THE VAJPAYEE YEARS


India’s post Independence history, which is still not taught in schools and colleges, presents classic examples of how civil-military relations have impacted on the country’s security, integrity and thereby, its standing in the world. It has been amply proved how good civil- military relations have resulted in victory in wars and vice-versa. It is this aspect that makes this book important and welcome.

Of India’s many misfortunes, the first was that after many centuries of being attacked, marauded, pillaged, converted and ruled over, Independence came with the unprecedented ordeal of partition planned by the British. Straddled by newly formed West Pakistan and erstwhile East Pakistan, as well as another huge potentially hostile neighbour, China, stretching from its North to East, it was a crucial stage for assessing and taking some hard decisions and formulating policies to keep this large nation secure and integrated and also make it strong and prosperous.

However, that was not to be, as some of Independent India’s top political founders made a very poor start

  • (a) failing to be conscious of the extent of India’s vast land and sea boundaries,
  • (b) Being ignorant/naïve in assessing the threats/intentions/ tendencies of its hostile neighbours Pakistan and China, despite indications on the ground,
  • (c) failing to realise the importance of military muscle and the timely use of adequate/appropriate force,
  • (d) looking at the armed forces with suspicion and creating phobia of military rule and
  • (e) developing/propagating a warped sense of secularism by obliterating history, rather than learning from it.

It is very relevant here to mention another of India’s misfortunes, which was the approaches, attitudes, warped thought processes and flawed decisions of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and second Defence Minister, V.K. Krishna Menon. While Nehru reportedly stated that India did not need an army-the police was sufficient, Krishna Menon believed that India’s ordnance factories were better off producing pressure cookers and coffee percolators. Apart from viewing the Indian army with suspicion, both went out of their way to not only ignore or turn down any sound advice from the Army, but also meddled with the Army’s leadership.

The disastrous result was the Indian Army, globally acknowledged as about the best in World Wars I and II, was pitched into the 1962 Sino-Indian war, woefully under-armed, ill-equipped and insufficiently clad and worst, ordered by Nehru to carry out tasks on ground which were simply not implementable given the Army’s strength in numbers and other factors. Fighting to the last man and last bullet sounds good but it is a shame if an army is reduced to that stage, as some units were in 1962.

Offensive use of the Indian the Air Force against the Chinese in 1962 would have made a great difference, but Nehru was very averse to “raising the level of confrontation”. The end result was Indian Army suffering a humiliating defeat despite exemplary valour.In dealing with Pakistan during the first war it perpetrated immediately after independence (1947-48), no aggressive use was made of the Indian Air Force, or the Indian Navy. Indian Army was quite capable of wresting the part of Kashmir grabbed but Nehru’s blunder of referring the matter to United Nations has made India pay dearly in blood of its troops till date.

It will not be an exaggeration to state that the Nehru- Krishna Menon duo laid a hollow foundation for civil-military relations and allowed the bureaucracy to keep the Armed Forces in a stranglehold, which only strengthened over the decades of Congress rule, depriving the forces of timely purchase/replacement of necessary arms and equipment, upgrades in pay and allowances and erosion of status.

The 1962 Sino-Indian war shamed Nehru, who had to jettison Krishna Menon, but the damage had been done not only on India’s borders but also within-in the corridors of power. Because the pace had been set for India’s powerful bureaucracy to keep the armed forces deprived, deceived and derided. The bureaucratic stranglehold compounded by unbridled corruption, prevented the armed forces from being fully equipped and modernised.

Two exceptions to the Nehruvian legacy of soft responses to China and Pakistan costing India dearly by way of losing troops and territory were former Prime Ministers Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi. During the second India-Pakistan war in 1965, while Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri took advice of the Army’s top leadership and proved to be assertive, the politico- bureaucratic establishment was still, as this writer has often stated, “sea-blind and land-locked”. The navy was completely kept out of the operational loop and the then naval chief ironically visited the operational area as an observer, even as Pakistan navy made an ineffective attempt.

Till the Kargil war in 1999, apart from Mr. Shastri, the only other leader who was exceptionally assertive against external attacks, was Mrs. Indira Gandhi, who firstly, in 1967, accorded sanction for use of artillery against the Chinese in Nathu La, Sikkim and secondly, when during the build-up towards the 1971 Indo-Pak war, she consulted and heeded the advice of then Army Chief. Gen (later Field Marshal) Sam Manekshaw.

The result was a well-planned operation on two major fronts, with, for the first time, very effective use of the navy resulting in not only Pakistan’s defeat yet again, but also the liberation of Bangladesh. India has since had a long and bumpy ride to reach the stage of multi-discipline, multi-organisation involvement on national security and strategic issues, with many think-tanks being raised over the past two decades.

It is in context of these instances that Admiral Kumar’s book emerges as important and a much needed reference piece. Because it reveals how a statesman-like Prime Minister of a large complex country like India took pains to gain knowledge about and insights into its huge and diverse armed forces by regularly interacting with the three Services Chiefs- surprisingly more as an eager listener- and then became decisive without delay on courses of action and in sanctioning the employment of the forces appropriately and optimally.

Mr. Vajpayee’s considered decision for the Indian Air Force not to cross the Line of Control LoC, though disadvantageous for IAF, paid India handsomely diplomatically. Pakistan was heavily criticised by other countries for instigating the war. With its specially raised Northern Light Infantry as cannon fodder crossing the LoC and Pakistan’s primary diplomatic response, one of plausible deniability linking the incursion to what it officially termed as “Kashmiri freedom fighters,” was in the end not successful.

The battles were fought at heights where only seasoned troops could survive. Moreover, while Pak army had initially denied the involvement of its troops in the intrusion, two soldiers being awarded the Nishan-E- Haider (Pakistan’s highest military honour) and 90 more soldiers also given gallantry awards, most of them posthumously, confirmed Pakistan’s role in the misadventure. India also released taped phone conversations between the Army Chief and a senior Pakistani general where the latter is recorded saying: “the scruff of the militants necks is in our hands”.

G8nations supported India and condemned the Pakistani violation of the LoC at the Cologne Summit. The European Union also opposed Pakistan’s violation of the LoC. China, a long-time ally of Pakistan, insisted on a pullout of forces to the pre-conflict positions along the LoC and settling border issues peacefully. Other organisations like the ASEAN Regional Forum too supported India’s stand on the inviolability of the LoC.

If Kargil was Mr. Vajpayee’s finest hour, it was also a feather in Admiral Sushil Kumar’s cap. By sending ships of the Eastern Naval Command to join the fleet of the Western Naval Command in the Northern Arabian Sea, the Indian Navy blockaded Pakistani ports, primarily Karachi, cutting off supply routes and began aggressive patrols and threatened to cut Pakistan’s sea trade. This exploited Pakistan’s dependence on sea-based oil and trade flows. Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Shariff disclosed that Pakistan was left with a just small amount of fuel to sustain a full fledged war only for six days.

The book also highlight’s Mr. Vajpayee’s effective role in dealing with China, Pakistani terrorist attack on Parliament, deciding on not committing troops on ground in Afghanistan/in a non UN operation, involvement in Maldives and holding the first International Fleet Review just after the earthquake in Gujarat.

The last section of the book includes some delightful anecdotes from the Admiral’s life. The book is a must read for all politicians, bureaucrats, diplomats, services and security fraternities, scholars and students. For general public it will be enjoyable and informative.

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Lt Col Anil Bhat

Col Anil Bhat (retd) is an independent defence and security analyst he is also an Editor at Word Sword Features

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