The Writing on the Wall: India Checkmates America 2017
Gurmeet Kanwal ·       

It is not often that a former Chief of Army Staff spends his golden years writing fiction. The last one to put pen to paper was General K. Sundarji whose fictional account of nuclear exchanges between India and Pakistan did much to educate India’s political leaders and the policy-making elite, largely unschooled in the finer nuances of national security, about the rudiments of nuclear strategy. Over a decade after Sundarji’s Blind Men of Hindoostan, General Padmanabhan has added a new novel to this genre of writing from former army chiefs. Paddy’s The Writing on the Wall: India Checkmates America 2017 has broken new ground in fictional writing on India’s national security.

Paddy’s optimistic though highly wishful scenario begins with a government of national unity in 2003 that formulates a comprehensive, long-term national security policy. The General argues that since the United States (US) enjoys unprecedented military superiority in a unipolar world, it is increasingly basing its responses to crisis situations affecting its security on the doctrine of pre-emption. This is bound to lead to more and more wars with smaller and weaker nations. Therefore, countries like India should develop their military might to deter war and, if that does not succeed, to respond appropriately to fight and win. He recommends a fully functional nuclear force, a strategically capable air force, viable national missile defence, enhanced Special Forces capabilities and the immediate filling of organisational and equipment voids in the army’s fighting formations.

He also wants the annual defence budget to be scaled up to at least three per cent of the GDP, a well-conceived defence acquisition plan to be launched early and the development of an indigenous military-technological capability with investments in cutting edge technologies that exploit India’s strengths. These are all noble thoughts and the author is convinced that a government of national unity will be able to give effect to them. However, the reality is quite different. National security has never been a priority with India’s politicians and their bureaucrat advisors and this is unlikely to change so easily. If it not politically problematic, India’s policy planners would rather pretend that a problem does not exist than spend time, effort and money to find a solution.

However, in the book General Padmanabhan’s fictional government exhibits the necessary political will when necessary. For example, in retaliation for a Kaluchak-type attack in Jammu in 2008, India attacks and captures the Haji Pir Pass which the army was forced to give back to Pakistan under the Tashkent agreement in 1966. with help form China and Russia, India is admitted as a permanent member of the United Nations (UN) Security Council and succeeds in resolving its territorial and boundary dispute with China in 2008. It joins China and Russia to forge a cooperative Asian security framework and signs a treaty of peace friendship and cooperation with these Asian giants as well as with Vietnam. All these activities do not go down too well with the US that continues to foster Pakistan as a major ally and together the dirty tricks departments of the two nations engender acts of terrorism and instability in India.

Hence, the stage is gradually set for an Indo-Pak conflict which dutifully erupts in 2017. Thanks to the well-conceived defence plans, within two days of the commencement of hostilities, the Pakistan air force is no longer effective and its navy is bottled up. The Indian army then dismembers Pakistan with a sledge-hammer blow through Sind and captures almost all of POK. The US enters the war on the side of its ally. The US fires Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles at Hyderabad from a carrier battle group in the Arabian Sea but these are intercepted and destroyed by India’s newly-installed national missile shield. India chooses to respond with its “soft” power. The scene then shifts to the continental US where India unleashes a powerful electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) and launches computer viruses in a “cyber attack” to disrupt communications and command and control computers as well as major commercial centres to plunge US “administration, commerce and banking sectors into chaos.”

Russia and China strongly support India and the US stands isolated in the UN Security Council. The short and sharp war goes badly for Pakistan and the fundamentalist mullahs seize the opportunity to stage a coup to overthrow the military government. This is where the scenario is the least plausible – in its zeal to save its ally, the US almost pleads with India to send in its Special Forces to restore the situation in Pakistan! That would be poetic justice indeed. The UN intervenes, a grateful Pakistani government agrees to handover POK and the Northern Areas to India and all is well that ends well. India emerges from the 60-hour war with its honour intact and the Kashmir dispute solved once and for all.

It is indeed heartening that despite having served several tenures in Army HQ, including at its helm as the army chief, General Padmanabhan is extremely optimistic that government processes and procedures can be transformed so completely as to be able to take a dispassionate and unbiased view of national security. However, the reality is quite different. Though India has now had a National Security Council for about a decade, it has seldom met to consider the position papers that the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) occasionally churns out. The NSAB is known to have carried out a comprehensive Strategic Defence Review that is probably gathering dust in some musty wooden almirahs in the corridors of South Block or Patel Bhavan. The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) meets often enough, but the meetings are basically of the fire-fighting variety to formulate quick responses to emerging situations, particularly those with strong political overtones like the ongoing agitation in Manipur against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Very little, if any, thought is actually given to holistic and comprehensive long-term national security planning.

Though not as racy and colourful as a Tom Clancy or a Humphrey Hawksley novel, Gen Padmanabhan’s book has generated immense interest and curiosity as it tracks the trajectory of India’s rise to regional and world power status over almost two decades and culminates in military exchanges with Pakistan and the US in 2017. Predictions, it has been said, are very difficult to make – especially if they are about the future. Whether India’s inevitable future rise will be peaceful, a claim that China is loudly making for its own rise, or whether India will find its place in the sun only through turmoil and conflict, perhaps even with the US, is something that only time will tell. Meanwhile, The Writing on the Wall will serve as a reminder that in a world that is still dominated by realpolitik things can go horribly wrong if a nation’s foreign policy and national security policy do not keep pace with geo-political and geo-economic developments. All members of the policy planning community must read this book even if they find themselves disagreeing with its conflict scenarios and happy ending