Tenanted by former professionals from fields that are traditionally part of national security, it is clear that the national security advisor’s (NSA) position is not one for practicing politicians. However, it is understandable for the predisposition of incumbents along the liberal-conservative continuum to be in sync with the political position of the government.
The idea behind this is that in the advice the political master receives, the strategic supersedes the political; the political part being the purview of the political master.
Expectations from politicians are different. For a former defence minister to get away voicing his personal view on a pillar of India’s nuclear doctrine, No First Use is unremarkable. As is perhaps, to pass off the current defence minister’s rant against an opposition party as a party for ‘Musslims’ (said with a hisss) as a hangover from her party spokesperson days.
But what happens when national security advice is politically contaminated?
Expectations along the lines of the foregoing theory of the current NSA, Ajit Doval – who was earlier an intelligence official – have not been validated over the past four years. This owes to his decade-long post-retirement practice of his politics as head of the right wing think tank, Vivekananda International Foundation. His ideological predilections contaminate his output as NSA is evident from the state of India’s twinned policies on Pakistan and Kashmir.
The latest evidence is his take that the special constitutional status of Kashmir amounts to divided sovereignty; in his words, ‘diluted and ill-defined’. Extolling the strong man Sardar Patel at a book release function at a Mumbai event of the foundation he once headed, he had it that Jammu and Kashmir’s constitution was an ‘aberration’.
Doval presumably implied that had the Sardar been around longer, this would not have happened, attributing the ‘aberration’ thereby to Jawaharlal Nehru who allowed a negotiated accession to the Union in case of J&K, unlike other princely states who – in the Hindutva worldview – were frog marched by Loh Purush I, namely Patel, to sign the dotted line.
Doval’s articulation is perhaps a curtain raiser of the agenda of Modi II. Doval was playing the music for the ruling party’s base, a political act. Taken along with Amit Shah’s widely and often shared intent of going further in 2019 than the 2014 numbers in Lok Sabha, the message is for a constitutional overturn of Article 370 by the brute majority.
It is no wonder that the backlash in J&K reminds that the Article amounts to a basic feature of the Constitution and cannot be trifled with, even by an absolute majority.
As for the strategic consequences, the NSA knows better. His staff has surely apprised him that last month mere rumours of the Supreme Court hearing fresh petitions on Article 35A had set off violence in the Valley accounting for 12 injured. It is with good reason that the court has put off its consideration till early January.
That his statement provides fuel to the fires in Kashmir cannot have escaped the NSA. It may even have been intended as such, enabling India to point to the continuing unrest as the handiwork of Pakistan. With the annual late-September India-Pakistan joust in the General Assembly at hand with both foreign ministers scheduled to speak, this could prove timely.
This despite the NSA surely knowing that in the current troubles in Kashmir there is only a minimal Pakistani hand. It is not Indian army’s vigilance at the Line of Control (LC) that is keeping it so. The Pakistani strategy appears to be to show up the militancy as indigenous, by exercising self-restraint in terms of infiltration.
Else, it is not in their interest to have accepted the ‘ceasefire’ along the LC, since their firing provided the cover necessary for infiltration groups to get across in the din.
Pakistan alongside extended a hand, first by placatory remarks of its army chief and, after the election, of their champion, Imran Khan. Besides, they are under pressure to behave by the United States, best exemplified by the cut-off of USD 300 million to the army.
Self-restraint helps defuse the terrorism tag that India has tried to foist on them and the indigeneity of disaffection and its expression lends credence to their line on self-determination as a holdover from Partition.
Despite knowing this, India continues to go after novice militants, having put away 260 over the past two years. A central armed police chief testified to their limited ‘shelf-life’. This only proves that these days hardened (Pakistani) terrorists are few and far between. This continuing punishment of the Kashmiris for defiance plays to the ruling party’s base in Jammu and elsewhere.
A counter insurgency expert dismissed comparison of the current unrest with the nineties, pointing to a high of some 4000 deaths towards the end of that period. Such bean-counts neglect another yardstick of comparison, that of societal memory. To some, India’s crushing response then has – inter-alia – brought the current crop of youth to the streets and into militancy.
The Concerned Citizen’s Group reports that the Kashmiri youth is not under anyone’s control and there is a glamourisation of violent death. Not only will the current generation be reckonable politically for another three decades, but those following in their footsteps will be available as cannon fodder in another decade.
The upshot is that a strategic view militates against adding unnecessary grist to the militancy.
If this bypasses Doval then it’s the NSA playing politics, not doing strategy.
A strategy would constitute using the cabinet rank special interlocutor doing the rounds in Kashmir for the past year appropriately. At the start of the year, the army chief seemingly laid out the strategy, saying, ‘The political initiative and all the other initiatives must go simultaneously hand-in-hand and only if all of us function in synergy, we can bring lasting peace in Kashmir. It has to be a politico-military approach that we have to adopt.’
Rather than synergy, politicking with and in Kashmir continues. Moves are afoot under a political governor – reportedly sharing his alma mater with the NSA – to foist another coalition on Kashmiris, possibly with a Jammu-origin chief minister or one reliant on a Jammu-based crutch. Rightly, such moves have been called out as impelled by the political calculus of the ruling party as it heads into elections. Doval stands to enter history as an apparatchik.
A Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan image of India also exacts collateral damage. It sends the message that the framework agreement in place for Nagaland – a centerpiece peace initiative of the Modi-Doval duo – cannot be turned into comprehensive peace, since the government cannot countenance innovative federal constitutional arrangements. Perhaps this is what holds up a promising peace initiative. Another instance of the promise of peace being held hostage to an ideology.
The NSA who is apparently playing to the Hindutva gallery needs reminding of his role as buffer, insulating grand strategy from ideological politics.