has been a common international theme. But a small but subtle change in India's approach towards big international players and the immediate neighbourhood, has clearly caught Pakistan on the wrong foot. If Prime Minister Narendra Modi's unexpected move to reach out to SAARC leaders by inviting them for his inauguration was a surprise move, his government's decision to cancel India-Pakistan bilateral talks on the issue of Pakistan's high commissioner to India meeting separatist leaders from Kashmir despite India's warning, was totally unexpected in Islamabad. Suddenly, this was a different New Delhi it was forced to deal with.

The decision makers--Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former spymaster-turned National Security Adviser Ajit Doval--were not going be trapped into a long-held framework of 'talks-with-Pakistan-at-any-cost' that had come to dominate New Delhi's policy on Pakistan, even during the earlier avatar of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Instead, they had decided to draw new, firm red lines, even if that meant a breakdown in the dialogue process. So the first red line was 'either talk to us or talk to the separatists.' Both are not acceptable was the clear message.

Simultaneously, Narendra Modi's outreach to other smaller neighbours in the Indian sub-continent--Nepal, Bhutan and a lesser extent to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka--meant India was mending its somewhat wobbly relations with them even as Pakistan was being left out. The last straw however came late in September when Prime Minister Modi traveled to the United States.

First, at the United Nations General Assembly, Modi, much to Pakistan's annoyance, refused to react to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's mention of Kashmir in his speech. Then, more ominously for Pakistan, the joint statement at the end of Modi's meeting with President Barack Obama spoke in unambiguous terms the need to dismantle terrorist havens in Af-Pak.

 "The leaders stressed the need for joint and concerted efforts, including the dismantling of safe havens for terrorist and criminal networks, to disrupt all financial and tactical support for networks such as Al Qaeda, Lashkar-e Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, the D-Company, and the Haqqanis. They reiterated their call for Pakistan to bring the perpetrators of the November 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai to justice," the statement said. This was unprecedented. 

Was this the beginning of the de-hyphenation of India-Pakistan that Islamabad so dreads? Was Washington finally coming round to accept New Delhi's long-held view that Pakistan-based terrorist groups posed the biggest threat to peace in the Indian sub-continent? For the Pakistani Army, Washington's endorsement of India's stand meant its strategic assets (LeT, the Haqqanis) were in danger of being targeted more vigorously.

This, in the Pakistani Army's mind, was invitation to disaster and more dangerously, to becoming irrelevant. It had to do something to bring Kashmir back in focus and also take control of the country's foreign policy. So what does it do? Fall back on the tried and tested formula of igniting the border with India. 

Predictably, it activates the International Border (or what it calls the working boundary) since tactically and topographically it is easy to target villagers around the BSF posts. In earlier years, India would have also fired back appropriately but at the same time would have asked for an immediate flag meeting with Pakistani border guards. A lull would have followed the meeting but firing would have resumed again, making a mockery of the ceasefire both had agreed to in November 2003. This happened repeatedly in 2012 and 2013.

The current government was however not willing to follow the well-known script. 

Instead, it issued clear instructions to BSF to respond in kind and some more. The BSF was told unambiguously to retaliate heavily whenever provoked. During the weekly DGMO (Director Generals of Military Operations) conference on telephone last Tuesday and through other informal channels, Pakistan was told that talks and violence cannot go hand in hand. So flag meetings at the border were ruled out.In a clear departure from the past, Pakistan was warned that India is willing to climb the 'escalatory ladder', that is take the border firing to another level if it so desired. The idea was to impose, as Defence Minister Arun Jaitley said, "un-affordable cost," on Pakistan.

Military veterans and serving commanders that I spoke with, welcomed this unambiguous statement of intent from the highest quarters. For a decade and more, most tactical moves they made were subject to clearance from Delhi. No longer. "Now we have been given an overall policy framework but tactical decisions are left to us," a serving general in J&K told me. 

Not surprisingly, there have been fears expressed by 'usual suspects' that New Delhi is playing a dangerous game with a nuclear-armed adversary and as a bigger and responsible nation, India should not be indulging in such brinkmanship. So well-entrenched is this view in some quarters on both sides of the border that a Pakistani minister, as if on cue, promptly raised the nuclear bogey.

