Wednesday, Jun 29, 2022

The Burden Of Expectations

The Modi government has hit the ground running and provided significant indicators of its approach to the principal internal security challenges. Will it be up to the task?

Little can be expected of a one-month old government, especially on issues as deeply entrenched as the multiple internal security challenges and crises of capacity that afflict India. These are the consequences of decades of neglect, misdirected policies, and an apparatus of governance that has been hollowed out by corruption. India's problems cannot be expected to simply disappear with the arrival of a purportedly charismatic leader, even one with a clear majority in Parliament that has eluded the succession of ailing regimes after Rajiv Gandhi's unprecedented windfall of 1984, in the wake of his mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's assassination.

Nevertheless, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government is already being judged— and often misjudged— and it would appear that both his most passionate detractors and his most ardent supporters 'mis-estimate' what he can realistically be expected to achieve. It is unlikely, as some flights of imagination have suggested, that the 'fascist Modi' will crush all dissent and establish an intolerant, oppressive and authoritarian regime; or that he is going to engineer a dramatic developmental transformation, abruptly bringing India into the fraternity of 'great powers', as his admirers fantasize. He may, of course, initiate processes of transformation; but given the sheer magnitude of the developmental deficit, the decades of preceding institutional decay, and the state of national administration, these will take significant time to secure measurable impact, even if implemented with complete honesty.

In the Indian setup, moreover, we must understand what a Prime Minister does. Personality contributes a certain character to the idea of India and of the Indian state, but it does not dramatically alter the fundamentals of the nature and distribution of power, or of the capacities of the state, its constituents and its agencies.

Nevertheless, in terms of posture and public perception, Modi appears, as many have observed, to have "hit the ground running", articulating policy perspectives and announcing initiatives in days, where these had languished under past regimes for the months and years. While any detailed assessment of security postures and initiatives is not possible here, significant indicators of the new government's approach to the country's principal internal security challenges— Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorism, the Maoist insurgency, and the multiple insurgencies of India's Northeast— are already available.

On the issue of Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorism in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), and across the rest of India, he has spoken with refreshing clarity, even as he seized the initiative by inviting Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif— but just as one among other leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation— to attend his oath-taking ceremony on May 26, 2014. This was, perhaps, the first occasion in many years where the diplomatic initiative had been seized forcefully by New Delhi, much to Islamabad's discomfiture. Significantly, Modi has minced no words on Pakistan's role in promoting and supporting terrorism on Indian soil, and has rejected the possibility of meaningful negotiations under the shadow of continued terrorism and proxy warfare by Islamabad. In an interview on May 8, 2014, as Prime Minister designate, he declared, 

"There can be no talks till all this comes to an end. You tell me, we are sitting here but can we continue our conversation if we are surrounded by the noise of bomb blasts and gunshots?" 

Crucially, moreover, he defined the overarching principal that would underpin his policy and approach, not only to Pakistan and terrorism, but, indeed, to the future of India: 

"If the country looks strong, then even its companions will change, neighbours will change and the atmosphere will change." 

It is in its own strength, then, that India would seek security, altering the very context of the regional discourse.

Building on themes identified by the Prime Minister, minister of defence Arun Jaitley observed, on June 15, that the ceasefire on the Line of Control (LoC) and International Border (IB) in J&K would be the biggest Confidence Building Measure (CBM) between the two countries, and that "Talks and aggression can't go together. For the situation to normalize, it is important for the ceasefire violations to stop." On June 12, union home minister Rajnath Singh told his officers to strengthen measures to curb infiltration from the Pakistani side. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, Pakistan has violated the ceasefire on at least eight occasions since the formation of the Modi government, in which an Indian trooper has been killed. Indian Forces have also thwarted at least three attempts by militants to infiltrate over the same period. The preceding nearly five months of 2014 had recorded another eight ceasefire violations and nine attempted infiltrations. 

The broad positions of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the new government on various dimensions of the Kashmir conundrum, however, are likely to be unsettling, sharpening political tensions and communal polarization in J&K, potentially provoking Pakistani and terrorist escalation, as they explore initiatives to change the troubled status quo in the state. A premature debate on the abrogation of Article 370 was initiated by Jitendra Singh, minister of state (MoS) in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), on May 26, while arguing that the intention of the government was to "convince the unconvinced" regarding the "enormous advantage which the other states of this country have enjoyed because they were not under the constraint of Article 370." Defence minister Jaitley argued, further, that Article 370 was "a temporary provision". The statements provoked widespread criticism in the Kashmir Valley, with virtually all political formations adopting a menacing posture, and Chief Minister Omar Abdullah declaring on Twitter, 

"Mark my words and save this tweet— long after Modi government is a distant memory either J&K won't be part of India or Art 370 will still exist... Art 370 is the only constitutional link between J&K and the rest of India. Talk of revocation is not just ill informed it's irresponsible."

