The boastful talk of retaliation, precision strikes, “giving a befitting reply”, in the wake of the latest terrorist outrage in Uri will soon fizzle out for the simple reason that there is no strategic context or foundation to these assertions. This should surprise no one. We have been here before, and each attack – recall Pathankot at the beginning of this year – has been followed by exactly the same threats and imprecations. Narendra Modi and prime ministers before him have made many threats of retaliatory action in the wake of major terrorist attacks in the past, and have then done little to keep their word.
The fact is, you cannot go from a situation where you’ve put all your eggs in the “talks basket” and then suddenly believe you have an entire menu card of tactical and military options. The latter have to be developed over an extended period of time, and for this a clear policy, sustained over the long term is necessary. Far from a policy, the Indian establishment is not even clear about what its end objectives are with regard to Pakistan.
Strategy is a function of capacity, and there can be no radical shift in the former unless the latter has been manifestly altered. Unfortunately, the present government – like its predecessors – has done precious little to address the endemic crisis of capacities in India’s defence and security sectors. Indeed, there have been several cuts in operational funding in these sectors, though the government has sought to draw attention away from these by trying to shift the focus on a handful of high value acquisitions – most of which remain in an extended and delayed pipeline.
India spent just 2.4 per cent of GDP on Defence (including pensions) in 2014-15, and 2.26 per cent in 2015-16, down from 3.42 per cent in 1988. It must be abundantly clear that this is simply not sufficient to meet India’s external and internal defence needs. There is a similar crisis of funding and capacities in all internal security organisations, all of which have a fraction of the resources, manpower and technological backup that is minimally required. Unless these deficits are met on a war footing, all talks of changing our strategies and policies is nothing by wasted hot air.
But even before the issue of resources can be addressed, the issue of a strategic consensus within government is necessary. What are our objectives? What is the end state we seek? Are we still trapped in the paradigm that dominated India’s defence thinking for decades – that India seeks “defensive parity” with Pakistan, a country one-eighth its size? Unless issues of strategic posture are addressed, augmented expenditures can only be random and fitful, and are unlikely to secure any coherent strategic objectives.
Further, jingoism isn’t going to help. What is needed is a true “all of government” approach, taking all instrumentalities of power, military, intelligence, economic, political, diplomatic - both overt and covert - and focusing them to the issue of a response to the challenge of Pakistan-backed terrorism.
There is a lot of noise in the media regarding such an approach today, but the reality is that an “all of government” approach is simply impossible within the framework of administration – the exclusive silos that various departments function within – that currently prevails. For all the talk of “holistic” and “multi-pronged” approaches that government reports are full of, the reality is, we have no institutional capacities to deliver on such an approach.
Indeed, operational coordination and cooperation between various security and defence agencies only occasionally meets acceptable standards, and relationships between forces are often fractious. Worse, at the very apex of administration, the Indian bureaucracy appears to seek nothing beyond the perpetuation of its own privileges, and seems to be at war with all other arms of government. No great power can ever emerge from such pettiness and chaos.
Our internal political management and the restoration of constitutional norms is an imperative on which all other success will develop. Kashmir is an acute case in point. Everyone is focusing on the “escalation” of street mobilisation in the past two months, and now on the incident in Uri and the limited escalation in terrorism-linked fatalities, particularly security force casualties. What is missed, however, is that the security forces have more than done their job again and again, even though they have often fought with one hand tied behind the back. They have restored conditions of relative stability in the state after more than a decade-and-a-half of high intensity conflict, creating tremendous opportunities for the political leadership and administration to consolidate the peace. It is these sectors that have failed to deliver.
Indeed, the relative peace in J&K between the stone pelting campaign of 2010 and 2016 saw no sustained effort of politics to address pressing issues of governance and grievance redressal, and the administration remains riddled with corruption and has little credibility with the population. Worse, the last two-and-a-half years have seen a steady stoking of communal fires by Valley-based parties on the one hand, and by the Hindutva lobby with its stronghold in Jammu, on the other. When this boils over into overt violence, there are hysterical initiatives to “talk to all stakeholders” – with the separatist lobby literally, and predictably, slamming the door on a Parliamentary delegation. And when Pakistan sees in this chaos an opportunity to intensify terrorism, everyone begins to talk about all sorts of solutions, retaliation, strategies and what not.
The truth is, India’s worst enemy is not Pakistan; it is its own leadership. And, election after election, regime after regime, there appears to be no cure for this canker.
Ajai Sahni is Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management & South Asia Terrorism Portal; Editor, South Asia Intelligence Review