The Modi Era
Impact on Strategic Culture
The influence of Hindutva in political culture on India’s strategic culture has been traced. It has resulted in a hardening of strategic culture with the bias towards the offensive also resulting from the military’s organisational culture that has been independently penetrated by Hindutva. But, a strategic doctrine of compellence is combustible, and the retraction of Hindutva from polity is a prerequisite for stability.
This column was written before the election results were announced.
The author would like to thank Kajari Kamal for comments that helped improve the article.
It is by now a trite observation that a change in India’s political culture has been wrought over the past three decades, dated variously to Indira Gandhi’s religiosity on display in the Jammu belt in the run-up to assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir in the early 1980s, or to Lal Krishna Advani setting off on his rath yatra in 1990. The nomination of a terror-accused “sadhvi,” Pragya Singh Thakur, as a parliamentary candidate by the ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is emblematic as a culmination of this trend. The BJP’s impact with a parliamentary majority for the first time in three decades is liable to leave behind an unmistakable saffron imprint on India’s body politic (Arun 2019), and if it stays on in power, it would prove an indelible one.
The change in question is a marked shift rightwards beyond the traditionally-conceived conservative segment of the political spectrum under the impact of the political ideology of cultural nationalism—Hindutva—adhered to by the BJP. The Hindutva project is to create and convert a religious majority into a parliamentary majority (Noorani 2019: 27). Both dimensions of the project—the societal and political—are mutually reinforcing and have registered success over the past three decades. Even though a Supreme Court verdict of 1995 elevates it to “a way of life,” in practice, the term Hindutva now symbolises what to the Court it was not: “narrow fundamentalist Hindu religious bigotry” (Hindu 2016). Majoritarianism subscribed to by the Sangh Parivar—of which the BJP is the political front (Noorani 2019: 100–08)—is now a feature of political culture. An indicator is the invisiblisation of India’s largest minority, the Muslims (Mustafa 2017). Even the opposition party, the Congress, has been unwilling to chance the Hindu vote by projecting itself as a secular alternative and has instead settled for so-called soft Hindutva, symbolised by the temple-hopping engaged in by its leadership.
Hindutva and Strategic Culture
What has been the effect of the seeding of political culture by Hindutva on India’s strategic culture? The cultural space can be imagined as three layers, namely political culture, strategic culture and organisational culture. Political culture includes “commitment to values like democratic principles and institutions, ideas about morality and the use of force, the rights of individuals and collectives, or predispositions toward the role of a country in global politics” (Lantis 2002: 90). Strategic culture is the ideational milieu setting pervasive strategic preferences based on widely held concepts of roles and the efficacy of use of force in political affairs (Johnston 1995: 46). Political culture provides the top-down context for strategic culture—sometimes referred to as political–military culture—and feeds into creating and sustaining it, alongside a bottom-up influence of organisational culture of the military (Kier 1997).
While multiple cultures can exist in society, control of the political–military authority and apparatus of the state may render a subculture dominant and more influential (Duffied 1999: 778). Being the ruling party helps ease and expand the scope of such influence. A change in political culture has a corresponding influence on strategic culture. This is multiplied if the political culture has an impact on the organisational culture through penetration of cultural artefacts and tropes, opening up an indirect bottom-up route to further make an impact on strategic culture. The political–cultural ferment with majoritarian nationalism as driver has been active over an appreciable duration of three decades. It is reasonable to infer that strategic culture—taken in theory as resilient and slow-to-change (Lantis 2002: 109–10)—has not escaped impact.
Besides, the incidence of majoritarian lines of thinking in strategic literature is such that it can be taken as having made inroads into the military’s organisational culture, thereby enhancing the impact on strategic culture. The rightwing has an insidious presence across intellectual spaces to hollow out institutions; the military cannot be an exception. Its influence on the military’s organisational culture has been largely through the writings by elements in the veteran community perched in right-wing think tanks in the internal publications of the military, echoed in part by unwary serving officers in such publications and on social media (Ahmed 2016). While not elaborated here it can also be asserted that the inflection in strategic and military professional literature of Hindutva trope calls out for an academic study as was done by Christine Fair of the presence of political Islamic thinking in the Pakistani army (Ahmed nd). The election-time controversy over the politicisation of the military is a pointer of worries within the military (Peri 2019).
Strategic culture, in turn, provides the setting and impetus for strategic doctrine, the approach to use of force that ranges across the continuum: defensive, deterrent, offensive, compellent (Posen 1984: 14). Elizabeth Kier (1995: 67), a key participant in the academic debate in the 1990s on the impact of culture on security, elaborated the manner in which organisational culture mediates the influence of political culture on military doctrine. Strategic doctrine can be inferred from strategic behaviour. A hardening of strategic culture has resulted in the strategic doctrine moving from a strategy of restraint to strategic proactivism (Ahmed 2016). Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his electioneering referred to strategic conduct in the surgical strikes of September 2016 that succeeded the Uri terror attack in the same month, the aerial strike at Balakot undertaken in the wake of the Pulwama car bomb incident in February 2019, the resulting stand-off—described by Modi as “qatl ki raat” (night of slaughter), referring to the reported activation of missiles sites (Hindu 2019)—and the anti-satellite test in March. India appears poised to undertake coercion of Pakistan. This locates India in between the offensive and deterrent segment. However, offensive–compellent is but a step away.
