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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Elections 2014: The Worst Case Scenario
Milligazette, 16-31 July 2013

Narendra Modi’s campaign for prime-ministership has had an inauspicious start. But his mentor’s walkout in huff, early desertion by a key ally and the public relations disaster amidst a natural disaster will not faze him. His stewardship of the BJP’s campaign ahead can be expected to be energetic, innovative and less than mindful of norms, ethics and the law. As legal pincers close in on him in the Ishrat Jahan and the Gulberg Society cases, he will likely pull out the stops. Abandoning restraint, his campaign will get into stride with its cunning and subterfuge abandoned in favour of barefaced communalism.
Electoral arithmetic however is built by the common voter who has repeatedly proven wiser than politicians believe him to be. Modi’s campaign will therefore not have enough propulsion to get him to 7 Race Course Road. But then, NaMo is not in the race for being a leader of the opposition and waiting a term for the rulers to discredit themselves. This is his moment. His manner of seizing of it could frame the ‘worst case scenario’.
Par for the course will be the usual means that gladden a Hindutvavadi’s heart. Among these will figure a replay of the Sohrabuddin episode in which jihadis will be projected as gunning for his life. A few ‘encounters’ will embellish his case that his opposition is in league with minority extremists to finish off his challenge. These will be depicted as a fifth column, linking them with the proverbial ‘external hand’, set to come to fore with the coincident departure of the US from AfPak. A convenient rise in unexplained bomb blasts across the country will help push the minority onto the ropes. Strategic commentary, forever in search of a ‘strong man’ to expel the ‘soft state’ image of India, will latch on to this ‘externally abetted internal enemy’, to use a Chanakyan phrase. Security in peril, India will be asked to vote for the one answer: NaMo.
The ‘foreignness’ of the young princeling, the ruling party’s contender, will be underlined to suggest subversion of the rise of an authentic India. The closing in of the law on Mr. Modi will be depicted as misuse of the judiciary by the ruling Congress to keep him from power and an instance of minority appeasement. While dirty tricks will harden Modi’s power base among traditionally right wing voters, these may deepen scepticism among others. Yet, in the event, the election may prove a close call. It is here that the ‘worst case’ scenario kicks in.
This could be a ‘soft coup’ in the tradition of George Bush’s pipping of Al Gore at the post in Florida. Or it could be more blatant. Extremist political formations could take over the streets; while Modi acolytes, including one on bail for triple murder and restrained from entering Gujarat, energise a putsch. The narrative will be that the rightful winner is being deprived by a conspiracy of anti-Hindu and by extension anti-India forces; forcing them to act to save democracy and India.
The penetration of rightist ideology in security forces is well known. The Gujarat police’s showing in the 2002 carnage is an example of levels of subversion of constitutional and professional norms. This was in the early days of Mr. Modi at the helm. By 2004 the Gujarat police was masterminding ‘encounters’ designed to build Modi’s image as Lauh Purush II with which he could eventually make his bid for Delhi. Its link to the questionable spate of blasts in metropolitan cities in the run up to last elections is evident from the supposedly fortuitous manner of recovery of bombs in Surat. The record of Maharashtra’s ATS and Delhi’s Special Cell suggests the Gujarat police not an exception. Karnataka, AP and Rajasthan police have not acquitted themselves with any credit in investigating ‘terror’ cases. Exceptions in khaki are instead the likes of late Hemant Karkare.
Black propaganda, that such blasts are instances of, has an intelligence imprint. This is only now coming out into the open with the CBI dragnet closing in on the IB head in Gujarat. It is inconceivable that the then IB chief in Delhi, now ensconced in a right wing think tank in the national capital, did not know of the game-plan in Gujarat. It is clear that the objective was to implicate the minority with terror seemingly originating in Pakistan. The narrative was that terror was no longer confined to J&K but had spread its tentacles to the heartland. This helped with India attempting to corner Pakistan diplomatically, since post 9/11 Pakistan was supping with the US. The internal political dividend was intended to see continuation of NDA to power in 2004 and a return in 2008, which in the event were belied.
The paramilitary, exposed to operations against Kashmiri militants and to Maoists, are primed for lending muscle. Bureaucrats, privileging self-preservation, can be expected to go into a ‘wait and watch’ mode. Strategic commentators, largely of conservative-realist persuasion, will allow themselves to be manipulated into providing the narrative cover that ends justify the means. Hindutva champions and closet communalists embedded in the media will pitch in to help India recover from the shock.
That a scenario of a right wing take over is not far-fetched is evident from the inevitable contention between the ruling party and opposition over the nominations list to head India’s security forces and intelligence services. The very fact that the professionalism or competence of the candidates is not enough suggests that their political inclinations matter. The ruling party pitches for agency heads that can contain the ideological penetration of the opposition in their forces. The opposition would favour those who are willing to compromise on the apolitical feature of their force. That security forces universally are conservative in orientation makes the Congress more alert to dangers and ready to act to prevent them through the selection process. The recent bust ups over the Army, IB and CBI chiefs, all of whom would be having tenures that will see them through the elections, indicates a wariness making for plausibility of the worst case. 
From the controversy last year over the succession chain of the army it is clear that the key player in the scenario playing out or otherwise could well be the army chief. When the government ruled against giving the former chief an extension till his claimed age of retirement, it was partially with an eye that the current chief would likely thwart any political misadventure. The question is: Will the Indian Army, known for keeping clear of politics, step up? Such intrusion into politics is hardly useful over the long term, even if it is necessary to pre-empt a worse possibility. Given this, prevention is better than cure.

