Friday, 27 April 2018

The 'incident': Nothing but political

The Kathua ‘incident’ (to quote the prime minister) was not in a vacuum. The assumption of the perpetrators was that impunity was at hand, since the victim was Muslim. This impression of theirs has been long in the making. Muslims have been fair game over the past four years, victims of lynchings for eating beef or love jihad. Earlier, many have been put away for long periods for alleged participation in terror bombings, even in instances of bombings for which the Hindu perpetrators have been identified and, indeed, owned up to. Most saffron terrorists have been let off by courts lately. Those who led mob violence in Gujarat have also been left. Mr. Modi’s selective verbalizing suggested to the perpetrators that the law can be winked at. Finally, the anti-Rohingya policy of the government, with its eddies in Jammu, where a set of Rohingya Muslims are refugees, emboldened them further, making them believe that the anti-Muslim sentiment would translate in support for their supposed endeavour to drive Muslim nomads from the vicinity.
Thus, the perpetrators of the Kathua ‘incident’ believed they could get away with it. They almost did, in that a coalition partner in the state government, the BJP, far right organisations, some in the community and the lawyers’ association provided them cover. However, that they were finally caught tells that there is a reversibility in the tide that manufactured this impression in their minds. The social media backlash, largely a middle class revolt against the BJP, prompted Mr. Modi to break his silence. In crisis management mode since he characterized the dastardly deeds, when taken alongside the ‘incident’ at Unnao, as ‘incidents’. Panicked, he has since gone on to try and take the political sting out of the episode, calling from foreign soil for such ‘incidents’ not to be politicised.
But, as recounted at the outset here briefly, the ‘incident’ itself is an outcome of the politics of the last two decades, that witnessed the rise of Mr. Modi and the manufacture of the wave that brought him to power. The buck must stop with him. It is not time to shift the goal posts on politicization when the tide is turning. But Mr. Modi can be expected to say that; after all it is a fight for another five years at 7 Race Course Road.
It needs little elaboration as to how Mr. Modi bears moral responsibility. As leader of his devotees, he bears a measure of responsibility for their conduct. After all, the two state ministers who resigned from the state government for supporting the perpetrators were from his party and the Hindu Ekta Manch is part of the saffron brigade of which he is the prime champion. But the more significant part of the responsibility – which this op-ed dwells on in some detail further - owes to the manner his elevation from Gujarat to Delhi has led to what is now seen as a national ethical and moral crisis. Devotees appear to be finally de-mesmerising themselves. That it takes such ‘incidents’ to awaken them speaks for the depths India has fallen and is liable to fall in case of another Modi term.
Equally bad ‘incidents’ heralded Modi’s arrival on the scene, when he – in his reading of the Gujarat carnage – could not stop it. Even so, it was as much his abdication of Raj Dharma as the complicity of his administration and the police under him in keeping perpetrators from the gallows that set the tone for the moral decline. Even if the judiciary appears to have closed the inquiries, the jury is still out on a string of incidents thereafter, be it the killing of that state’s home minister or the series of encounter killings of Muslims supposed out to avenge the carnage by targeting Mr. Modi. This helped his constituents rally round him and made for a national profile for Mr. Modi.
The vilification of Muslims across India proceeded apace. As it has turned out, the bombings then attributed to Muslims, such as at Malegaon, were found to have saffron fingerprints. The idea behind this strategy of the saffron combine was to consolidate the Hindu vote. Mr. Modi emerged as the savior, outflanking the comatose Congress government. Its foreign policy dividend was to project Pakistan as the ‘Other’. This accounts for the BJP in opposition holding the Congress led United Progressive Alliance’s government hostage over its reaching out to Pakistan, twice over: before and after 26/11. The moral decline beginning with the lack of traction for Gujarat carnage cases, persisted with the wide acceptability of the orchestrated notion of Muslim provenance of terror. The orchestration of this canard was by the Hindutva aligned think tanks and closet cultural nationalists in the strategic community, who are now in the open and ever willing to stand up and be counted on prime time. Some have billets in the national security establishment, including one at its helm currently.
Since Mr. Modi’s coming to power in Delhi, the departure from ethical governance has only widened. As if recognizing the writing on the wall, the judiciary has fallen in line, the latest evidence being its decisions in favour of Maya Kodnani on the Gujarat carnage case and for Swami Aseemanand over the Mecca Masjid blast. Full blown political capital is made from the reactivation of the Line of Control. The phone has been kept off the hook with Pakistan since the Pathankot airfield terror attack. It is another matter that the attack itself has doubtful origin in that there remain unexplained connected happenings with it, such as the wandering of the Gurdaspur police chief in the vicinity of the border seemingly to escort the infiltrating terrorists to a prospective target. The mystery has even been acknowledged in the book of an acolyte of the former defence minister from within the strategic community, Securing India: The Modi Way.  For their part, the Kashmiris have yet again been pushed back a couple of decades.
It is easy to see that the same strategy that brought Modi to power – by creating a Hindu vote bank against an internal and external ‘other’ – continues at work while the BJP is in power. This implies that the moral responsibility for the outcome rests with the ruling party, its supporting political formations, and devotees willing to suspend disbelief. They are culpable for such a situation having come to pass. Since the ruling party has profited politically from this, it is a political matter, howsoever much the perpetrators in individual ‘incidents’ are equally personally liable.
Unfortunately for the perpetrators, the fresh breeze afoot got them. There is enough time for this breeze to pick up and gather into a storm, to blow the rulers back into the fringe whence they came. It is no wonder Mr. Modi wants the traces from the events over the past two decades – the principal one of which has been the Modi wave - to be wiped clean from the ‘incident’.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

