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Sunday, September 23, 2012

More than just a visit

By Firdaus Ahmed

The complaint of Mr. Vivek Katju, a retired diplomat, against his views being ‘censored’ by the AIR, has featured in the press. The question in particular on the program ‘Charcha’ on AIR was on whether the prime minister should visit Pakistan. Mr. Katju’s reply was in the negative. The complaint has served not only to attract attention to ‘censorship’ but also to Mr. Katju’s view that the prime minister should not be considering visiting Pakistan. On the latter, is Mr. Katju right? 

It is possible that Mr. Katju is wrong, but he is entitled to his views. He is also entitled to airing these and having them carried by the national broadcaster. However, this is not the first time Mr. Katju has attempted to exercise influence on the trajectory of India-Pakistan relations. His earlier foray has been recorded by General Musharraf in his self-serving autobiography, In the Line of Fire.

The general having elevated himself from CEO to president had alighted at Agra with high expectations. India’s surprise announcement reaching out to the troublemaker at Kargil, one who had derailed the promising Lahore peace process, had led to the general imagining that India had a mind to resolve the Kashmir dispute his way. However, Musharraf noted in his book that Mr. Katju, then a bureaucrat in the MEA with a seat at the negotiation table, played a role in holding Mr. Vajpayee back at a critical juncture in the talks. The rest as they say, that has since included a near war and at least one crisis, is now history.   

Mr. Katju’s is just a pre-emptive salvo from the better known quarters. Mr. Katju’s views, no doubt well founded after a lifetime in service of Indian diplomacy in hot spots such as Afghanistan and in hot seats such as the Pakistan desk, are also widely shared by those with less exposure and reflection. These are the less visible vested political interests on the Indian side that prefer a communal polarization in South Asia, one reflected in and fed by the interstate face-off. They are not only not averse to seeing this cut straight through Indian society, but instead prefer it. The advantage these forces take of seemingly professional opinion, such as voiced by Mr. Katju, is indeterminate.

Additionally, it is also indeterminate as to how much of the strategic opinion is informed by ‘soft’ cultural nationalism, the hard variant of which is propagated by the communal forces. The extent of subscription to cultural nationalist tenets by officials has been understudied, deliberately so since finding it to be consequential would detract from India’s secular credentials.

Secondly, Mr. Katju’s opinion cannot but have been informed by his life experience, that would perhaps include the tremendous challenges faced by the Kashmiri Pandit community. Having also been exposed to the underside of the Pakistani establishment, Mr. Katju cannot but exert to warn as he does.

Cumulatively, this suggests that Pakistan related strategizing is not without its limitations in terms of well springs. It is important to be clear eyed about such possible contamination of strategic prescriptions. Opinion’s such as that of Mr. Katju can then be taken with a pinch of salt. Acknowledging that such opinion and such opinion makers do not have monopoly over strategic rationality, is the first step in moving to examine alternatives that otherwise remain unexamined due to lack of imprimature by strategic ‘experts’.

The case for the prime minister’s visit is one such. The same yardstick of strategic bias informing opinion, used here to examine Mr. Katju’s opinion, has been applied to Dr. Manmohan Singh’s hope of repairing India-Pakistan relations. His strategic preference is taken as one informed by nostalgia, quite like the work of Mr. IK Gujral earlier. The good that came out of the previous instance of Punjabiat impacting policy has been the ‘composite dialogue’ process. That a dialogue is into its third iteration after its severest test at 26/11 suggests the power of the idea. A prime ministerial visit would ensure resumption of the dialogue in its composite format, as had been forged finally in the Vajpayee-Musharraf joint statement of 2004. Therefore, even if the origin of the strategic preference is not much difference, judging it differently must be in terms of its positive consequence.

But, the lion must be bearded in its own den and on its terms for the case for the visit to be carried. In other words, strategic rationality must be deployed to argue in favour of such a visit. India’s policy is one of expanding and strengthening the pro-peace constituency in Pakistan. This is to be done to the extent that eventually they take over the democratic space in Pakistan, constricting the military-mullah combine. Clearly, if a policy is to be carried through to its logical conclusion in a democratic peace, the prime minister must under take the mission. Not doing so would leave the extremists on both sides in a position to dictate the interstate agenda.

Given this as making strategic sense, the question is now one of timing. The government having been on the back foot over the past two years has just chosen to break out with a slew of second generation economic reforms. Since this can be expected to draw political backlash, it is unlikely the government can sustain yet another policy initiative, this time in the foreign policy field. Being of neo-liberal inclination, it has chosen to prioritise economics over foreign policy. In effect, that Dr. Singh is not going is certainly not because Mr. Katju’s say so.

