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In the lower reaches of the Himalayan range and its valleys, March heralds the coming of spring. The change of temperature from the harsh cold of the Himalayan winter brings fresh life and hope. The bushes and trees that cover the hills sprout new leaves and flowers blossom in a riot of colour. For the soldiers on the LAC situated in the higher altitudes, spring is still a couple of months away as the desolate windswept landscape of Ladakh brings little relief from the harsh cold. For the strategic community, the disengagement at Pangong Tso is no reason for cheer as the contested areas of the Depsang plains that hold more strategic import is yet to be resolved. But a new threat deep in the hinterland raises greater challenges than kinetic threats at the LAC.

The release of a threat intelligence report by Recorded Future, a US company, that a Chinese APT group called Red Echo had penetrated both the power and ports sectors and might have even resulted in the blackouts in Mumbai the nations financial capital. A couple of decades back when the Chinese made inroads into the power and ICT sector the security establishment had raised red-flags, but these were overruled and resulted gradually in large portions of the strategic power and the ICT sector being built by Chinese companies. This report now renders the military defence of India extremely difficult if the tensions at the LAC escalate to a larger conflict. The PLA had signalled an ability to disrupt the Indian economy by deniable non-kinetic attacks on its Critical Information Infrastructure(CII). 

As if oblivious to these facts, a section of the press started reporting imminent normalisation of relations, post the disengagement at Pangong Tso and the Chinese wanting to restore trade relations. This was followed by the announcement that an Indian telecom operator had awarded a contract to Huawei the Chinese company for upgrading their network. To its credit, the GoI reacted quickly with a notification that the license terms of the telecom operators have been amended. “With effect from 15th June 2021, the licensee shall only connect trusted products in its network, and also seek permission from the designated authority for up-gradation of an existing network utilising the telecommunication equipment not designated as trusted products,”. The press report clarified that the authority for deciding trusted products will be the National Cyber Security Coordinator which marks an important departure from the hitherto applied certification that was the industry norm. 

These developments when viewed dispassionately are knee jerks at best, the fact that the security establishment failed to be proactive do not showcase India in a good light. That this amendment would not affect the purchase of Huawei equipment and is tantamount to giving a lifeline to the beleaguered Chinese company, a veritable arm of the PLA adds insult to injury. This incident was preceded by a long and acrimonious debate on the Public Sector telecom operator, BSNL trying to procure Chinese equipment at the height of tensions on the LAC. This gives little wiggle room to those involved in the entire episode to feign ignorance. Prominent columnist S A Aiyer writing on the subject for his popular weekly byline Swaminomics observed “India is especially vulnerable because of high corruption. It shows no interest in jailing thousands of past Indian collaborators, possibly because every political party has skeletons in its cupboard.” That the Modi government is serious about national security matters can be seen by the various steps that have been initiated from restructuring the military edifice, promoting self-reliance in defence equipment and multiple pronouncements on the dangers of the information domain in national security matters. That despite all these, matters at the core of government policy initiatives, are allowed to drift are indicators of the prevalent culture in the sensitive CII.

MEITY is the lead ministry for all matters dealing with ICT security as per the business rules governing GoI functioning. The founding culture of MEITY was facilitating of the ITES industry is well known. That was at a time when the national security aspects of the information domain were not fully appreciated. Post Snowden, the course correction that should have been instituted never happened for multiple reasons. The ability of Big Tech to create powerful narratives, run influence operations, affect elections results, set global agendas and curate policymaking are partly responsible for this. Chinese companies in the telecom and power sectors having established deep and resilient relationships in the CII were inconvenient truths largely ignored in the national security calculus. These have resulted in India being rated a lowly 21st in the National Cyber Power Index 2020 by the Belfer Center. The report documents India as lacking both in capability and intent. The ‘lack of intent’ is more damaging for a nation facing both threats to its national security and trying to create an innovation ecosystem for generating employment opportunities for its youth bulge. 

The Chinese inroads and the narratives that favour the agenda of Big Tech are in many instances at cross purposes with the Govt’s own declared policies. Three decades of institutional culture and business relationships cannot be overturned by pure political diktat. The course correction requires careful study, planning, preparation, selective surgery and inspirational leadership. The ancient Indian toolkit ‘Chanakya-Niti’ comprising Saam, Daam, Dand, Bhed is what is needed for ensuring policy initiatives of the Govt are enforced on the ground. 

