Friday, 8 July 2022

A national security strategy that cannot be admitted to

A right wing intellectual recently called for a dharmic Constitution to replace the one we have currently in order that it is in sync with the genius and sentiment of the land. This is now not so much a question of ‘if’ but of ‘when’. Change to a dharmic Constitution may symbolize the shift to a Hindu Republic. Alternatively, the Hindu Republic may be declared first, at an opportune moment, such as at the third ‘inauguration’ of Modi on the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhawan. A Hindu republic would not get the gander up since Islamic Republics and Christian States are aplenty.

Later perhaps the lower chamber of parliament – with an admixture of saffron-clad saints and seers – could act as a constitution assembly for the Second Republic. The hall for a joint sitting of the two houses in the new parliament building, due for inauguration by year end, would serve the purpose rather well. This is not farfetched, considering that the earlier, milder right wing government under Vajpayee had set up a national commission, under a former Chief Justice, Venkatachaliah, to study the working of the Constitution with a view to suggesting changes in it.

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The government has only recently demonstrated yet again a propensity to tread hastily into areas best left alone or gingerly ventured into, namely, in its rollout of the Agnipath scheme in the tradition of its earlier masterstrokes as demonetization, voiding of Article 370 and the Covid-19 lock down. Consequently, it can be inferred that the surprise-in-the-works, Hindu Rashtra, needs to be examined for its national security implications prior.

The formation of the First Republic witnessed the tumult of Partition. The politics preceding Independence had portents of a civil war. Wishing to avoid a civil war, Partition had been acceded to by the Congress leadership but at the price of Partition. It was not foreseen that Partition meant one-sided violence resulting in ethnic cleansing on either side of the newly drawn Radcliffe line. Thus, their worst fears – of civil war - came true despite their major concession in trying to avoid it. Likewise, does the impending formation of the Second Republic have portents as grave?

The slo-mo transition to the Second Republic has been in evidence for some 30 years. The rise of Hindutva, dating to the social churn amidst Hindus instigated by the Mandal report implementation, is a handy start point. The communal moves surrounding the Babri Masjid of the preceding mid-decade came to fore with the need for displacement onto Muslims issues arising from anomalies of caste within Hindus. The period coincided with the unmooring of the world in the ending of the Cold War in the very visible dissolution of some multi-ethnic states, including India’s friends, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. The lessons for national security minders were stark. India too was multiethnic and its practice of democratic politics, divisive. India therefore needed a new narrative.

Hindutva proved handy, buoyed by Supreme Court’s characterizing it as ‘a way of life’. Cultural nationalism thus got off to a head start, leaving the learned judge, Chief Justice JS Verma, who coined the phrase nonplussed. Alerted by the experience of Partition, while religion-based politics was not considered kosher, culturally-anchored politics went mainstream. Hindutva dignified Hindu communalism. Over time, any light between religion and culture dimmed, with Indian culture reckoned as Hindu. Even ‘Hindu’ had a definition foisted on it by Hindutva, aping Abrahamic religions as it went monochromatic. The convergence in fundamentalism is evident from an Ayodhya cleric - perhaps inspired by a beheading in Udaipur over the controversial anti-Prophet remarks of the national spokesperson of the ruling party - asking for the head of Leena Manimekalai for her depiction of Goddess Kaali in a poster of her directorial venture.

The national security dividend were essentially on two counts: that Hinduism would provide the necessary glue against horizontal splintering or Balkanisation; and secondly, it would ensure vertical integration, Hindu society being susceptible to caste fissures. The rotation of coalitions in government through the nineties and the multiple national security challenges from Kashmir to the North East surfacing then only served to firm-up this national security perspective.

The Vajpayee government’s continuity in power - after two aborted attempts - brought the cultural nationalist national security perspective center-stage. The deep state - comprising likeminded intelligence and security officials that had been informally and unofficially forged through a shared understanding of national security in the preceding decade – came into its own. A symbiotic relationship was forged, with Hindutva needing national security as a political buoy and the deep state needing a midwife to come out of the closet. Iron Man II, LK Advani, provided the political patronage.

The strategic problem posed by nuclear Pakistan was taken advantage of by both the political master and the official level national security establishment. Since Pakistan could not reasonably be disciplined by military means for its provocations, as the Kargil War and the Kandahar-hijack, and Advani being averse to the diplomatic measures sought by Vajpayee, an intelligence-dominant approach willy-nilly privileging the deep state, came to fore. By then Advani had been pipped at the post by a progressive Manmohan Singh. Pillory of Manmohan Singh’s administration is easily refutable as most bombings to show it up as weak have since turned out to be black operations. The important point is that the intelligence and policing establishments had been comprehensively subverted by when Modi made his bid for Delhi. The Gujarat model had gone center stage in step with its champion.

The economic variant of the Gujarat model - though substantially trashed by the cognoscenti - is better known. Its lesser-known variant is in national security. This involved subversion of the official security establishment in Gujarat. Whether it was by their predilection to Hindutva or endorsement of the predominant Gujarati sentiment on the Hindu Hriday Samrat out to wrest the Republic from minority appeasers and a leftist cabal is inconsequential. Their participation in the Gujarat pogrom amounts to sins of omission and later in its cover up, are sins of commission. The Supreme Court is entitled to its version of a conspiracy theory, just as those persuaded by the three it has caused to be incarcerated – Teesta Setalva, MG Sreekumar and Sanjiv Bhatt – are entitled to theirs. Black operations were intended to give Modi a larger-than-life image, making his boast of a 56”-chest credible. The expected national political dividend is evident when clubbed with the terror perpetrated by shadowy Abhinav Bharat. The culmination of the terror was in 2008, with Pakistan chipping in with its own brand: Mumbai 26/11 viewed as a dialogue with terror as language between the two deep states. The narrative was that the defence of the realm stood jeopardized, with Modi as potion.

