India is in the middle of an election campaign driven by the issue of ‘national security’, especially as it comes after the Pulwama attack and the Balakot air strikes. So, there were a lot of expectations that the political manifestos of the Congress and the BJP would refer to the issue with an improved mindset. But both parties’ manifestos lack a holistic approach to national security, settling instead for a simple ‘to-do’ list which has been our bane in the past.
The manifestos mirror what India’s strategic community unanimously says: that India does not have a formal national security vision, that it lacks a coherent strategy, and that we go about managing national security affairs from ‘crisis to crisis’.
India needs radical reforms — with respect to higher defence management, integration of the three services, creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff, and restructuring/ reorganisation of the armed forces. Keeping in mind how modernisation of the armed forces has been at a virtual standstill for the last 20 years, here’s a critical evaluation of the core issues that need to be addressed by India’s political class.
Higher defence management
Reforms in higher defence management are most critical because without a cohesive vision and strategy, the matter of national security remains rudderless. The Congress proposes to provide statutory basis to the National Security Council (NSC) and the office of the National Security Adviser (NSA); define their powers and functions under the law; streamline their functioning; and make them accountable to Parliament. It also proposes to make the National Security Advisory Board a permanent statutory body to advise the NSC and the government. This is an urgently required reform.
The BJP manifesto is conspicuously silent on the subject and has so far allowed these bodies to function in an ad hoc manner, concentrating power in the hands of the NSA.
National security vision & strategy
Unfortunately, both manifestos remain silent on the urgent need for a strategic review to formulate a comprehensive National Security Strategy, which logically should be the basis of all strategic defence planning. The Congress manifesto vaguely mentions that national security is dependent on a “sound defence policy, a sound foreign policy and sound leadership” without elaborating much on what this ‘sound’ policy entails.
The BJP mentions, “Our security doctrine will be guided by our national security interest only. This is exemplified by the surgical strikes and the air strikes carried out recently.” It further talks about ‘zero tolerance’ against terrorism and extremism, and continuing the policy of ‘giving a free hand’ to the security forces in combating terrorism.
Both parties are silent on how to manage the security threats from our two potential adversaries, China and Pakistan. This is inexplicable and wishing away the problem when, in the last two years, we nearly went to war with them.
It is clear that neither the BJP nor the Congress has any clue about the need for an all-encompassing National Security Strategy, and so they are more focused on functional issues.
The Congress specifically commits itself to establishing the office of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and make the person holding the post the principal adviser to the government on all matters related to defence. The BJP is silent on this urgent reform and has so far made the NSA function as the ad hoc CDS.
Force development strategy
Both the Congress and the BJP manifestos are similarly silent on the size of the defence forces and the need for reforms in structure/organisation, which are needed to keep armed forces battle-ready in the 21st century.
Additionally, the manifestos also don’t relate these reforms with the budgetary allocations that will likely become available in the subsequent years.
Both parties commit themselves to modernising the armed forces without specifying the percentage share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) they are willing to commit to the defence sector in the budget. The Congress has specifically promised to reverse the trend of declining defence expenditure under the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). It is well known that the current budget — at less than two per cent of the GDP — leaves little money for modernisation.
Both parties commit themselves to self-reliance in defence equipment and creating the desired manufacturing capacity. While the Congress talks in generic terms, the BJP is more specific with its ‘Make in India in Defence’ programme.
Both the BJP and the Congress emphatically commit themselves to fighting terrorism in any form. However, both miserably fail to define the military and the political end state they are seeking.
The Congress promises to create the National Counter-Terrorism Centre within three months of coming to power and establish the National Intelligence Grid within six months.
With respect to Jammu and Kashmir, the BJP indicates no change in its policy and promises to continue to look for peace through ‘decisive actions and firm policy’. It promises to provide necessary funds for the state’s development. The BJP reiterates its commitment to abrogate Article 370 from the Constitution and adds a new commitment to annul Article 35A. It promises to ensure the safe return of Kashmiri Pandits and provide financial assistance for the resettlement of refugees from West Pakistan, Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Chamb.
The Congress manifesto gives a more nuanced approach. It promises to uphold Article 370 to preserve the special status to J&K. It pledges an uncompromising firmness to deal with terrorists and end infiltration, an absolute fairness in dealing with the demands of the people, and winning the hearts and the minds of the local residents. It also promises to review the deployment of the armed forces to focus more on counter-infiltration, reduce their presence in the hinterland, and give more responsibility to the Jammu and Kashmir police and the Central Armed Police Forces in the hinterland. It proposes to review the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and the Disturbed Areas Act to balance the requirements of security forces and the protection of human rights. It promises to engage with all stakeholders through interlocutors.
In a nutshell, the BJP promises to continue its ‘hard’ policy, focusing on the military solution while the Congress promises a people-friendly counter-insurgency campaign aimed at finding a political solution.
The BJP manifesto, to say the least, is disappointing. It is ambiguous and shies away from disclosing the specifics. It is silent on strategic vision, national security reforms, defence budget, strategy with respect to potential adversaries, end state envisioned in Jammu and Kashmir/northeast, and the action plan for modernisation of the armed forces. The Congress manifesto, while marred by similar flaws — albeit to a lesser extent, in relative terms — is more positive, specific and action-oriented.
The two manifestos do not inspire any confidence. I foresee the continuity of a policy that is high on emotions and low on substance with respect to national security.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal.