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‘Indira, Yahya ek hai’

Friday 7 September 2007, by GUPTA*Shishir

Where have the Left parties been? Barring a four-year hiatus after Pokhran II, the Indian and US navies have been conducting exercises named after the scenic Malabar Coast for the past 15 years. Since 2003, the Indian navy has war-gamed with six American nuclear powered ships, including aircraft carriers Ronald Reagan and Nimitz, and this excludes the on-going Bay of Bengal effort. But never before have the Left parties vented their anti-American outrage so vocally. To go by their current protest, the UPA stands accused of mortgaging its independent foreign policy by mere participation in multi-national naval exercises involving two US nuclear powered aircraft carriers and warships from Japan, Australia and Singapore.

The answer is obvious and lies in the politics of the day, with little or no linkage to issues of national security or foreign policy. The Manmohan Singh government has made it abundantly clear it will not back down on the Indo-US nuclear deal and will go on to operationalise the 123 agreement. All indications are that a mid-term election is certain. Therefore, Left parties, using the naval exercises as an excuse, are employing anti-US rhetoric to stir up their political constituency, especially the minorities, in West Bengal and Kerala. Otherwise, the Left should have similarly protested over the participation of USS amphibious ship Boxer in Malabar ‘06 as the 41,000-tonne ship (twice the size of INS Viraat) actively participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, just as USS Kitty Hawk and Nimitz were part of the American war effort.

What, however, comes as a surprise is the UPA government’s effort to play down the naval exercises and, thereby, undermine the post-Independence vision of our political leaders, starting with Jawaharlal Nehru, of a robust blue water Indian navy. Even the specious argument that the present exercises are a signal to China belittles the Indian naval effort as apart from the US and France, it is the only force that operates an aircraft carrier, INS Viraat, from the Gulf of Eden to Malacca Straits. Thailand has a small aircraft carrier, Chakri Naruebet, that only flies helicopters with Sea Harriers never flown from the deck. Russian Admiral Kuznetsov rarely ventures out and China has still to learn the art of carrier aviation despite strident efforts for the past 20 years. Beijing’s efforts to refurbish Variag, purchased as junk during the break-up of the Soviet Union, have still not fructified even though the PLA navy has three Xia class nuclear submarines.

The China bogey is unacceptable. After all, it was the Indian navy that managed to send ships laden with relief supplies to Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Maldives within 48 hours of the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean. This argument gets further negated by the Indian and PLA navies’ exercises in Qingdao on April 16 this year, and the exercises off the Shanghai coast since 2000-2001. In any case, India has war-gamed with no less than 20 navies, including those of Oman, Russia and even New Zealand since 2006.

The fact is that the Indian navy needs to dialogue with the US Pacific Fleet as both operate in the region and have a lot to learn from each other. If Nimitz has been to Chennai, INS Viraat was off the coast of Abu Dhabi in 2003 and Southeast Asia last year. The dialogue has endured, as there was no misunderstanding between the Indian and the US forces during the build-up to war in Afghanistan in 2001 and Operation Parakram after the December 13 attack on Parliament that year. The Indo-US naval exercises have graduated from basic interoperability and communication drills to the highest dissimilar air combat training, “buddy refuelling”, with first-hand experience of nuclear powered submarines like the USS Chicago that is participating in the present exercise. This cooperative engagement does not mean that Indo-US exercises are a prelude to joint expeditionary forces against a third country. To understand the issue, consider the venue of the present exercises.

The multi-national naval exercises are being held, ostensibly for logistical purposes, virtually on the mouth of the 10 degree channel that bisects the Great Andamans and Car Nicobar Islands and leads to the Malacca Straits. It is through this channel that 720 ships pass per day (260,000 per year) carrying no less than 27.4 million barrels of Persian Gulf oil for North Asia, including China. This is the second busiest sea lane in the world with over a trillion dollars worth of trade (42.4 per cent of Japanese and 21.8 per cent of Chinese exports) passing through every year. The fact is that if this sea lane is blocked due to a terrorist attack (after all Malacca Strait is only 72 feet deep and 1.5 miles wide at its eastern end), the cost of Indian iron ore to Japan will go up by 4 per cent and the cost of each barrel of Gulf oil to China and Japan by a dollar or more due to diversion of sea traffic to Sunda or Lombok Straits.

Given its global aspirations, India needs a navy that can defend itself far away from its coastline and protect its EEZ, off-shore oil platforms and strategic trade routes from terrorists, pirates and gun-runners. Protection of the five choke points to the Indian Ocean (Gulf of Eden, Straits of Hormuz, Mozambique channel, Malacca Straits and Sunda Straits) for global commerce is the reason for this current engagement, not any willingness to make India subservient to American interests.

A reading of the Indian naval doctrine for the present millennium will show that New Delhi was always for expeditionary force capability and power projection. The national leadership never wanted it to be a ‘Cinderella force’. It has plans to be a two-carrier navy by 2010 with muscular second strike capability. It is only because of such exercises and tactical comfort levels with the big players that Indian ships were able to evacuate its nationals from Lebanon during the Israeli blockade last July. Recall, at the time even US ships chose to stay out of the mess.

While the Left’s antipathy towards anything American is obvious, the fact is that no nation can touch a warship that is anchored an inch beyond 12 nautical miles of its territorial waters. One way to tackle this is to lead jathas and raise red flags; the other is to engage for mutually beneficial purposes. The Left, incidentally, was not vocal when the Seventh Fleet appeared in 1971. The CPM slogan was:

Indira, Yahya ek hai.

See online : The Indian Express

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