The cure would be in the government revealing the extent of right wing conspiracy over the past decade to malign the minority: a function of the success of the project of bombings and staged ‘encounters’. The current case in point, Ishrat Jahan’s, is merely the tip of the iceberg. It is also being progressed by the CBI with an eye on keeping Mr. Modi off balance. However, be that as it may, while further revelations may embarrass India, it would work right wing contamination out of the system once and for all and ensure that the conservative nationalists play by the rules in future: the first step being in dumping their current  vanguard.  

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Distancing from Cloak and Dagger
By Firdaus Ahmed
India is no stranger to intelligence operations. The founding director of its external intelligence agency, RAW, MK Kaw, is legendary. The RAW itself acquired its spurs in the run up to the 1971 War. While more is known of its work in raising, equipping and sustaining the Mukti Bahini, its contribution perhaps went way beyond that. If the start of the conflict is dated to the alleged hijacking of the Indian Airlines boeing to Lahore by Kashmiri separatists in February that year, then it can be credited with a shaping, stage setting role in the war. The incident enabled India to cut off air links overflying India between Pakistan's western and eastern wings. The indirect route via Sri Lanka led to the Pakistani military unable to fly in troops in response to the unrest; thereby leading to a heavy handed crackdown which in turn fed the Mukti Bahini with material and legitimacy. The success of 1971 elevated intelligence in the state repertoire. While the legacy of 1971 finally came to haunt India in Kashmir, the elevation has rebounded in an unexpected way in the rest of India. 

This is despite knowing that that intelligence indulgences have a tendency to bite back. Its subsequent forays into the intelligence game have had mixed results: be it the support for Al Zulfiqar and the like being reciprocated by ISI's Khalistan connection and its LTTE link leading up eventually to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. This only underlines the well known fact that the intelligence instrument is double edged. The blowback from US and Pakistani support to the Mujahedeen is the best example. And yet, states seldom learn, condemned to repeating mistakes. However, in India's case the 'lesson' needs spelling out. 

Currently, the CBI noose is closing round the neck of Rajendra Kumar, a Special Director in IB looking towards retirement, for his doings as the IB representative in Gujarat during the infamous episodes of killings of supposed 'terrorists' out to get the chief minister, Mr. Modi. The problem is not in an officer going rogue, but in the pattern that emerges from incidents like Ansal Plaza and Batla House. There is the similar Sadiq Jamal case. The military intelligence has had its own scandal with its members spearheading Abhinav Bharat in a right wing conspiracy to paint India's minority black. There are instances of the investigation agencies in league with intelligence agencies, such as Maharashtra's ATS and Delhi's Special Cell, pulling their punches in following up on leads, hoping that their fingers pointing at extremist members of the minority are adequate evidence of the minority's culpability for terror acts. Such instances are legion in Kashmir, most notable and egregious being the Chittisingpora-Pathribal case. But the one with more extensive consequence was the sustenance of the unspeakable Ikhwan. However, the one that takes the cake is the revelation by RVS Mani, a formerundersecretary in the home ministry, implying that a constituency exists on an alternative version on the origin of the terrorist attack on Parliament.

There are reasons for the situation having come to such a pass. The ISI being a formidable opponent, perhaps required India to also allow the intelligence function greater autonomy than warranted in decent democracies. Second, India's association of late with the Americans and Israelis is also rubbing off on India, with India's capacity building being invested in by these states. Third, a government's misuse of the intelligence function leads the agencies in question to bid for greater impunity. Fourth, intelligence operations can help set the stage for pushing through other measures that would otherwise not be permissible. For instance, in the Parliament attack case, RVS Mani's revelations suggests that the attack may have been carried out to enable passing of 'draconian' laws. Lending credence to the theory is the timeliness of the attack in strategic terms to the launch India's largest military mobilisation, Op Parakram. 

