For the past year, the Ministry of Home Affairs has issued repeated statements regarding its 'strategy' against the Maoists, encapsulated in the oft-used catchphrase 'clear, hold and develop'. Here's the result: 76 dead at Chintalnar, another 44 at Chingavaram, at least 110 at Sardiha, and no less than 377 civilians and security personnel killed in numerous 'lesser' Maoist attacks (excluding the three named) since the launch of the Centre's 'massive and coordinated operations' in November 2009. All this should be ample evidence that catchphrases are not strategies.
There has been a pervasive proclivity to use the word 'strategy' rather loosely, to cover every jumble of aspirations, intentions and, often, fantasies. But 'strategy' has no meaning unless it incorporates a long-term perspective; a realistic and accurate assessment of the challenge; a clear definition of objectives; a quantified assessment and acquisition of resources required to secure the objectives; and a planned deployment of these resources within timeframes imposed by the conflict. If there is a disconnect between objectives, tactics, resources and ground conditions, there is no strategy.
That is the reality of the arbitrary event — media-and politics-driven initiatives of the past months. The Centre's vision and objectives could not be reconciled with the forces and resources available and deployed, and the succession of operational and tactical reverses that have resulted are a direct and inescapable consequence of this strategic infirmity.
It must be clear, consequently, that the Centre's current initiatives have failed — inevitably and abysmally — and will have to be abandoned. Retreating into a defensive shell is, however, not an option. Nor will desperate entreaties for negotiations with the Maoist leadership serve the state's purposes. A strategic shift is imperative, and must reconcile objectives with capacities. The state cannot currently restore authority over vast tracts across which the Maoists have established their disruptive dominance, and no useful purpose can be served by attempting to target the Maoists in their present 'heartlands'. If there is an attempt simply to concentrate available the forces against identified command centres, these will simply dissolve to relocate elsewhere, even as diversionary violence escalates exponentially — tactics that have already been demonstrated to devastating effect.
The immediate tactical emphasis must be on intelligence-led and narrowly targeted operations seeking out the leadership, rather than dissipating the forces on chasing cadres. The state must seize and hold, not territory, but the initiative that it has long relinquished. Intelligence will be the key here — and there have been numerous successes on this plane, including the arrest, surrender or elimination of much of the top Maoist leadership. This is the thrust that must be strengthened enormously.
Before we set out to 'recover' Maoist strongholds, it is essential that we secure our own. Two-hundred-and-twenty-three of the 636 districts in India are now categorised as variously affected by Maoist activity, though just 90 of these experience recurrent violence. There must be a clear determination to contain the Maoists on their peripheries, to engineer their expulsion from areas in which their influence is nascent, and ensure that they are not able to expand into new areas.
This requires, first, a complete reorientation of existing Police Forces, with the largest possible proportion of the State Police operationalised — that is, retrained, equipped and mandated to deal with the Maoists. Only through genuine Police reforms and dramatic augmentations in general policing capabilities — something no one seems to want — can the state stem the rising tide of Maoist disorders. Eventually, a final showdown with the Maoists in their current areas of strength will be necessary, but this is best deferred till the massive capacity augmentation necessary to create the conditions for victory has been completed.
Finally, before it struts about airing nonsense about 'developing' Rajnandgaon, Kanker, Dantewada and Bastar, let the State demonstrate its honest intent and, crucially, the capacity to deliver good governance in the areas unambiguously in its control.
Ajay Sahni is the executive director, Institute for Conflict Management & South Asia Terrorism Portal