The proposition that issues relating to India’s national security should enjoy a bipartisan consensus between the two major national political parties, the Congress and the BJP, is unexceptionable.
Given the sensitivity of issues involved and requirements of national interest, the accomplishment and maintenance of a national consensus require maturity and farsightedness by both the Congress and the BJP. It should be incumbent on the ruling party to keep the main Opposition party and other stakeholders up to date on major threats to national security, possible responses and policy initiatives that the government takes to counter such threats. On its part, the Opposition should respect the fact that such briefings should remain a secret and both sides must resist the temptation of scoring political brownie points.
Finding a common ground on what should constitute a ‘mahan’ and ‘surakshit Bharat’ is easy: a strong, modern security infrastructure to tackle internal and external threats, the development and acquisition of hardware and software for the security infrastructure, a well-equipped and trained armed force with state-of-the-art weapons for the armed forces. Add to this, the deterrence that our nuclear capability provides.
Today, the armed forces are worried about the non-acquisition of military hardware, our failure to manufacture indigenous equipment and abdication of decision making at the political level. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh found it necessary, after nearly two terms of the UPA, to say at the Combined Commanders’ Conference in November 2013, that there is a need for “urgent and tangible progress” to create “the right structures for higher defence management” and for realising “the appropriate civil-military balance in the decision-making.”
A consensus becomes elusive on the basic positions that the political parties take on the more pressing issues of national security: terrorism and relations with Pakistan. The BJP in its March 2009 manifesto, the latest policy articulation available, stated that it “will send out a simple message, loud and clear, to terrorists and their sponsors. They will have to pay a heavy price for each innocent life lost. Retribution will be swift and exemplary. The authority of the State, which has been diminished by the Congress in pursuit of vote-bank politics, shall be restored.” This constitutes the party’s unambiguous approach on terrorism.
The Congress has a more nuanced position. It views terrorism in its 2009 manifesto as a threat facing many countries including India and says that it must be fought relentlessly, intelligently and wisely. It then goes on to say that terrorism can only be fought by a united country, not one divided by religion. It proceeds to criticise the BJP for undermining this unity. Following the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai, the Congress drew satisfaction from the fact that the UPA’s ‘forceful diplomatic campaign’ led to Pakistan for the first time to admit that its citizens were responsible for the attacks.
The Congress’ approach to relations with Pakistan is fundamentally different from that of the BJP’s. The latter maintains that there can be no comprehensive peace dialogue until Pakistan does the following: dismantles the terrorist infrastructure in its territory, prosecutes terror elements and organisations and puts a permanent, verifiable end to its practice of using cross-border terrorism as an instrument of State policy, stops using the territory of third countries to launch terror attacks against India, and hands over individuals wanted for crimes in India.
On the other hand, for the Congress, a dialogue with Pakistan at the highest levels is an article of faith. Neither the June 2008 attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul by an ISI-sponsored terror outfit nor the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai have persuaded the UPA to re-evaluate its faith in a summit-level dialogue. This was evident throughout 2013 in spite of atrocities along the Line of Control and violation of the more-than-decade-old ceasefire by Pakistan.
All Indian political parties want better relations with Pakistan. The existence of a back channel to address the more contentious issues is well-known. Yet it is incomprehensible as to why the PM chose the venue of his farewell press conference to claim that the two countries had almost achieved a breakthrough on the Kashmir issue in the recent past when its details have neither been shared with the BJP nor with other stakeholders.
The BJP was left with no choice but to seek further information. To claim credit on the basis of privileged information is both reckless and irresponsible. For sympathetic members of the strategic community to claim that the outcome would be compatible with the Constitution and the Constitution of J&K when the text has not been seen by anyone and does not enjoy even a referendum status makes it all the more surprising.
Most of our national security fiascos are man-made and policy induced. The rise and growth of militancy in Punjab is a case in point. Instead of handling the rise of militancy with wisdom and maturity when the problem started rearing its head, the Congress chose to encourage extremists against the moderate Akali opposition in Punjab.
Hardeep S Puri is a retired diplomat. He last served as India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York
The views expressed by the author are personal