National security is often considered to belong to the rarefied realm and there is a growing tendency in contemporary India to stifle any critical discussions on it. What makes this shroud of secrecy more problematic in a vibrant democracy such as ours is the excessive hype around those issues along with little informed understanding about them among the general public.
Hyper-nationalist rhetoric has a tendency to prevent evidence-based introspection about one’s own country’s warfighting capabilities and internal flaws which in turn creates exaggerated notions of glory and power, of one’s own country.
Such unhealthy tendencies can be pushed back to a great extent by well-reasoned, and yet highly accessible, analysis by former practitioners.
NC Asthana’s new book entitled ‘National Security and Conventional Arms Race: Spectre of Nuclear War’ does precisely that: it seeks to demythify deeply entrenched popular notions about war and peace. To that extent, this is a must read.
National Security Issues Need Not be Drab Monologues
The book, written by a highly decorated former officer of the Indian Police Service, is divided into 15 odd chapters spanning from the fallacies of fighting a nuclear war to the lust of war. From a thematic point of view, it is a catch-all sort of book, which could easily serve as an effective antidote to popular fiction about war and peace especially because the author makes it a point to be provocative, which if I may add, is for a good reason.
The book covers a wide range of themes that often make up for animated drawing room discussions in India today – ‘how to fight and win a war with Pakistan’, ‘how India can overtake china’, ‘how to fight a nuclear war’ etc.
But this book deals with them with great aplomb and informed logic. Asthana’s straight talk also helps because he is able to simplify and offer a well-reasoned opinion on issues that are otherwise considered to be complex ‘elite’ issues. In that sense, direct, lucid explanations are the best part of the book under review.
More crucially, Asthana’s lively and conversation-style writing forces readers to think and reason for themselves. This again is a major strength of the book given how a lot of books dealing with ‘elite’ themes can be drab monologues.
Militarised Nationalism and Nuclear War
One of the major themes of the book is militarised nationalism and its perils in contemporary India. This is clearly a hot topic these days given how the government in power often resorts to the ‘sacrifices’ of the armed forces to justify the harm caused to the general public as a result of bad polices: ill-planned demonetization is a case in point.
The book makes a rather unpopular argument in this context: “…in any democratic country, if the armed forces are accorded unduly great importance in public life and discourse, it is not a good sign for democracy”.
One of the main objectives of the book is to challenge the irrational rhetoric about a nuclear war. The book makes several much-needed and sobering arguments about nuclear war. To begin with, the author rightly points out that unlike during the Cold War years, there is little disaster planning for a nuclear war: “the preparedness of the Indian people to absorb the shocks of any kind of war (not to speak of a nuclear war) is simply zero”.
‘Nuke talk’ is easy, but planning/preparing to wage is one not easy, and fighting one is impossible – the book argues, and rightly so. The author argues that a war with even Pakistan, a country that is conventionally inferior to India, would not be winnable by India for rhetoric doesn’t win wars: “the problem with India and Indians”, Asthana argues, “is that the entire nation thinks like an arrogant adolescent”.
Does India Have a War Strategy?
Yet another important theme in the book is regarding a national warfighting strategy for India, which the author says doesn’t exist. We have a million-plus-strong military, billions of dollars’ worth weapons are purchased every year, and doctrines are routinely churned out by the various wings of our armed forces, and yet, is there a cohesive national warfighting strategy?
To my mind, the author is asking a very pertinent question.
Weapons, soldiers and doctrines alone do not make a warfighting strategy - it takes much more than that.
For instance, there has been a lot of public criticism about the fact that the government is not serious about stitching together a national security strategy for the country – perhaps because governments are worried that it would tie their hands.
However, the formulation of a national security strategy for the country and the adoption of a grand strategic approach to war and peace are key to facing up to modern day strategic challenges. That can only happen if elected governments in New Delhi is able to think beyond winning the next election.
Is QUAD Effective or Not?
I remain in disagreement with the author on the issue of QUAD – the author thinks that the revival of the idea of QUAD is “a waste of time”. While he might be right that the QUAD can “hardly do anything when the missiles start flying”, I think it can do a great deal before the missiles start flying and perhaps even to prevent them from flying.
Asthana’s book is an excellent and sobering read in times such as this when hyper nationalist and arrogant notions of war and peace seem to have taken precedence over evidence-based national security discourses.
(Happymon Jacob is Associate Professor of Disarmament Studies at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He tweets @HappymonJacob. The views expressed are personal. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)