The fact is: between ceasefire violations and employment of nuclear weapons there are several options available with India to keep Pakistan in check. After nearly 10 days of heavy firing on the border, the tension appears to be winding down. What India must guard against is provocation elsewhere in the form of a covert attack in Kashmir or a terrorist strike in rest of the country. If that happens, the response will have to be punitive. Surely, Indian decision-makers have thought this through and have identified a point where they can terminate the current confrontation after gaining the necessary advantage. Therein lies the trick of using coercive military-diplomatic tactics.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Do serious work but don't take yourself seriously. The man who told me this is no more

Some time in 1984, in Guwahati, I was still undecided about continuing in journalism after having joined The Sentinel in May 1983. The mind was torn between giving another shot at CDS (Combined Defence Services) exam after having lost a chance to join the Indian Air Force because my graduation results got delayed and continuing with exciting but poorly paid profession of journalism, I ran into a gentle, pleasant man with impeccable manners in Guwahati's only decent Hotel, Belle Vue in early 1984.

MV Kamath was already a legend among journalists, having spent more than three decades in the capitals of the world--Brussels, Washington, London--and having edited the Illustrated Weekly, India's most famous magazine. He had come to visit north-east after a four-five year gap. People in fact remembered him for a cover story in the Illustrated Weekly in the late 1970s describing the region as 'Seven Sisters.'

One evening, then Editor of The Sentinel, DN Bezboruah, a friend of Mr Kamath, sent me on an errand--I was too junior to have interviewed him--to Mr Kamath;s hotel. As I entered his room and introduced myself, his first question was: "What is a Gokhale doing in Assam?" As I narrated my short story, father-in-the-army-posted-in-Guwahati-therefore-I am-here, etc, he ordered a coffee , made me sit down and relax and started chatting about life in Guwahati.As I opened up and told him, how I had walked into The Sentinel one afternoon for a casual interview and had started working that very evening, he remarked:" That's a great accident." His relaxed personality encouraged me to ask him a question that I would normally hesitate to ask a towering personality in the first meeting. 

I blurted out: "Sir, how do you sustain yourself in this uncertain, poorly paid and rarely understood profession?" His eyes twinkled, had a gentle, amused smile on his lips as he contemplated a reply to my seemingly silly question. As he took his time, I thought to myself, have I been impertinent?

But the very next moment, Mr Kamath put me out of my misery. He said: " Son, when I started with the Free Press Journal in the 1950s, my guru and a legend in journalism, Sadanand (I hope I have got the name right because this was so long ago) had put me at ease after I had similar doubts. You know what he told me? He (Sadanand) said as long as you do serious work but don't take yourself too seriously, as long as you realise that you are as good as your last by line and as long as you are discreet, you can be a reasonably successful journalist."

Then Mr Kamath went on elaborate the three mantras: If you are a professional journalist, don't ever think that your work is going to bring in revolution or that you are going to change the world. That job is best left to the revolutionaries (don't take yourself seriously).

As a journalist you have to perform consistently. One flash in the pan, one impact creating story is of no use to those who want to remain engaged with journalism on a long term basis; so never rest on your laurels (You are as good as your last by-line).

Discretion, moderation is the key to successful human interaction. In journalism it is all the more important. People will trust you if you keep your word, keep their confidence. ( It is more important what you don't write than what you write!)

"I have followed these principles to the 'T' and I haven't done badly," Mr Kamath said, smiling mischievously. That was surely an understatement. We chatted some more. I came back and within a month or so I decided to continue with journalism much to my parents' dismay (that story is here: If I have managed to keep my head above water for the past 31 years, it is simply because I have tried to follow the three principles that Mr Kamath so effortlessly conveyed to me when I was barely 22.

Mr Kamath's influence on my life and profession continued thereafter as I made it a point every time I went to Pune to stop over at Khar in Bombay where he invariably cooked breakfast or made a cup of coffee and chatted about life, journalism and writing, sitting amidst his vast collection of books. He couldn't make it for my marriage but took a instant liking to my wife Neha, when we visited him on our way to Goa in 1988. " Its time to switch priorities Nitin," he told me as a friendly advice; "now journalism has to come second." 

Our contact became infrequent after he shifted to Manipal but I would call occasionally and he would invariably enquire about our growing family, my growth in journalism and continue to be a calming influence.

His life and work is too well know for me to recount the stellar contribution he made to journalism but one habit of his has had a lasting impact on me. Mr Kamath used to write at least a 1000 words every day on his old, battered but beloved Olivetti typewriter, no matter how busy he was. He continued to do so until his last days. The love for writing and the discipline to do it every single day kept him busy even in his 80s and early 90s. 

If I can bring even an iota of his discipline and stamina in my life, I would be more than happy.

Unfortunately they don't make the likes of MV Kamath anymore.

Thank you for all the love and wisdom Sir! 

We will miss you but wherever you have gone, you are bound to make people happy.