Trapped in past paradigms

AJAI SAHNI

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OVER the past years, India has seen dramatic improvements in visible indices of violence across all theatres of persistent conflict, but deep anxieties persist. Systemic vulnerabilities are repeatedly exposed through terrorist attacks, including several on what would be imagined as our most secure military installations and establishments. Crucially, moreover, some of the gravest threats that the country faces arise, today, from a profound and global regression, a falling away from civilizational norms, an atavistic reversion to more primitive, often savage, ideological moorings. Physicist Stephen Hawkings observes, moreover, ‘We are at the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity’, arguing that ‘we now have the technology to destroy the planet on which we live.’ The over-exploitation and progressive exhaustion of natural resources, climate change, the population explosion, the quickening biodiversity losses due to human action, a mounting pollution load and growing inequalities, enormously exacerbate the potential for conflict and eventually create existential challenges for the entire globe.

These profound challenges demand a national and global leadership that has the capacity to comprehend and evolve new ways of thinking, to challenge ideological orthodoxies, and to harness the tremendous and augmenting powers of science and technology to address these grave threats to human survival.

Instead, we find a resurgence of radical political ideologies, of what George Orwell wrote of as ‘all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.’ The most dramatic and visible of recent manifestations of this phenomenon is, of course, the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency on the force of a racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, loutish, electoral campaign over the preceding year and a half. This, however, is the mere tip of the iceberg.

As has been widely noted, the Trump victory consolidated powerful proclivities that were evident in the Brexit vote in UK, as well as the resurgence of extreme right ideologies and ethnic-racial-communal polarization across Europe. These fissiparous trends overlay an increasingly chaotic global multipolarity, frequent and irresponsible interventionism by the ‘great powers’, the collapse of a number of established states, the probabilities of the erosion and collapse of many more, and a progressively globalizing international movement of Islamist terrorism.

Within India, the failure to consolidate the positive trends in the trajectories of chronic conflict is manifested in a polarizing and increasingly predatory politics, consumed by proximate electoral or tactical ambitions, and to the comprehensive neglect of the strategic and national interest.

The progressive sense of an apparent loss of control in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), and the directionless escalation of a sanguinary low grade friction with Pakistan along the Line of Control and International Border are remarkable pointers in this direction. Terrorism linked fatalities had fallen to a low of 117 in 2012, from their peak at 4,507 in 2001 (all data from the South Asia Terrorism Portal). Instead of efforts to politically and administratively consolidate the security gains, however, there has been an inordinate focus on communal politics, in particular, pitting the Muslim dominated Valley against Hindu majority Jammu.

 

With both the state and national elections in 2014, the ‘soft separatism’ of Valley-based parties and the Hindutva dominated campaigns of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its affiliated communal groupings created an atmosphere of distrust and tension, which was quickly capitalized on by extremist and terrorist formations and their handlers in Pakistan. The gift of relative peace has since been frittered away in some measure, not only in a gradually rising trajectory of terrorist violence, but of ferocious street violence. The latter alone has resulted in at least 96 fatalities and over 18,050 injured (including 4,050 security personnel). Terrorism has cost another 256 lives, including 11 civilians, 84 security personnel and 160 terrorists (till 4 December 2016). This is a very significant increase from the low of 2012, but also over the 2015 figure of 174 total fatalities.

Nevertheless, the panicked assessments that have come to dominate much of the commentary on the ‘Kashmir problem’ are misconceived. The worsening fatalities of recent years are still a small fraction of what had come to be the ‘normal’ in J&K; the state experienced a high intensity conflict (more than a thousand fatalities per year) for 17 continuous years between 1990 and 2006, and in 11 of these, fatalities were over 2,000 per year. The window of opportunity for state consolidation is still wide open; what is evidently lacking is the political sagacity to use it to advantage.

Indeed, the manner in which the ‘surgical strike’ across the LoC has been handled is symptomatic of the enveloping strategic failure at Raisina Hill. The surgical strikes, in retaliation to the Pakistan-backed terrorist attack at the rear administrative base camp of the army’s brigade headquarters at Uri, cannot themselves be faulted, either in their planning or execution. The frenzied efforts to harness this incident to a domestic partisan political agenda, and to project it internationally, both has a humiliation inflicted on Pakistan and as ‘evidence’ of continuing Pakistani malfeasance, have produced a necessary and predictable backlash which New Delhi appears, incomprehensibly, to have been unprepared for.

 

The result has been a wave of jingoism and pseudo-nationalism on both sides of the border, fuelling a cycle of escalating exchanges of fire and purposeless killings. These have fed into the polarizing politics of the right both in India and Pakistan, but can secure no lasting gains for either country. Crucially, the very high profile of the political posturing after the strikes has made it very difficult for either side to back off. Tragically, while politicians strut about boasting about their ‘courageous decisions’ and celebrate the ‘lessons’ they are teaching the other side, it is soldiers and innocent civilians who pay with their lives and properties, in an environment of disruption and terror across wide areas, and without any measurable calculus of gain.

