In a way the challenge of left-wing extremism the new National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in New Delhi faces bears close resemblance to the situation that confronted the United Progressive Alliance regime in its second tenure in 2009. However, given that the Congress party-led government failed to contain the threat, the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party government needs to revisit the overall approach and not repeat the past polices that contributed to the survival of the extremist outfit.
In 2009, the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) was in the upswing with a dramatic spike in the deaths of civilians and security forces. Extremism-related incidents and fatalities among the civilians and the security forces increased by 41 per cent and 25 per cent respectively, in 2008. States such as Maharashtra and West Bengal contributed significantly to this upswing, with the eastern Indian state becoming the third most extremism-affected state of the country, in 2009, with 255 incidents and 158 fatalities. The CPI-Maoist was indeed looking at expanding its sphere of influence.
The UPA government sought to tame the rise of extremism with an iron hand.. The change of guards in the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) following the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks led to a series of brain storming sessions, and a new policy aiming to annihilate the CPI-Maoist, titled ‘Operation Green Hunt’ took shape. However, hope expressed by the then Home Secretary that security forces would be able to liberate the areas quickly and the civil administration would kick-start development work in those areas met an early end in 2010 with the Central Reserve Police Force receiving a series of setbacks at the hands of the extremists.
Over the next four years, the UPA government experimented with a cocktail of force-centric and development-oriented approach. However, even with improvements in the overall situation, the CPI-Maoist continues to remain a formidable adversary. As per the official data, each day of the year recorded over three Maoist-related violent incidents resulting in the death of at least one civilian or a security force personnel, in 2013. An identical situation has prevailed over the first six months of 2014 as well. Maoists might have been prevented from expanding their area of operations into newer territories, but the old theatres such as Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar, parts of Odisha and Maharashtra continue to report significant violence. The number of attacks carried out by the CPI-Maoist and close to 50 deaths in the days preceding and following the parliamentary elections underlines the military capacities of the extremists.
Three significant deficiencies, among many, that have marked India's response to the challenge of left-wing extremism are: first, there is no national consensus on ways to meet the challenge. States and ministries have debated on whether to pursue a social development or a force-centric model of conflict resolution. Second, although the security forces have made some advances vis-à-vis the extremists, the civil administration continues to be a reluctant partner in reintegrating the former Naxal hotbeds through development administration. Third, there is an acute leadership crisis at the political as well as the security establishment levels, hindering success. These deficiencies must be addressed by the new government in New Delhi in order to make a substantial impact in the extremist-dominated areas.
Policy Prescriptions to Deal with the Red Menace
First, the unity of purpose is a key element for success in any counter-insurgency campaign. The lack of success vis-à-vis the Naxals is predominantly rooted in the diverse as well as conflicting prescriptions made not just by the states, but also by the various departments within the UPA government. Annual meetings of the chief ministers organised by the government merely provided platforms for airing diverse opinions, but made little progress in terms of arriving at a common approach. The new government must find a way to bridge the divide between the prescriptions. The prime minister as well as the home minister must not be seen as detached actors expressing helplessness at the state-of-affairs, but should lead from the front.
Second, contrary to the common perception that periodic military setbacks suffered by the security forces are the primary reasons for the continuing extremist domination, the lack of enthusiasm of the civil administration is a bigger reason for areas freed from the extremists relapsing into chaos. Development projects planned for the Saranda region in Jharkhand is an example of this malaise. A solution must be found to make the bureaucracy both at the centre as well as in the states sensitive and participatory in the development projects.
Third, small achievements would remain critical for the state's campaign against the CPI-Maoist. A leaf must be taken from the book of the Maoists, who persevered for years to find support among the tribal population and subsequently dominate the areas. The state must attempt incremental and non-reversible progress against the extremists.