Positions towards overground separatist formations in the state also appear to be hardening. While Jaitley claimed on June 15, that the government was ready to engage Kashmiri separatists in a dialogue process, he added that there would be no compromise on India’s Constitution and sovereignty, and that the government would talk with “anyone who respects the Constitution and India’s sovereignty.” Such a position is anathema to the various separatist formations in the state. The Chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference-Mirwaiz (APHC-M) Mirwaiz Umar Farooq thus responded, 

“As far as the resolution of Kashmir is concerned, it cannot be solved under the Indian Constitution. Kashmir can either be solved through UN resolutions or through the tri-partite talks between the stakeholders of the dispute.” 

Similarly, All Parties Hurriyat Conference-Geelani (APHC-G) chief spokesman Ayaz Akbar stated, 

“Kashmir can only be resolved outside the Constitution of India. We have fought over this very basis. How is it possible that talks under such (constitutional) purview shall be held?” 

The Chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) Mohammad Yasin Malik similarly argued, 

“The people here are not beggars. We are fighting for our birth right and will continue to do so. Indian Constitution umbrella can never resolve Kashmir.”

The separatist constituency, which has long projected a 'Kashmiri nationalist' perspectives, emphasizing the cultural unity and uniqueness of 'Kashmiriyat', but has pursued a radical Islamist agenda, would also be troubled by the Modi government's quick insistence on the return of Kashmiri pandits to the Valley with "dignity, security and assured livelihood". The Kashmiri pandits have been displaced since 1990, when a campaign of ethnic cleansing was launched in the Valley by Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorists. In a first step, the union ministry of home affairs (MHA) is set to approve an enhanced package of Rupees two million per family for re-construction of their houses in the Valley. Meanwhile, Defence minister Jaitley observed, 

"Any attempt to alter the constitutional position of the state would change the ground situation. Likewise, any plans to scatter the returnees, by splitting the single-place rehabilitation demand, would proportionately reduce the sense of security among them... We do not want Kashmiri Pandits to live in ghettos in and around Srinagar. We want to settle them to ensure they can begin their lives afresh and have to ensure their children have a bright future. This will be a litmus test of Kashmiriyat.”

The Modi government, by its very temperament, is likely to pursue a broadly kinetic approach to the actual manifestations of terrorism, and the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a long-standing demand of a wide political constituency in the Valley, is unlikely, and would be decided on the basis of "how the situation progresses", according to Jaitley.

While most of these positions appear confrontationist, and will raise hackles in Pakistan, as well as among the terrorist and separatist constituencies, a stronger security posture and a refusal to follow a policy of appeasement towards Pakistan could work as a significant counter. It remains to be seen, however, what real capacity transformations the new government is able to engineer in the near term. Absent a dramatic change in capacities, there can be no radical change in policies.

On the Maoist conundrum, similarly, the Modi government has articulated a 'muscular' position, emphasizing dramatic augmentations of both Force and Administrative outreach. An 'integrated action plan' is to be drawn up by the UMHA, though its contours are yet to be made public. In the interim, the following steps have already been announced:

  • 10 additional battalions of Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) to be sent to Chhattisgarh. A UMHA official stated, "We will try to deploy them within three months, or latest by the end of the year."
  • Flagging Naxal area as the "most dangerous zone" in the country, the government will also enhance hardship allowance for CAPF personnel deployed in these areas to more than what they get while serving in J&K and North-eastern region.
  • The government may give the officials special monetary benefits, out-of-turn promotions and choice posting after completing their tenure successfully in Maoist-affected places. The incentives are aimed at attracting talented Indian Administrative Service and Indian Police Service officers to work in Naxal-hit areas. In the worst-affected Maoist Districts, the Ministry will try to deploy the most capable officers who have proven their ability.
  • In a change of nomenclature indicating the broad approach of the government, the Naxal Management (NM) Division of the UMHA was changed to Left Wing Extremism (LWE) Division, indicating that the Ministry doesn't seek to 'manage' Maoists.
  • A decision has been taken to expedite road construction of about 5,477 kilometres and expedite the construction of 2,199 mobile towers in Maoist affected Districts. The project for 5,477km roads was sanctioned in 2010, but just 2,900km have been completed in four years. The mobile tower project for improving connectivity has yet to take off.
  • The ministry has also decided to review all the rejected claims of land title deeds that were to be given to tribals to wean them away from Maoists. Officials feel that a key reason of tribal angst is rejection of genuine claims in many cases as a majority of tribals only have anecdotal evidence to prove their claims to land.

