A Stable Centre – What It means to India’s Security

After the Age of the Spoiler
Ajai Sahni
Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management

The wise men of Hindoostan have, once more, been utterly blind-sided by India’s electorate. Most pre-election projections had predicted the doom of the national parties and a rag-tag coalition – the Third Front, and uncommitted fragments inventively combined into a Fourth Front – catapulted to power under the uncertain leadership of one among numberless pretenders. Even the ‘scientific’ prestidigitations of learned psephologists making ‘precise’ calculations on exit poll data saw no more than unstable coalitions, at best, of one of the national parties, backed by a gaggle of ideologically irreconcilable groupings. The national formations themselves appeared to suffer a collapse of confidence, and had reconciled themselves to one of these outcomes, and enormous public apprehensions had been provoked by the specter of disorders that would come in the wake of the opportunistic, rickety and volatile alliances that were expected to seize power at Delhi.
Abruptly, however, public anxieties appear to have crystallized into what one commentator described as a “flight to stability”. The fictional Third Front has been decimated, with its principal advocate, the Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPI-M) suffering the most humiliating reverses just five years after its supreme triumph, shrinking from a strength of 43 seats to a poor 16. Significantly, however, 76.79 per cent of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha are now occupied by the national alliances, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA, 258) and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA, 159). Crucially, the two principal national parties, the Congress (206) and the BJP (116) together account for 59.3 per cent of the House (322 seats), suggesting that the era of ‘spoilers’ may well be at an end, at least for the time being. Some of the most disruptive political formations have, moreover, been cut to size and will have little coercive influence over the new dispensation at Raisina Hill.
From a purely non-partisan perspective, there is an encouraging stability in this outcome, and this will impact crucially on national security policy. For one thing, the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai had made terrorism and internal security central electoral issues – and both the leading national parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress had made elaborate and detailed commitments on these issues in their manifestos and pre-election declarations. Clearly, the divisive cacophony that has long impeded and undermined the evolution of effective counter-terrorism (CT), counter-insurgency (CI) and internal security policy will now abate, at least to some extent, creating the mandate and the space that the new Government – hopefully – will better use.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has, of course, long offered some of the more coherent assessments of India’s many internal security crises – though, in the past, he apparently failed to carry many of his own Cabinet colleagues along with him. The Prime Minister had noted, moreover, “South Asia is in turmoil. And therefore in planning for our own development, we have to be mindful of the environment within which we have to operate.” Union Home Minisiter P. Chidambaram, in late March 2009, at the height of the run-up to the elections, had noted, further, that “India finds itself in a ring of fire. Our neighbours are countries in difficulty. Some of them even qualify to be called failed states.” It is evident that a UPA Government led by Manmohan Singh is now irrevocably committed to placing India’s security among its highest priorities.
It is significant, within this context, that the “ring of fire” may, in some measure, already have been breached by circumstances not of India’s making. In Sri Lanka, a determined Government has destroyed one of the world’s most lethal and inventive terrorist groups, and there is now reasonable expectation that Colombo will pursue an inclusive solution that will address at least the most urgent of Tamil grievances. India certainly has tremendous leverage to encourage such an outcome, and an international community, appalled by the bloody endgame in the Sri Lankan North, will exercise enormous pressure to ensure that Sinhala triumphalism is held in abeyance. There is, in any event, a very real opportunity, now, for peace and development in Sri Lanka, after over 25 years of relentless strife.
In Bangladesh, while the February revolt in the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) triggered grave concerns, the Awami League’s sweep in the elections of December 2008 has opened up new vistas. It is evident that the Sheikh Hasina Government has committed itself to reversing the trends towards Islamist radicalization and quasi-Governmental and establishment support to Islamist extremism and terrorism – including their ‘export’ to India. There is also a clear effort and intent to delink Bangladesh from the pernicious Pakistani gameplan in this region. While Dhaka’s initial postures have been encouraging, it remains to be seen how sustained the Government’s efforts will be, and whether they will be successful in containing and neutralizing what may be an inevitable extremist-terrorist backlash. In any event, there appears to be a greater opportunity for peace in Bangladesh than has been the case for some years now, and the new dispensation at South Block would certainly have something to build on to consolidate these gains.
