Ashok K Mehta

Ashok K. Mehta is a radio and television commentator, and a columnist on defence and security issues. He is a former Major General of Indian Army. After joining the Indian Army in 1957, he was commissioned in the 5th Gorkha Rifles infantry regiment in the same year. He had fought in all major wars India went into, except the Sino-Indian War of 1962. And he was also on a peacekeeping mission in Zaire in the year 1962 and in the Indian Peace Keeping Force, Sri Lanka (1988-90) and it was his last assignment in the Indian Army. He is also a writer of several books and a founder-member of the Defense Planning Staff in the Ministry of Defence, India.

Lack of India’s China Card

3 mins read

India missed a good opportunity in nudging the disengagement and de-escalation process at the Samarkand summit last week after China had made a surprise concession of disengaging from Hot Springs three days before the summit. Although Prime Minister Modi avoided eye contact publicly with President Xi, they attended two round table sessions and were present together at two ceremonial photo ops and in one, standing next to each other. But neither leader made any effort for a public handshake or a pull-aside.

Why did China make the disengagement gesture 13 months after the last disengagement and two months after the last Corps Commander’s talks to coincide with the Samarkand summit? Probably to demonstrate that negotiations on disengagement are progressing smoothly. That there would be no disruption from India at the summit on the border row was also on the cards, allusions were not absent. Modi said to Putin: “today’s era is not an era of war” pointed to Xi also. Given that Modi and Xi had cultivated a close rapport after 18 meetings between 2014 and 2019 but none since the LAC brush, it was not unreasonable to expect the effusive and backslapping Modi to extend his hand to Xi during the photo op. (it was he who famously said in June 2020: “no one came inside, nor is anyone inside Indian territory”, to the delight of the Chinese) A day before his 72nd birthday, Modi could not have been seen shaking hands with Xi when the opposition has been gunning for him over losing land to China. But it would have been a risk worth taking. At least the ice could have been broken. Much has been written about the disengagement process since the tragic unarmed Galwan clash. The 1993 and 1996 border protocols and subsequent border agreements of 2005, 2006, and 2012 Border Defence Cooperation Agreements have been violated by China and PLA. The policy change was initiated when Xi, who had been vice president became President in 2013. The modus vivendi to border dispute and bilateral relations initiated in 1988 was torn to shreds in 2020 preceded by ominous indicators at Chumar, Depsang, and Doklam.

Comparing the multiple intrusions of 2020 with Sumdorong Chu in 1988 which took nine years to resolve is patently incorrect. It was a different era when India and China were co-equals economically and militarily.. At Sumdorong Chu, military commanders took bold initiatives in occupying heights dominating PLA intrusions at Wangdung unlike in East Ladakh where Indian forces were caught napping. Dispute resolution resulted in the mutual pullback, prompting then BJP opposition MP Jaswant Singh to remark: “why are we withdrawing from our own territory”.

China has managed to promulgate its 1959 Claim Line from Depsang to Demchok in serious adversity. It is instructive to analyse India’s current self-inflicted dilemma. Unlike in the central and eastern sectors, the LAC is better defined and more settled by the McMahon Line than in the west where the LAC is seriously contested. In the east, our forward posture was triggered off by the PLA intrusions in Sumdorong Chu where defences and posts are close to MacMahon Line. In the west, mainly Leh was defended with vast areas along the LAC unmanned and covered with dispersed ITBP and Army posts from where ITBP and Army patrolled up to the 65 patrolling points up to a line behind the LAC. The Chinese had their own perception of LAC that was never revealed.

In April 2020, in a surprise sweep, PLA easily occupied positions across Indian LAC corresponding to their 1959 Claim Line . The mammoth intelligence failure was compounded by political and operational lapses. After the disengagement from Hot Springs (PP 15) on 8 September which Foreign Minister S Jaishankar called “one problem less”, another buffer zone bereft of patrolling rights has been established on the Indian side of LAC. At Depsang, 18 km on the Indian side of LAC PLA has blocked access to five Patrolling Points and at Demchok to four Patrolling Points. Konchok Stanzin, the counselor for Chushul, said: “our troops have gone back from PP 15 and PP 16 which we had for 50 years, we lost winter grazing ground”. The Chinese have also effectively blocked two Indian offensive launch pads at Demchok and Daulat Beg Oldie-virtually transforming the area into 1000 sq km of DMZ.

