India: Security and Strategic Challenges in 2014

02 Jan, 2014    ·   4233

C Uday Bhaskar reviews the various challenges and opportunities that punctuate the Indian security spectrum

The twin terrorist attacks in the Russian city of Volgograd that have killed more than 30 innocent people and grievously injured scores of others on two successive days (29 and 30 December 2013) which are suspected to be the handiwork of an Islamist separatist group are illustrative of the most complex and abiding internal security challenge that India will have to confront in 2014. The scars of 26/11 that terrorised Mumbai in November 2008 serve as a reminder of the worst-case exigency that the Indian security establishment needs to successfully pre-empt – often unobtrusively – given the undesirable polarisation of the terrorism discourse in India.

In like fashion, the April 2013 Depsang incident with China and the more recent politico-diplomatic tension with the US over the Khobragade case are indicative of the complexity and the fragility of the two most critical strategic bilateral relationships for Delhi as the new year dawns.

The nature of the challenges in the security and strategic spectrum that are likely to acquire greater salience for India in 2014 will be compounded by the fact that the UPA II government is in its last lap and the country will be in election mode for the early part of the year. Whether the new central government in Delhi in mid 2014 will be a stable coalition led by one of the major political parties (BJP or Congress), or an uneasy coalition of a Third Front type remains moot.

Concurrently, the security environment in the extended South Asian region with specific implications for India will be shaped by two regions – Afghanistan-Pakistan in the first instance and Bangladesh at a remove. The withdrawal of US and ISAF military presence from Afghanistan will also take place in mid 2014 and the ability of the Afghan security forces to maintain the necessary level of peace and stability in the face of a resurgent Taliban will be severely tested.

The Afghan elections and a post Karzai scenario are fraught with many uncertainties and for Delhi, the recall of December 1999 and the IC 814 hijacking episode reiterate the truth that the ideological orientation of Kabul can impact India’s internal security situation. In like fashion, the current turbulence in Dhaka between the caretaker ANP and the right-wing BNP could adversely impact the Indian security environment. The worst-case scenario for Delhi would be the rise of radical right-wing Islamist forces in the domestic political framework of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Nations have to acquire the necessary capacity and determination to deal with their security challenges and India’s bandwidth spans the nuclear weapon–ballistic missile domain to low intensity conflict and ideologically-driven terrorism.

The two institutions that need to review their synergy to deal with a complex security compulsion are the civilian part of the state represented by the political classes and the bureaucracy on one hand; and the uniformed fraternity that includes the military, the paramilitary and the police. Regrettably, civil-military relations in India have remained in a state of suspension since the 1999 Kargil War and this aspect received rare notice from the Prime Minister in mid-November 2013. Addressing the Combined Commanders, Dr Singh dwelt on the need for ‘urgent and tangible progress’, to create ‘the right structures for higher defence management’ and for realising ‘the appropriate civil-military balance in decision-making’.

India deals with its complex security challenges through institutional arrangements that can be only described as less than optimum. At the core is the reality that the Indian military is not part of the higher defence and security management of the country. This shortcoming has been the subject of many reports and Task Forces but little has changed.

Political diffidence and bureaucratic obduracy have contributed to this state of affairs for the last decade plus and this will remain one of the central challenges to the new government in Delhi in 2014. A fairly modest beginning was envisaged by the creation of the permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee and while the military top-brass has supported this initiative – the civilian leadership has not been supportive. The net result is that the higher defence management remains mired in stasis, delays and lack of institutional synergy.

The internal health of the Indian military as an institution and the paramilitary and the police forces is in dire need of rigorous internal review and appropriate redress. The unhappy controversy generated in the top echelons of the Army and the various charges of corruption and financial irregularities do not augur well. Paramilitary and police reforms have been postponed and little interest has been demonstrated to acknowledge these omissions.

The Indian experience of higher defence management remains a paradox. On one hand, the nation can be legitimately proud of the advances made in acquiring strategic capabilities including nuclear propulsion. Significant inventory induction has taken place including the aircraft carrier, the heavy lift transport aircraft and suchlike. Yet for almost 30 years, the Indian Army is unable to get a replacement for its artillery gun and the Air Force is managing without a credible indigenous trainer aircraft.

These examples can be applied across the board to almost all the institutions dealing with national security and the more alarming aspect is the lack of institutional accountability. The new year offers an opportunity to embark upon a holistic review of the various challenges and opportunities that punctuate the Indian security spectrum. An informed and objective debate in the next session of Parliament will be an appropriate beginning.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Dainik Jagaran in Hindi.