Wednesday, 30 March 2022

India’s strategic doctrine

Does Hindutva provide an answer?

The question in the title should not have been needed. By now, the answer should have been provided by the National Security Advisor (NSA)-led Defence Planning Committee. Set up to bring about coherence in the defence sector, it was also tasked with writing up the national security strategy - the bedrock of national security. Reportedly such a strategy has been written up. As to whether it has received the political nod, at the level of the Cabinet Committee on Security, is not known. (It is another matter that when the cabinet system is itself at an ebb, if such a formality matters.) What’s certain is that it is not in the open domain. So it is uncertain if such a strategy at all exists.

Though the Narendra Modi regime is known to be sensitive to defence matters and is in its self-image strong-on-defence, it is perhaps replicating the policy of the Congress of some thirty years back that had it that India has a national security doctrine; only not in a written out form. In effect, though ruled by the most self-consciously national security-oriented government, Indian analysts continue to be arrayed blindfolded before the national security elephant, casting about for the national security doctrine from any feature of the elephant touched. Given that it remains a well-kept national secret, to infer that none exists cannot also be convincingly refuted.

So, is there an Indian national security doctrine? ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. A political culture has an attendant down-stream strategic culture, the fount  - in turn - of strategic doctrine. With Narendra Modi and his protégé, Yogi Adityanath aka Bisht, having each been sworn in twice-over - despite the known governance deficits in their respective first term - it is clear that political culture is now indubitably Hindutva dominant. Hindutva is the Hindu majoritarian lens through which to view India. It helps paper over the diversity that is said to constitute India by imposing a uniform colour, saffron. That Hindutva calls the shots is clear from other parties being pale imitations of the ruling party, evidenced by being referred to as the ‘B Team’ or professing ‘soft Hindutva’, or,  if with a non-Hindu membership, stooges of the ruling party out to dig into the minority vote.

With Hindutva acquiring a pole position in political culture - equivalent to the Congress system of the sixties and seventies - it can be reasonably inferred that its national security verities can be bundled together to constitute a national security doctrine. One would have expected the regime to profit from this as yet another national security initiative taken in contrast to their lotus-eating predecessors. In my view, the national security strategy is signed off only tacitly and cannot be allowed into the public domain lest its Hindutva-imparted tenets stir up criticism, if not derision itself. The regime being particularly sensitive to the latter, would like to duck, instead using its drum beaters in the strategic community to kick up an information war din targeting the voter that it has the national interest at heart.

So what’s the national secret? The national secret is the conception of national interest. In theory, national interest - as the term suggests - must have the nation’s interest at heart. In the case of Hindutva-defined national interest, the national interest is what is in the interest of Hindutva. Even though it now colours political culture, it is not steady on its feet enough to self-confidently come out on this score. Democratic accountability requires the government to aggregate national interest from the myriad parochial interests at play, even if it uses an ideological lens to finally arrive at the national security nector. It cannot outright say that the national interest currently is consolidation of Hindutva. Hindutva is the essence of the right wing. It cannot be mistaken as the national interest in a diverse polity as India, even if the dominant strain. Admitting to its consolidation as the national interest would bring forth an avoidable backlash in its period of consolidation. It must remain unsaid, with strategists making of national interest what they will and assuming that the government has the national interest at heart. It won’t do to admit that the parochial ideological interest of a political party is the national interest. They have learnt from the tripping up of the Congress system that to admit ‘Indira is India’ is precursor to a fall.

Thus, if Bhartiya Janata Party and affiliates-defined Hindutva is the national interest, what does Hindutva signify for national security? A Hindutva-dominant political culture can be expected to yield up a particular conception of strategic culture; whence can be inferred the strategic doctrine. Another way to go about getting to the strategic doctrine is to see the actions of the Hindutva-led State and divine the doctrine working backwards from the actions.

Majoritarian political culture has it that India is a millennia-old civilization that has been trampled upon by successive invaders. It has finally discovered its essence. Its essence is not quite diversity imposed on it by invaders for their self-interested purposes of ‘divide and rule’. Instead, the essence is in traditional and scriptural texts, preserved by a institutionalised body of bearers of such texts at the apex of the societal pyramid. The uniformity this lends militates against the conception of diversity. What needs doing is to instill the reverence of our common, shared and inherited culture and extend it to the geographical frontiers of the ancient land, Bharat qua Bharat Mata. That the frontiers do not coincide with the current day national borders – Akhand Bharat having a subcontinental scale - can be tackled at a later date.  For now, consolidation of Hindutva is the national aim, with New India as a regional hegemon, a great power and Vishwa Guru, as end state.  

Thus, from a political culture that eschews diversity, the strategic culture that emerges is one that takes diversity as threat, demanding it be papered over till it is subdued and cast out. The stratagem is to reiterate that India has never been expansive. This is making virtue of a necessity in that through history India has expended its energy in accordion-like expanding to its natural geographic frontiers and then collapsing in on itself. This time round it would be different in that Hindutva will not only provide the energy to recoup national frontiers but also furnish the glue to keep together thereafter. Hindutva is thus the panacea that Indian national security has been missing through history. India has finally found its mojo.