On 9 May, COAS Gen Manoj Pande said: “We have to restore status quo ante April 2020”. Diplomacy has to be restored to the Xi-Modi level; their 19th meeting could be at the Bali G20 summit in November. Meanwhile, plans should be made to establish BOPs in Ladakh to prevent further salami slicing.

Sajid Javed: Man Behind Truss’s Victory

3 mins read

I’m wandering across Scotland spreading time between tasting Scotch, admiring the stunning terrain, imbibing the Scottish way, and witnessing historic political events in the UK from Melrose, on the Scottish-English border. Dominating the news are two events: the battle for No 10; and the embarrassing failure of HMS Prince of Wales to sail.

At 12.30 PM Monday, the Conservative Party at Westminster chose Foreign Minister Liz Truss over Rishi Sunak with a surprisingly small majority to become Prime Minister of Britain following the coup against Boris Johnson in July. Truss’s win was widely predicted and only a miracle could have helped Sunak win. Commentators said they would ‘eat their hat’ or any other item of accouterment was Truss to lose. The UK is not yet ready to have a non-White as Prime Minister.

At 96, the ailing but most loved Queen did not ask the heir to the throne, Prince Charles to swear in Liz Truss, a ceremony that was performed for the first time at Balmoral Castle during her 70-year reign and not Buckingham Palace where thousands of tourists pay Pound Sterling 30 (Rs 3000) for a guided tour. Instead, yesterday the Queen received the PM-in-waiting Truss for the ‘kissing of the hand’, forming the government, and a photograph. In 1908, King Edward VII gave an audience to Herbert Asquith when the monarch was relaxing at the French coastal resort of Biarritz. Both Truss and Sunak had agreed to meet the Queen wherever she was, with Sunak adding: “the PM serves her Majesty”. For Indians, Sunak reaching so close (and yet so far) to becoming PM must be something to celebrate.

On 27th August, the Daily Telegraph put out a two-page supplement for its guesstimate of the Truss cabinet. Expected for the three most senior posts of Chancellor, Home Secretary, and Foreign Secretary are Kwasi Kwarteng, Suella Braverman, and James Cleverly. Kwarteng is a free marketeer and a consistent political ally of Truss. Together they have advocated low taxes, low regulation economy, and minimum governance. John Redwood and Jacob Rees-Mogg are likely to assist the Chancellor. Braverman will have the challenging mission of ending illegal immigrants across the Channel (last Sunday 1061 crossed over). She’s known to have favoured their deportation to Rwanda, since suspended by the courts. Braverman, a child of Kenyan and Mauritian immigrants had described the British empire as “on the whole, a force of good”. For Foreign Secretary, Truss’ likely choice and replacement are James Cleverly assisted by Tom Tugendhat, who was one of the PM aspirants. Cleverly was a junior minister in the Foreign Office.

Tugendhat, a former Army officer, and like Truss a China hawk is chairman Foreign Affairs select committee. Ben Wallace, the current Defence Minister, is likely to keep his job. He has advocated a higher defence budget which agrees with Truss’pledge to raise it to 3 per cent of GDP. Some other ‘likelies’ in the Cabinet are Sir Ian Ducan Smith as leader of the House, Nadeem Zahawi whose leadership bid failed spectacularly, as Health Secretary, and Ranil Jayawardene of Sri Lankan descent as Environment Secretary. Whether Sunak will be in is the big question. He has said he wants to support the Conservative Government in “whatever capacity”.

Sajid Javed who triggered the coup against Boris Johnson and later backed Truss may be rewarded with a ministerial post. Big names likely to be left out are Rishi Sunak, Dominic Raab, and Alok Sharma. The Truss government faces enormous economic challenges especially meteoric energy bills. While the pound sterling is struggling, funding the National Health Service is the other big challenge. The never-ending row with France is back in the spotlight. When asked last week whether she considered Macron a friend or foe, Truss replied: ‘the jury is out’. Macron’s response: ‘The UK is a friendly nation, regardless of its leaders’. Macron added: ‘if Britain and France cannot determine whether they are friends or enemies, then we are heading for serious problems.

An embarrassing event that Britain could have done without last week was the failed maiden voyage to the US of the UK’s largest (65,000 tonnes) aircraft carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, dedicated to Nato. Earlier this year, the second aircraft carrier, Queen Elizabeth, was on a long tour of the Indo-Pacific which included exercises with the Indian Navy. A British Gurkha veteran I spoke to, was puzzled about the four-year Agnipath scheme. Operation BoJo (return of Boris Johnson as PM) many Brits feel, could happen before Christmas following a no-confidence vote in Truss so that he can lead Tories into elections in January 2025. Labour is ahead in the recent polls. India is hoping the FTA under India-UK Comprehensive Strategic Partnership due by Diwali will happen and the price of Scotch will be deregulated. Cheers from Melrose!