A number of statements by Prime Minister Modi, during his election campaign and after his election, also define the broad contours of the government's approach to the Maoist issue. On May, 2014, Modi stated, for instance,

Maoism and terrorism are the biggest threats to our internal security. I have always advocated a zero tolerance approach to these problems. Further, we need a clearcut legal framework to address these challenges. Regardless of what are the reasons for the people to resort to violence, our ability to deal with it should not be compromised by lack of preparedness. We can choose to deal with issues the way we want, but our response should not be constrained by unavailability of options. Therefore, I feel that modernizing our police forces and our central paramilitary forces is something that cannot be delayed any longer... We should invest to equip our security forces with modern weapons and equipments, train them and deploy them effectively. I also feel that Maoism is a problem which has to be tackled by the central and state governments acting in unison with complete coordination.

On April 12, Modi had criticized past approaches to the problem, arguing that the government was focusing entirely on the Maoist-affected districts. Instead it should first give priority to areas that are contiguous to Maoist affected areas. In that way the Maoist affected areas would first be encircled, so that Maoists cannot expand. Then the state can take on the Maoist. He added that the government of India would at least take necessary action so that Maoists’ communication with the outside world becomes difficult; arms and ammunition don't reach their areas from outside; and financial transactions with the outside world becomes difficult. He claimed that these objectives could be achieved even without direct armed engagement with the Maoists.

On June 27, union home minister Rajnath Singh addressing a meeting of Chief Secretaries and Police Chiefs of 10 LWE-affected states, and Chiefs of the CAPFs, ruled out talks with the CPI-Maoist. He asserted that the government would adopt a “balanced approach” to resolve the problem through administrative leadership and political commitment.

Elements of the new government’s approach to the multiple and degraded insurgencies of the Northeast are also being progressively defined, and the government has already initiated informal talks with insurgent groups, to secure a 'lasting solution' to the militancy that has long afflicted the region. The minister of state for home affairs, Kiren Rijiju, who has been given charge of the Northeast division in the UMHA, asserted that officials had already been asked to "initiate formal dialogue", adding, 

"We have some differences with ULFA (United Liberation Front of Asom) and NSCN (National Socialist Council of Nagaland) and hopefully these will be sorted out in due course." 

Rijiju also disclosed that interlocutors holding talks with militant groups would be given a 'wider mandate' to talk simultaneously with all stakeholders. However, if negotiations failed, the government would clamp down on their front organizations and obstruct their finances. Encouraging good governance and ending the isolation of the region are other measures that have been articulated to address the overall developmental and administrative deficit, and Rijiju has disclosed that the government was 

"considering partial withdrawal of the Protected Area Permit and Restricted Area Permit from certain pockets of bordering Arunachal Pradesh and Leh and Ladakh in Jammu & Kashmir... We are not lifting all restrictions, but would like to open up these areas to domestic and foreign tourists with less restrictions and develop infrastructure in the bordering areas to make it easily accessible to all visitors." 3

Such measures, the government argues, would help the region develop.

The various initiatives announced in the early days of the present government display an urgency and focus that is in refreshing contrast to the enveloping environment of vacillation and deferral that characterized the last government. Nevertheless, powerful obstacles are likely to persist, potentially undermining the implementation of the ambitious plans for internal security reforms that the Modi government has announced, and is likely to pursue.

For one thing, while India's bureaucracy outwardly appears extraordinarily subservient and pliable, indeed obsequious, in the presence of its political masters, this is, at best (or worst) only half true. With rare exception, talk of reforming the bureaucracy has been the staple of each new government, but little real reform has been secured over the past 66 years, overwhelmingly as a result of resistance (often passive and concealed) within the intended object of such reform. While the bureaucracy appears to be disintegrating in terms of its capacity to deliver basic services of governance, an insidious 'steel frame' continues to exist as far as protecting the self-interest of this establishment is concerned. This is an establishment, moreover, that has mastered the art of subtle obstruction, quietly subverting the very programmes and objectives it appears to serve. It comprises many and disparate camps, each serving contesting ideologies and loyalties, and no Prime Minister in India's history has ever been able to command its obedience in good faith. A 'strong leader' may change its outward facade but is unlikely to have any great capacity to alter its character and substance. Indeed, irrespective of the party or leader at the helm of affairs, there has been a continuous secular decline in the quality of governance over time.