Nepal, of course, continues to stare into the abyss, though from a position of ‘ugly stability’. Despite abrasive confrontations with the various political parties, the Maoists have remained within the ‘peace process’, and violence – beyond levels that have become ‘acceptable’ within this troubled country – is not an immediate risk.
It is Pakistan alone that remains a rising inferno, and will be the most urgent security challenge – both from an internal and external perspective – for the new regime. Regrettably, there is little evidence of any emerging coherence in India’s foreign or defence policy postures towards Pakistan, though “The Congress Party’s Pledge: Protecting India From Terror” document (Pledge Document), released during the election campaign, does, in passing, state that “Counter-intelligence measures must be designed to foil activities of foreign intelligence agencies. Counter-terrorism measures must be crafted in a manner that they act as warning and strong deterrent to potential terrorists.” India, however, remains apparently committed to restoring the ‘peace process’ with Pakistan if there is perceptible action against those who were involved in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, and there is little evidence of any new strategic orientation towards this relentless enemy. The myth that “a strong and stable Pakistan is in India’s interests” remains firmly entrenched in the Delhi establishment, though there is little evident that any instrumentalities or agencies exist to secure this eventuality. The reality is, neither India nor the paltry billions in aid that are flowing from the ‘great powers’ and international community, have any significant impact on Pakistan disastrous trajectory. It is critical, now, to recognize the distinction between wishful and strategic thinking, and to accommodate Pakistan’s accelerating descent within India’s national policy projections. It is imperative, consequently, that India reviews its ‘end state’ objectives with regard to Pakistan, to accommodate emerging realities. This includes the growing possibility of a ‘regime change’ that transforms – or destroys – the existing state structure in Pakistan, and the consequent risks of rising instability, export of terrorism, and the transfer of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal to extremist and non-state elements. A strategy to tackle Pakistan’s implosion and possible collapse is now necessary, even if an alternative track of negotiations is kept alive. There will, moreover, be a progressive urgency to addressing the evolving disaster of President Barack Obama’s AfPak policy.
Within the internal security context, the shock to the system administered by 26/11 has resulted in a greater focus on the threat of terrorism and insurgency in the country, and a number of new measures have already been announced or initiated. Long pending sanctions to strengthen the Intelligence Bureau have been cleared. The Multi Agency Centre (MAC), the Congress Pledge Document claims, has been established and “connectivity has been achieved between MAC and S-MACs in the State Capital and the Special Branch of the Police in the State. All these Centres are now functioning on a 24×7 basis…” Surprisingly, however, the Ministry of Home Affairs’ (MHA) Website claims that “Sanction has been issued for site preparation at 30 locations in India to establish connectivity between the Multi Agency Centre (MAC), SMAC and the Special Branch of the State Police concerned”. There is obviously some routine fudging here, and what is ‘sanctioned’ is evidently projected as having been achieved. The reality, of course, is that the MAC-SMAC structure remains in its infancy, as does the national intelligence database it is intended to create – but the impediments that had long obstructed these initiatives are now quickly being removed. The sheer burden of cumulative capacity constraints will, however, continue to dog these projects for some time to come.
Among other post-26/11 initiatives, whatever their actual implementation or utility, that the MHA lists, are:
Identification of land to establish NSG hubs in Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Hyderabad.
Voluntary agreement between the NSG and eight scheduled airline operators to provide aircraft within 30-45 minutes in case of emergency.
Amendment of the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) Act to enable the CISF to extend security cover to private, joint and cooperative sector establishments.
Sanction of INR 2.39 billion for the creation of infrastructure for various CPMFs.
Sanction of INR 7.05 billion under the Modernisation of Police Forces scheme for 14 States under the Annual Action Plans for 2009-10.
Approval for augmentation of 383 Border Observation Posts (BOPs) on the Indo-Bangladesh border (adding to 802 existing), and 126 BOPs on the Indo-Pak border (adding to 609 existing). Construction is to be completed by 2012-13.
