Start by burying Lord Ismay

Issue 25 - Apr 2009

Nitin Pai

TO FIGURE out what it needs to do with regard to national security, the new central government only has to call for the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) report, published on December 15th, 1999, and go about implementing its recommendations. “An objective assessment of the last 52 years,” the report said, “will show that the country is lucky to have scraped through various national security threats without too much damage, except in 1962. The country can no longer afford such an ad hoc functioning.” Ten years on, much of the KRC recommendations remain unimplemented.
If the institution of the KRC and the publication of its report marked a refreshing change in the manner in which Indian governments functioned, the relegation of its report to the special black hole in New Delhi for such documents is testimony to the dreary desert sand of dead bureaucratic habit. India’s immense reservoir of resources means that it is unlikely to lose anything but the biggest wars.  Yet the lack of stewardship of national security policy is already increasing the damage each time India ‘scrapes through’. The damage is not merely physical or temporary: it risks jeopardising India’s economic development. The terrorist attack on Mumbai in November 2008 and the inability to provide adequate security for the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament, for instance, have worried investors—both foreign and domestic. When capital flows resume after the current downturn, India must position itself as one of the most attractive places for investment. Economic growth is India’s ticket out of poverty. Ensuring that security risks do not hurt India’s economic prospects is the least of the reasons for the new government to provide credible signals of its commitment to transform the way India’s national security is managed.
The ‘honeymoon’ period of the first hundred days offers a new government the opportunity to implement important reforms that might otherwise face the greatest resistance. Of course, follow-through is important, but setting the momentum early is crucial. Most importantly, the  honeymoon comes but once in a government’s life: so it is important to have a plan of action to make the most of it. Plan ahead, as they say, to avoid disappointment.

First, the cabinet formation process is a good time to announce an executive succession plan. A responsible nuclear power ought to demonstrate greater transparency as to its nuclear chain of command. The lines of nuclear succession within the cabinet must be announced. Key cabinet portfolios must be vested in separate individuals to ensure that the apex decision-making committees have the intended number of members.
Second, the cabinet must announce the formation of a Blue Ribbon committee to conduct a strategic defence review. It should be tasked with recommending the structure, composition, role, service conditions and pay structure in the light of the twenty-first century strategic environment. It should be asked to consider restructuring the armed forces into joint theatre commands, with a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee to act as the military advisor to the cabinet.
The KRC has been scathing in its criticism of the current set-up which has remained unchanged since being put in place by Lord Ismay and Lord Louis Mountbatten in 1947. If the government does not develop a new roadmap, it is likely to be caught in the unhappy situation of having to engage in even more ugly disputes relating to defence pay, promotions and procurements. These will come at increasing political costs.
Third, ahead of the implementation of the Blue Ribbon committee’s recommendations, defence procurements must be depoliticised. This could be done in many ways: for instance, a senior parliamentary committee comprising the defence minister, a key opposition leader and senior leaders of other parties could oversee the award of the modernisation programme. The government should drop its dogmatic pursuit of the goal of removing ‘middlemen’. Middlemen have a role because procurement procedures are complex. Instead, procurement policy must be liberalised and simplified, and middlemen regulated. The defence ministry must be set the target of utilising 100 percent of the annual capital outlay.

Internal security
Fourth, ahead of the counter-insurgency operations in Jammu & Kashmir being scaled down, the government must consider the formation of a new civilian-led, military-assisted counter-insurgency organisation. Whether it is Naxalism or low-intensity conflicts in the North-east and elsewhere, the fundamental problem is a governance vacuum caused by the failure of state institutions to ensure the rule-of-law. Delivering governance in insurgency-affected areas is beyond the capabilities of generalist administrators and police officials. It requires professional training in managing insurgencies, as well as specialist competencies in public health, agricultural science, environmental science and engineering, among others. This is in addition to professional military capabilities necessary to create the necessary space for civil administration.
Fifth, police reforms must be implemented. The Supreme Court has ordered this, yet the excuse that of it being a state subject has been used to subvert the Court’s judgement. The creeping unwinding of the rule of law across the country lies at the root of major security threats. This unwinding must be arrested and reversed. For this, police reforms are essential. The ruling party, or the main party in the coalition, should set the ball rolling by implementing police reforms in the states where it is in power.
Sixth, the central government must announce a zero-tolerance approach to political violence of any kind. Vandals, self-appointed vigilantes and rioters must be dealt with severely, and to the extent possible, pre-emptively. This does not require new laws. It requires the government to send credible signals that it is serious—through its actions. If the ball lies with state governments, then the use of the bully pulpit by the prime minister can be used to galvanise them  into action.
Seventh, the outgoing UPA government has already set in motion internal security reforms after the Mumbai attacks. These should be reviewed and reinforced where appropriate. In addition, all police stations must be connected to a national network within five years.
Clearly, implementing even this short list of initiatives suggests that national security policy-making must be strengthened. So the final item on the list is the initiation of a recruitment programme to bring outside professionals into the loop. The security environment is way too complex for any single organisation to claim it has all the competencies and skills to solve all the problems. Yet, without the right people, the best policies will not deliver the desired results. So the new government would do well to get good people in before its honeymoon is over, and then ensure that there are doors open for other good people to enter.

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