Last, India's strategic culture has been somewhat somnolent. To conservative-realist quarters that are in awe of Kautilyan thought, India requires goading to exercise power. Leaving the threat perception and a challenging security circumstance to Pakistan to create was not enough. Pakistan's efforts required supplementing by black operations implicating it. This had useful diplomatic dividend. Also, it would come in handy in case India was to need a justification for 'Cold Start'. Increasing the terror attacks that could be attributable to ISI and its alleged internal abettors could in the event justify Cold Start as self-defence against cumulative attacks amounting to an armed attack.

However, these strategic reasons are less salient for intelligence agencies reaching levels of autonomy from accountability almost rivalling the ISI. The more significant reason has to do with internal politics. The conservatively inclined intelligence agencies have gravitated to the ideology of the right. This has compromised professionalism somewhat to the benefit of the right wing in polity that has taken care to penetrate the agencies as its first step in the take-over of the state. Therefore, if India lurched to the right over the nineties, the intelligence agencies went a step further, if not altogether overboard. The subsequent period of the NDA in government ensured that even if displaced from power, their residue would be firmly left behind on state institutions, in particular the agencies. State intelligence apparatuses under right wing governments in provinces were additionally available for black operations. Rogue elements with subterranean linkages to rightist political formations complete the picture. 

This is the direction to look at when contemplating the terror attacks India has been subject to over the past half decade and more, not excluding the latest one in Bodh Gaya. Since intelligence agencies themselves need to look in this direction, there is little likelihood of them doing so. This makes the case being made out here a 'conspiracy theory' for lack of evidence. The shortfall does not owe to evidence being wanting, but that it is not being looked for in first place. To insist would be anti-national. Further, painting a false picture is an intelligence function. In the Bodh Gaya case, the readiness to lap up the theory that this is Muslim backlash for the Buddhist suppression of Rohingya and Sri Lankan Muslims owes to the success of the narrative of Muslim extremism. This completes the circle in which there is then no compulsion to look for evidence.

To take another illustration, threat perceptions are manufactured to obfuscate the decline in terror instances in Kashmir since 2004, in order to keep justification for the military grip on Kashmir alive. They are plausible to begin with, such as Pakistan's refusal to dismantle the terror infrastructure and Kashmiri disaffection having potential to rekindle the fire. However, the narrative of threat is so pitched that the status quo represented by the AFSPA is frozen. Consequently, the several peace initiatives in Kashmir have been wrecked on the shoals of comments of intelligence czars on their practicability and consequences. The 'wait and watch' policy in place in Kashmir at least for half a decade now owes to the intelligence picture that come 2014, it would be back in business in Kashmir for Pakistan. Needless to add, such a self-fulfilling prophecy serves the interests of the security sector best. 

The inescapable conclusion is that intelligence agencies have not only been a major instrument of policy, but that this has been through policy choice. The unintended affect has been in India arriving at the cusp of reversal between the means and the master. What needs doing is not merely exercising political control over intelligence, but interrogating the understanding that makes intelligence the instrument of choice. This is the first step to keeping India secular, democratic and free over the long duree. 

