Coup proofing: Foregrounding the motivation behind Agnipath
This article is not about Agnipath. The issue has been flogged adequately in the media and has attracted sufficient commentary, both enlightened and apologist. At this juncture, while an opposition politician predicts withdrawal of the policy, as was the case with the farmer laws, the policy itself appears to be firming in with criticism tempered by recommendations on how to improve it taken onboard. A relieved military has given the policy a cloak of a work-in-progress pilot project. To its credit, the brass has watered down of the policy, leaving room enough to modify/retract it along the line. The usual botched rollout of policy – by now typical of the Narendra Modi regime – has distracted from the more dubious features of the policy: its dismantling of the Indian Army as-we-know-it.
The wide-ranging interview of National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval - the heavy artillery deployed by the regime as palliative to the protests by aspirant Agniveers - carries a clue on the motive of the regime behind the scheme. In his spirited showing in the non-obsequious interview, Doval makes a comparison between the Indian Army and the Indian National Army (INA), to the detriment of the former. To him, the INA stole a march on the Indian Army by being inspired by nationalism, whereas the Indian Army was a creation of the British as part of their policy of ‘divide and rule’.
To him, the regimental system was introduced by them - bedrock of the infantry that is the major component of the Army - to array India’s ethnic groups against each other, facilitating over-lordship of the British. The Indian Army that retained its institutional integrity on the transfer of power, therefore, has an overhaul long overdue. The Agnipath scheme’s shift to an All India All Class (AIAC) composition draws on the strengths of the Indian National Army (INA), based as it was on an ethnically amalgamated regimental model (Doval recounts the regiments, namely, Rani Jhansi and (sic) Mahatma Gandhi), shows that the shift would not impact combat effectiveness. To him, nationalism will substitute for ethnic affinities that hitherto provided battle-winning cohesion.
This bit of persuasion by Doval to allay fears over dilution in combat effectiveness of the Agnipath- inoculated Army need not detain us. Let’s leave it to military historians whether the casualties suffered by the INA owed to their warrior spirit, as attributed by Doval, or neglect by the Japanese. Instead, of consequence in his favourable reference to the INA while putting down the Army is the regime’s effort to discredit the continuity that makes for the institutional integrity of the Army in order that the Army is recreated along lines preferred by the regime.
It’s no secret that Hindutva informs the regime’s worldview. Hindutva ordains a Hindu Rashtra. There is already a New India in place awaiting conversion to Hindu Rashtra at some point in the middle term. The conditions for this conversion are already in place. Constitutional pillars and institutions have been so hollowed out that when the Constitution is given a final nudge towards Hindu Rashtra, there would be none still standing up for it.
The Parliament is an empty shell. The parliamentarians of the ruling party owe their membership of the house to the Modi wave, if not tsunami. The province-specific opposition is too narrowly-focused to count, while the opposition party with a national spread is internally beset. The Judiciary has been kneaded into plasticine, the Gogoi tenure testifying as much. To a chief justice prospect, its recent cognizance of the dozer raj amounts to acting on ‘priority’. The Executive has long had a deep state spirited away by the right wing into its innards. Doval’s reference in his interview to a spate of terror after and self-congratulations that this has not recurred since 2014 is yet another attempt at hiding provenance of the terror India was subject to then. Whereas the Sanatan Sanstha has been fore-grounded partially as perpetrators, it is only to obscure the others, at least one of which sits saffron-clad in parliament. The remainder of the executive has – to borrow an imperishable phrase in the context of Indian organizational culture - crawled when merely asked to bend. If the military, represented by General Rawat and his clique are to go by, how the civilian bureaucracy and police have been suborned can only be imagined. The few but notable exceptions proving the rule, the fourth estate – the Media – is rightly regarded as a disgrace.
Though the Army has been subject to conditioning since Rawat’s elevation to its helm over the heads of two of his seniors - who retrospectively can also easily be seen as being superior professionals than him - it has thus far not been entirely crippled as other institutions. It has managed to remain partially unscathed since the regime had utility for a modicum of its professionalism while it was settling in. The redoubtable Pakistan Army had to be overawed, which - to the regime - the two surgical strikes succeeded in doing. The untimely intrusions by the Chinese twice-over – at Doklam and Ladakh - also lent pause. Given its innate strengths and relative isolation, the military (here ‘military’ and ‘army’ are used interchangeably) also requires a longer duration to unsettle.