A police wallah as proto Chief of Defence Staff

The armed forces have been delivered another blow. The national security adviser, Mr. Ajit Doval, who, as everyone knows from the hagiography that accompanies his actions, has a back ground in the police and intelligence, is now to also head among his other onerous duties, the defence planning committee. A noted analyst, Manoj Joshi, discerns the new job as equivalent to the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) or permanent Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee.
In a way, the armed forces had this coming for two reasons. One is that they have not put their act together on this score for some three decades. The air force has always held out against a CDS like appointment. Frustrated, the army backtracked from its advocacy some mid last decade and then got back to renew its support for the appointment. The silent service, the Navy, has kept itself aloof from the controversy.
As a result, the three major committees that have looked at the matter since the turn of the century, the Arun Singh Committee as one of the four committees set up after the Kargil Review Committee recommendations was relatively clear on the CDS functions. The Naresh Chandra Committee set up by the comatose United Progressive Alliance government, was mealy mouthed in its recommendation, no doubt because it was headed by a heavy weight bureaucrat. Even the Shekatkar committee, that turned in its report to the previous defence minister, was unable to make a dent in the status quo.
If the army chief is to be believed on his ‘two front’ formulation, the need to have the three horses pull together has seldom been greater. The air force in its latest exercise, advertised as the largest ever, shifted from a focus on the western front to the eastern front midway through the exercise, underlining how seriously they take the collusive threat from India’s two adversaries.
This accentuates the need to optimize India’s resources devoted to defence. The prime minister in his first address to the commanders of the services at their conclave aboard the INS Vikramaditya had intoned as much. If this requires a head umpire over the three chiefs to have them work out of one script then the higher defence organization must have it. Service parochialisms cannot be allowed to stand in the way of national security. If and since the three services were reluctant to see eye to eye on this, then the appointment has to be thrust on them.
However, the quasi CDS is yet another stop gap measure. It is evident that it is not only service reluctance at play but bureaucratic chicanery. The bureaucrats are loath to have a high-ranking serviceman at the upper reaches of the hierarchy, not only for protocol and reasons of privilege but that the appointment would carry powers and responsibilities that they currently revel in, conferred by allocation of business rules dating to just prior to the Sino-Indian war. If the defence minister, the cabinet committee on security and the national security committee were to get a single point advice, they would not be able to play off one service against the other, that service veterans inform is a favoured pastime in the defence ministry.
The series of defence ministers over the tenure of this government – known to be short on talent - have not been able to fill the chair they occupied. The over-worked Mr. Jaitley (who has been in and out of hospitals) had two innings in the chair; Mr. Parrikar was home sick when in it; and the current one has yet to overcome her hangover as party spokesperson. That the defence planning committee has been foisted on the defence establishment suggests as much. 
The second - more significant if less visible - reason is that the defence planning committee is not so much to stream line the work and output of the defence sector as much as to revisit civilian control over the military. Every institution in the country has been hollowed out. The spate of exonerations by the courts of people involved in carnage and terror – specifically Maya Kodnani and Swami Aseemanand respectively – and the Supreme Court’s reluctance to get to grips with the mysterious death of fellow judge, Loya, suggests that the armed forces are the last institution standing. Since their professional and apolitical character makes it difficult to trammel them, as has been done with the media, police and bureaucracy, they need further lynchpins to tie them down.
The hurried setting up a defence planning council through executive order with barely a year to go to elections can only have a rationale outside of the strategic lamppost under which most would look. There is more to be done in the reset of India over the forthcoming term of the government, once the matter of elections between then and now is out of the way. The declining support in the people at large and the masses after a series of hit-wickets by the Modi government, such as demonetization, general service tax, and the laxity in condemning and action against rapes, polarization appears the only card left. Retention of power can now only be through letting the foot-soldiers of Hindutva crawl through society. On this count, the only institution left that can put the foot-soldiers of Hindutva back into the bottle needs tight control. Furthermore, the armed forces need an ideological dose of cultural nationalism, that can be safely administered when the government is back in saddle. Consequently, the committee needs to also be seen in the light of civil-military relations, in addition to any strategic sense it may make.
It is for this reason that the national security adviser, renowned as an intelligence czar, has been appointed as head of this committee. He has long had a foot in the Hindutva camp. In fact, he can be credited with organizing the support for the Modi wave within the strategic community well before it became a tide. The social media blitz of 2013-14 by the brigade of saffron trolls, that led up to the Modi tsunami, also has an intelligence man’s fingerprints all over it. With his mastery of the national security apparatus and his impeccable ideological credentials, besides a lifetime in high risk appointments, has him well suited for the post.  
The links between his erstwhile think tank and the military are deep. There are several retired members of the brass associated with the VIF. On leaving its directorship he had handed over the reins to a retired army chief. Thus, he has a constituency in the military, that in turn has amongst the ranks of its veterans some hypernationalists. In effect, he has an organic support base that would not find it odd for him to be virtually at the military apex, more or less displacing the minister. If there are doubts in the strategic community they can outshout the opposition. Not to forget, the army chief is a Doval acolyte and ethnic cousin, who owes his elevation to the rank over two of his seniors to intercession on his behalf by someone. 
It’s a job tailormade for Mr. Doval. In discussions on the CDS appointment, the usual refrain is that the appointment should carry weight in the hierarchy conscious military by being either be first among equals among the chiefs as another four-star general since, in India’s case, a five-star general makes for field marshal, a rank not readily conferred. Though Mr. Doval has cabinet rank in his capacity as national security adviser, he would be rather pleased with the arrangement on two counts. One, as a policeman he would have likely nursed a grouse against the military’s chip on the shoulder against counterparts in khakis. Two, as a military school product, he would have dreamed – as with any other cadet - of making it to general rank.
In short, the defence planning council has more to it than meets the eye. Its true role will only emerge if this government has a term following this one and then, it would not only be in better strategizing by the Indian military, but in revising the very ethos of the military.

