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Puny countries treat us with contempt!

December 31, 2002

Time for reflection, introspection and stocktaking. Time for a little pat on the back for things well done, a little admonition for things not so well done. Time for a survey of things that went wrong -- to draw correct lessons to avoid a repetition in the new year.

From the defence point of view the biggest event of the year was undoubtedly the forward deployment of India's armed forces. It took place as a result of the attack on Parliament in December 2001 and lasted more or less throughout the year. The smooth and swift exercise, which went without a hitch, spoke volumes for the preparedness and efficiency of our armed forces.

The deployment and redeployment after ten months cost us a lot in terms of wear and tear of equipment and the morale of the jawans. The possible achievements were a marginal reduction in cross border attacks and peaceful completion of state elections in Kashmir.

In the end the troops quietly returned to barracks leaving the exchequer to pay bills of about Rs 5,000 crore.

Much was expected of the Tehelka exposes. But as is now common with all political scandals in India, the government appointed its umpteenth commission and went quietly about the task it does best, shooting the messenger. In this case the whistle blower was subjected to so much government harassment that it went bankrupt.

The honourable judge investigating the scandal resigned without completing the inquiry and George Fernandes, who resigned after the Tehelka exposure, resumed his duties as defence minister. Thus, one more opportunity to clamp down on corruption in government was lost.

Once again the defence budget scaled new highs without in any way adding to India's defence capabilities. As usual there was no debate on defence appropriations in Parliament. But there was a new innovation. Normally each year the finance minister gives about two or three sentences to defence in his hour-long Budget speech, but even that reference was dropped this year.

Defence was conspicuous by its absence.

Terrorism and militancy continued to be a threat both externally and internally. After the attack on Parliament and the forward posturing, there was, for a time, a lessening of militancy in Kashmir but it was only a temporary lull. The attacks continued during the run-up to the Jammu and Kashmir assembly election although they had little effect on the turnout. Even after a new government was installed in the state the attacks continue. Terrorist attacks are no longer confined to Jammu and Kashmir but have now spilled over into other parts of India.

In September there was an attack on a temple in Gujarat but the efficiency with which it was tackled showed how far we have travelled down the road in combating terrorism. Our responses are now both quick and mature, certainly a major step in curbing and eliminating terrorist attacks.

Whereas our machinery to combat terrorism has transformed and become sophisticated, in certain spheres it remains primitive. Veerappan is still able to kidnap people with impunity and the Keystone Cops Special Task Force formed to capture him is no nearer its task than it was earlier. In the meantime the two states around him continue to squabble and lose sight of the aim.

On the defence equipment procurement side there have been pluses and minuses. Su-30 aircraft finally arrived in India and the first squadron was commissioned by the year-end. But there was a setback on the arrival of the first of the three Krivac class destroyers, Talwar, ordered from Russia. The ship which was to have arrived in 2001 has reportedly been delayed by more than a year due to the unsatisfactory trials of the missile system.

The procurement of the Advanced Jet Trainer is still not finalised and seven air chiefs have come and gone since the proposal was first mooted. The contract for the behemoth Admiral Gorshkov was not concluded during the year and the 16-year-old ship has added one more year.

Pakistan continues as the primary external threat and its elections in October threw up some surprising results. Not only did fundamentalist parties make a strong showing in the national assembly and very nearly come to power, but a pro-Taliban government established itself in the Northwest Frontier Province making things difficult in future for both General Musharraf and the US.

Relations between India and Pakistan reached rock bottom after the terrorist attack on Parliament. India withdrew its high commissioner and banned over flights by Pakistani aircraft. Both countries do not talk to each other and India refuses to let its cricket team play in Pakistan. Both countries very nearly came to war twice in the past year sending a flurry of American officials winging towards the two countries. In both cases better judgement prevailed and an all out war was averted, not to the liking of many.

Finally, a number of disparate events in different countries brought home an important lesson for those willing to learn. In Indonesia, the police, apparently under army influence, arrested the chief executive of an Indian software company for a dispute connected with a contract. The CEO was released only after intervention at the highest level.

In Sharjah, Dawood Ibrahim's younger brother was arrested but subsequently released and deported to Pakistan despite an Indian request to hand him over. A Portuguese court has refused to repatriate Abu Salem, another most-wanted man in India and a Malaysian court released Ottavio Quattrocchi, wanted in the Bofors case, who thereafter returned to Italy.

As far as Bofors is concerned it continued to bore us for the 15th year without getting any closer to an end. Compare all this to the arrest in Pakistan of an Omanian national fairly high up in the Al Qaeda organisation. Within two days he was handed over to the United States.

During the past 40 years India has spent an enormous amount in strengthening its armed forces. At 1.2 million it has the fourth largest army in the world and its naval fleet is by far the strongest and the most comprehensive in the Indian Ocean. In 1999 we went nuclear and are today a member of the exclusive world nuclear club. Yet this mighty force and the enormous amount that we spend to maintain it has brought us little prestige or gain, even amongst our neighbouring countries.

As seen during the past few months even puny countries continue to treat us with contempt. Military might hardly impresses anyone today. Gunboat diplomacy died with the 20th century. Today the only thing which counts is money power. India will only be respected when we become an economic giant, when our trade with those countries becomes significant and when we can make a difference to the economies of those countries.

Let that be the main lesson that we carry into 2003.

Arvind Lavakare

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