However, it cannot be indefinitely spared, since the Hindu Rashtra has to be rolled out in a finite timeline, dependent as it is crucially on longevity of the Modi spell over the electorate. Consequently, the Army has to be taken down prior to the final nails in the coffin of Old India, lest it - taking its unwritten constitutional obligations seriously - grandstand against New India going the Hindu Rashtra way.
The possibility of the Army ending up a road bump on the road to Hindu Rashtra is counter-intuitive. Its historically apolitical character, the progressive dilution of its professional ethic in the regime years, the magnitude of the Hindutva-inspired regime and the power gap between it and the opposition suggest that enforced subordination of the Army – grinding its nose into the dust as it were - is inessential to the Hindutva project. Even so, the endeavour of getting to Hindu Rashtra is too important to leave any stone unturned, lest it turn out a bridge too far. Taking 100 years to get to this point, the Hindutva enterprise cannot be allowed to be tripped up at the final hurdle.
As its deep state tentacles have no doubt kept it informed, the threat of the Army standing up against an abrupt change of character of the Constitution that it is sworn to protect - albeit miniscule and remote - cannot be wished away entirely. The eulogies that attended Rawat’s funeral flattered to please. His Padma award cannot paper over skepticism in the Army over his Republic Day award, the only serving chief to be pinned with one. That the Chief of Defence Staff appointment was meant to accommodate him in a higher chair stands confirmed by the post remaining unfilled six months into his untoward departure. The cynicism with which the moving of the goal posts on the CDS appointment eligibility has been received is another pointer that the infatuation with the regime - and its protagonist - is not universal. Consequently, the element of the doubt has to be addressed by Hindutva project minders within the regime and outside it in its support base in the mother-ship, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
Also, the transition to New India cannot exclude military ‘reforms’. Notwithstanding the hype, Modi’s showing in the surgical strikes has only limited value for his self-image. In any case, the Chinese have put a pin into the balloon. Moreover, Russia’s Ukraine War has shown up war as capricious and is best avoided. Diwali jamborees are insufficient substitute for an Indira-as-Durga-like image. Allusions to nuclear weapons as diwali crackers are counter-productive. Consequently, the next best thing to embellish a 56” chest is ‘reforms’, the more ‘transformational’ the better. Tweaking the manual of defence procurement does not have a ring to it, besides having been done by Manmohan Singh’s defence minister, the Pope, AK Antony. The image of Modi as ‘The Great Disrupter’ needs a boost in a non-trivial area. Bending the Army to his will is of a different order of magnitude as a political feat than getting the police to heel, though the latter is low-hanging fruit for the likes of once khaki-clad Doval.
Domination of political culture by Hindutva empowers it to move faster and further on this score. An Army can be created in its own image, consonant with the change in society and polity it wishes to usher. Vedic texts, ancient history, social mores and political practices of the Aryans as they populated the Gangetic plains are arbitrarily taken as civilisational wellsprings. The Army, even if modern and professional, needs to be imbued with Hindutva, lest it stand out as a sore thumb. It therefore needs to be unfastened from its current verities and ethos and reset in a new, fresher mould. The reforms therefore serve two purposes: by redefining the Army, remove any threat that it might pose.
The reforms are timed to keep the Army chasing its tail while Hindutva goes about its sweeping up the debris of the Indian State-as-we-know-it and beautifying what emerges with a Central Vista-like makeover. The response in Ladakh amounting to an LC-isation (Line of Control) of the Line of Actual Control keeps the military busy with professional matters. The situation in Kashmir, kept manageable by the peace on the LC, allows for the right wing political solution to unspool at a leisured pace, with the latest step being delimitation of constituencies for the Union Territory assembly elections due soon. The two operational commitments keep the Army tied down. Alongside is futuristic organizational restructuring in theaterisation, jointness and integrated battle groups. The former could have done with a CDS in place. His absence only proves the idea is to keep the Army bogged in facile reforms, while the wider India reset proceeds apace. This is the backdrop to view Agnipath.
