Time for India to state a national strategy

Last Updated: Sat, May 18, 2013 22:38 hrs

In a recent talk delivered in New Delhi, the former foreign secretary and current chairman of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), Shyam Saran, suggested among other things that it was not a fact that the armed forces were not involved in the formulation of national security thought - or strategy, if one might call "thought" that. The speaker has more knowledge than most of ground realities and his articulations need to be taken seriously. On the other hand, the great majority of military men who have held high positions, including chiefs, have bemoaned their exclusion from the decision-making process in national security even as that, undoubtedly, is their first charge. This mismatch in perceptions needs some examination.

India has never had a publicly declared National Security Strategy (NSS), an all inclusive and comprehensive statement of how the country views the challenges with which it is faced and how it proposes to deal with them. Many developed countries with long experience of security-related issues publish such papers regularly. The US comes out with a presidential articulation at least once every four years; the UK, France and Russia also put out what are termed White Papers conveying their security concerns. In the last decade or so, the Chinese have begun to put out White Papers of their own. For the most part, these are somewhat generalised statements about commitments to freedom, liberty, equality, territorial integrity, national sovereignty et al; in the articulations of some, principally the US, concepts of democracy and human rights take up some space. Even where these documents focus on some specific issues and highlight them as their areas of concern, there is no guarantee that they will act firmly on these, or not act aggressively on those that do not find any mention; numerous such examples can be cited. But yes, these articulations give a general sense, of the ways in which a major power views things and help others assess how they might deal with certain situations.

India has never put out a NSS. The nearest it came was, in 2003, when it made public its nuclear doctrine. In the last decade, following the recommendations of the Kargil Review Committee and the group of ministers which examined this report, not a few attempts have been made to draft such a document, principally by the NSAB; but none of these have reached fruition. There are as many supporters of such articulation as there are those who say this is premature at this stage. The example is given of China, which did not go this route until just over a decade ago by which time they had acquired considerable economic strength apart from having become a major nuclear power; India does not yet fit this bill, it is argued. In this same time, the concept of "security" itself has magnified tenfold. From military security alone, we have expanded, correctly, to issues like internal security, low-intensity conflict and terrorism, environmental, food, water, energy and climate security, human development et al. To collate all of these into a concise and coherent document is not as easy as it might appear.

Let us focus on those security concerns which directly affect the armed forces. These are essentially territorial integrity, internal security and contingencies that might arise in our near or even distant neighbourhood, including in the maritime domain, necessitating help or intervention of some kind. In the last six decades-plus, our armed forces have had to discharge all three kinds of missions, in peace and in war. This entire spectrum of responsibility is covered in a document termed the Raksha Mantri's Directive. This is the highest and only formal political security guidance that is currently available and determines the military's roadmap and how it should plan its capabilities and tasks. After one of these was issued in 1983, there was a hiatus for two decades and a fresh order issued only in 2002; an update every five years is desirable. It is also necessary to understand how such a directive gets issued. The document is drafted by the armed forces themselves based on the inputs that they have and, in effect, outlines what they will or must do to cope with the different situations that might confront them. The draft is certainly scrutinised by the main ministries concerned, defence and external affairs - and to some extent, home - and their suggestions incorporated as required; but the basic document is that of the military. So, when Mr Saran says that the armed forces are not uninvolved, he is not far wrong.

Yes, the military is not involved in the main NSS debate - frankly, because no one is. All NSABs, from the very first such group constituted at the start of the century under the chairmanship of the late K Subrahmanyam, also author of the Kargil report, have spent much time in debating and drafting the form and content of such a document, in which they have spelt out holistic approaches to national security. The NSAB has comprised, at any time, a score of very experienced and knowledgeable people, including at least three with wide military experience in the highest ranks. Yet, leaderships of the day, both NDA and UPA, have not found it possible, even desirable, to ratify or formalise the document.

This, obviously, cannot be because they have insufficient understanding or little concern for matters concerning national security. There is quite apparently the sense that the time for such a step has not yet come, to twist a term often attributed to the present prime minister. One presumes that the current NSAB is also engaged in that task apart from other things and we must wish it well and hope that, sooner rather than later, that bridge is crossed. But, the core issue here is different; if such a strategy does not yet exist, it is not because the armed forces have been kept out. In fact, it is inconceivable that a security agenda can be formulated in which the military will or can be excluded.

Though the suggestion made by the GoM over a decade ago that India should spell out the contours of its NSS has not yet been implemented, the time may have come to give it public articulation. The world must know what our concerns are and those which we cannot compromise on. We must follow the same route that we did in the case of the nuclear doctrine where our position has been clearly stated. Some things are best said than left unsaid.

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