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?

Sunday, 8 April 2018

The Hindutva project and India's military

As per its chief, Amit Shah, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) intends to get 50 per cent of the votes at the next hustings. It has enough time to put its act together, having been forewarned of the mood through its losses in the recent by-elections, particularly in the stronghold of India’s most electorally significant state, Uttar Pradesh. Even though it now runs the governments across India’s landmass in some nineteen states, the ambitious figure set by Amit Shah for the BJP showing is seemingly implausible.

It is nevertheless the kind of figure the ruling party needs to get on full throttle with its political project. Liberal conspiracy theorists see the BJP as the political front of the wider right wing ‘parivar’ led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The pseudo- cultural political formations comprising the parivar reputedly have a political project for the transformation of India in mind, termed Hindutva. To the extent the BJP is not quite a normal conservative political party, but a Trojan horse in national politics of the parivar, it is set out to implement the Hindutva project. This is not a conspiracy theory as much as a self-confessed project of the ruling party.

Since the political masters of the military – the current day lead party in the ruling coalition – answer to a far right conglomerate with uncertain obligation to the national Constitution, it bears reflection as to what the Hindutva political project implies for the military. The ruling party has now been in charge for nearly two terms over two separate stints in government as the primary partner in the coalitions. The clue therefore lies in how the ruling party has approached civil-military relations over its two terms.

The two terms are markedly different, in that the first term was under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was very much an insider to Delhi’s politics and a traditionalist. Thus, besides showing its fangs early in its innings in the sacking of the naval chief by the defence minister, himself a leader of a marginal party in the coalition out to prove his loyalty to the ruling party, it left the military largely to its professional self.

The tone was set by the nuclear blasts early in Vajpayee’s second stint as prime minister. Drawing the right conclusions from the blasts and their echo across the border in Pakistan, the government launched the Lahore peace initiative. In the event, the initiative was aborted by the Pakistani army’s intrusion into Kargil.

