writings of ali ahmed ...with due acknowledgement and thanks to publications where these have appeared. Views expressed are personal and may not be associated with any organisation. Follow on twitter: @aliahd66
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On his nomination as National Security Adviser (NSA), Ajit Doval had acquired a larger-than-life image. Hagiographical accounts of his derring-do as an intelligence officer in all of India’s national security predicaments since the 1971 war—including Mizoram, Punjab, Pakistan, Kashmir and Kandahar—have featured him in a stellar role (Gokhale 2014). He remained indefatigable in retirement as founding head of the Vivekananda International Foundation, where his think tank provided respectability to the penetration of cultural nationalism into the strategic discourse (Donthi 2017). While at it, he comprehensively stalled any national security initiatives of the United Progressive Alliance—such as its last gasp in reaching out to Pakistan in 2013—by leading Delhi’s strategic community in warning against any such initiative (Vivekananda International Foundation 2013). By early 2014, he had staked a claim, laid out in lectures across the country, on heading the national security apparatus; the more (in)famous claim being during a lecture in which he warned that Pakistan stood to lose Baluchistan if another attack like the 26/11 attack in Mumbai were to happen (The Fearless Indian 2014). It was not a surprise then that one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s very first decisions on reaching 7, Race Course Road, was to appoint Doval as the NSA.
As the NSA, Doval hit the ground running. Modi’s foreign policy coup of bringing together the heads of neighbouring countries, Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif among them, is attributed to him. It did not take long for criticism to catch up with him. Critics had it that he was—true to his reputation—tactically agile, but strategically untested. Unfortunately for him, the skill set that goes with a proactive intelligence profile, does not necessarily lend itself to a sound performance at the strategic level (Ahmed 2015). For instance, though Sharif’s presence at the Rashtrapati Bhavan forecourt presaged an opening up to Pakistan, by the end of the season, the follow-on foreign secretary-level talks were called off. Instances of smart about-turns continued. Barely had Modi landed back in India from visiting Sharif at his Raiwind farmhouse on Christmas eve in 2015, the possibilities of the peace process resuming after this outreach were spiked yet again a week later, with India referencing a terrorist attack on the Pathankot airfield.
Even so, the actions in the national security field were such and so fast in coming, that some had it that there was a new national security doctrine at play. While some dubbed this the “Doval doctrine” (Noorani 2015), others—mindful of the overlord—called it the “Modi doctrine” (Chaulia 2016). The high-water mark of the national security reset was the “surgical strikes” across the Line of Control (LoC) in late September 2016. The opposition was quick to point out that these had precedent, the difference being that earlier governments in place did not seek to profit politically from such strikes. In short, little had changed, but the attendant perception-management exercise had been taken to new levels. This owed less to national security factors than to the electoral calculus of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Modi and Amit Shah.
This political need of the BJP, which has kept it in election mode all through its tenure, stems from its deep linkages with the right-wing organisations headed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Their aim is to profit from Modi’s sway over voters for a cultural-nationalism inspired reset of India, one distanced from an inclusive, plural, democratic, and secular India. Democratic gains by the BJP covering all regions in India, the latest being inroads into the south by their electoral showing in Karnataka, place this within sight.
Alongside, a hollowing out of institutions is underway. The state of the ruling party is itself a case in point, as brought out by an old-timer in the party who has since left, Yashwant Sinha (2018). Taking the cue, the police, bureaucracy, and media have keeled over. Even the armed forces have not been spared, with the army’s proverbial line-of-succession that is predicated on seniority being rudely tweaked to elevate Bipin Rawat—who had developed a working relationship with Doval—over two of his seniors to head it (Dutta 2016). The judiciary is currently in the cross hairs, perhaps with a view to making it an inert institution, which would enable the Modi government to trifle with the basic structure of the Constitution sometime into its next tenure should it win the 2019 elections (Business Standard 2018).
What this enervation of institutions spells for national security is rather obvious. National security is a function of the good health of these institutions and their pulling together. Therefore, in evaluating the Doval tenure as head of the national security establishment, it would not do to restrict the assessment to how India has managed its external and internal security environment alone. Doval’s place in history needs examining against what his role has been in bringing about a denouement today, in which India stands vulnerable to a majoritarian assault on its fundamentals. To his clients in the right-wing conglomerate, Doval has by this yardstick succeeded admirably.
Not in National Interest
But, first, we take a look at Doval’s exertions in the field of mainstream national security in relation to Pakistan and China. Even while India professed to be matching up to China, it suddenly backed down. Take, for instance, the “informal summit” with China at Wuhan last month. It is a step back for India, intended to paper over the Doklam episode where Chinese activity has reportedly continued. With the informal summit, Modi has bought some time by negotiating a lull in the election year. The army has been asked to moderate its responses on the Line of Actual Control (Som 2018). A former military adviser in the national security system notes, “Only a calculation based on the dynamics of domestic politics can yield a suggestion to keep quiet [on Chinese aggression]” (Menon 2018a). One advantage of stability on the China front is an increase in the possibility of mounting pressure on Pakistan. A climbdown on the China front does away with a two-front problem, enabling pressure to be mounted on the Pakistan front. India espied an opportunity in the pressure on Pakistan promised by United States President Donald Trump. This, however, has not quite materialised and the Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani has gone on to offer an olive branch to the Taliban. India appears to have since fallen in line. Not only has there been a drawdown in firing across the LoC, but there has been a resumption of Track II confabulations. Under the aegis of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, India and Pakistan are to undertake military exercises together for the first time. Doval has taken care to keep a line open with his Pakistani counterpart, Nasser Khan Janjua. In short, Doval is taking no chances of an India–Pakistan crisis emerging and escalating to an inherently uncertain conclusion in the election year.
