Saturday, 21 April 2018

Under the assault of social media, attention spans have contracted somewhat. But that is not any reason to worry. There are short introductions available to catch up on weighty matters, such as in the case of national security. These help in gaining a working understanding of issues outside a reader’s usual beat and on the quick, being small handbooks intended unambitiously as ‘introduction’. The Oxford series comprises some 30 paperbacks covering daunting topics such as monetary policy and capital flows and exchange rate mechanisms, alongside appealing titles such as Bollywood and Mughal painting. These are a mite bigger than OUP’s Very Short Introductions, paperbacks smaller in size, but not on that account any less in academic content. Placed strategically at airport bookstalls they provide intellectual fare to last a flight, given India’s distances. Chris Ogden’s take on India’s national security is by the yardstick of ‘one for the road’, a good buy. Ogden lectures on Asian security at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. His earlier books include Indian Foreign Policy and the more interestingly—if elaborately—named, Hindu Nationalism and the Evolution of Contemporary Indian Security: Portents of Power.
The format of the series does not permit the expert to talk down to the reader, but to engagingly expand the horizons of learning. It is a bonus if the reader goes on to conquer more crests, such as perusing intellectual terrain mapped in the bibliography.
Sensibly, Ogden does not attempt to overwhelm the reader with his learning. The reader does come away with the satisfaction of having gained a measure of the headlines, since anything newsworthy has national security connotations. As Ogden reminds, national security has expanded from its military centric connotations to virtually include anything and everything, coopted into security studies by subject matter designations as energy security, environmental security, economics, social cohesion, etc. Lately, as Ogden notes, pollution too has been corralled into being an issue in national security—inter-alia—through its effects on health. Even so, territory and big battalions continue to be significant to national security.
Ogden very usefully covers national security through the constructivist lens, in that he locates India in its history, identity, culture, perception and the interaction. He takes a look at how India has changed and is changing, believing that its history has embedded a certain set of values, principles and behaviours. India’s geography, political underpinnings and social foundations have collectively formed for India a unique identity. This makes for cultural traits that distinguish India, giving it an exclusivity from the rest. India’s perceptions shape its national security threats and interests; and, finally, he characterizes as ‘interaction’, the interplay of Indian perceptions with perspectives of others in its region and global neighbours.
An additional theoretical motif he uses is the well-known Maslow hierarchy of needs. While it is usually related to individual needs—from survival to self-actualization—here Ogden adapts it for the nation. Doing so he espies India as subsuming multiple Indias with a portion of it barely surviving and—incongruously—a small elite reaching for the stars. This is significant to his book title negating the conclusion that India’s national security story is not so much about security but about India’s insecurity. This is the key take away from the book, especially for readers conditioned by prime time’s coverage of Mr. Modi’s half century of flights off to some or other capital that India is the next best thing that happened to global politics.
Ogden seems to caution—and timely—that India might well end up as a wannabe great power on two counts. The first appears to be a holdover from his previous book on the influence of Hindutva on India’s strategic culture and the second, on India’s continuing inability to pull a sizable minority of its people out of poverty. The latter inability appears to be getting more pronounced in the Modi era of jobless growth rates—themselves decelerated by gambits such as demonetization and GST—and crony capitalism. This boosts reliance on the former, papering over challenges under a revised concept of nation—Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan. The two taken together, being mutually reinforcing, make for Indian insecurity.
This insecurity is accentuated since India is not quite looking that way at all. Ogden outlines three domains of security—democracy and secularism, sovereignty and territory and modernization and great power. In the first domain the major threats are militancy, separatism and communalism. The threats in the second domain are ones Indians are routinely made familiar with by the ongoing firing along the Line of Control with Pakistan and the periodic incursions by China into areas of contested versions of the border. It is in the third domain that the real sting of Ogden’s work lies. He says that ‘at the heart of this domain the central fear is that of India’s destiny being not fulfilled which will not thus only impact on her status but also impede her self-sufficiency and autonomy in the world.’ This cautionary word needs being taken seriously by national security minders and their political supervisors. Unfortunately, that cannot be the case so long as India is in an ideological thrall, fighting off medieval monsters internally (witness the hysteria around Bollywood’s ‘Padmavat’) and, externally, sidling up to a hyper-power poised on dotage.
Two mundane—if inescapable—chapters make up the rest of the book. One deals with internal security and the second with security in its external dimension. As can be anticipated, these cover the threats and actors and their efficacy. The internal security chapter is enhanced by its coverage of ‘societal issues’. Whereas he is appreciative of India’s strides on the overall welfare front, he rightly points to democratic deficits such as on human rights (blinding and killings of stone throwers in Kashmir), quality public goods as education and health, minority security (lynchings by the cow brigade) and gender equality (leading to some 66 million missing women).The external security chapter has three quarters of an A5 page on nuclear forces. This is to minimize perhaps the greatest national security threat facing South Asia, especially when the Army Chief threatens to call Pakistan’s ‘nuclear bluff’ and Pakistan more or less says ‘bring it on’.
Ogden’s conclusion from his discussion of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—physiological, safety, psychological, esteem and self-actualization—situated to India as a polity and nation is most apt. While Maslow’s individual graduates from a lower level to the next, with met needs at each enabling a reaching out for higher order needs, India—to Ogden—appears to be meeting all needs simultaneously. He advises that ‘it may be in India’s national interest to fulfil Maslow’s original intentions of first fully meeting basic needs, as only then will New Delhi be able to genuinely achieve its great power aspirations.’ Is anyone in Sardar Patel Bhawan, the seat of India’s National Security Council Secretariat, listening?