In a nutshell, political culture with Hindutva as a principal ingredient has had an impact on strategic culture towards strategic self-assertion. Organisational culture has also been separately impacted, through penetration of cultural nationalist thinking, thereby making it receptive to changes in strategic culture. This explains the offensive content in the strategic doctrine—offensive–compellent—reflected in offensive military doctrines. Drawing back entails a dilution of Hindutva agenda as a prerequisite.
Politics of Strategy
Hindutva, as a driver of change in political culture, contends that India has to overcome its millennia-old aversion to the use of force. The image of Hinduism as an accommodative and heterogeneous faith has to be rescinded in favour of a militant, unified religion (Noorani 2019: 101–05). A simple illustration is the recent macho depiction of Lord Hanuman (Bhatia 2018) in images and art.
This approach is reflected in strategic behaviour in a heightened threshold of retaliation to Pakistani provocations firming in. In case Modi is re-elected, he is liable to be hemmed in by a commitment trap of election-time rhetoric. Zero-tolerance, the very first manifesto promise (BJP 2019: 11), requires terrorism to be “paid back in the same coin, with compound interest” (BJP 2019: 3), colourfully put by Modi as “ghar me ghus ke maarenge” (forcible house entry) (Times of India 2019), evoking a dialogue from an eponymous film on the Uri surgical strikes. The use of force is also liable to be higher since the information war over the Balakot–Naushera episode has obscured whether India did indeed get the better of Pakistan.
Even if a different government is formed, the necessity to “mow the grass” occasioned either by periodic provocation or to end Pakistani impunity, is now common sense. India has evidently learnt from its key strategic partner. Retired general D S Hooda (2019: 12), to whom the Congress turned to help gird up its national security image, tendered a report reinforcing the policy on cross-border operations. Modi’s overplaying the card at election time forced the Congress to claim it oversaw six such strikes—though the military operations branch denied having any record of the same (India Today2019).
The response to terror provocations at the interstices of the sub-conventional–conventional level has long been reckoned as viable. A Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI 2010: 48) report back in 2010 had dwelt on surgical strikes. Pakistan’s nuclear awning, based on tactical nuclear weapons, is not designed to cover the lower portion of the escalation ladder. India did not respond sternly earlier, since no terror attacks warranted such response, testifying to the success of the post 26/11 strategy of restraint. Shivshankar Menon, who was party to the decision as foreign secretary, retrospectively surmises that, “the decision makers concluded that more was to be gained from not attacking Pakistan than from attacking it” (Menon 2016: 62). Menon rightly reminds that the world economy was then in the midst of an “unprecedented financial crisis” (Menon: 64).
In contrast, the BJP has been only too keen to derive political mileage out of military action, taking advantage of the diversionary effect to paper over concerns regarding its performance on issues such as farmer distress, employment, etc (Indian Express 2019). Though it took care to set restrictive parameters to the Balakot aerial strike—leaving out civilians and the Pakistani military from potential target lists (PTI 2019)—this laudable precaution in the event mattered little. The Pakistani counterstrike makes for a combustible mix in the future.
It is with reason that D S Hooda (2019: 12) in his version of the national security doctrine calls for being wary of the risk of escalation. Modi was willing to run this risk, ready to chance a missile exchange merely for influencing the release of a downed pilot.
Clearly, the BJP marches to a different tune than a “normal” conservative party. The BJP’s political interest supersedes the national interest since it is charged with state capture. The aim is a majoritarian democracy, shifting the constitutional goalposts from civic nationalism to ethno-religious nationalism (Economic Times 2017). The Pakistan angle helps generate hyper-nationalism and militarism (Ayoob 2019), deflecting Hinduism from its civilisational moorings (Tharoor 2018: 209–10).
Retracting from the Brink
The strategic cultural shift towards an assertive India has long been in the making. The continuity owes to the rule of the Congress as it remained fearful of being outflanked by the BJP for being soft on security. As a result it continued with the strategic trajectory set in the National Democratic Alliance’s first term (1999–2004). An example of like-mindedness in national security perspectives is seen in the omission of Hindutva terrorism by the national security adviser in the first United Progressive Alliance’s period in his post-retirement reflections on terrorism (Narayanan 2019). This is indicative of a pervasive bias in strategic culture, attributable to the Hindutva-generated cloud over Indian Muslims. Hence, it is an evidence of the genuflection of strategic culture to political culture.
The Indian strategic cultural discourse echoes the right-wing thesis of Indian effeteness. This impels the military’s approbation of strategic assertion through surgical strikes and is manifested in its doctrinal products valuing proactivism and the offensive. This places India in harm’s way. The Pulwama–Balakot–Naushera episode should sensitise the region to dangers ahead.
An electoral verdict enabling crystallisation of the political culture along Hindutva lines is liable to push strategic culture towards compellence. There is also the bogeyman of Akhand Bharat, an up-stream element of the Hindutva project. The backstory to a radioactive denouement is the mainstreaming of Hindutva into political culture. If the electoral verdict is against Hindutva, the opportunity must be used by the incoming government to insulate political culture and cauterise strategic culture by bottling up Hindutva.
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