Implicit in India’s allocation of the lowest amount for defence in relation to its gross domestic product since the 1962 war (Unnithan 2018) is the message to both adversaries that, at least for this year, India would be less assertive. This is in stark contrast to the tough-on-defence image that the government aspired to and attempted to foster over the past four years. The about-turn on both fronts suggests that the electoral interests of the ruling party are now the national security imperative, and not the national interest.
Internal security initiatives have also been taken with an eye for votes. In Kashmir, Operation All-Out over the past two years has led to the killing of some 275 alleged terrorists in operations reminiscent of the 1990s (Kashmir Times 2018). The dividend from the simultaneous administration of the carrot-and-stick approach—the union government-appointed special representative’s periodic forays into Jammu and Kashmir and the military template—has not been obvious.
India could well have arrived at the possibility of peace without having gone down the route of confrontation over the last four years. The centre has reluctantly, and only partially, accepted the proposal for a ceasefire during Ramzan made by the chief minister after an all-party meet. For its part, though defiant on the LoC, Pakistan has signalled its readiness for dialogue (Baruah 2018). If India’s strategy was to display resolve through its use of force, then it is time to capitalise on the strategy. The hypothesis here that India’s security policy is driven by the BJP’s electoral calculus suggests that the potential for a peace process that the Ramzan ceasefire has will go unrealised. Instead, this juncture will be milked for showing India’s peaceful intent, useful both internationally and domestically to obscure that its ruling party needs to keep both problems alive for their internal political utility. Since national security has been allowed to be usurped for political and ideological ends, Doval is answerable.
The benefits of cultural nationalism—read religious majoritarianism—for national security are not self-evident. The contrary is more likely the case, in terms of the threat of authoritarianism, impact on constitutional governance, and marginalisation of minorities. A snapshot of the impact on the three can be seen through the prism of the rule of law. The recent discharge of Maya Kodnani in the case related to the Gujarat carnage of 2002 and that of Swami Aseemanand in the Mecca Masjid blast case shows how perpetrators close to, and possibly acting at the behest of the Sangh Parivar, have been let off. Lieutenant Colonel Shrikant Purohit, a leader of the saffron terror outfit, Abhinav Bharat, has been granted bail and has rejoined the army. Clearly, the plea made in 2013 by police officer D G Vanzara, when incarcerated in jail, that he and fellow cops had been abandoned appears to have been heeded by the right quarter, by Modi, who has been likened to a “god” by Vanzara (Vanzara 2013).
The crowning case is that of BJP President Amit Shah in relation to the encounter killing of Sohrabuddin Sheikh and custodial killing of his wife. Even the possibilities stemming from the manner of death of Justice B H Loya, the Special Central Bureau of Investigation judge earlier handling the Sohrabuddin Sheikh case, could not make a dent, even though it led to open dissent in the upper judiciary. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) head, Sharad Kumar, under whom the agency dragged its feet in all such cases, is slated to join the National Human Rights Commission on retirement (Bhatnagar 2018). The subversion of institutions from within is the primary internal security threat taking place on Doval’s watch.
The implications need spelling out. The RSS supremo, Mohan Bhagwat, let on that he could mobilise a militia within three days (Tewary 2018). In effect, saffronite foot soldiers can graduate to becoming storm troopers in short order. The disruption at Aligarh Muslim University on the day of a function at which the former vice president was to speak is indicative of such power and its outcome. The invasion of the makeshift open-air Friday prayer of Muslims in Gurugram by majoritarian outfits over successive weeks, under the watch of a benign BJP government, is another example.
In short, there is a parallel structure of force in place. A shift in the monopoly over the use of force from the state to such structures is underway as the state apparatus kowtows to the parallel power centres. If this elides the head of India’s national security establishment, Doval, it is not because he is oblivious or merely complicit, but is more likely the chief steward. The profile of Doval carried in the Caravanprovides a clue (Donthi 2017). He is quoted arguing that there is a “higher rationale” in which the rights-based rule of law must yield to the welfare of the collective. For him, and in the cultural-nationalist perspective, the national interest is that of the majority community.
Finally, with the current government having barely a year left in its term, the jury is likely to remain out on the new-fangled Defence Planning Committee (DPC) with Doval as its head. The DPC has been charged with, among and as a precursor to other things, the task of formulating a national security strategy. This amounts to Doval inadvertently writing his own appraisal since it testifies to India’s dysfunctional national security system having remained in place over the last four years, though the BJP came to power claiming that it could best revitalise it. As remedy, it has resorted, rather late in its term, to collapsing policy, strategy, and planning into one package in the form of the DPC for the sake of political optics (Menon 2018b).
More importantly, Doval’s ultimate test is yet to come. In case his mentor, Modi, is increasingly beleaguered, it is widely expected that the mandir card will be played. It is not without purpose that the opposition had requested the apex court to postpone its judgment on the issue to after the elections. The god-man Sri Sri Ravishankar has predicted a Syria-like situation in case the verdict goes against the claim of one of the two communities, taking care not to name the community (Joshi 2018). Any pronouncement on Doval can only follow from how the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision turns out. Though it is unlikely that Doval will baulk at this potential culmination point of the Hindutva takeover of India, how he handles the Hindutva machinery may yet be an opportunity to vindicate, if not redeem, himself.
The Fearless Indian (2015): “Ajit Doval Warns Pakistan “You Do One More Mumbai, You Lose Balochistan,” 7 January, (10th Nani Palkhivala Memorial Lecture by Ajit Kumar Doval, Sastra University, 21 February), YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7ESR5RU3X4.