Thursday, 4 January 2018

Spiking possibilities: What is the army chief up to?

In quick succession the army chief has taken care to set out the army's position in relation to developments that portend peace. When the representative of the Union government was appointed in October last year for a sustained dialogue with stakeholders in Kashmir, the army chief was quick to point out that his appointment would not affect army operations in Kashmir. Apparently operations facilitate a position of strength for the government conducive to negotiations. Recently, in the context of the news from across the border that the Pakistan army was softening up and its chief had called on the civilian authorities to progress matters with India, Gen Rawat immediately drew attention to Pakistan's continuing interference in Kashmir. However, this was of a piece with the foreign ministry line. Thus, two peace possibilities were nipped at the outset. 

To be fair, it would be stretching credulity that peace is at hand and the two possibilities were evidence of a dawn of sorts. It is widely reckoned that India and Pakistan are in yet another hiatus phase, with the Pakistani elections crowding 2018 and India's run up to 2019 crowding out any other demands on attention and effort. Upcoming election times are taken as precluding policy initiatives, such as exploring peace possibilities. This was also the case early this decade when Manmohan Singh's Pakistan policy was stumped by election time, first in Pakistan and then in India. The policy at that point in time heralded possibilities, with the two sides having gotten across the Mumbai terror attacks episode in a tentative reaching out between the foreign policy establishments. Internal to Kashmir, the three interlocutor's report was with the government, but - as P Chidambaram, the then home minister confirmed later - there was no stomach for the Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi combine to stick their neck out for the sake of peace. Therefore, there is precedence for a glacial pace to events stemming from the compulsions of election time and to expect a peace outbreak is wishful. 

Currently, prime time is exercised positively by the US president's tweet that to some presages a turn of heart in the US, finally distancing it from Pakistan. The US president appears to be taking his Afghanistan policy, unveiled in August, further in tamping down on the Pakistani sanctuary available to anti-US terrorists. In Indian commentary this has been credited to Modi's Washington visit of June last year. He is taken as influencing the US decision to turn the screws on Pakistan soon thereafter. Since the Indian diplomatic policy of isolating Pakistan appears to be coming to a head, there is little likelihood of India cashing in on the dividend just yet. Pakistan would require being in the corner for longer before it is mellowed sufficiently to rethink its policy of export of terror to its neighbours, India and Afghanistan. 

Therefore, for India to be overly effusive over the Pakistani army chief's message - delivered at a meeting of the senate committee - on repairing ties with India, would be premature. This explains the foreign ministry's response to the feelers from General Qamar Javed Bajwa. It reiterated India's long standing position that talks and terror cannot go together - echoed by General Bipin Rawat in the media. 

In the event, India has reportedly taken care to keep the communication links going, with media reports on the military operations heads interfacing now and then and keeping a covert channel between the two national security advisers open - who if the media is to be believed met secretly at a foreign location. This is deemed sufficient to keep the pressure on Pakistan, without allowing event to boil over. This policy context provides a rationale for the army chief's staking out of a hard-line position on the intertwined external and internal fronts - Pakistan and Kashmir. So to arraign the army chief for speaking out of turn or off-key - the dimension explored here - is to be hypercritical and motivated.

Leaving matters at that happy pass for the status quo would not do. At the risk of sounding hypercritical and motivated, issue needs being taken with the army's unnecessary weighing in on the side of war and hate mongering, for that is the political dividend for right wing formations within India from the standoff with Pakistan and in Kashmir. Since this criticism arises from the realm of internal politics, a defence of the army line can be anticipated at the outset: that the army - being apolitical - is oblivious to this and therefore cannot be faulted on this count. 

The contention here is to the contrary. The repeated chiming in of the army in favour of a policy line that has internal political dividend for its political masters lays it open to such criticism. The repetition - and likelihood of being the domesticated 'his master's voice' into the future that this suggests - compels pointing this out timely. It is to prevent the army from becoming yet another legitimising source for policy lines that are only chimerically anchored in public policy, but actually have origin in domestic political calculus. Should the army get so entangled it ceases to be apolitical and ends up a political player, unwitting at first but a committed one as its role deepens.

Firstly, neither of the two policy domains - the home ministry's Kashmir peace initiative and the foreign ministry's domain of response to Pakistani overtures - is the army's turf. For the army to stake out a position can only be as part of an orchestrated policy rollout. This is unlikely since the Indian policy making and implementation framework is not known for such finesse. The army chief was likely as not speaking out of turn. That this is in sync with the party line has kept eyebrows from being raised, besides the supposed proximity of the army chief with the national security adviser on account of likemindedness. How much shared ethnicity has to do with this, history shall no doubt uncover.

Secondly, militaries are universally known to be conservative and realistic. They are slow to anger; prefer to stay out of a fight; and if forced into one, like operational freedom. In short, they are less likely to be spoiling for a fight than their civilian masters. This is in regard to external antagonists. 

The implications for internal security commitments of this bit of civil-military theory is that the armies prefer not being involved militarily in what are seen as political problems and if so engaged prefer early disengagement brought about by developmental and political ministrations by the civilian authorities. 

Contrary to the received civil-military relations theory, the Indian army appears to be belligerent, aggressive and straining at the leash. It seemingly prefers an unsettled Kashmir and appears happy that there is a reliable enemy at the gates, Pakistan. The army chief's operational persona as a spirited commander overshadows the strategic level expectations of him, of sobriety and restraint. This is an unfortunate deduction that the army - and its chief - need to hereon work overtime to dispel. 

It warns of an internal change in the army, warranting a closer study by military sociologists. Here is parsed that this is handiwork of the industrious band of cultural nationalists in the veteran and strategic communities, apparently reaching into the military. 

Finally, and importantly, time and again the ruling party has demonstrated its penchant for furthering polarization for political gains. The substrata of right wing pseudo cultural political formations have been busy deepening this. For the ruling party and its supportive majoritarian base, Pakistan is a handy foe and Kashmiri militancy a useful target. In the trope in the bylanes - that the otherwise verbose prime minister does little to stem - there is an identification of India's Muslims with Pakistan; accentuating thereby a Hindu ownership of India. It helps project India in a defensive war with Islamism, if not historically with Islam, itself. This transforms an essentially territorial dispute with Pakistan and an internal security problem in Kashmir into a civilisational war. This enables and justifies a single policy stroke - the hard-line. 

Within this political context, the army's role can at best be restricted to the operational. It cannot buy into the party line. It must step back from the information war frontline. In this, the army chief needs to lead by example.