The conflict aftermath kept the military to the professional till, particularly with Kashmir boiling over. Operation Parakram, launched in wake of the parliament attack, set the stage for the remainder of the Vajpayee tenure. That the army could not deliver conventional retribution led to the mobilization being covered up as coercive diplomacy. Suitably chastened, the military busied itself with reworking its conventional doctrine.

The second term of the BJP has been under an outsider, a former provincial chief minister, out to overturn the Lutyen’s Delhi-based ‘establishment’. An elaborately manufactured electoral ‘wave’ led to elevation of the chief minister to 7 Race Course Road. The military was part of the forming of the wave, with its veteran’s rally in Rewari enabling its build up, along with other momentum-imparting factors as the anti-corruption foray by former military man, Anna Hazare. The arrival for the first time in three decades of a majority government and its promise of a corruption-free development agenda, conferred on the ruling party greater scope for re-engineering governance, and, at one remove, India.

The national security policy promised was a muscular one.

The stage was set by first creating the illusion of working for peace, with a hand outstretched towards Pakistan’s civilian government. That was equally speedily withdrawn, with the Line of Control reactivated in the very first year of the government. The situation along the LC has been steadily downhill since, with the surgical strikes across it being the high water mark.

On the eastern front, there was a similar reverse, with the front being seen as the second of a ‘two (and half front)’ war. Current-day headlines portend a Doklam II, with China reportedly resuming road construction activity that led up to the seventy three day stand-off last year. The additional ‘half’ front presumably is the prognosticated tie up between fifth columnist Muslims and the Maoists in the hinterland.

Even as the military has the two-front mantra as the government’s strategic doctrine for a guide, it has been left out in the cold without the wherewithal to fend off its two collusive enemies. Its vice chief recently let on to the parliamentary standing committee on defence that the decline in the defence budget to its lowest level in relation to the gross domestic product since the 1962 War was insufficient to cover for inflation and provide for the 125 odd procurement projects the military currently has underway, leave alone cater for modernising its equipment of which sixty per cent is vintage.

In short, the military is left to tackle an active western front and potentially active eastern front and to the extent it falls short, it would be left holding the can.

The government has taken care to have an amicable army chief, superseding two of his seniors. The Chief has been faulted not only by the liberal portion of the commentariat but also by sundry politicians and the opposition for being rather inclined towards the party line of the ruling party. The army chief’s latest speech was at the right wing think tank, the Vivekananda International Foundation.

Controversial godman, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was invited to address a naval function. The air chief in his remarks at the air force day was criticized for being overly welcoming of the controversial turn in the Rafale deal. These and ever increasing incidence of such instance are seen as a departure from the hitherto apolitical utterances and practice by the military.

Clearly, the military cannot remain unscathed from Hindutva’s reset of Hindustan. However, it is intriguing that the military appears as being sidelined, even as its derring-do – such as in the surgical strikes - is used as political capital by the ruling party. This needs an explanation.

The Hindutva political project of a reset of Hindustan is an expansive one, which down the road could conceivably include rewriting the Constitution. Traditionalist institutions, such as the army, need to be softened timely for the rollout of the more consequential aspects of the project over the coming term of the ruling party.

The military – so far - sees itself as professional, apolitical and secular. The ante on the professional part is upped by the need to defend the borders on the two fronts. The military is also given full play in a portion of the ‘half front’, Kashmir. A professionally engaged military is unlikely to have any interest, attention span and energy for political pushback. Keeping the military to the professional till is termed objective civilian control of the military.

The apolitical characteristic - glimpsed earlier - is endangered in the military leadership buying into the ideology of the ruling right wing formations. The self-confessed ideological agenda of the ruling dispensation is to revise secularism. The secular characteristic of the military is alongside its sister characteristic – apolitical - in direct line of fire. The precedence set of deep selection of the military leadership enables elevation to its apex of those who show such propensities. This form of civilian control of the military is termed subjective control.

Seen is a blend of objective and subjective civilian control in action. In short, the Hindutva project entails a movement away from objective civilian control to subjective civilian control. It is at the expense of the apolitical and secular character of the military, even as the professional characteristic is temporarily boosted to cover the dilution of the former two. Even this boost is a chimera in that the military continues as a supplicant for the monies to meet professional ends.

From a civil-military relations perspective, it promises to be an interesting second term for the Modi government, should Mr. Shah deliver as he reckons. Since objective civilian control is a characteristic of democratic states, the shift away portends alongside a shift to an authoritarian and ideological state.