“Indian elites show little evidence of having thought coherently and systematically about national strategy… Few writings offer coherent, articulated beliefs or a clear set of operating principles for Indian strategy,” wrote American think tanker George Tanham in a paper prepared for the U.S. government in 1992.
A glaring lacuna
Most Indian students of strategy and security studies rightly disagree with this rather presumptuous argument, especially since Tanham located the causes of the Indian inability to think strategically in its historical and cultural specificities. And yet it is pertinent to ask, even today, whether India thinks about strategic affairs in a systematic, consistent and coherent manner or whether its national security runs on ad hoc arrangements and ‘raw wisdom’. Or is it that the political class has traditionally been too cagey about putting out a national security strategy, even a mere declaratory one as opposed to an operational one, in black and white?
It is interesting, therefore, that the Congress party recently shed its coyness about formulating a national security strategy for India. Earlier this year it tasked Lt. Gen. (retd) D.S. Hooda, a former Northern Army Commander, to write a strategy document which it eventually endorsed and made part of its manifesto.
In fact, there have been several attempts at formulating a national security strategy for India. According to some accounts, the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) had formulated draft national security strategy documents on four different occasions and presented them to successive governments, but the political class wouldn’t bite. There has been a lingering worry in the minds of the politicians about a potential commitment trap if a national security strategy were to be put on paper.
Recently a senior member of the NSAB stated that there is indeed in existence a national security strategy of sorts, though not disclosed to the general public — though Gen. Hooda has said that as the Northern Army Commander, he at least had not seen the document. So, if indeed there is such a document, it is odd that one of the senior-most generals tasked with managing Kashmir and India’s border with Pakistan didn’t know about it. And if there isn’t a strategy in place, we should be worried.
There are some major shortcomings in India’s national security architecture that must be addressed. There is a need to take a relook at some of our key national security institutions and revamp their functioning. The National Security Council (NSC) set up in 1998 almost never meets, primarily because it is an advisory body, with the Cabinet Committee on Security being the executive body. If the NSC is to be made more useful, the government’s allocation of business rules should be amended to give more powers to the NSC and its subordinate organisations, such as the Strategic Policy Group.
Second, the job of the National Security Adviser needs to be reimagined. Even though the NSA plays a vital role in national security, he has no legal powers as per the government’s allocation of business rules. The K.C. Pant Task Force in the late 1990s had recommended the creation of an NSA with the rank of a Cabinet Minister. Over the years, the NSA’s powers have increased, even though he is not accountable to Parliament. The institution of the NSA today requires more accountability and legal formality.
More national security organisations are not the answer; fundamental structural reforms in national security planning are needed. Take the case of the recently constituted Defence Planning Committee (DPC) tasked to recommend policy measures to improve India’s defence capability and preparedness, and national security in general. Not only does the DPC have too many responsibilities on its plate, it is also an advisory body. More worryingly, there is a feeling among the armed forces that by having the NSA chair the DPC, the government may have scuttled the demands to appoint a Chief of the Defence Staff, an issue the Hooda document highlights.
The Hooda document
The Congress promised Gen. Hooda that it would adopt his national security strategy document after internal consultations. The document was prepared in less than two months and in consultation with six key core group members and many domain experts. The guiding philosophy of the document is enshrined in the following sentence: “This strategy recognises the centrality of our people. We cannot achieve true security if large sections of our population are faced with discrimination, inequality, lack of opportunities, and buffeted by the risks of climate change, technology disruption, and water and energy scarcity.”
This is by far the most comprehensive treatment of national security in the Indian context. The document offers a comprehensive definition of national security ranging from challenges posed by new technologies to social unrest to inequality. At a time when national security is referred to in strictly military terms, it is heartening to see that a strategy document written by a former Army general, the man behind the 2016 surgical strikes, defines security in an out-of-the box and inclusive manner. A glance at the key themes shows how well-designed the document is: “assuming our rightful place in global affairs”, “achieving a secure neighbourhood”, “peaceful resolution of internal conflicts”, “protecting our people” and “strengthening our capabilities”.
The key recommendations in the document are both timely and well-thought-out. On the issue of military jointmanship, it recommends that “the three services should undertake a comprehensive review of their current and future force structures to transform the army, navy and air force into an integrated warfighting force.” It argues that it would take “a cultural change in the way the DRDO is currently operating” to improve domestic defence production.
While discussing emerging national security threats, the document differs with the BJP-led government’s decision to set up a Defence Cyber Agency instead of a Cyber Command as was originally recommended. On the Kashmir question too, the document seems to differ with the incumbent government’s muscular policy, and Gen. Hooda’s wise words should be a wakeup call for everyone: “Killing terrorists is an integral part of military operations to ensure that the state does not descend into chaos. However, this is not the primary measure of success or conflict resolution. Serious efforts are required for countering radicalisation. There is a need to initiate structured programmes that bring together civil society members, family groups, educationists, religious teachers and even surrendered terrorists in an effort to roll back radicalisation.”
Let’s hope that this document is the beginning of a tradition in India of thinking about national security and strategy more systematically, consistently and comprehensively.
Happymon Jacob teaches Disarmament and National Security at the School of International Studies, JNU, New Delh i