Debating India


Inherent Incoherence


Monday 24 May 2004, by SAHNI*Ajai

On broad issues relating to terrorism and internal security, many of the constituent parties of the UPA, particularly the Left, have little by way of coherent perspectives to offer, and substantial inter-party conflicts, at least some of which are already manifest.

The unexpected gift of power conferred by the electorate on the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), and the installation of a new coalition Government at New Delhi, have brought critical responsibilities on parties substantially unprepared for the challenge. This is particularly the case with regard to broad issues relating to terrorism and internal security, where many of the constituent parties of the UPA have little by way of coherent perspectives to offer, and substantial inter-party conflicts—at least some of which are already manifest.

The Congress party, when it sat in an often-belligerent Opposition, had articulated its position on many critical issues of defence, security and foreign policy—but has often remained pointedly ambivalent on terrorism. Many of the Party’s positions are defined in its document on the Security Agenda circulated shortly before the elections: Issues before the Nation: Security, Defence and Foreign Policy. The document—scathingly eloquent on the BJP-led NDA coalition’s "record of grave failures on the management of national security, foreign policy and defence"—contains a single, ambiguously worded paragraph on terrorism, which promises "a comprehensive multi-faceted strategy to cope effectively with the twin challenges of terrorism and insurgency". Apart from "paying particular attention to intelligence gathering", in this context, the document contains no hint of any specific strategic or tactical departures from the past, and remains reminiscent of the predecessor Government’s unfulfilled rhetoric on ’proactive’ counter-terrorist policies.

Some constituents of the UPA, however, have not been ambivalent on at least one point: their strong opposition to, and demand for withdrawal of, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), 2002—currently India’s only special law against terrorism. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu and the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M)— two of the Congress Party’s largest supporters in the new Parliament—have made it abundantly clear that POTA would have to go.

The Congress Party’s own position on POTA is conflicting. At the time when the passage of the Act was being debated in Parliament, the Congress had hotly opposed its passage, despite the fact that it was, in fact, a much-diluted version of the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA), 1987, earlier drafted and implemented by a Congress regime. During the debates on POTA, the Congress had argued with the glib facility of an irresponsible opposition that, just because they had made ’mistakes’ (the ’draconian’ TADA), they were not going to allow the NDA to repeat these. These arguments will certainly return to haunt the new government, even as parties such as the DMK, which had broken away from the NDA coalition on precisely this issue, and the Communist Parties, press for a scrapping of the law.

An added problem with abandoning POTA, however, is that all member countries are now bound by United Nation’s mandate to pass and implement suitable laws for the prevention and suppression of terrorism, including financing, provision of safe haven and ’any form of support’ to terrorist acts and entities. Absent a counter-terrorism law, India would be open to accusations that it was failing to pull its own weight at a time when it was stridently demanding action against terrorism from other countries and from the international community. Within this context, it is useful to note that the Indian record of convictions for acts of terrorism—under both ’special’ and ’normal’ laws—remains abysmal.

Counter-terrorism policy, however, in the complex global order that currently prevails, comprehends much more than an adequate framework of legislation and enforcement, and it is useful to examine the broad internal security, defence and foreign policy parameters that the Congress party has articulated. Central to these is the orientation to Pakistan and the current ’peace process’, which Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh has promised to continue. Citing the example of the Berlin wall, Dr. Singh had, in one of his first statements as Prime Minister-designate, declared that "the friction and unfortunate history of our relations with Pakistan" could be overcome, and that it was his intention to "seek the most friendly relations with our neighbours, more so with Pakistan than with any others."

Nevertheless, qualitative changes in the peace process and the policy orientation to Pakistan are inevitable, as the party promises to infuse a measure of ’political realism’ in its foreign policies. The party’s agenda document had specifically noted that the NDA Government’s policies on Pakistan had "been a saga of contradictions and confusions", and were "full of contradictory extremisms and ambiguities." Accusing the NDA of a failure to follow up on what it had defined as the "principal problem in J&K" - Pakistan-sponsored cross-border terrorism - the Congress accused the NDA Government of having "agreed to discuss the territorial status of J&K with Pakistan", and of lacking "transparency in approach". The Congress promised to establish a "stable working, cooperative relationship with Pakistan under the framework of the historic Shimla Agreement of 1972 and subsequent agreements and confidence-building measure initiated by later Congress Governments well upto 1996", while remaining "firm and decisive and prompt in responding to terrorist violence structured against India." None of this will strike any sympathetic chords in Pakistan.