Sun Tzu warns that ‘tactics without strategy are the noise before defeat’, and the Indian approach in this case appears to be a classic case precisely of such purposeless ‘noise’. Indeed, tactical initiatives, however brilliant or successful, cannot contribute to India’s national interests in J&K, or vis-à-vis Pakistan’s broader support to Islamist terrorism, unless they are backed by an infinitely more comprehensive and sustained deterrent and punitive strategy. There is little evidence of any such strategy in the present government at New Delhi.

 

Evidence to this effect goes far beyond the handling of the surgical strikes. Indeed, the succession of attacks against military targets – the Nagrota attack on 29 November 2016, was only the most recent in a fairly long chain of such attacks – has continued without any visible response to address the massive deficits and deficiencies that have made such operations possible and startlingly successful. Indeed, immediately after the debacle at the air force base at Pathankot in early January 2016 – where, despite ample and specific warning, terrorists were able to penetrate deep into the facility and inflict significant material damage as well as seven SF fatalities – the Centre had announced its intention of initiating a ‘comprehensive review’ of the security of all military installations and establishments in the country. While a limited evaluation of the lapses at, and susceptibilities of, the Pathankot air base was carried out by a committee headed by Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Philip Campose, there is no evidence that the wider review of security at all military installations in the country has been initiated – leave alone completed.

Unsurprisingly, the fact that Nagrota, and before that Uri and Pathakot, among numerous smaller incidents, remained vulnerable to terrorist attack has raised the same questions – of preparedness, vigilance, physical protection and location – that past attacks have, only to be forgotten soon after the media furore has died down, and the incident has been milked for as much political gain as diverse parties feel they can extract. Bluster and slogans have dominated our responses to major acts of terrorism – recall the empty rhetoric of ‘never again’ after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks – but the reality of neglect has remained appalling, and is not unique to the present regime in New Delhi.

 

For years now – and certainly since 26/11 – there has been much talk about empowering the ‘first responders’ and, in then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s words, bringing the ‘beat constable’ into the ‘vortex of our counter-terrorist strategy.’ The truth is that expenditure per capita population across the country on state police averages the princely sum of Rs 512.25 per annum – or Rs 1.40 per day, a fraction of the cost of a cup of tea on the streets. The police-population ratio in the country slipped to 138.92 per 100,000 in 2015, down from 141 in 2014, after crawling slowly upwards over the preceding decade. Western countries maintain ratios of a ‘low’ 225 per 100,000 and up to 468 in Italy; Russia has a ratio of 565/100,000; and the UN recommends roughly 222 (1/450) for peacetime policing. There is, moreover, an almost 19 per cent deficit in the police leadership among the Indian Police Service cadres.

With over three decades of Pakistan-backed terrorism in India, and clear demonstrations of the advantages, indeed necessity, of a state police-led response in Punjab, Tripura and Andhra Pradesh, only fitful efforts have been made to augment state police capacities, not only in numbers, but, crucially, in terms of human resource profiles, training, as well as technical and technological capabilities. Further, no funds have been allocated by the Centre in the current financial year for the construction and strengthening of fortified police stations in insurgency afflicted areas.

 

Again, intelligence is regarded as perhaps the most significant element of counter-terrorism response, and underwrites all aspects of national security, both domestic and external. And yet, India’s intelligence capabilities remain abysmal and, despite political declarations to the contrary, have remained largely stagnant. P. Chidambaram as Union Home Minister had sanctioned an ‘additional’ strength of 6,000 officers for the Intelligence Bureau in 2009, in the wake of the 26/11 tragedy, at which time the strength of the organization was 15,296, as against a sanction of 26,867 which dated back to the far more quiescent 1970s; in 2013, IB’s strength had edged up to 18,795, with recruitment marginally exceeding natural rates of attrition. While current official strength is not available, the situation is known not to be significantly better. Similarly, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) has long had a strength estimated at between 8,000 and 10,000, and so it remains. R&AW also suffers chronic and crippling deficits in its language and technical cadres. There is no evidence whatsoever of any dramatic transformation in these circumstances under the present regime.

With the massive reliance on the armed forces for internal security duties and the progressive impossibility of separating internal and external threats, the condition of India’s military raises urgent causes for further concern. Despite the increasing belligerence of rhetoric and postures at Raisina Hill, India’s military preparedness is far below levels necessary to meet current challenges, and this is a consequence of persistent and continuing negligence on the part of successive governments. There are endemic shortages of equipment across the board in all three services, from submarines, planes, helicopters, and field guns, down to mundane supplies such as assault rifles, ammunition, and even boots.

