First Person | Image Management

The Prime Minister has been too busy cultivating his own image abroad to seriously look into internal challenges

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

In keeping with the spirit of the anniversary, yarns are being spun on the dramatic transformation of India that the last one year has brought about. Led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself who said that till about a year ago, Indians were ashamed to even acknowledge their nationality, sundry ministers and chosen bureaucrats have been let loose on the gullible populace to showcase that good days have indeed come.

Since the promised good days hinged primarily on economic prosperity for the common people (and that remains elusive), the purported success of the last one year is currently in the intangible domain. More of a sentiment, than discernable reality; for instance, taking pride in being an Indian, the world looking at India with awe or an unprecedented foreign policy outreach into hitherto unchartered territories, greater energy in the government, more efficiency… get the drift.

As for those who thought that Prime Minister Modi would wave a magic wand and change their fortunes overnight and are thereby feeling short-changed, comfort is being offered by the promise of a long term in which India would be transformed for good. The Modi government is not for a year or five years. Being a long distance runner, he will be at the helm for at least a decade, his devotees insist.

While Prime Minister Modi may be a long distance runner and he may have hit the ground running, a year is a good time to discern in which direction he is running. If he is running purposefully in the right direction, then it is likely that results will show, even if it takes time. However, in the twin domains of foreign policy and national security (as the two go together), he seems to be running for the sake of running. Without direction; and without any enunciated milestones by which one can judge the progress.

Take foreign policy for instance. Early in his term, the Prime Minister raised the level of India’s engagement with its eastern neighbours by rephrasing the slogan coined by the previous government. ‘Look East’ was turned into ‘Act East’. Then acting on that he started on what his admirers pointed out as circumambulation of China. The suggestion was that by visiting countries on India’s eastern flank, Modi will do to China what China has been doing to India.

On paper, this formulation is full of exciting (not to mention dangerous) possibilities, somewhat akin to the Great Game that the British and Russians played in our north. But on ground this turned out to be merely aspirational; and somewhat ill-planned. In competition with China, India (even with the best of intentions and desire) can hardly offer anything of substance to our eastern neighbours, who crave most of all, help in infrastructure building. Given that we ourselves are looking at infrastructural support from countries like Japan, South Korea, and also China, how much can we help Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Fiji and Mongolia?

As far as overall foreign visits are concerned, according to the data website IndiaSpend, his predecessor Manmohan Singh clocked as many miles. Yet, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), then in opposition, repeatedly lamented drift in foreign policy. Incidentally, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was also the toast of the global leadership, so much so, that in his second term, columnists in India wondered why he was reviled at home when he was so respected abroad! So, there was something about his foreign policy which appealed to the world. Though now his term is referred to as dark ages.

Perhaps, one of the reasons why Modi’s foreign forays are being hailed as successful and unprecedented is his flamboyant outreach to the Diaspora. Apparently, Indians abroad spend hard-earned money to hear him talk. But this should not come as a surprise given that the biggest donors to not only Modi’s party but the RSS are abroad. Years of labour by the RSS is bearing fruit now. It is Modi’s obligation to reach out to them when he visits the countries of their residence.

Sure enough, this is one area where Modi has scored over his predecessors. Few Indian Prime Ministers have had ecstatic following abroad, though Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to the US in 1985 had evoked equally rapturous descriptions both in the American and the Indian press, with some calling him a super star. It is quite entertaining to read the old issues of the magazines, if only to see that how some journalists (then and now) remain susceptible to breathless reporting when it comes to the high and mighty.

However, this article is not about Modi’s foreign policy. It is about his internal policies (which form a very important clog in the wheel of national security), especially those pertaining to internal security. On this score, all Modi defenders are bang on target. Modi has inherited a mess. The same mess that was inherited by his predecessor: from Pakistan-fanned insurgency in Kashmir to Left-wing extremism (LWE) in central India to the multiple insurgencies in the Northeast. Since these are protracted problems (some as old as Independence) and had also found mention in the BJP manifesto, it is ironical that even after one year the government remains clueless about their management, let alone resolution.

Of course, to this cauldron one can easily add communal tensions. There may be fewer violent outbreaks now, but inter-community rift is being widened. Deliberately. Such is the fear amongst the minorities that the elderly frequently advise the young to watch not only their words and actions in public but to be careful about what they share on the social networking sites. I have been advised not just by family members, but by non-Muslim well-wishers to mind my writing for my own good. This certainly is new.