The sub-text, here, is that much of the character of somewhat murky back-channel diplomacy that had been engaged in by the predecessor regime would be negated; relationships would be cast into a more structured and institutional role; and the extra-constitutional powers that were being exercised by a small cabal within the NDA Government, and including powerful representatives of influential business houses, would not be allowed to define the ’national interest’ to the exclusion of oversight by the cabinet of ministers.

It is clear, moreover, that the theatre of the peace process failed to translate itself into electoral advantage for the BJP, and there is, consequently, now greater political freedom to bring the process into a more sober and institutional phase under the successor regime.

While the Agenda document is silent on these issues, there is, again, evidence to suggest that a harder line will emerge on Pakistan, and that there could be no question of diluting Kashmir’s status as an integral part of India, or to consider any set of ’solutions’ that envisage a transfer of populations or territories, or alter the status quo on sovereignty - a possibility that was at least being considered as a constituent within the proposed scheme of negotiations under the predecessor regime.

The Congress Agenda does speak explicitly of the need for strengthening India’s defence posture, infrastructure and coordination mechanisms, accusing the BJP-led Government of a failure "to modernize and update" the defence forces, asserting that, "Despite tall claims about the high priority being given to defence, expenditure on defence as a proportion of GDP has fallen to an all-time low of 2.12%", and that the NDA Government had "failed even to effectively utilize resources amounting to nearly Rs. 24,000 crores (240 billion) sanctioned by Parliament to modernize our defence systems." The Defence Forces will, quite naturally, observe with great interest Dr. Singh’s orientation on defence expenditure. Commentators also note that the last two Prime Ministers have successively and systematically led to the degradation and ruin of India’s covert assets in Pakistan, even while Pakistan has done everything to sustain its covert operations in India. These trends would certainly come under the scrutiny of the new regime.

The Congress party has also been troubled by elements of India’s foreign policy vis-?-vis America. While explicitly endorsing the objectives of strengthening ties and strategic cooperation with the US, the Party points to "a lack of transparency" that characterized the NDA Government’s policies towards the US, noting that India had been "reduced to having a subordinate relationship with the USA." The new Government would, at once, pursue a closer but more transparent relationship with the US; and would seek to "retain for India freedom of options in conducting its foreign relations, in response to India’s national interests.

In sum, there is a measure of determination to restore institutional responses, and to dismantle some of the elements of personality-dominated foreign and security policies that had become entrenched under the NDA regime.

Notwithstanding these elements, however, the truth is that the UPA government’s perspectives remain inadequate to deal with the sweeping security challenges—and particularly with the range of insurgencies, terrorist movements, and their cross-border sponsorship—that plague the country. There is no evidence that a counter-terrorism strategy or perspective has been thought through by any of the constituent elements of the new regime, and there are huge and visible vacuums in thinking with regard to a number of issues, including the burgeoning Left Wing insurgency, the problems of the Northeast, as well as the troubled relationship with Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Worse still, the melange of ideologies—mixing in a number of incompatible sub-regional, linguistic, ethnic, social and economic agendas—that constitutes the UPA, may make any lasting commitment to a national strategic vision problematic. Within this context, the Left parties, collectively the largest element of support for the government—with 62 seats in Parliament—are the most potentially problematic and disruptive elements, not only on the issue of terrorism, but more specifically on the broad structure of foreign and economic policies that are integrally linked to international cooperation on counter-terrorism.

Within the imaginary world that the Left parties inhabit, the formation of an Indo-China axis, possibly including Russia, as a counter to ’US hegemony’, remains within the realm of aspired reality. Such absurdities persist, despite cumulative evidence of China’s consistent efforts to contain India—particularly through unprecedented nuclear and strategic cooperation with Pakistan. The Central Committee of the CPI-M recently called for resistance against "imperialist penetration"—essentially an euphemism for the growing US role in the region—and has been systematically opposed to India’s deepening economic and strategic relations with the US. Such an orientation does, in some measure, coalesce with the past tradition of non-alignment and entrenched anti-US reflexes that survive among at least some elements within the Congress.

These many contradictions and ambiguities will require an extraordinary focus of mind and effort if they are to yield a coherent strategic response to terrorism in South Asia. Prime Minister Singh does have the personal credentials and capacity for such a decisive endeavour. Regrettably, the Cabinet he has assembled from the motley congregation of ideologically incompatible parties and anachronistic survivors within the Congress would tend more to impede than to advance his enterprise.

Ajai Sahni is Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal


in Outlook India Monday, May 24, 2004.

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