According to one estimate, to meet these equipment deficits would require an allocation of USD 400 billion, and even more would be needed ‘to raise the military to necessary force levels and to modern standards.’ There was much celebration after the recent conclusion of a deal to acquire 36 Rafale Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft for the IAF. The reality is, the original deal was for 126 planes, and the present acquisition cannot even offset current rates of obsolescence. The IAF is presently operating on a strength of 32 squadrons, against an authorised capacity of 45, and even the most optimistic projections suggest that by 2025, this could rise to about 38 squadrons. If delays and neglect continue to dog the acquisition process, however, the operational strength may, in fact, fall to 25 squadrons.

 

India is now the largest importer of arms and the fourth largest military spender in the world. But these numbers mean little. The reality is that the country spends a little over 1.7 per cent of its GDP on defence (excluding pensions) – well below the proportion spent by most significant military powers. The Defence Services Long Term Integrated Perspective Plan projects an expenditure of at least three per cent, but has long been ignored. The nominal enhancements in each successive budget are more than offset by inflation rates that hover around seven per cent, and particularly the even higher increases in costs of defence equipment at 12 to 15 per cent per annum.

India also boasts of the ‘third largest army in the world’ – but this is a hollow claim. While the absolute numbers dwarf the militaries of smaller countries, the reality is that the force-population ratio works out to among the lowest in the world, at 1:933. China, for instance, has a ratio of 1:581; the UK, 1:433; Pakistan, 1:318; and the US, 1:228. The forces, moreover, have been operating under a chronic crisis of manpower, especially at leadership levels. The army has a shortage among officers of 17.4 per cent; and the navy, 13.3 per cent; the air force is better off, with a negligible deficit of just 0.23 per cent.

 

Security, moreover, cannot be divorced from access to justice. Indeed, if justice delayed is justice denied, India’s judiciary could accurately be described as a system for the denial of justice. Cases linger on for years, often decades. 68 per cent of the jail population in India is under trial, and only 32 per cent are actual convicts. Tragically, the poor are likely to suffer the longest incarcerations under trial – with total time in jail often far exceeding the maximum possible sentences for their alleged crimes. India’s judge to population ratio stands at an abysmal 1.7:100,000. In 1987, when the ratio stood at 1.2:100,000, the Law Commission had urged the government to raise it to at least 5:100,000. Even this would compare poorly to most reasonably administered countries. USA, for instance, has 11 judges to 100,000 population; China has 17; Germany 24.3; and Slovenia, for some reason, 49.9. Twenty million new cases are added to the burden of Indian courts every year. By the end of 2016, judicial pendencies are expected to touch 40 million.

In most government documents and declarations on internal security, counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency, there is much emphasis on ‘multi-pronged’ and ‘holistic’ solutions; development and ‘good governance’ feature prominently among these purported ‘solutions’. But this is akin to trying to wish away the problem: if underdevelopment and bad governance are the problem, of course, development and good governance would make them go away. But imagining an absence of the problem is not a solution – specific pathways and adequate resources to secure objectives must be defined. Telling a cancer patient that ‘good health’ is a ‘solution’ to his problems is hardly helpful. Often painful, invasive and invariably expensive interventions are needed to restore even a modicum of health.

The question then is whether the Indian state has the strategies, capacities and resources to secure the measure of development and good governance that would act as prophylactics against the emergence of terrorism, insurgency and other major threats to security. Regrettably, governance in India remains trapped in paradigms long past their utility, and capacities are a fraction of what is needed.

 

Any detailed assessment in this regard is beyond the scope of the present essay, but a single index is useful to comprehend the magnitude of the crisis at hand. Talk of ‘bloated bureaucracies’ and ‘downsizing government’ astonishingly persists in a situation where India’s government is, indeed, a fraction of what a modern nation state of its size needs, even for the delivery of the most rudimentary of public goods and services. For instance, USA, where the prevailing philosophy is ‘that government is best which governs least’, and where the government does not run railways, road transport, airlines, industries, hotels and shops, as governments in India do, the Federal government employs 1,415 persons per 100,000 population. The Union government in India employs 372 persons per 100,000 population, of which 27 per cent (103) serve in the Indian Railways alone – an enterprise that does not fall into the sphere of ‘core governance’. Worse, the US has 6,640 employees per 100,000 population in the state and local government sector. India bottoms out at 288/100,000 in Bihar, but rises to 732 in Gujarat, 914 in Odisha, and further, to 4,722 in Nagaland and 5,688 in Tripura.

 

The quality of governance in various states has no direct correlation with the numbers employed, of course, but the point is that even at best, the numbers in India are not even close to the ratios that would prevail in any modern and reasonably administered state (and the technical and technological resources at the disposal of these much larger numbers would dwarf anything available to the Indian bureaucracy). Crucially, only seven per cent of all state and Union government employees are in the Class I and II services – the executive core of the administration. Unsurprisingly, most departments are in an advanced state of erosion or collapse, and the Indian bureaucracy has repeatedly been ranked as the worst in Asia by the Hong Kong based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy.