(The author writes at

Saturday, July 13, 2013

What if Modi makes it to Race Course road

Mr. Modi has thrown his hat in the ring. His opponent, the Congress scion, nowhere to be seen, it is apparent that NaMo will be seen as a credible prime ministerial candidate. The BJP had to discard its geriatric mascot and get another in his image, another pretender to the title of Sardar Patel II. However, the Nitesh Kumar early rebuff has unmistakably brought home that NaMo’s ascendance to 7 Racecourse Road is not quite certain. The effect of this will be in an energised campaign by Modi, that can be expected to witness subterfuge and outright lies. The ends being taken by his lobby as justifying the means, low blows will be par for the course. Therefore, suffering through a Modi era must be prepared for, howsoever distasteful the prospects of such miscarriage of democracy. What can such an era entail?
Firstly, getting Modi into the chair would require some manouvering by the right wing combine. The propaganda machinery will be in full swing and will draw on the work of unsuspecting conservative-realist strategists. Modi will have access to corporate coffers and middle class talent, in the hope that his reign will unleash the long awaited second phase of economic reform seen as necessary to put India into the China league. However, to unite the majority as a vote bank, Modi will emulate his predecessor in reviving the Ayodhya campaign, perhaps with a promise to build the temple at the site of the demolished mosque. Modi will project himself as the ‘strong man’ who can rout the Maoists at the gates. A contrived linkage will be drawn between the Maoists and Muslim radicals, conveying the imminence of a threat where none exists. The unsubtle scape-goating of the minority for bomb blasts will come into high gear. Instance of Hubli, Dilshadnagar and Malleswaram will be oftener. The Pakistan front will see some rhetorical fireworks in order to try and project the minority as a fifth column. The draw-down of the US from Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban will be seen as a looming ‘Muslim fundamentalist’ threat to India.
Clearly, these gimmicks to get Modi to office will outlive his getting there. They will form the agenda of his regime. Not only will the business classes prosper but will do so at expense of the voting public. In order that the elite is not distanced from the masses and the latter do not devour the former through a left-ward lurch, elite-mass integration will take place by projecting the problems that will arise on the ‘Other’. The ‘Other’ in the form of the Muslim minority has been assiduously manufactured by the right wing over the past three decades. The public however will be fed the toxic cocktail of religion and nationalism, with the minority as an internal bogeyman that is externally abetted. Thus, Modi will inject insecurity into society in order to reap stability in a ‘rally round the flag’ strategy. Projecting himself as the messiah to deliver the much-put-upon majority from a thousand years of eclipse, he will seek to perpetuate his regime. His support infrastructure in the sangh parivar will use the opportunity for ideological expansion with the intent of celebrating the coming centenary of the RSS in style. In other words, Modi will not be a one-term wonder, but will spend his first term creating the conditions for the next since his ideological benefactors need that much time to reset India. This scenario and its prospects suggest that it is not merely an election that is ahead but an era.
There is no guarantee of this, after all the majority community is not imbecile. With five thousand years of civilisation behind it, assuming that they will be taken in by Modi’s campaign is to disrespect their good sense and culture. Besides India’s poor, who form India’s voting public, are not likely to be overwhelmed in numbers by the Chetan Bhagat reading middle classes so enamoured of NaMo. Modi’s supposed developmental miracle in Gujarat has an underside that will directly affect them: that the rate of poverty reduction has been below India’s average even if the growth rate has  been higher. The former is what will swing the electoral verdict. Besides, his challenger, Mr. Gandhi, may yet have an ace up his sleeve, being cooked up and delivered by his think tank in Jawahar Bhawan. Congress has a way to woo masses, the latest being the idea of undercutting middlemen by delivering social security cheques variously named right into bank accounts of prospective voters. With right minded politicians as Nitesh Kumar willing to stand up to the communal tide, pessimism is unwarranted.
However, the paradox is that these challenges will prompt the saffron dirty tricks department to work overtime. They will attempt create conditions in which common sense is rudely pushed aside. The theme will be a Bush-like: ‘if you are not with us, you are against us’. Identity politics shamefacedly practiced can prove fatal to secular exercise of votes. Also, Modi’s is a considered move. He is not growing any younger. Waiting for longer will make him lose out to his younger opponent. He is clearly not playing to lose. Gujarat can no longer contain his ambition. He has to move. So Delhi it is. Being divisive and authoritarian, he can hardly be expected to forge coalitions a’la Vajpayee. He has therefore to fight to win. This means his campaign will be ruthless and designed to showcase him as a winner out to gain a place in the sun for the greater glory of Hinduism rather than a secular democratic India.
This suggests that while it may be premature to be pessimistic, it would be realistic to prepare for a Modi victory. Once in office, Modi will have the state machinery feeding from his hands; as he has had in Gujarat. As in the Emergency, state minions will compromise with governance, obeying RSS and VHP hatchet-men elevated to state power as ministers and legislators. The minority having been pushed to a corner will have to will itself to survive and outlast the dark times. How it does so will be a test not only of its moral strength but also that of the good sense of the majority community. To be sure, there will be challenges posed to the rulers. This will be from the secular-liberal spectrum, but is liable to be easily ignored and if required crushed. The more substantial backlash to corporate led growth will likely be from the Maoists, expanding their influence due to the fallout on the common man of economic policies serving sectional interest. Increased violence and the retribution may be witnessed. Given this environment and one in which the minority is directly victim, what must guide its response?
There is no doubt that whatever suggestions there may be in this column, there would be minority extremists mirroring majority extremists. Their dialogue of violence cannot but continue since being hotheads they are predisposed to such action. This may be inescapable in order to dampen the ardour of the majority extremists for any notion of a ‘final solution’. In any case, self-defence is a birthright. However, for the common people abjuring social violence will be necessary lest any association with violence lead to justifying the stereotype and retribution. Instead using the opportunities that are available for concentrating on bettering ones condition may be one way out. Forging regional, social and class unity will help with building bonds to sustain. Plumbing the wellsprings of religion and culture for resources for resilience may be required. False leaders will have to be run out of town. Collaborators will need to be educated and weaned away. Where incorrigible due to economic or power incentives they must be forced away from contaminating social spaces. Building social transparency and ties with neighbours of the majority community will act as propaganda by deed to dispel the false propaganda that will fill prime time. These ties built will over time help eject the regime and the reject its ideology. India will then emerge cleansed into democratic light.
This is a scenario that might not come to a pass. Awareness of it can energise the bulwark against the NaMo campaign beginning to unfold. It can have a sobering effect on otherwise intelligent and graceful people liable to be deluded into believing that they need a saviour through manufactured insecurity. In case the great Indian democratic project is usurped, then outlasting Hindutva may require prior creation of the reserves and imagination in a valiant democratic counter over the coming year.