Agnipath is designed to keep the military introspective. Even if the military does entertain thought of taking a stand, it would not have the vertical cohesion to do anything about it. Callow Agniveers don’t count, though they can have a surveillance value in case of infiltration by right wing-aligned recruits, as is apprehended in liberal and leftist circles where the refrain is that the Agnipath scheme is to covertly turn out militarized RSS cadre. The undercutting of regiment system and regimentation ensures there are no cohesive outfits readily at hand to spook New Delhi, as once allegedly deployed by then Chief, General VK Singh, using ethnic networks, in pursuit of his ‘date of birth’ obsession. The manner 7, Lok Kalyan Marg, is guarded with an armed trooper at every 25 yards, and reported construction of accommodation for some 3000 troopers for guarding the new accommodation of the prime minister in the Central Vista, show that unfounded fears exist. Such fears owe not to Mr. Modi’s past as much as what he intends for the history books.
As for the professional officer cadre, it is rent into bhakt and bhakt-skeptics camps. It is unknown if there are any anti-bhakts left. The cadre cannot have the confidence to mount a rear guard action to save the Republic-as-we-know-it. The officer class is involved in incorporating women into its mainstream. It might yet be subject to a similar Tour of Duty exercise, as reportedly was the original conception. Deep selection of its leadership has expanded the catchment to include recent retirees and all three-star equivalent rank holders, putting paid to the premium on command. Rumour has variously backed two brass-hats whose claim to fame was to discredit the precedence of surgical strikes lying in years preceding the Modi era. While one heads the Army think tank, the other is ensconced as military adviser under Doval. It is no coincidence that an Engineer officer heads the Army for the very first time. While welcome in itself, that he does not belong to the combat arms - traditionally the ‘core elite’ - is telling. That no one has resigned in dissent against Agnipath bespeaks of a well-conditioned military, liable to be receptive to the more nationally-damaging initiatives just ahead.
This setting-of-the-stage betrays the real reason behind the ‘reforms’. To beget a younger profile military, to be responsive to the changed character of war, to turn out Agniveers as nationally-oriented citizens etc. are but icing on the cake, a bonus that the extensive information war surrounding the Agnipath rollout more or less lets on. The traditionally-conservative bureaucracy keeping a safe distance is another indicator of a hot-potato of uncertain provenance. Amazingly the 254 meetings over 750 hours over a transformational initiative as this did not include stakeholder consultations that alone could have precluded surprise, protests and criticism. Intriguingly, both Doval and the general leading the chorus, the officiating Department of Military Affairs head, General Puri, have not reconciled how the AIAC entry squares with retention of ethnic regiments. Whereas being one with troops is fine with officers, only a test-bed result could tell if this is fine for soldiery too. To begin with it might stall criticism from Colonel Blimps valuing traditional regiments, but teething troubles will force more than a tooth ache. All this only shows there is more to it than meets the eye.
The regime might have over-stretched. It might take loss in war to halt Hindutva in its tracks. The Kargil War lesson was that cohesive primary groups allowed young, junior leaders to do their thing. Absent integration – vertical and horizontal – as the Agnipath scheme portends, a loss is not an implausible outcome. It may yet have the liberty to wash away its action with a few crocodile tears, as with demonetization, or of placatory rollback, as with the land acquisition and farm laws. Alternatively, if Indians vote out Modi, the scheme of short-term volunteers can be trashed, though retaining its strengths as the shift to AIAC. Such outcomes are hypothetical. The scheme – to reiterate - is to put the military into a spin, while Hindutva runs amok.
To wrap up on a theoretical note, Elizabeth Kier, in her book Imagining War: French and Military Doctrine between the Wars (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), has it that ‘the intervention of civilian policymakers is rarely a carefully calculated response to the external environment. Instead, civilian choices between different military policies often reflect their concerns about the domestic balance of power.’ To her, ‘state actors seek to ensure that the military’s potential strength corresponds to the desired division of power in the state and society.’ This is especially so, ‘in states that have not reached a consensus about the role of armed services in the domestic arena (pp. 3-4).’
The extract is relevant to the Indian circumstance. The place of the military has been rudely shaken by the attempt by Hindutva of politicization of the military. The regime wishes a pliable, rather than merely a subordinate military. A regime out to reset the Constitution would logically deflate military’s power. Therefore, it is not external threat – including the so-called ‘two front’ threat that concerns the regime, as much as fixation with an internal power balance facilitative of move from New India, already wrought, to Hindu Rashtra, in the offing.