While capacities to deal with current crises are woefully inadequate, the future is even more alarming. Terrorism and proxy wars appear to be the paradigm of the future, but on steroids. Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) terrorism is thought to be an inevitability, even as new patterns of dispersal of the terrorist threat – lone wolves and wolf packs – acquire increasing access to the instrumentalities of hyperviolence.

Crucially, as India embarks on ambitious plans to create a network of ‘smart cities’ with little attention to the new challenges of security within such a complex, the risks of devastating cyber terrorism and war become urgent. The popular concept of ‘cyber attacks’ is currently limited to the defacing of websites, service denial, and a few criminal phishing and fraud operations, but cyber attacks can be ruinously physical, not just virtual. For instance, Stuxnet, a malicious US-Israeli cyberweapon, sabotaged Iran’s nuclear programme in 2010, causing fast spinning centrifuges to tear themselves apart. A fifth of all Iran’s centrifuges were destroyed, setting the country’s nuclear programme back by a decade. The cyber war capabilities that were then available only to the top countries in the world are now thought to be accessible to individual hackers. Significantly, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India is reportedly forced to block over ten targeted attacks a day. Globally, the internet of Things (IoT) currently connects some six billion devices; by 2020, it is expected to consist of up to 50 billion devices, enormously augmenting vulnerabilities. India remains utterly unprepared to confront this challenge.

 

A growing leadership void enormously undermines national abilities to develop effective responses to mounting policy challenges, even as the balance of enveloping circumstances favours state and individual aggressors and abusers of the evolving and increasingly dispersed sources of power. These conditions are likely to worsen, as our response paradigms remain trapped in ideological and economic policy debates of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and as inequalities augment at an unprecedented rate, accelerated by the ‘rise of the machines’. In India, we appear to have swung from one extreme of ‘idiot socialism’ to another of ‘idiot capitalism’ – both faith systems based on an enduring neglect of reality.

Today, the top 10 per cent of India’s population owns 74 per cent of its wealth; the bottom 50 per cent shares 4.3 per cent, and the gap is widening rapidly. Between 1990 and 2013, a period of unprecedented economic growth, India’s Gini coefficient – an index of inequality – rose from 0.45 to 0.51. By comparison, the Gini coefficient in France stands at 0.33; Germany 0.3, UK 0.33 and USA 0.41. It is the predatory, crony, casino capitalist model of the US that India’s current leadership seeks to emulate, not the relatively benign European, or the even more compassionate Scandinavian models.

 

Against this backdrop, the spectre of technological unemployment – a danger that was recognized on both ends of the ideological spectrum more than a century ago by Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes – is now overwhelming. In May 2016, for instance, Foxconn, a manufacturer of Apple products in China, replaced 60,000 of its 130,000 workers with robots. Futurists believed for long that human labour would gradually move into obsolescence as a result of increasing mechanization, even as the horse drawn carriage and bullock drawn plough were pushed out of existence by the motor car and tractor. There was, however, a faith that humans doing ‘intellectual’ work could not be substituted by machines, however sophisticated our computers may become. In October this year, however, IBM’s computer ‘Watson’ co-wrote a pop song for a group of top music stars. Poetry and song writing, with their inherent subjectivity and uniqueness of perspective, are thought to be some of the most inalienable human functions. If computers are able to carry out these ‘tasks’, much of human work even in the social and intellectual sectors is threatened with progressive marginalization. As Marx noted, ‘The production of too many useful things results in too many useless people.’ This is not a localized crisis or an individual aberration, but an inexorable global trend.

There is little strategic awareness or sagacity in the Indian leadership relating to these many and rapidly transforming challenges, and the time frames of state response have no correspondence to the accelerating pace of enveloping changes. There is, indeed, a combination of vaulting ambition and sheer, startling, incompetence. The proclivity is merely to respond to the most urgent and proximate of challenges, and to lapse into complacence or neglect once the emergency appears to have passed.

 

The imperatives of national security demand an alignment of national capacities with obvious and expanding needs and challenges. Given the sheer quantum of cumulative deficits, incrementalism cannot suffice; radical enhancements are necessary, and must be sustained on a war footing. Among the first imperatives is a rationalization of the processes of governance and a comprehensive reform of the bureaucracy. The red tape, bureaucratic silos, oligarchic dominance, and adversarial relations between departments and organs of government, will all have to be abandoned. Defining and progressively enforcing specific national standards on key variables of security and governance across the country are now an immediate imperative. Crucially, the strategic discourse must be continuous, relentless. It cannot be led by sentiment – rage or fear or compassion – provoked by the most recent incident, nor by our own perceptions of transient and partisan achievements or failures.

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