How well has the government fared in the area of security over the last four years? Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd) provides a comprehensive review

A security sector review of any government’s performance is always complex because of the range of issues involved. While security has a wider meaning and includes overall national resilience, the intent here is to review issues pertaining to the defence of India, both internal and external. Yet, to do that, diplomacy cannot be delinked from external security. In addition, much emphasis has to be placed on personnel management of the armed forces; the men behind the machines cannot be ignored in a review of the state of preparedness in the realm of military security. The scope of this review therefore includes a few relevant diplomatic aspects related to national security and then concentrates on some priority aspects under the ambit of the Defence Ministry and Home Affairs Ministry, efforts towards restructuring and procurement to enhance capability, and our record in the robust field of border and internal security, not necessarily in that order.

At the outset, security is always a work in progress and there are no equations or formulas to determine the mathematical value of decline or increase in security capability. It is in this spirit that this review is being attempted, and will include critique and appreciation where it is due.

The Diplomatic Realm

The National Democratic Alliance government has had a positive record of diplomatic achievements in the mid- and far-abroad regions and a relatively mixed record in areas closer home. The Prime Minister has shepherded the External Affairs Ministry with his personal commitment and made a difference in diplomacy. Among the flagship successes has been the strategic relationship between India and the United States (US). The government also handled the Trump transition through the 2017-18 period without tentativeness. India’s strategic importance as a counterweight to China and a reliable partner of the US in the Indo-Pacific has seen a rise in its importance. Being a high-profile customer of US defence hardware makes India look even more attractive.

Where the government has succeeded exceedingly is the manner in which its has straddled the Middle East through the first three months of 2018. Given the binaries involved in the Shia-Sunni proxy conflicts and Russia’s standoff with the West in the Middle East, the government has achieved much through high-profile, virtually back-to-back visits to India by both the Israeli Prime Minister and the Iranian President. The Indian Prime Minister has also had productive visits to Jordan, Palestine, United Arab Emirates, and Oman. The return visit of King Abdullah of Jordan was sensitively handled with a focus on the Amman Message, which emanated from the Royal Court of Jordan in 2004 and is perhaps the best symbol of pluralism and tolerance to recapture the moderate street of Islam. The government’s successful handling of the Middle East has ensured contribution towards three important areas – energy security, diaspora confidence, and promotion of a moderate ideology.

In the same vein, the progress of the Quad of Nations towards the security of the Indo-Pacific may yet be marginal, but is picking up even as a reset in relations with China and Russia is evident; recent visits of the Prime Minister to these countries have been productive in balancing India’s foreign policy. The country’s emergence as a full-fledged member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is, of course, a legacy case, but its management has been successful despite some earlier glitches in relationships with both Russia and China.

On Afghanistan, it has been a success story with the absence of any major attacks on Indian facilities except the recent kidnapping of some workers. The opening of the alternate route through Chahbahar, facilitating the supply of the first consignment of wheat to Kabul, has sent a strategic message to Pakistan. Continuance of Indian soft power support to the Afghan government and training support to the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police are Indian core capabilities that still make a difference.

Border and Internal Security

Two focus issues are Doklam and the Line of Control (LOC). Walk-in operations by the People’s Liberation Army have been a problem for long. Whether Doklam was a deliberate ploy to bait India and take the level of intimidation beyond just walk-ins can never be determined. Yet the overall handling of the 72-day standoff through firm and steadfast military posturing, good media management, and deft diplomacy has proved the emergency-handling capability of the government. The follow-up has been welcome with attempts at a reset in relations.

The scale of achievement on the LOC has not reached the same level as Doklam, although the surgical strikes and the robust handling ever since, have helped send strong messages to Pakistan. Success here cannot be judged by the absence of violence as the complexities are much more than on the Sino-Indian border. The success in handling of the LOC has been in the ability to contain ceasefire violations to only a part of the LOC and international border sector. However, the suffering of the population in the Jammu sector remains a negative. The construction of anti-shelling bunkers needs to be taken up on an urgent basis. In fact, we need to go beyond this by investing in temporary relocation of the population with full welfare, if we have to respond more strongly with the international border sector handed over to the Army.

Horizontal escalation could well be on the cards. Perhaps the entire issue of “No War, No Peace” (NWNP) management has now reached a level where attrition or exhaustion techniques may be the only options available to us. The government had invested in engagement with Pakistan early in its tenure, but the equilibrium got upset by events sponsored by Pakistan. The government may have refused talks with Pakistan as it continues to sponsor terror, but India has never been averse to reversing the situation if there is a serious display of intent by the other side to seek peace. Backroom channels are still partially open, and things are being quietly done, just as it should be.

Jammu and Kashmir’s internal situation obviously has legacy connections, but ever since the killing of Burhan Wani on 8 July 2016, the government has followed a robust policy to re-establish military domination over the hinterland. Operation All Out was an unqualified success, but casualties have also been high, not the least because of intervention by mobs.

The Prime Minister projected the idea of a return to engagement with the population through his iconic message on Independence Day 2017 – “Na goli se, na gaali se… Kashmir ki samasya suljhegi gale lagane se (The Kashmir problem will be resolved not by bullets or abuses, but by embracing its people)”. The Non-Initiation of Combat Operations (NICO) for Ramzan and the linking of his message with the same could well be a game-changer if peace prevails and NICO is extended to Amarnath Yatra and beyond. The negative here is the inability to get strong counter-narratives in place and prevent local recruitment, which has become the current driver of the separatist movement. This will in all probability change if NICO persists.

The quieting of the North East’s security situation has also seen a surge in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s political hold over much of the region. This should assist in enhanced engagement with disparate renegade groups with visible vigour even as every attempt is made to bring connectivity to the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) through the North East.