Pakistan: Why did Khan lose his job?

3 mins read

Pakistan at 75 is at its chaotic best. It is at war with itself, deeper into political and economic holes. Writing in The Dawn on 14 August 2022, Mahir Ali said: “prompt and drastic measures are necessary to save Pakistan from virtual bankruptcy but our rulers seem to be content with obtaining foreign gifts to feed people and relying on heavier doses of foreign aid for maintaining some semblance of economic development”. This Ali quotation is taken from a Pakistan Times editorial of 14 August 1958. Pakistan’s many worries could go Sri Lanka’s way, an issue that has been debated in the last few months. For the first time, its Army Chief, Gen Qamar Bajwa had to send an SOS to US State Department and traditional donors Saudi Arabia and UAE. Where China figures in this firefighting is unclear but it recently indicated that Beijing’s relations with Rawalpindi are a lynchpin of Pakistan-China ties. On his last visit to Islamabad Foreign Minister Wang Yi especially traveled to Rawalpindi to meet Gen Bajwa. Chinese military spokesperson noted: “China and Pakistan are all-weather strategic partners, true friends and iron brothers that share weal and woe”. After 1998, Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons. No one wants a nuclear Somalia is a common refrain.

Pakistan approached IMF in May for the 18th time in its short history. The current account deficit has increased from USD600bn in 2017 to USD3500bn in 2021; the Pakistani rupee is at its lowest ever against the USD at Pakistan Rs 240 with imports severely restricted and oil prices shooting up. Saudi Arabia has transferred USD 4bn including the amount for oil financing and rolled over an existing debt of USD4bn. Equally worrying is political instability, one of the reasons for economic turmoil. The PML-N-led coalition under Shahbaz Sharif which unseated Imran Khan in April in a no-confidence motion is on a sticky wicket after its political stronghold Punjab fell to Imran Khan’s PTI.

The Election Commission of Pakistan on 2 August ruled that PTI accepted prohibited funds from various sources including Arif Naqvi, a philanthropist living in Dubai. The Supreme Court will adjudicate and this could lead to a ban on the PTI. The timing of the ECP order is interesting as a funding case is also pending against PML N. Voters concerned with livelihood issues blame PML N for their grief. PML N will hobble PTI so it cannot function. Gen Bajwa’s replacement is to be found in September before he steps down in November. The new Army Chief may decide on early elections.

75 years on, civil-military relations have institutionalized the role of the Army as the ultimate custodian of internal and external challenges. In Pakistan, the Army and bureaucracy became the primary institution of governance due to a weak Muslim League.

Directly or indirectly, the military has ruled Pakistan with a democratic façade aided by the judiciary. Khan’s attempt to interfere with the Army’s internal affairs cost him his job. His Chief of Staff, Shehbaz Gill is in jail for urging the military not to obey illegal orders. Khan also burnt his fingers at the US, blaming it for the fall of his government.

The many lows and one high of India-Pakistan relations need repeating. The lows resulted in wars. The one high was between 2003-07, ironically after the terror attack on Parliament. Back channel talks between Satinder Lambah and Tariq Aziz paved the way for the resolution of Kashmir. This, of course, did not happen. Prime Minister Modi tried to mend fences with Pakistan but soon his patience was overtaken by muscular impulses. The door to formal dialogue is shut since the 2000 beheading of Indian soldiers. A brief effort was made by the government to restart dialogue failed because of the unrealistic condition that talks and terror will not go together.

Further the reading down of Article 370 has made talks a distant dream. But the problem of Kashmir cannot be wished away. Kashmir figures periodically in the UNSC, is texted in the Simla and Lahore Agreements, and China has made itself a third party to the dispute. It took preemptive measures for the security of Aksai Chin following Home Minister Shah’s threat to retake it. India now has a second live front.

Neutralising the Pakistan front politically and diplomatically is vital. Former High Commissioner to Pakistan, Sharat Sabharwal in his book India-Pakistan Conundrum: Managing a Complex Relationship says: “India’s Pakistan policy born out of anger and false notions of national honour, caused more harm than good”. If India sets its own house in order including J&K, Pakistan will not be able to fish in troubled waters, he adds. Mahir Ali’s story last week carried this headline: “Pakistan has learnt little from India while India has taken the worst lessons from Pakistan”.