The national security fallout of the drift to Hindutva has been a truncation of institutions. The ascent of Modi to power allowed Hindutva greater scope. Other institutions fell like nine-pins by the wayside of history, a litany too recent and intimately known to recount here. The judiciary’s indictment of human rights defenders in the Zakia Jafri judgment is a case to point. In national security, the last bastion is the military. It appears overawed.

On the one hand it was alleviated by the attention it long sought being showered on it, clasped as it was early in Modi’s tenure to Hindutva’s bosom with a war memorial coming up at the heart of the national capital. It went along with overhype of surgical strikes, its brass – both of air force and army - playing along with fiction of these being a strategic innovation. Admitting that these turned out strategically vacuous does not take away any from their tactical gumption. As for innovation, Operation Kabaddi that was aborted by the fallout in the region of 9/11 dims the September 2016 raids in comparison. Nothing in the strategic writings since hints that the army registered a note of caution – leave alone dissent – when Amit Shah went about unilaterally rescinding India’s accession-related promise to Kashmiris. As a political ‘solution’ to Kashmir, the move risked instability out to the middle term. As lead counter insurgency force and vested with expertise, the army should have warned against parochial political aims being sought from national security.

Its professionalism under cloud, operational readiness could not be far behind. This was rudely exposed in the reaction in Ladakh. There is no hint in the strategic discourse if the army put forward any offensive options and these being vetoed by the political elite. It was reduced to showcasing an operationally defensive, though tactically impressive operation, on the Kailash heights to redeem its showing. It has now settled in for the long haul, reconciling with the syncing of its new recruiting policy – Agnipath - with the status quo on the two frontlines, Line of Control and Line of Actual Control. An army that’s just going to sit about does not need to be a war-readiness military, with a cradle-to-grave money guzzling membership. When information operations can cover up operational shortcomings – as in the aerial surgical strike – there is little need for potency in the strikes themselves. Where Galwan Warriors are a liability, quasi-conscripts can substitute. In any case, the aim of Agnipath is to turn out nationalism-inspired youth, a function that both the official National Cadet Corps and non-official shakhas have failed to deliver on.

This shallow expectation of the military is informed by the logic given out by its National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval: that war is passé. Grey zone war – a phrase popularized by Doval protégé,  General Rawat - is the face of the future. Played out in civil society, it given rise to phrases as white collar terrorists. It puts intelligence and police at the frontline, making of the left-liberal side - comprising human rights defenders, NGOs etc – an adversary. The deep state has lent itself to the purpose of Hindutva. It is spearheading the war of right wing consolidation. Given this preoccupation, the external front has to be kept stable. The external status quo can be maintained indefinitely through interminable talks on the China front and a talks-freeze on the Pakistan front and Dr. Jaishankar’s flitting from capital to capital. This is, in brief, India’s national security strategy, but cannot be admitted to.

The absence of a national security parchment owes to illegality of acknowledging that the aims of the regime are a Constitutional churn. Since that aim cannot be said aloud, the route and timeline to get there remain surreptitious. They don’t want to trigger a questioning of how Hindu Rashtra is visualized. Considering Hindutva’s methods have been obnoxious so far, it is unlikely Ramrajya is synonymous with utopia. The place of depressed castes and the minorities is not clear. A Gangetic-centric, saffron-predominant order might not be uniformly welcomed across India’s ethnic mosaic. That fear impels the ruling party’s thrust to conquer the South, the North East already in its kitty. That leaves lower Gangetic riparian, Bengal. Securitizing the Bengali Muslim issue as of ‘illegal immigration’ offers a foot-in-the-door.

It is to preclude instability from a backlash that there is no national strategy document connecting the dots such as the Ayodhya temple, the Uniform Civil Code, detention centers, Hindi-Hindu-Hindusthan, measures for divisive Othering etc. A national security document can neither outline the end state nor the route. It cannot say that repression – of the media and activists - is the method and the troll army its troopers. It cannot articulate that a multiparty political culture is being done away with the infusion of political culture by the right wing to paradigm-dominance levels. The bringing down of the Shiv Sena for being untrue to Hindutva is example. Unthinkable would be to say that the strategy is to debilitate the military, lest it hold up the Constitutional makeover in an uncharacteristic bout of political acuity and courage.

A national security document aggregates the national interest to arrive at a consensus document. It cannot merely elevate the Hindutva wish-list to a collective aspiration. National security minders are aware of the limits of Modi’s populism and the limits of authoritarianism in India’s diverse polity, geography and society. A The Kashmir Files can add to the din, but it cannot keep a Samrat Prithviraj from flopping. They are aware that Hindutva endangers national security, not only in the run up but also when it does get to Hindu Rashtra. Since Ramrajya is patently out of Modi’s reach – Rajdharma having been already compromised once earlier in the Gujarat pogrom – perhaps a turn to a Hindu Republic in name – just as most Islamic Republics are scarcely Islamic – might fit the bill.