The Modi government, moreover, appears to be labouring under an ideologically-led misconception that the Indian government is in urgent need of 'downsizing'. The truth is, government in India is severely undermanned, as has been repeatedly argued in SAIR, and while there is tremendous scope and urgency for the rationalization of enormously wasteful processes and structures, the absolute size of government would need to be dramatically augmented, even as its manpower profile must be improved. There are, unfortunately, relatively inflexible caps, in the near term, to the possibilities of such augmentation as a result of the abysmal manpower and educational profile of the Indian population. To the extent that the basic premise of the government is currently contra-factual, some of its initial efforts are likely to be misdirected and counter-productive.

Crucially, moreover, the Prime Minister's role is severely limited by the Constitution, as, indeed, is the centre's, and there are sharp boundaries to what a purported 'strong man' can achieve, irrespective of integrity or intent. Indeed, if we look back through history, India's Prime Ministers, despite tremendous variations in style and personality, have left little positive and permanent imprint on the nation. The strongest of these by all assessments was Indira Gandhi, and she left enveloping institutional disintegration in her wake, even as she failed to address the fundamental dystrophies of the state and nation.

A dynamic and consensual leader (most would concede that the latter attribute is one that Modi does not appear to possess) can exercise greater influence, but this is not the same as securing obedience. A Prime Minister today, has extremely limited room for manoeuvre. Some state satraps may not cooperate. Unlike a state government, where a Chief Minister has tremendous powers of direct intervention, the union government must rely for the success of an overwhelming proportion of its plans and programmes— especially in the internal security sphere— on their willing and efficient implementation by the states. Unfortunately, even where willingness may be attainable, efficiency, most often, is not. Worse, in a polarized polity, states have often, in the past, done everything in their power to disrupt and subvert central schemes and programmes, and this remains a possibility under the current dispensation. Modi, however, has a distinct advantage over past regimes in his Parliamentary majority, as well as in the number of 'friendly' state governments in the present setup— a number that is likely to augment significantly during his tenure, if his performance meets even minimal expectations of the public.

Justice lies at the very heart of a ruler's attainments. The greatest leaders in history were known for their even handed justice, more than for any other attribute. On this parameter, the public perception is that Modi's record is deficient, and it matters little where the truth lies. Given the condition of India's justice system, moreover, it is unlikely that, even with the best of intentions, any government could quickly create the conditions of justice necessary to alter a pre-existing negative perception.

Crucially, as with past governments, Modi is saddled with a deeply flawed Parliament. Indeed, of the 539 current Members of the Lok Sabha, 186 have criminal charges registered against them, 112 of these with charges of heinous crimes. This compares adversely to the last Lok Sabha, where 158 Members of the 521 Members analysed, had criminal charges registered against them, of which 77 were charged with heinous crimes. Such a Parliament is unlikely to welcome any initiatives to reform systems of policing and justice administration with any great enthusiasm.

There is, today, a tremendous anger across the country against the perceived failures of the last United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the centre, and advantage of this will naturally accrue to Modi. But there is a flip side to this— this advantage is bound, inexorably, to further exaggerate popular expectations that his electoral campaign and post-election pronouncements have already raised. Governments with even the most extraordinary mandates in the past have collapsed under the burden of disproportionate expectations. Given his sweeping victory, the expectations from his government will be the greater and more unrealistic, potentially leading to a greater sense of public disappointment. It is, moreover, one thing to take an already affluent State like Gujarat and accelerate its development; quite another to take an increasingly dysfunctional and substantially impoverished federation, turn it fully around, and then make it run.

After years of cynicism, public distrust and gloom, a clear mandate for a stable government has given rise to a wave of hope. It remains to be seen whether the present regime can overcome the cumulative deficits of the past, and the colossal institutional damage that has been done over decades of mis-governance, to fulfil even a modicum of popular expectations, and realize an acceptable proportion of the country's limitless potential. 

Ajai Sahni is Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management & South Asia Terrorism Portal. Courtesy: the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal