Thursday, September 24, 2015

Roaring and Bleating

Bharat Karnad launched his new book today: "Why India is not a Great Power (yet)".

I had been looking forward to this event ever since the CPR invitation hit my inbox. I had expected thisto be another of those dour events where folks landed up late, where a flunky praised the author and his book to the skies, the author read some excerpts, everbody clapped, chatted over some coffee and dispersed.

As expected, the event started 30 mts late, but everything else was refreshingly different. The author made some opening remarks, positioning himself as a military "hawk" and then went on to paint a dismal picture of India as a world-power-wannabe. An aspirant unable to muster the will, either to have a global vision, or to implement it. A lion in that bleeted like sheep, and acted like one.

Karnad's views on the subject are well known. Interestingly, while all the panelists agreed that it was a great piece of work, not one of the agreed with his conclusions. And the best part of it was that Karad had personally invited experts who had a diametrically  opposite world view.

Jairam Ramesh, a Congress-man and former minister in the UPA government, felt that Karnad had erred in equating military might with being a global power; Shiv Shankar Menon presented elegant and coherent agruments on why all the policy recommendations of the book were signs of a declining power, not a rising one; Adm. Raja Menon read out a note from which it was difficult to separate exerpts from his own views, and Maj.Gen Narasimhan thought that Karnad's conclusions were flawed because they were based on a limited interaction with those who knew better.

All through the wit, sarcasm and sage advise, the experts agreed on one point: There is not much  internal coherence within Government of India - each ministry and department has its own ideas on what constitutes "national interest", with many of them working at cross-purposes.

Like the 'Blind Men of Hindoostan', they all hold on to their own views and miss the elephant in the room.

Some interesting takeaways:
  • Nehru, despite all proclamations on non-alignment gave the first go-ahead for the nuclear weapons program. This was part of a vision which withered away after 1964
  • 23% of Indan Army budget goes towards maintaining armoured corpes. Two mountain divisions can be maintained for the cost of one armoured division;
  • Despite all its war-games, the IAF was completely unprepared for Kargil. It had never envisaged a was on the Himalayan frontier. Even today, the focus remains on 'short, decisive' wars along the Western border, despite rising alarms about the Tibet border.
  • Our military brass seeks approval from a Western audience, not its domestic stakeholders. It took an MIT case-study and GE's initiatives, for to realize the value of "frugal innovation";
  • Everybody realises the need for a strong private sector reducing our dependence on imports but there is not sufficient motivation (read "trust"), to see this through.

- OUP Book -

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