Hindutva’s arrival center stage was in the period when the subordinate castes bid for power and pelf in relation to their numbers. The Mandalisation of polity evoked a response in Hindutva gathering steam. It sought vertical integration of Hindu society through invoking Hinduism, Hindutva defined. The Ayodhya movement provided a focus. The destruction of Babri Masjid and the Muslim backlash it provoked set up the Muslim Other as prop for Hindutva propagation. Globally, the withdrawal of the Cold War led to instability that witnessed the falling apart of diverse polities as the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Insurgency challenges beset India simultaneously in Punjab and Kashmir, attenuating the premium on unity based on uniformity. Hindutva, a readily available right wing doctrine with a century or so of existence in various forms – a nineteenth century milder revivalist version to a sterner twentieth century fascism inspired one – was served up as answer to fissiparous India suffering a like fate.

An observation made about then by an analyst, George Tanham, looking at India’s strategic culture – that India does not have one - provided a useful peg. Hindutva’s encroachment on and occupation of political cultural space led to strategic cultural products predicated on oneness and strength from such oneness. Globally, the strategic cottage industry on Islamism, impelled in part by Islamophobia, served as backdrop to a self-serving manufacture of a Muslim Other. Using the leverage of a narrative of a Muslim-perpetrated terror challenge within – made credible by the friendly neighbourhood bogeyman, Pakistan, and the Kashmir suppuration – a convergence was sought between ‘India in danger’ and ‘Hinduism in danger’. (Not belaboured here, but in the view of this analyst the Muslim tenancy of terror in the 2000s as the popular narrative has it, is untenable. Instead, in my view, these were black operations incited and conducted by the right wing, aligned with elements of the Indian deep state, in order to manufacture Hindutva as answer to Indian security predicament and propel its icons to power. But we shall leave that for another post.)

Echoes of this narrative of danger going back to the early to mid eighties continued in the strategic discourse through the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) period, when one would have imagined that the liberal security discourse should have predominated. The liberality in polity in the period was somewhat defensive, since in the background whirred Hindutva and an increasingly closely and self-consciously aligned conservative-realist security discourse. In the period of UPA stupor through its second term, Hindutva bid for power, reached out and seized it, with considerable support from the national security community persuaded by the national security promise of Hindutva.

Hindutva went center-stage unapologetically with Narendra Modi taking Delhi by the storm. It consolidated its support base in strategic circles with cosmetic initiatives as national memorial, military museum and a seemingly increased political interest in matters military, evidenced by the prime minister taking to celebrating Diwali with troops. It was dubious over fraught promises it could not keep, not least due to economic mismanagement, such as One Rank One Pension. It allowed the military a feel-good opportunity in seeming departures from an earlier policy of strategic restraint with conduct of the landward and aerial surgical strikes. Even so, these were largely chimerical, with little strategic effect, but great internal political dividend.

The parameters – or terms of reference – for both strikes evacuated each of any potency. This can be seen in the admittance of the prime minister that he did not want any casualties: troops were to return by first light in case of the landward surgical strikes and the planes conducting the aerial strikes were not to be overly venturesome in crossing over into Pakistan. This puts paid to any propaganda that there is indeed a departure from the strategy of restraint of Modi’s predecessor. Cultural nationalists within the strategic community stepped out of the closet for narrative dominance to the contrary. Instead, the continuity is proof that the period is one of consolidation of Hindutva, one that is not permissive of instability and uncertainty generated by military action. Military action is at best to be profitably used to firm-in Hindutva.

Thus, both strands of argument – one looking at discontinuities in political culture and strategic culture between the UPA period and Modi era and the second looking to see strategic cultural change through actions of the Modi regime – draw a blank. There is more continuity than discontinuity between the two periods. This can be accounted for by the UPA period being one in which the government continually looked over its shoulder at Hindutva breathing down its neck. The Modi period has not been one of significant change – as against what’s advertised – since Hindutva is in consolidation and cannot afford to be accosted by strategic uncertainty. Even as cataclysmic a strategic event as the Chinese intrusion did not force the Modi regime to budge. It continues to further Hindutva – seen in its delivering on its promise on Article 370 with due security precautions in place such as a preceding years-long Operation All Out and a thickening of interminable deployment in Kashmir – but not at any appreciable risk – such as by confronting China in the national interest of sovereignty, territorial integrity and balance of power.

This reading suggests that the strategic doctrine is therefore not one of assertion on national security as the complimentary discourse would have it. That there continues to be no written doctrine is because the regime would hate to admit to being little different on the national security front than its reviled predecessor. It would be loath to admit to Hindutva being its centerpiece national interest – rather than arrived at through a democratic aggregation of national interest. Admitting to a conflation of Hindutva and national interest may alert and invite opposition at a time when Hindutva prefers stability for ideological usurpation for a future Constitutional overhaul.