India politics should shed internal contradictions in national security discourse

Photo: Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, and Rahul Gandhi, opposition leader. For representational purposes only.

(Editor’s Note: The views are that of the author’s. For the writer’s other interests, read the credit line at the end of the article.)

By Bhartendu Kumar Singh

India‘s national security discourse has traditionally been a consensual project. Alternative voices and perspectives from the opposition leaders and scholars were mostly in sync with that of the government of the day. However, national security discourse, of late, has become incoherent and a platform for ‘rhetorical contest’.

Last year, it was the hue and cry over ‘long-due’ abolition of Article 370 of the Constitution of India and the bifurcation of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir into union territories with Ladakh as the second, separate union territory.

Now, it is the raking up of series of queries in the public domain over Sino-Indian face-off in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh. Such perception-based and acrimonious approach may not only derail the consensus-building on national security but also complicate policy deliverables.

Ruling versus opposition dichotomy is not the only contradiction in the under-developed national security discourse. In fact, the national security discourse is torn aside by other contradictions, some in the public domain and others in discreet forms.

Thus, India has a long-standing civilian versus military conceptions of national security with both sides not seeing eye-to-eye on many issues; a defence versus development dilemma best evident during budget times, where all kind of logic are dished out by the two sides; a long-standing debate on China versus Pakistan as the numero uno threat to Indian national security with cyclical upswings for each side; a superficial battle between emphasis on military modernisation through imports versus consolidation of domestic military-industrial complex, where the latter has been a loser on most occasions; and above all, prioritisation of great powers versus South Asian small neighbours in India’s foreign policy behaviour.

India also has protagonists often competing on state versus people, core versus periphery and external versus internal notions in national security. However, while many contradictions do get accommodated or disagreements are agreed upon, voicing of disagreements during crisis-times is problematic, since it portrays a fractional notion of national security to world community in general, and Chinese in particular, who are quite smart in exploiting the contradictions.

Several reasons could account for such reigning contradictions in the national security discourse. First, national security is not an enterprising business in India and has been traditionally appropriated by think-tanks, security experts and academicians. Many, if not all politicians, are more interested in using national security as speaking tool than as a constructive tool in facilitating and enriching policy consciousness.

This, despite the fact that some of them are privy to first-hand briefing on vital national security issues on a regular basis. Many mainstream political parties do not even have a foreign policy cell and simply take up a stand propelled by political factors such as political mobilisation and vote-fetching capacity of the issues than actual national security calculations.

Second, Indians often become victims of emotionalisation of national security discourse. Elites in different fields pride in mocking policy deliverables rather than rational contemplation of issues at hand. They are more comfortable with the ‘politics of criticism’ than in presenting an ‘alternative vision’. In the United States, every national security concern is widely debated both within and outside the Congress and the White House does consider supplementary or alternative policy options.

In India’s case, that is missing since the citizens don’t have a commonality of perspectives even in matters of national security. Is it because of India’s failure to adopt a cosmopolitan outlook on national security discourse? Or is it because Indians still don’t have unified picture of India’s national security problematique and suffer from what Francis Fukuyama calls as psychological burdens of discrimination, prejudice, disrespect or simply invisibility ingrained in the social consciousness? Either way, the discomfort continues!

Third, the civil and military sides — two largest stakeholders — have different perceptions of national security. Part of the reason is that the civilians do not benefit from institutions meant to promote common understanding of national security. At the National Defence College (NDC) in New Delhi, for example, there are only 763 civilians among 3,800 pass-outs in 58 courses since 1960.

This is a dismal 20 percent figure! Civil participants are soon lost in alien assignments having no correlation with conceptualisation and implementation of national security. The knowledge gained at NDC, is thus, lost. The defence participants have a very small shelf-life. The NDC curriculum itself is one-dimensional and focused largely on military aspects.

The Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) at Wellington in Tamil Nadu and the College of Defence Management (CDM) at Secunderabad in present-day Telangana, meant for middle-level management, is equally bereft of commensurate civilian participation. Biannual joint civil-military interactions under the auspices of Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration is too short towards forging common national security perspective.

Very few think tanks, other than Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses and Observer Research Foundation (ORF) promote similar common perspective.

Fourth, few service veterans make a second career out of politics; other domain experts also largely stay out! This is unlike developed countries, where professional politicians have already established themselves in different fields. Such things are rather difficult in India where politics itself is a lifelong career for many politicians.

A comprehensive account of national security with equal emphasis on non-military aspects is, therefore, not taken seriously by many politicians due to engagement with other people-centric issues.

National security discourse is, therefore, hollow, superficial, short-sighted and largely rhetorical. For example, the current debates on China do not factor India’s long-term China problem, possible contours of border resolution and reducing dependency on Chinese products.

India remain a victim of many ‘strategic untruths’ being marketed and our collective identity is riddled with contradictory, polarised and half-baked national security visions. India, therefore, needs to ponder through moral prism if overt and continuous emphasis on ‘contradictory language’ during crisis-times will do any good to policy deliverables. Plurality of thoughts is the essence of democracy but dogmatic opposition to sensitive national issues are debatable!

A resolute national security discourse, aimed at ‘rallying around the flag’, is the call of the hour. India needs to widen strategic landscape, raise national security consciousness, do away with rhetorical politics, and adopt methodological collectivism to rationalise the national security discourse. This is the minimum till a national security strategy is in place and India learns to speak a common language.

(The writer is an Indian Defence Accounts Service officer)

3 replies »

  1. A very interesting and ‘to the point article’. The author has hit the ‘nail on the head’ with his clarity in thought and written expression. I wish and hope that people (Military, including Veterans & non military, esp politicians) pay heed to this article, as it is the need of the hour. Consensus in matters of National Security is the most logical thing, esp if a war is to be won without firing a bullet.

    Lt Gen Sanjeev Madhok (Retd)
    Former Army Commander ARTRAC

  2. Lack of consensus is the result of an absence of strategic thought and culture in the country. Further, some politicians don’t want to miss out on any opportunity to further their interests instead of supporting and advising the government.

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