However, starting with the most volatile of internal conflicts, the LWE, the last idea to come out of the Government of India on this issue was in 2004, when at the first meeting of chief ministers of LWE-affected states in Delhi with home minister Shivraj Patil, the phrase ‘hard policing and hard economics’ was coined. It implied pushing developmental schemes even as the police went after the Maoists. Money poured in and quick raisings of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) battalions commenced. With time, the CRPF became a mammoth unwieldy Central Paramilitary Force (CPMF) with nearly 220 battalions and the Maoists became flushed with funds, because a large part of the developmental money started to trickle down to the insurgents.

According to a committee appointed by the Government of India to investigate the funding pattern of the Maoists (which released its report in 2013), the extremists make a neat Rs 140 crore annually through extortion from industrialists and by siphoning-off the official developmental funds. They further rake in Rs 1,500 crore every year from illegal mining and sale of forest produce.

All this is in public domain. Yet, the government has no ideas on how to break the self-defeating cycle of hard economics and hard policing. When Prime Minister Modi was scheduled to visit Dantewada in the second week of May, the Maoists abducted 200 villagers to demonstrate their defiance and reach. While Modi spoke about peace and development in Chhattisgarh even as he inaugurated two more projects, the CRPF was ordered to go after the Maoists in a more calibrated manner. Two weeks later, news emerged from the CRPF that it will be changing its anti-Maoist strategy. Instead of moving out in huge numbers for area domination, it will send out smaller parties for specific intelligence-based operations to maintain secrecy and agility. This apparently is the new counter-LWE policy.

Incidentally, this is old wine in even older bottle. In 2009, the government had sanctioned the raising of a commando force from amongst the CRPF. Called Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA), it was to be based on Andhra police’s Greyhound commandos who ostensibly were hugely successful against the Maoists in that state. CoBRAs operate in small teams to carry out specific operations based on intelligence. The rest of the force operates in large numbers because Maoists operate in large numbers. Like in many other spheres, old ideas, with dubious ratio of success, are being recycled as new.

Clearly, the present government, like the preceding ones, believe that as long as violence can be checked and natural resources be exploited in the name of development, the issue of insurgency can be brushed away.

‘Deniability’ was the term Ajit Doval used to describe government’s apathy towards LWE, just about a year after he retired from the Intelligence Bureau in 2005. The present government suffers not just from this but also impatience to further wealth creation in the belief that from economic prosperity flows human development. And because we have poor manufacturing skills, let’s exhaust the natural resources first. Meanwhile, the Maoists-march into newer districts continues.

In the Northeastern states of India, communal hatred, fanned by political opportunists, is adding fuel to the insurgents’ fire. Earlier this year, the most vicious of the Naga insurgent group NSCN (Khaplang) stitched up an alliance with insurgent groups of Assam and Manipur, following which the outfit called off the ceasefire (holding since 2001) with the Government of India. According to conjectures amongst analysts, NSCN (Khaplang) has been encouraged to do this by the Myanmarese Army, which has also allowed them to set up training camps in forest areas close to the Indian border.

Since violence usually has a cascading effect, the fear is that sundry other groups may also want to gravitate towards one behemoth, especially if it eases funding, weapons and training space. It is also quite likely that the Myanmarese Army could be encouraged by others in the region inimical to India, or at least those who want to spike India’s aspirations for a high seat at the global table. It is not difficult to figure out who these countries could be. So, before the self-proclaimed strategists start spooling the grand ‘contain-and-engage-China’ strategy, they better watch out for exposed flanks. Especially when even the Maoists are inching towards the Northeastern districts. The third internal disaster waiting to unfold is Kashmir. However, that deserves a piece of its own.

While it may not be fair to fault the Prime Minister entirely for lack of coherence on these issues, the problem is that having run a presidential style election campaign, Modi is now running the presidential style government. Most of his ministers lack understanding of the ministries they have been entrusted with. Worse, most of them lack the gravitas that their job demands. Like their supreme leader, they are practitioners of hit-and-run tactics: making grandiose and sometimes even bizarre comments and then ducking. No wonder, none of them have had time to understand what their ministries demand and what they must do. So, while one talks of deep assets in Pakistan, the other lays out the vision of nation-wide ban on beef.

My feeling is that Modi deliberately allows his ministers to shoot off their collective mouths to further accentuate the so-called intellectual gap between them and him. Obsessed with image, his single-point agenda in his first year has been to showcase himself to the world. Everything else flow from there.


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