23 July 2024 10:38 PM


ALI AHMED | 24 MARCH, 2019

The National Security Agenda for the Next Government

A new government’s agenda would be two tiered.

In case the Indian voter sees through the last-gasp clutching at perception management straws by the ruling party using the Balakot aerial strike, the next government would have a full national security agenda.

The outgoing government has set the stage that enables it to pick up the pieces if returned to power, even as it has queered the pitch for the next government if of a different complexion. The latter would enable it to call the shots even as the fledgling coalition finds its feet.

A new government’s agenda would be two tiered.

One would be an immediate term retrieval of India’s twinned Pakistan and Kashmir policies from the wreckage left behind by Ajit Doval’s stewardship of national security over the past five years.

The second, spread over the duration of its tenure, would be detoxification as part of stabilizing national security institutions truncated to varying degrees by ideological influence and penetration of cultural nationalism.

To begin with the first, a roll back to India’s Pakistan and Kashmir policy would not be as difficult as the Bharatiya Janata Party may have liked it to be with its disruptive gambit. Even so Pakistan’s prime minister, finding his initial outreach rebuffed by the Modi government that was contemplating elections, maturely decided to resume the initiative after elections.

The eponymous ‘Bajwa doctrine’ that under-grids the outreach – credited to the army chief’s reported privileging of Pakistan’s doddering economy over its proxy war commitments – may get a lease of life with General Bajwa granting himself an extension come November when he superannuates.

As for Kashmir, from the back-to-back bans on the Jamaat and the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, it is clear that Ajit Doval, a veteran of intelligence battles with Pakistani intelligence minders of these outfits, is living in the past and is way past his sell-by date.

India’s Kashmir policy would need immediate rescue from the return to the nineties in terms of a militarized template operational there.

While a BJP government would likely have persisted with president’s rule if re elected in order to attempt wrap up the insurgency militarily, a different coalition would have a significant decision immediately on taking power on its hands: of holding assembly elections before president’s rule expires early July.

For a BJP dispensation to postpone elections would be understandable since India is not in a position to have its democratic credentials in Kashmir exposed by an absence of voters from booths. However, a new government need not worry since, in anticipation of a change in policy, the very change at Delhi would energise mainstream parties, including the smaller and newer parties such as those of Sajjad Lone and Shah Faesal respectively, and the electorate, particularly youth.

The government would require eventually substituting the no-talks policy – under pretext of continuing terrorism - with a dual-pronged but separately-tracked talks’ process. Assured that Pakistan would not keep up its end of the 2004 Islamabad agreement under threat of Indian coercion, India - backtracking speedily from its manifestly military action at Balakot in the statement of its foreign secretary following the strikes – promised to keep up its end of the bargain: of talks in case of Pakistani restraint on export of terrorism.

A new government can keep to the commitment, sanguine that talks within Kashmir will have the beneficial effect of dampening any pull (Kashmiri disaffection) and push (Pakistan’s axe to grind) factors underlying Pakistani support of terrorism there.

The second tier reforms would assuredly be more challenging. In the intellectual space, the shift over the past three decades towards cultural nationalism and its influence on strategic culture can at best be contained.

What needs doing is to have conservative-realism reclaim its legitimate space, lost over the past five years to religious majoritarianism infected political and strategic culture.

This contextual political-level exercise would be internal to the conservative spectrum of national politics and likely fall out of an electoral defeat in which the hard-line verities of the strategic doctrine of the Modi-Doval combine are questioned.

Instigating and encouraging such retrospection needs to be done by the liberal realists in the strategic community in a counter discourse challenging the media-enabled dominance of the majoritarian ideologues. Doing so would be a necessary prerequisite to the strategic shifts by the new government.

At the institutional level, the muck is self-evident, the latest illustration being the letting-off of the Samjhauta blast perpetrators. The National Investigation Agency has long lost its integrity, victim as all other institutions to the intimate attentions of ideology purveyors in power.

Policy makers seem unmindful of the laughable implications for India’s single-track foreign policy – counter terrorism. Perhaps to them, India’s bid for a global consensus on ‘international terrorism’ (India champions the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism) precludes domestic terrorism from the purview of the definition of terrorism, enabling keeping India’s ‘good terrorists’ – its majoritarian (frankly put, Hindu) terrorists – off the radar.

The implication is that the imprint of the powerful intelligence fraternity must be diluted. It has got powerful in an imitation of its favourite bogeyman – the Inter-Services Intelligence – and to similar affect. Confidence needs to be infused in foreign service officers to hold their own in policy making.

Another – more problematic - illustration is in order. Cultural nationalist historiography has it that India was colonized a thousand years ago. No less than the prime minister adheres to this trope. The same has now penetrated the thus-far liberal and secular military. A serving colonel writing unselfconsciously in a 2017 number of the prestigious, Trishul, the intellectual output of the Defence Services Staff College, has it that India was lost to colonizers at the Battle of Tarain. It should disconcert that the editorial board did not find this amiss.

If the military has not been spared the attention of the cultural nationalists, it can well be imagined what the impact of the last five years has been on the normally spineless police and on the long-corroded steel frame, its bureaucracy. Detoxification based on a liberal-secular and modern outlook is the answer.

The plausibility of the foregoing agenda for the next government indicates the vacuity in the proposition bandied in wake of the Balakot strikes that there can be a consensus on national security with cultural nationalist narrative at its pole. The media-fanned notion is intended to place the opposition on the defensive. Instead, since the ruling party is parading its national security showing, it needs to be exposed.

The ruling party’s muddying of the Balakot aftermath by likening questions on damage assessments as undercutting the air force is to deflect a legitimate critique of its intelligence-led choice of target. The strategic purposes served need querying in contrast to the escalatory potential of the strike. Consider the counterfactual: What would have been the consequence if indeed 300 were killed at the site? This reveals that political calculus were at work behind the decision, not national security considerations.

The government needs changing for precisely the reason it thinks it needs another term. For now, the counter narrative can form the manifesto for the alternative.

Ali Ahmed is a UN trained political and security analyst.