Gratis advice for the next National Security Adviser

By Ali Ahmed. Dated: 5/21/2019 2:05:53 PM

The right wing's information warriors that comprise self-selected nationalists, former spooks, unwary denizens of the strategic community, ruling party inclined hacks and paid-up members of the bhakt brigade, are having their last hurrah. Having manipulated opinion polls, they have extended 'acche din' by a week. Even so the nation awaits the electoral verdict with bated breath, to learn if it is possible - as the information warriors believe - to fool all the people all the time.
The last bit of pulling wool over peoples' eyes was in the information operations surrounding the Balakot-Naushera episode. The narrative was that India came out on top, delivering a mortal blow to Jaish at its labyrinth within mainland Pakistan, bringing down an F-16 with a Mig-21, and scaring the living daylights out of Imran Khan, forcing him to hand back the captured Indian Mig-21 pilot.
The unfortunate part of this was that the target was not so much Pakistan - itself a target of the Pakistani Inter-Services Public Relations' General Asif Ghafoor - as much as the Indian electorate. The electorate needed diverting from naysayers looking for dirt in Gross Domestic Product numbers, unemployment figures, demonetization effects, suicides by farmers etc. Alongside, for good measure, some ten such contrarians were locked up for being urban Naxals out to 'get Modi', making others similarly-inspired more circumspect.
The nation awaits the electoral verdict if this strategy of buoying the national morale with tales from the Pakistan front worked. The opinion polls have it that it has done wonders. But this amounts to the information warrior brigade writing-up its final confidential report on its showing over the year. That it has done a creditable job of what it was put to is without question.
There is nary a word on the possibility that the Pulwama terror attack may have been a black operation. The antecedents of Pulwama bomber, Adil Ahmad Dar, who was constantly in and out of police stations as much as in and out of tanzeems, needs probing further, especially the cryptic report in this publication that he was once whisked away from the site of an encounter in which two Hizb compatriots died. That such suspicion can legitimately be entertained is clear from the immaculate timing of the episode, enabling the response to Pulwama enough time to play out and be taken advantage of electorally by the ruling party.
That the information warriors have carried the day is also clear from the absence of a round of missile exchanges even though India went down in the psychological-ascendance game after the Pakistani Naushera riposte to its over-hyped Balakot aerial strike. Strategising and war-gaming would have reckoned with following up to even the score. Instead, information war was resorted to, to paper over the loss of high ground.
This restraint makes sense only in terms of domestic politics. The uncertainty that attends escalation - such as an untimely Diwali - is something the political head could have done without in elections run up. So it made sense to wrap up early, with the pickings magnified by information war: 300 jihadis dead, one F-16 downed, Imran the Khan pleading for peace etc. The reasoning is perhaps that the score can be evened in killing some more Kashmiri armed youth - the score has long crossed 600 over the last three years of Operation All Out, with 87 killed this year of which 9 were killed last week. This spike since end of polls in Kashmir suggests a certain desperation to get even before being boarded out of power.
The desperation was in evidence as the rounds of polls progressed. Information warriors not only manage perceptions, but also keep tags on the information space. So it was within their ken to feel the electoral pulse through the rounds. The feedback perhaps explains the desperation that culminated in the nomination as the ruling party's parliamentary candidate of the terrorist, Pragya Singh Thakur, even as the breathtaking spin put out by no less than the prime minister was that she was the epitome of a five thousand year old Hindu civilization.
That no Hindu could be a terrorist implies that all terror India has been subject to over the past fifteen years has been Muslim-perpetrated. (The violence in the north east and in central India is attributed to insurgency not counting as terrorism.) In one instance, this writer heard a former foreign secretary opine in an open forum that the Hindu terror angle needs to be mellowed down lest it impact India's Pakistan strategy cornering it over terror. The opinion polls suggest that the nation has bought into this line. That this line has been in evidence over the past decade and half implies ownership by some amorphous entity.
Information war of the order surrounding the elections as depicted here bespeaks of an organization behind it rather than a set of non-governmental information warriors under a right wing umbrella. In an earlier column in this publication (23 March 2018), the possibility of an Indian 'deep state', based on its intelligence agencies subscribing to the cultural nationalist philosophy and participating in its project, had been mooted. The buck in the shadowy intelligence world stops at the door of the national security-cum-intelligence czar's door.
It is self-evident that the reins of the governmental complex that unwarily participated in the field operations connected with the electoral information war are National Security Adviser (NSA), Ajit Doval, controlled. It can be reasonably surmised - from the hagiographies put out on Doval and breathless tracts on the Modi-Doval doctrine - that he holds the reins also of the non-governmental side, with former spooks owing him allegiance bridging the two. There is also the Amit Shah controlled apparatus comprising ruling party trolls, which more than likely defers to the larger intelligence project of returning Modi to power. Modi's two Man-Fridays - one managing the governmental side and the other the non-governmental - have timed beautifully. That politics is outside an NSA job description indicates the extent of rollback pending.
Operation Elections - the information war project that has surrounded it - has shot its bolt. The Election Commission can yet retrieve is down-in-the-dumps credibility in case it keeps election voting machines sacrosanct over the coming days. In case the Election Commission redeems itself, what should be the national security agenda of the next NSA?
The objective in this rather-extended introduction has been to present the extent of the problem. The next NSA has his task cut out: to identify, contain and dismantle the 'deep state'. This would not be easy since those self-selecting to the deep state are impassioned by the belief in their cause of midwife-ing religious majortarianism. If the gullible voters need perception management to this end, then manipulating democracy and subverting institutions is small price to pay. An awareness of the iceberg below the water surface is a good start point for an incoming NSA.
Obviously, this cannot be done unless the political class bottles-up Hindutva: religious majoritarianism masquerading as cultural nationalism. Merely wresting the national discourse back from the ideology's grasp does not make India safe. The NSA can help retrieve the state from right wing formations that made instrumental use of the ideology for state capture. A state duly freed from right wing infiltration and penetration can assert its space, emboldening throwing away of ideological blinkers by society at large. A resulting virtuous cycle can over time undo the damage of the last thirty years to polity, society and institutions.
Is there a (wo)man for the job? To acknowledge that the intelligence community is outsized is passé. Two NSAs in quick succession from within its ranks have revealed its limitations and dangers. The foreign service provided three head honchos. The first was over-extended, overseeing the governmental apparatus alongside as principal secretary; the second could not withstand the demands physically; and the third, tough right-minded, was light-weight. The steel frame abdicated, allowing NSA Doval to take headship of the strategic policy group. Yet another policeman cannot be risked. This leaves the military, its credentials burnished since dismantling the iceberg requires moral fiber that only a military life can impart. (There is civil society to also be vetted as site for candidates, but space prevents going into this here.)
Some candidates with demonstrated intellectual capital, professional stature and moral strength are easy to spot, to wit, Admiral Arun Prakash and retired lieutenant generals Rustom Nanavatty, HS Panag and Prakash Menon. One needs look no further than General DS Hooda, presciently picked by the Congress to upbraid its national security credentials. He courageously put out a well-regarded blueprint that informed the fairly forward-looking security paragraphs in the manifesto of the Congress party. The agenda is spot-on in its intent to bring the NSA appointment to parliamentary heel, a constitutional-empowering of the appointment as necessary first step in the rollback of the deep state.
(Ali Ahmed is visiting professor at the Nelson Mandela Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia.)

 

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