Sanction of 94 posts to the National Investigation Agency (NIA)
Significantly, the Pledge Document also makes a number of quantified and time-bound commitments. Recognizing terrorism as “the single most important issue”, the Document asserts that this is “a challenge that any responsible government must address on a war footing” (emphasis added). To this end, the most significant objective commitments include:
Appoint a Panel to draw up a Police Recruitment Plan 2009-2020 to assess the growing needs, at the officer level, of all Police forces, and to ensure that the deficiency in IPS cadres “is addressed decisively once and for all, after the Panel submits its report by 31.5.2009”.
To fill all existing vacancies in the Police forces before 31.3.2010, and ensure that there is “at least one police station in every block; every police station has an adequate and effective complement of well-armed constables, all police stations in a state are connected to each other and to the district/state police headquarters; and that at least one police personnel in each police station is exclusively tasked for intelligence gathering.”
The Modernisation of Police Force Scheme will be included in the Plan and grants under the scheme will increase five-fold over a five year period.
20 Counter-Insurgency and Anti-terrorism Schools will be set up across India.
A 100 day Action Plan formulated by the MHA will be completed by May 31, 2009. An additional two plans will be drawn up, one for the remaining period of 10 months in 2009-10, and another for the five-year term of the new Government.
Preparation of the National Population Register (NPR) is already underway along with the Census of 2011. Once the NPR is ready, Multi-purpose National Identity Cards (MNICs) will be issued to all residents of India. NPR of coastal villages/towns are to be created in 2009-10, in view of the urgency of the matter, and identity cards are to be issued to all residents of these areas, and to the whole of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
A ‘world-class National Security Database’ and National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) is to be “delivered in three phases within a period of two years.”
A Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and System (CCTNS) will be created by 2011-12.
NSG hubs at Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Hyderabad “will be operational by 30.6.2009.
A Judicial Task-Force on Fast-track Trials will be established to recommend measures to ensure that national security and terror-related cases are tried within 90 days. The Task-Force will submit its findings by 31.8.2009 and the Government will act on its recommendations within 30 days of receiving them.
A Coastal Command will be established, and a Sagar Prahari Bal (Sea Assault Force), comprising 1,000 personnel will be raised to protect naval assets and bases.
These and other measure are proposed under a five pronged strategy with two overarching objectives, comprising:
Highest Possible Level of Preparedness
Capable and Equipped Human Assets
Actionable Intelligence and Cutting-edge Analytics
Empowered and Coordinated Security Agencies
Rapid and Decisive Response and Follow-up
Decisive Response to Threats and Attacks
Strong and Speedy Investigation and Prosecution
‘Intra-agency collaboration’ is to be a ‘cardinal principal of governance’, and ‘greater powers and funds’ are to be provided to ‘our frontal security agencies’. There is a promise to “deal with the scourge of terrorism squarely and decisively, but without weakening the delicate strands that have, together, bound our society for centuries.”
In broad terms, these proposals appear to address the issues relating to major capacity deficits that have crippled India’s CT-CI responses in the past, and made the country a soft target for terrorism and proxy war. Regrettably, there are, within the Indian constitutional scheme, acute limits to central power, and the fragmentation of State responses, or the unenthusiastic implementation of central schemes, has long undermined capacity building where it is most needed, despite increasing central support for the augmentation of necessary State capacities. Securing effective Centre-State collaboration will have to be another ‘cardinal principal of governance’ if the Central schemes are to secure desired impact, and this has been enormously difficult in the past. Fortunately, a measure of consensual clarity has appeared across party lines regarding the need for sustained and coherent effort to address deficits within the security apparatus and confront the threats of terrorism, insurgency and the covert wars that are being directed against the unity and integrity of the state and nation in India, and this may provide the context of somewhat greater efficiency of operation.
The surprise electoral outcome will provide the new regime unprecedented stability. It has also ensured continuity, and will give greater authority to the Prime Minister to translate his understanding and assessment of India’s internal security threats into an effective framework of response. A range of firm commitments have already been made to implement a ‘zero-tolerance policy towards terrorism’ and to “guarantee the maximum possible security to each and every citizen”. The clear electoral mandate ensures that, to the extent that the new regime succeeds in fulfilling its pledge, this achievement will be entirely its own; to the extent it fails, there will be no one else to blame.

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