Cable TV was filled with analysts and ex-generals. (Photographer: T. Narayan/Bloomberg)

Armchair Generals Are Marching India Into Trouble

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Peace appears to have been given a chance in South Asia. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, striving to play the statesman, has not only released a captured Indian pilot but also detained several alleged Pakistani militants. Still, there’s good reason to worry that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi might once again ratchet up tensions against a nuclear-armed neighbor as he approaches the most crucial election of his political life.

And Modi’s militant nationalism, loudly amplified by Indian television anchors, isn’t the only flammable element in a volatile situation. India’s burgeoning military-intellectual complex also deserves the world’s close and skeptical scrutiny.

One wing of this community consists of superannuated and clearly bored generals, titillating hyper-patriotic television anchors and themselves with visions of do-or-die wars and glorious victories. Their jingoism far exceeds the capacity of the Indian military, which, an internal report recently revealed, is encumbered with “vintage” equipment.

Perhaps more worrying, though, are the credentialed members of what a recent report by Brookings India identified as India’s “strategic community.” Though much more sober than the fire-breathing talking heads on cable TV, they seem equally attracted to the “temptation,” as U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower put it in his classic warning against the military-industrial complex, of “some spectacular and costly” military action.

Perched in privately funded think tanks, many of these connoisseurs of “surgical strikes” did not seem in the least shocked or disturbed that an Indian leader who has, as the Economist put it last week, “made a career of playing with fire” was now playing with Armageddon by launching airstrikes into Pakistan. Rather, they echoed the Hindu nationalist consensus that India was now finally dictating the terms of engagement with its rival — a triumphalism shattered the very next day when Pakistan raised its own threshold for conflict with India by striking within Indian territory and bringing down an Indian warplane.

Eisenhower’s fear in 1961 of vested interests acquiring “unwarranted influence” is freshly pertinent in today’s New Delhi. With hopes rising that India would soon be a superpower closely allied to the U.S., as well as a strategic counterweight to China, much Indian and foreign money has gone into creating a luxurious ecosystem for strategic experts and foreign-policy analysts.

There’s ample reason to fear that such an often murkily funded and influential security establishment outside government won’t serve the cause of democracy and peace in the Indian subcontinent. In the U.S., a series of reports by the New York Times in 2016 alleged that on all kinds of issues, including military sales to foreign countries, think tanks were “pushing agendas important to corporate donors, at times blurring the line between researchers and lobbyists.” If intellectual dishonesty mars analysis in Washington, it can be expected to be more pervasive in New Delhi, where the line between paid service for corporate donors and research work is even fuzzier.

It may seem melodramatic to fear that a few well-connected intellectual racketeers might endanger democracy and social stability. But America under President Donald Trump confirms that Eisenhower was right to worry that an axis of government, corporations and intellectuals-on-hire might skew national priorities, or that, pathologically obsessed with an enemy, his country might degenerate into “a community of dreadful fear and hate.”

Already by 1984, George F. Kennan, arguably America’s finest diplomat, was lamenting that the “habit” of constantly preparing for “an imagined war” with the Soviet Union had “risen to the status of a vast addiction of American society.” This habit, Kennan presciently warned, “would be difficult to eradicate in the future,” long after the U.S.S.R. had disappeared.

In India, Hindu nationalist politicians and their sympathizers in the media have similarly turned an imagined punitive war on Pakistan into another vast addiction, and the military-intellectual complex increasingly aggravates this national habit. Focused on Islamabad’s backing for the militant insurgency in Kashmir, they’ve successfully externalized a problem that is primarily domestic: the Modi government’s resolve to suppress, rather than address, Kashmiri demands for democracy and civil liberties.

Ajai Shukla was one of the very few mainstream Indian writers on security issues to point out that “the wider story in a crisis with such potential devastation is that the Modi government has launched a nationwide anti-Muslim agenda that regards Muslims as unpatriotic, Pakistan as a cunning and implacable foe and Kashmiri separatists as its willing tools.” Thus, Shukla argues, Kashmiris protesting against Indian brutality have come to be widely seen as “Muslim traitors, rather than the manifestation of a political problem that has to be discussed and resolved, not militarily crushed.”

Zealously pushing a military solution to a political problem, India’s political, media and security establishment suffered a debacle last month. They ought to “learn,” as Eisenhower exhorted, “how to compose differences not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose” — above all in Kashmir, which is the key, now more than ever, to the health of civil society in both India and Pakistan.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. His books include “Age of Anger: A History of the Present,” “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” and “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.