Book Review: Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab. 2017. Dragon on our Doorstep: Managing China Through Military Power (New Delhi: Aleph Book Company).
Dragons sell. Especially on book jackets and in book titles. Red dragons, baldly hinting at China, sell even better, perhaps. The title of this book is however, somewhat misleading for it is in the main, actually a very good overview of the structural problems that hold India back from its ambition of becoming a regional and global power. China is merely the counterpoint against which these problems are magnified and shown as requiring urgent resolution.
The authors start off with a cutting Introduction that blames various levels of India’s political and military leadership for mistakes in multiple conflicts and crises – the 1962 conflict with China, the 1965 war with Pakistan, ‘the wily Bhutto outsmart[ing] Gandhi’ in 1971 on a Kashmir resolution, the ‘panic reaction’ of Operation Meghdoot to hold Siachen, the ‘Pyrrhic victory’ of Kargil and the ‘total disappointment’ of Operation Parakram. China makes an appearance only on and off here but most notably in the concluding assertion that ‘the problem with Pakistan is inextricably linked with the China problem’.
The essential story of both the India-China relationship and the management of the boundary dispute is of various institutions of the Indian government working at cross-purposes or with little to no coordination. India’s border management is seen as having ‘too many shortcomings’ and rightly so. Even if might warrant no change, it is astonishing that a policy on patrolling limits by Indian security forces along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) set in 1975 has not required a review since then. And if inertia is one problem, lack of planning is another. Calling it a ‘mindless political act’, the authors note how the Army’s so-called ‘strike corps’ of the 17 Mountain Corps has been deployed without coordinating with the Indian Air Force. A third problem is the lack of clarity as to the objectives. Is the objective on the LAC – ‘border guarding’ that requires a ‘single point of control’ as demanded by the Army or merely ‘border policing’ by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police under the control of the Ministry of Home Affairs?
A strident tone of criticism of the government, including of the military, is evident throughout the book. As a former military officer and now a journalist, at least one of the authors, Pravin Sawhney is well-placed to thus criticize. While justified in many instances, there are no doubt genuine constraints of budgets, local politics and indeed other development priorities on even the most well-intentioned governments.
Expressions such as, ‘appeasement’, ‘weak-kneed’, ‘timidity’, are used rather too often with respect to India – across both Congress- and BJP-led governments – to ensure a dispassionate reception by the powers that be. Indeed, those wishing to really effect changes in government policies from the outside also have to consider the reality of prickly bureaucrats in service who are too sure of government (and their own) infallibility and take a dim view of criticism or contrarian views. What is more in the current political climate across a number of democracies, opposition or disagreement is all too easily labeled as ‘anti-national’ or ‘unpatriotic’. And subjects such as Pakistan and China tend to wake up the troll in even the nicest of Indians.
Meanwhile, in their review of China’s ‘grand strategy’ the authors seem to be at pains to underline that India has not understood the use of military power as an instrument of strategy and foreign policy; by contrast, the Chinese and Pakistanis have ‘smart military power’, that helps them achieve their objectives. This might be true but the authors tend to ascribe rather too much intelligence and capacity to the Chinese. A gap in capabilities and shortcomings or missteps on the Indian side might add up to China being ahead in the race but not necessarily a permanent or even sustainable Chinese advantage. India certainly has a long way to go but the authors tend towards self-flagellation, and that is just as bad as hubris.
More than half the book is devoted to issues of India’s internal frailties ranging from Kashmir to ethnic and Maoist insurgencies, from the exaggerated confidence in the fighting capabilities of the Indian armed forces to structural weaknesses in the decision-making apparatus in New Delhi, from the failures of India’s indigenous defence industry to the apparent missteps in its nuclear policy. There is the occasional infelicity here such as, for instance, the claim that Kerala’s ‘educated people [are] temperamentally inclined towards Communist thinking’ and by implication towards Maoism. Clearly, the authors have a few things to learn about Kerala politics but that apart it is these chapters that really underline the distance and challenges that India needs to overcome in order to be seen in the same bracket as China.
Ultimately, the lesson that the Chinese have learnt and continue to stress is that a country’s foreign and security policies abroad are only as good as the strength of its internal structures, economic development, capacity for innovation and ability to maintain social peace and stability will allow. This lesson is what this book turns our eyes to and that is its strength.
Originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘How to Train Your Dragon’, The Indian Express, 25 February 2017.