This book is a handy asset to anyone trying to make sense of the challenges India’s national security confronts, the perspective with which it views them, and the ways and means it employs to deal with them. Its approach is holistic, covering national security in its widest dimensions, as well as in-depth, by plumbing its theoretical underpinnings.
In my own view, the country’s national security perspective lies somewhere within Ganguly’s neo-classical realist telling of India’s perspective. But, at the end of the day, what shapes it is the fact that India is a hugely diverse democracy with many poor people. Its politicians prefer restraint over aggressiveness in external policy and seek to manage problems sometimes by kicking the proverbial can down the road, rather than displaying the courage to resolve them.
A laudable aspect of the book is that it has a marked preference for younger writers. This has given the book a “here and now” perspective towards the unfolding future.
There are dangers in this approach. Say, the so-called surgical strike of September 29, 2017, seemingly signalled an end to the era of strategic restraint, but the signal turned out to be false. Though, in all fairness, the book largely transcends these episodic issues.
But I wonder if the debate that the 2018-2019 defence budget has thrown up is more than episodic. The penetrating analysis of the Ministry of Defence’s demands for grants, made by the Parliament’s standing committee on defence, reveals that many of the assumptions made by analysts about India’s national security posture relating to traditional security may not be on sound foundations.
Large outstanding needs are for submarines, aircraft carriers, fighter aircraft, refuellers.... Our politicians, who believe that chances of a conventional conflict are little, are thus in no hurry.
Primarily, this arises from the calculations of the political system in refusing to carry out the drastic reform of the defence system needed to enable it to be synchronised with the existing and near-term resource position. The Ministry of Defence already consumes 33 per cent of the total Central capital expenditure and the fact that defence pensions, which are not officially counted in the budget, now exceed the pay and allowances of serving personnel suggests that manpower is a major issue.
There are large outstanding needs—submarines, aircraft carriers, fighter aircraft, flight refuellers, artillery assets to name but a few. SIPRI figures show India is already the largest importer of major arms in the 2013-2017 period. So, one wonders how India will be able to fulfil the challenges to military modernisation laid out by Shashank Joshi.
Politicians believe that the chances of a conventional conflict are next to zero and are in no hurry to intervene. They have set up an apex Defence Planning Committee under the NSA to deal with the range of issues confronting India’s traditional security posture. The DPC’s remit is to virtually run the defence ministry.
One wonders whether the principals of the committee have the time to deal with the issues India’s conventional forces confront. As it is, there is nothing in the DPC’s responsibilities about dealing with the pressing issue of greater integration among the three wings of the forces and the need to integrate the military into the higher echelons of decision making.
Of course, the Handbook’s approach is bigger. Many aspects of these challenges have been raised by authors of the various chapters: Steven I. Wilkinson’s survey of civil-military relations, Paul Kapur and Manjeet Pardesi’s examination of India’s defence situation, and Richard Bitzinger’s overview of the challenges in reforming India’s defence industrial base.
The Handbook has done signal service in enlarging the focus of India’s national security concerns to include internal security and non-traditional security. In many ways, the real challenge that India may confront is internal security, especially with a government in power which is seeking to marginalise large sections of the population as part of its political mobilisational strategy.
Other very real security challenges lie within the ambit of economic security, climate change, regional migration, and water resources and trans-national crime. Hannes Ebert’s chapter on cyber security is an important aspect. India has been singularly lax in building up resilience to cope with the enormous threats here, which are both state-sponsored and part trans-national crime.
An interesting aspect of the Handbook is that its editors and many of its writers are either foreign nationals or scholars working in institutions abroad. Far from being negative, this provides a certain detachment in their analysis. Though India has a vibrant community of commentators and analysts, its academic institutions rarely feature the discipline of national security. Something like a handbook, primarily meant for the community of serious writers and scholars, requires a perspective that has been filtered through academic rigour.