Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Ajit Doval's platter: Centralisation with a purpose

Four years into the Modi regime, it is disingenuous for strategic analysts to continue analysing its moves through the prism of strategic analysis. The commentary attending the appointment of National Security Adviser Ajit Doval as head of the strategic policy group, one of the pillars of the national security system, examines the move against the parameters of effectiveness and efficiency. This is a misleading start point, even if the commentary mostly arrives at the conclusion that there is little that has changed in a largely elephantine, if not dysfunctional, national security system. 
The problem with such analyses is that it credits the Modi government with intent to inject a sense of urgency and purpose in the system. The superimposition of Doval - the supposed supercop and intelligence wizard - on the strategic policy group, comprising the heads of all national security related silos, is taken as just the potion required by the system. It follows the move some months back of the creation of the defence planning committee, headed - you've guessed it - by our very own Agent Rana and Agent Vinod, Ajit Doval. 
This both misrepresents and misleads. If it is institutional vigour that Doval is supposed to bring about, setting him to it four years into the tenure is too little too late. Besides, centralization is no answer to multiplying institutional strength. In any case, if Amit Shah informs that Mr. Modi's leadership mantra is institutionalization, it is surely a bit of information that must be treated to the 'barrel of salt' test. In his recent op-ed, 'The Modi I know: The PM thinks big and is an institution builder par excellence', Amit Shah credits Narendra Modi with being an 'institution builder'. Neither does credibility of Mr. Shah, nor that of his subject, allow the attentive reader to place disbelief in suspension in the manner of their believers, the bhakts. If institutions were being sought, then centralization of the order as witnessed under Modi and his Gujarat cadre devotees would not have occurred. At the fag-end of his tenure, he would not have to foist Doval over heads of institutions. 
The moves come rather late in the tenure of the government. These are tacit acknowledgment that Modi's boast of being national security sensitive has proven just that. It does not take a Nitin Gadkari to inform of the nature of Modi's election time boasts, being vacuous, if not lies altogether. Gadkari's candour was picked up in the Marathi vernacular, when he was perhaps explaining why as they survey the coming elections the government must not be held to its election time promises. 
It also is an admission that the Modi sarkar in its lame duck year is fearful of its own shadows. The Modi-Shah duo that orchestrated the 'wave' last election time is best aware of how it engineered the paralysis of the Manmohan government. Even if Manmohan's second stint was mired in corruption, its ineffectual showing was also due to the defection of the bureaucracy - a subset of the middle classes. Enamoured of the anti-corruption juggernaut, with activists and the putative Aam Aadmi Party at its spearhead, the bureaucracy wrote the epitaph on Manmohan, well prior to his sell-by date. 
The Modi-Shah duo is aware of how the anti-corruption movement was hijacked by the Hindutva platform, through its Trojan horses as Baba Ramdev. The trajectory of cop Kiran Bedi and member-of-the-brass VK Singh is illustrative. It is no wonder then that the common man's party continues in the government's cross hairs five years on, lest its counter reel back the Bhartiya Janata Party's developmental constituency. Keeping the bureaucracy to the heel - should it make an anticipatory shift in its political master - requires a watch dog. The bureaucracy may yet discover its spine, but not due to the right reasons. It is surely put off by the manner the Gujarat cadre Modi aficionados have been let out and the police lobby, under Doval's tutelage, taken over the roost. Doval's professor emeritus status in the intelligence community presumably enables the omniscience to keep the governmental wheels humming, otherwise at risk from a logjam. 
But Doval's elevation - in terms of power, authority, reach and image - has more to it. 
Amit Shah has predicted a fifty-year Hindutva Reich. This requires keeping a date with the voter in 2019. Between now and then, Modi's 56 inch claim cannot be shown up as hollow. Already, his dash to Wuhan to buy time from the Chinese is being taken as a measure to preempt another Doklam or a reverse Doklam. He cannot afford a crisis in election year. The periodic diatribes of the army chief are to deter Pakistani adventurism. If the hardline was to be taken to its logical conclusion, there would not have been a return to a ceasefire at the Line of Control since early this year. Its continuation contradicts the 'pain' the army chief wishes to inflict on the Pakistani army. The army instead appears content to bring scholars and academics moonlighting as 'terrorists' to meet their maker within Kashmir. 
Ensuring that the benign security climate does not end up as a crisis, a crisis a confrontation and a confrontation a conflict requires a firm hand at the national security helm. This explains in part Doval's reeling in of all the reins into his person. His task over the coming year is to ensure Modi's longevity in power. The national interest in Hindutva terms is that the proverbial nation needs an extension in Modi's mandate. Another five year term is essential for the following forty-five. Ajay Mohan Bisht is under preparation to take over the mandate thereafter. In some 1500 'encounters' in his tenure in Lucknow, deaths have been in upper double digits. He is following the Modi-Shah script from their Gujarat days, even if one case led to Shah seeing the inside of jail and exile from his province. The national interest as seen through the strategic lens has to be kept in cold storage for the next six to eight months. Mr. Doval, with his lifetime of experience in the system, his ideological commitment, well-advertised belief in a strongman leader and valuing his proximity to the pretender Leviathan, can be trusted to deliver an environment that returns Modi to power. 
Unfortunately, that may not be all. Unfortunately for Modi, dark clouds are accumulating on the horizon. The Rafale scam joins demonetization and the goods and services tax with the magnitude and potential to bring down Hindutva's castles in the air. Worse bhakts and their icon are increasingly at the butt of social media jokes. Given this developing siege of Iron Man II (LK Advani not counted) may require trotting out of the usual election gimmicks up the ruling formation's sleeve, polarization being one. The Mandir card is available to play. While its internal dimension is self-evident, a crisis with Pakistan can be manufacture in case an external Other is required. The manipulation of voter perceptions in the run up to elections may require orchestration of the national security apparatus. 
An able hand on the till is therefore necessary. Mr. Doval may have more on his hands than meets the eye.