The default response of the Modi government in matters of national security has been to inhabit social media. Over the last few months, whenever there is a setback or security personnel killed, ministers invoke emotive nationalism and promise retribution on the perpetrators, writes C Uday Bhaskar for South Asia Monitor
By C Uday Bhaskar
The month of May this year has multiple relevance for India’s military and strategic security. It got off to an inauspicious start with the beheading of two Indian security personnel on May 1 and, predictably, the country is angry and anguished. The citizen is disappointed that such an event could have happened in the first instance (weren’t the 'surgical strikes' on militant camps in Pakistan last year supposed to stop such acts?) and expects a befitting response from the decisive Prime Minister Modi.
Kashmir valley is going through a phase of heightened domestic unrest including girl students pelting stones at security forces for the first time. The Army has indicated that it will embark upon stringent combing operations in the valley to weed out terrorists and their supporters.
May 11 marks the 19th anniversary of the nuclear tests by India in 1998 and at the time, in a letter to the US President Bill Clinton, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had identified China as the abiding anxiety to India’s strategic security and dwelt on the “distrust” index between the two Asian giants.
That distrust has increased visibly over the last year apropos issues such as terrorism and the global nuclear order – and most recently the Dalai Lama. Consequently in a politically significant move Beijing has put off its participation in the trilateral India-Russia-China foreign ministers' meeting scheduled to be held in Delhi in April under Indian auspices.
Furthermore China is convening a major summit on May 14-15 in Beijing to herald its ambitious OBOR (One Belt-One Road) connectivity project. President Xi Jinping will play host to 28 world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, and India has decided not to be part of this mega event.
And in relation to China, Indian Army chief, General Bipin Rawat, reiterated an observation that his predecessors have made – that India is not providing enough by way of fiscal support to its military. Speaking at a public event (May 4) he cautioned: "While we are developing our economy, the military is not getting its due share. I think here we need to draw a lesson from China." The lesson being that nurturing military and economic growth should be "conjoint" as they are two tenets of national power.
This is the brief backdrop to India’s complex security and strategic challenges as the Modi government completes three years in office on May 24. This rather bleak survey of national security is paradoxical, for candidate Modi had prioritized national security as a major plank and many disparaging references were made to the so-called meek and timid Dr. Manmohan Singh, his predecessor, in the 2013-14 election campaign.
The Indian voter was assured that a ‘decisive’ Modi would address national security in a far more effective manner. However the track record of the last three years has not been inspiring as regards major structural deficiencies related to India’s higher defence management. To me as an analyst, the most serious lapse on the part of the Prime Minister is that he has not been able to appoint a full time Defence Minister since May 2014.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitlry is holding dual charge of the defence ministry for the second time after previous incumbent Manohar Parrikar returned to Goa and there is no sign of any appointment in the near future. There are a range of issues that warrant the highest priority being accorded to matters of national security at cabinet level – but absent a dedicated full-time minister this task cannot even be outlined, let alone resolved swiftly.
It merits repetition that India’s comprehensive national security challenge spectrum is not just about the Indian military and the Defense ministry. Internal security is an equally vital strand – and Kashmir apart, the challenge of left-wing extremism also referred to as the Maoist rebel movement is deeply entrenched in some states. Chattisgarh has been dealing with this internal challenge for some years and in April, 25 CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force ) personnel were killed in an ambush in Sukma.
The nation was once again in a state of anger and anguish – and the audio-visual media outlets raised the emotive pitch in the country. India was reminded that in April 2010 the Maoists had killed 76 CRPF personnel and at the time the BJP roasted the UPA government and then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for rank incompetence.
In April 2017, the nation was also informed that for two months prior to the Sukma attack – the CRPF did not have a Director General. Why? Because the home ministry did not think this appointment was important enough. Again, I would hold the Prime Minister responsible for allowing such complacence in matters of internal security.
The default response of the Modi government in matters of national security has been to inhabit social media. Over the last few months, whenever there is a setback or security personnel killed, ministers invoke emotive nationalism and promise retribution on the perpetrators - whether from across the border or from the Maoist cadres. This is relayed on Twitter!
This is not adequate and what is required to set right the accreted national security deficit is hard work and resolve within the government that ought to be out of public glare. One has repeatedly drawn attention to the gaps in the implementation of the Kargil Committee related recommendations tabled in parliament in 2000 - that is 17 years ago - that go back to NDA I and the Vajpayee period of governance.
Modi has one year effectively ahead of him – before he hits the campaign trail again to become candidate NaMo - to review and redress major national security deficiencies. Appointing a full-time Defence Minister may be the much needed first step.
(C Uday Bhaskar is Director, Society for Policy Studies. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)