Increasingly, there is a demand from the big powers and smaller nation States to have India more actively participate in their strategic calculations. Take for instance the American desire to have India as a key to their Indo-Pacific strategy to counter China’s growing footprints, or, how some of the Gulf States like Oman would like a serious defence partnership with India. All this would require perhaps more defence diplomacy than the mandarins in India’s South Block would be willing to undertake. But Mr Modi’s government must overcome such resistance, if his diplomatic efforts are to truly put India in reckoning as a military power.
At the start of this year, the US ambassador, Kenneth Juster publicly proposed that at some point India and the US should consider having military liaison officers posted in each other’s combat commands, but Delhi responded with studied silence. Indeed, there are security concerns for India as the US remains engaged even now with the Pakistanis, but as both countries continue to undertake military exercises together, there could be ways to address this US demand. Equally important is the need to increase India’s engagement with the Gulf countries, specially Oman, which has had a defence cooperation agreement with India since 1972, that was renewed in 2005. And now with their offer to allow the Indian Navy access to Duqm and other ports, the message is clear: India must step up its military presence in the Gulf.
The one stumbling block however for the Indian Navy in this case, and the Indian armed forces in general, is the civilian bureaucracy in South Block. There are innumerable examples of how they have blocked or inordinately delayed permissions for even exercises to be conducted by India’s military men abroad, purely out of spite. India’s civil-military equation is heavily tilted in favour of the civilians, and the military brass hats have quietly given in to their stone-walling ways for several reasons. What suffers however is the impression the foreign powers get about India’s inability to decide on which side of the fence it should be, more so, when they compare India’s military with that of Pakistan. Both are professionally capable, but while India’s forces are inward looking, Pakistan’s military runs the country.
It is certainly nobody’s case that the Indian armed forces should follow the example of Pakistan. But it is about time, that India’s armed forces are more visible through defence diplomacy, at least in the Indian Ocean region. Conducting military exercises is but one of the ways of doing so. But in the footsteps of other major powers, like the US, Russia, France and even until lately Great Britain and now China, India’s navy must be visibly present in ports and bases where it is possible, with a small but effective contingent of soldiers and some fighter aircrafts. The naysayers may argue that our forces are already stretched within India, and hence unavailable to be placed overseas, but if there is a will, there’ll be a way.
Finally, there are many highly capable officers, specially in the army, who continue to man jobs in the ranks of Colonel and Brigadier – often two or three of them doing what was in earlier years done by one officer — simply because the army’s professional pyramid is an Eiffel tower and promotions just take too long. These officers could be deputed to countries — either to India’s embassies or on study leave, to engage at various levels to further India’s foreign policy goals. Here again the naysayers would argue that there are already defence/military attaches posted at our embassies, so why this extra burden on the exchequer. The answer lies in the fact that if India wants to be a big power, it must be willing to pay the price for being one. Like the great powers of the past and China today, we cannot afford to be coy about our ambitions.
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