Prescience; the foreknowledge of events. The special ability to see or know about events before they actually occur is a valued trait since time immemorial. Prescience is also closely associated with foreboding and premonition. There must surely be an evolutionary reason for this, as prescience would be a valuable trait for the survival of the species.

This article is not to do with the art or science of prescience, but has more to do with the very survival of the Indian nation. For there are many threats facing India during the pandemic, the most urgent is a stalled economy and the largest youth bulge in history. The threat of the PLA on the LAC, pales in
comparison as it is not existential in nature but surely can exacerbate both. All the above threats are visible to the common man and depending on various factors ranging from economic condition, age, political persuasion etc these will be ranked by most in differing orders of priorities.

For the student of warfare in the information age though, there lurks on the horizon an existential threat that is not so easily discerned by the common man. This has to do with human fallibilities. Democracies are political structures that have evolved by the collective experiences of humankind.
That includes a clear demarcation of powers among the legislature, executive and judiciary. A free press, an apolitical and professional military etc are all sine qua non for this democratic orchestra. Perfect harmony among all these institutions happens, but rarely and minor imbalances in the power structures of these are the norm and the resultant cacophony is the normal healthy condition of society.

The information age is different in many ways to previous ages. The most singular phenomenon is the rapid rise of Big Tech and the unprecedented velocity of accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of very few. Wealth usually begets power and vice versa, but the subtle difference this
time is the perfect synergy that surveillance capitalism has given to these new elite. The information advantage that accrues to the holders of data is absolute as the ability to coerce and cut through power structures by blackmail is unprecedented. The frailty of the human condition wherein
even saints and gods have weaknesses and secrets are what is exploited. Ubiquitous and pervasive surveillance fuelled by ICT technologies has for the first time allowed a few to have this advantage over the vast majority of the rest.

The alliance between intelligence agencies and Silicon Valley was what fostered surveillance capitalism.

It was but natural that this alliance would eventually alter power structures and the social contract that would affect the politics of the US. The Trump presidency is a revolt by the vast majority that did not benefit from globalism, was easily discerned. It also explains wherein the deep state is one of the primary and popular targets of President Trump. What
was not anticipated is the effect of all these on India whose ITES industry was the biggest job creator for a newly liberated economy. It also spawned a new elite, beneficiaries of its ties to Silicon valley.

August 2020 in that sense was momentous as the PM Modi for the first time alerted the nation on the importance of cyber security. The PM cautioned the nation about threats from cyber space that can harm the country’s society, economy and development. The PM added that the government of
India will soon come out with a policy on this.

For those of us who had been repeatedly voicing our concerns about India’s digital journey so far, this was pure music. The journey for India’s national security and economic future in the digital age was a story of missed opportunities and lacked strategic underpinning at best. India had rapidly
started digitising its economy with initiatives that ignored the national security dimensions of cyber space. Niti Aayog had on the previous day of the PM’s address, announced that it had selected Oracle an US MNC, to modernise vital IT infrastructure as part of its Aspirational Districts’ Programme.
It was almost as if the bureaucracy was not in sync with the PM and made his statement about the bureaucracy sabotaging his first term immediately after assuming office in his second term significant.

This was further followed by two articles from the Economic Times that an NGO called Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy had drafted the Data Protection Bill that would be legislated to protect the fundamental right to privacy. The ET Prime article also talked about Vidhi helping in drafting multiple other laws and policies. An NGO comprising of Indians helping the bureaucracy draft a law that would finally have public and legislative scrutiny would not have usually raised an eyebrow. In this instance it did, as one of the founders of Vidhi was a staunch proponent of Aadhar and had argued against privacy as a fundamental right. Curiously the report also mentioned
that the same gentleman was also on the Justice Sri Krishna Panel constituted post the land mark Puttaswamy judgement. The gentleman, also being a consultant to NATGRID, an organisation meant to interlink various sensitive databases is a minor footnote that triggered alarm.

Vidhi is backed by a who is who of Indian business houses and also by Omdiyar Networks a global foundation involved in various political movements, including The Better Than Cash Alliance. That most of these philanthropic organisations are run by business houses for profit who are going to be affected by the Data Protection bill is a clear conflict of
interest ! To fix the rules to win the game is the oldest trick in the book. In the information age these have a much larger strategic and societal import and is a clear threat to the Indian Republic. The Modi government has previously shown an ability to self correct, when presented with evidences to policy initiatives that can affect national interests as seen with
RCEP. It is time for the Prime Minister to intervene!

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of CIEU. And we donot assume any responsibility or liability for the same.