Taking this as time gained to set back the intellectual sway of ‘naysayers’ in the strategic discourse is the best way to build the climate and momentum to ensure the visit takes place, perhaps not of Dr. Singh but by the next prime minister. The fight will also help keep away figures from the prime ministerial chair having no interest in making the visit in first place. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Reaching beyond its brief 
Outsourcing the policy-making function is bad enough, but the government should certainly not have allowed trespass on its domain by the Naresh Chandra Task Force, writes Firdaus Ahmed. 

10 September 2012
 - Set up in July last year, the Naresh Chandra Task Force submitted its report to the prime minister in May this year. According to the PMO website, "The Task Force was mandated to review existing processes, procedures and practices in the national security system and to suggest measures to strengthen the national security apparatus."
Such wording allows for a very expansive reading of the mandate; that may be why the PMO also tells us that the "Task Force has made an assessment of the security scenario facing the country and made recommendations to the Government." Reviewing a system is quite different from giving advice on today's geopolitics and internal conflicts. Moreover, the policy domain is that of the government. If it wanted recommendations on this score, it would have mandated the task force. Such outsourcing of the policy-making function would itself be breathtaking, but permitting trespass on its domain by the task force is much worse.
Second, as a practical matter, mixing up the two is unwise. For instance, it is reasonable to assume that the redesign of security proposed by the task force is in line with its policy recommendations. But what happens if the government is not in agreement with the policy plank? In such case, it cannot reasonably redesign security systems that are geared towards such a plank.

In the rest of this article, I want to focus on the task force's recommendation on peace talks with Maoists - which confirms my suspicion that not only has government money been wasted on the task force, but so has the opportunity to make headway in defence reform.
The recommendation, as reported in the press, makes four points. One is that the talks must be so as to divide the Maoists into two camps: those in favour of talks and those against talks. This is to have a strategic benefit in weakening them. The second is that the precondition of Maoists to cease operations is not necessary for talks to be initiated and progressed. This makes sense if the intent is to divide the movement - why wait? Third, is that military operations must continue, lest the Maoists use the opportunity to recoup. The latter is insight the task force draws from the example in Andhra Pradesh. Lastly, the task force has advised on increasing the army's presence in the area through a number of mechanisms, such as setting up training facilities.


Secondly, the idea that operations need not cease in order to talk makes sense. After all, talks are a way to get operations to cease from both sides. This was a missing link in the policy under the previous home minister, P Chidambaram. He had insisted that the Maoists demonstrate good faith through a ceasefire, even if a temporary one, before the government agreed to talk. This was suggestive of arrogance on the government's part. Being responsible for the people inconvenienced by operations from both sides, it is incumbent on it to proactively pursue every option, including that of talks, to end the predicament of its people.
In the event, the task force's reminder is timely, but discredited by its motive of 'divide-and-rule'. Yet, it is fairly evident that the government is not averse to such advice, since it had used the talks process earlier to expose and decapitate the Maoist leadership. The killing of 'Azad' is a case in point. Such instrumental use of talks eventually destroys the strategic options, and leave military action as the only choice, even though its limitations as a conflict resolution tool have been consistently demonstrated in all of India's many and manifold conflicts. A government's contract with its people involves concentrating on conflict resolution, not conflict management.
The third point - urging that military operations should continue while talks are on is another irresponsible recommendation. If the government were to take this up, it would amount to an abdication of the its responsibility to own up to its policy. Implying that it is acting in accordance with the recommendation of a task force is to pass on the onus of policy and decision making to the task force. The very purpose of talks, to facilitate ceasefire in order to forge trust and confidence for the more significant part of a comprehensive agreement, is then lost.
Last, is the issue of extending the army's presence for training the paramilitary. Such deployments are to help with the local economy and to wean away locals from Maoists. Clearly, there are better ways to revive the local economy. Training the paramilitary to take on Maoists in their strongholds is at best a long-term goal, which signals that for the moment the government will not do much to help tribal communities. Yet again an example from the AfPak experience in the failure to train the Afghan National Security Forces to take on the Taliban suggests that this is yet another recommendation bereft of good sense.
What's more likely is that the initial deployments are to perhaps serve as bridgeheads for deployment of the army if and when it is ready to give up its Kashmir obsession. This is an even more problematic possibility.
Clearly, the task force has extended itself. It cannot possibly have had the time and expertise to take on two tasks, both of providing the government with a proto-national security policy, as also suggesting the restructuring necessary to work it. Since the report is currently under examination by stakeholders, it seems this exercise in futility is being taken to its logical 'do nothing thereafter' conclusion as is the case with most reports by government-appointed commissions. That might not be such a bad ending after all, in this case.
Firdaus Ahmed 
10 Sep 2012