National security has rarely been a poll issue. But, thanks to Masood Azhar, it has become one in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has made the Pulwama attack and Balakot retaliation central to its campaign. The BJP manifesto opens with national security, under the title ‘Nation First’, and many of the points made there overlap with those in the Congress manifesto. For example, speeding up defence acquisitions, modernising the forces, streamlining border and coastal security, rehabilitating veterans and combating left-wing extremism (a term used by the Manmohan Singh administration).
Points of difference
Yet the two documents have a markedly different approach towards security. The Congress’s does not open with national security, but deals with it in more detail and has an additional focus on the protection and welfare of security forces, an issue the BJP manifesto does not touch upon. The Congress commitment to ensure shorter stints of duty in high altitude areas is especially welcome. Shortening postings in insurgency-affected areas to conform with best practice would be even more welcome. That would reduce the frustrations that often lead to human rights abuse and high rates of suicide among paramilitary troops.
The most significant markers of difference lie in the two manifestos’ approach towards terrorism and civil conflict. The BJP manifesto proclaims zero tolerance for terrorism, which, it says, means giving the security forces a free hand to counter it. This claim appears overstated. Ordinarily, giving the security forces a free hand would entail the Army preparing a blueprint for the government to approve. No such blueprint has been prepared, to my knowledge, though many from the past exist.
Indeed, most indications are that the Army is following government instructions rather than formulating the government’s counter-insurgency or national security strategies. The Army knows that setting a population against security forces can only hinder their counter-insurgency tasks, not facilitate them, and has for decades favoured a combined political and military approach that distinguishes between local and foreign militants and incorporates a ‘hearts and minds’ strategy.
These elements are missing from the policy that the Modi administration has followed over the past five years in our most severely insurgency-affected State, Jammu and Kashmir. In fact, repeated statements by BJP leaders make amply evident that the tactics deployed in the Kashmir Valley are the BJP’s own, not the Army’s. Yet it is the Army that is tarnished with the label ‘military rule’, not the BJP.
Like the BJP, the Congress manifesto also talks of countering terrorism, but appears to have a far more professional approach, to streamline intelligence-operational coordination through a range of mechanisms, many of which had been set in place during the Singh administration but later discarded by the Modi administration. The failure to take intelligence warnings sufficiently on board when planning the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy’s movement was one factor that allowed the Pulwama attack to be successful, though this in no way detracts from the Jaish-e-Mohammad’s culpability.
The BJP’s efforts to use Pulwama and Balakot for electoral gain has already attracted protest by former military officials. Shameful as the exploitation of the Pulwama heroes is, abandoning the Air Force to deal with media scepticism over Balakot was equally shameful. Since when does the Air Chief respond to a U.S. journal article? If a response was so important, why was it not made by quietly sharing critical evidence with the media, or by the Ministers who claim Balakot’s debatable successes as their own?
Worrying as this politicisation of the security forces is, the most significant difference between the two manifestos is the BJP’s inclusion of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) as a security measure, along with revocation of Article 370, which defines J&K’s relation to the Union of India. Why should either of these be regarded as security measures? The former is, purportedly, a measure to deal with illegal immigration, and the latter a political status.
The NRC has itself become an explosive issue in the Northeast as well as more widely in the rest of India, due to the announcement that Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain or Christian illegal immigrants would be given citizenship, but Muslim immigrants would not. It has added to fears of exacerbating communalism across our country and, in the Northeastern States, to fears that their demographic balance would be further affected. Far from being a security measure, it has already provoked conflict and, if imposed, would provoke more.
Similarly, Article 370 poses no security threat, since it accepts defence as a Union, not State, portfolio and, on civil strife, puts Jammu and Kashmir on a par with other States, whose governments have to concur with the deployment of security forces for internal security duties. In effect, it codifies the Instrument of Accession that was signed by Kashmir’s Maharaja, and its revocation could open the Union to all sorts of undesirable legal challenges. That apart, the mere threat of revocation has added to conflict in the State and any attempt to follow through on the threat will certainly provoke greater conflict.
The Congress manifesto deals with the troubled States of both the North-West and North-East as issues of conflict resolution, not national security. Its promise to review the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act — again — may be unpopular with the security forces, but that is partly because the Singh administration did not work with them to identify amendments that would prevent human rights abuses while safeguarding operational requirements. That is a mistake one hopes the Congress has learned from.
The popular belief may be that the BJP prioritises security while the Congress does not. But the two manifestos reveal that it is the Congress which has a more serious understanding of India’s security challenges, not the BJP.
Radha Kumar is a writer and policy analyst