On Hollande’s mind

What the French president might encounter in India

This is the English version of a piece that appeared in BBC Hindi today

When President Francoise Hollande arrives in New Delhi next week as the chief guest on India’s Republic Day celebrations, he will be taking a short, partial break from his two main preoccupations: how to reduce unemployment in France ahead of the 2017 presidential elections and how to ensure that the threat from home-grown Islamist terrorists is contained.

In addition, he will no doubt be concerned about the economic trajectory of the euro zone, the prospects of long-term instability in Syria and the Middle East and, ultimately, of the risks to France’s geopolitical standing in the twenty-first century.

The honour, symbolism and pageantry apart, where does India register in President Hollande’s agenda? The immediate, tangible prize is to bring the long-drawn negotiations over fighter aircraft and nuclear reactors to fruition, which might together be worth $30 billion or more. The devil, as usual, is in the detail, and an agreement might prove elusive until the last minute. These deals matter for Mr Hollande not only because it will help him stay on the right side of politically powerful business interests, but also because they could create thousands of skilled jobs.

Mr Hollande had pledged not to stand for re-election if he “failed on growth, failed on unemployment, failed on the recovery of the country”. So a boost in jobs, investment and growth is important to his own political prospects. Given that unemployment rose to from 9.7% to 10.1% during his term, disproportionately affecting younger people, it is small wonder that he declared an economic emergency earlier this month.

If these important defence and energy deals are what Mr Hollande hopes he can take back with him, he would do well to explore how India is tackling its own employment creation challenges.

In fact, France and India have common problems on this front, in terms of restrictive labour laws, choke-hold by trade unions and a skills gap. Indian businesses like TeamLease Services, Ma Foi Randstad and others have developed experience in creating employment in an environment where there are powerful regulatory and political-economic disincentives for direct hiring. (Disclosure: Manish Sabharwal, co-founder of TeamLease is a donor to my institution). If Mr Hollande were to spend some of his time meeting Mr Modi’s officials dealing with skills and employment generation, he might carry home some good ideas in addition to the good deals.

While France and India share some similarities in the internal security context, the nature of the threat is different: for France it comes from its own citizens disgruntled with its foreign policy; for India it emanates from across its borders. Therefore even if the Paris attacks and 26/11 appeared similar, how they materialised is different. Therefore, while India and France could discuss counter-terrorism cooperation and better share intelligence, there are limitations to the extent they could go.

Similarly, India’s role in assuaging French worries over the Eurozone crisis is limited.

In recent years, France has increased its commitment to the security of the Indian Ocean. By virtue of its possession of islands of La Reunion and Mayotte, and their accompanying vast Exclusive Economic Zones, France considers itself a stakeholder and power in the Indian Ocean. It also has bases in Djibouti and Abu Dhabi that support its military interventions in Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan. In contrast, its capacity is limited east of the Malacca Straits.

Given that India’s own maritime footprint is significant in the Western Indian Ocean (including a diaspora in La Reunion) there is a degree of strategic contestation between the two powers in this part of the maritime space. On the other hand, shared interests in freedom of navigation indicate a scope for greater collaboration on the Eastern part of the ocean. Both Paris and New Delhi realise that this calls for closer dialogue between the strategic establishments of the two countries and regular exercises between their armed forces.

Indeed, a closer relationship with New Delhi is vital to France’s continued standing as an important global power in the twenty-first century. It was far sighted on behalf of the French to initiate a strategic partnership with India in 1998. From the Cold War era to recent times, New Delhi has had in France an independent-minded partner unhesitant to buck the Western consensus on defence, space and atomic energy issues. It is for the Modi government to build on that relationship and enlist France as a partner to extend India’s own geopolitical profile.

On free speech and national security

Blocks, bans and censorship no longer work

This is the unedited draft of my guest column in this week’s India Today.

Let us not underestimate the importance and the challenge of maintaining public safety and national security in a diverse, heterogenous society undergoing rapid change. Over the last three decades, riding furiously on the politics of identity and the economics of entitlement, an arms race of competitive intolerance has rent Indian society. It is frequently accompanied by coercion, intimidation or violence.

Unfortunately, where one citizen’s intolerance collides with another’s right to free speech, the agents of the Indian republic cravenly side with the former. This is the context in which our police, intelligence agencies and security forces are tasked with the job of maintaining domestic peace. As important as their job is—for internal stability is the basis for growth and development—they are under-staffed, under-equipped, under-trained and inappropriately organised for the task. To an extent, therefore, it is understandable that the security establishment prefers to err on the side of caution, and seeks as much statutory leeway as possible in laws concerning free speech and civil liberties.

It is understandable, yes, but no longer acceptable. Even before large numbers of Indians acquired mobile phones and got onto the internet, our unreformed, colonial approach to policing had created a yawning gap of disaffection between police and citizen, establishment and society, the state and the individual. The information age has exacerbated this gap, creating extreme pressures on both sides. If left unchecked, such pressures could explode in many ways, most of which spell trouble for our democratic republic.

The traditional method of maintaining what is popularly known as “law and order” involves rationing information. It presumes that information is a scarce commodity like it used to be half-a-century ago. Censorship could prevent the masses from obtaining information that the authorities didn’t want them to. Books could be banned and their import restricted. Sensitive installations could be protected by preventing accurate maps from being published. Even when government documents weren’t classified, there was little chance that citizens would ever have access to them.

This is no longer tenable because information is no longer scarce. Traditional methods might still fetch tactical, short-term successes, but at the cost of creating strategic, long-term damage. Cutting off SMS services in Srinagar might put the brakes on the spread of a riot but adds another layer of grievance to an already disaffected population. In most cases it simply doesn’t work. Censorship can be circumvented inexpensively, banned books downloaded easily and many official documents accessed through the Right to Information.

That’s not all. By keeping blunt laws that were designed for ease of use by unreformed police forces, we do not create any incentives for smarter policing. Draconian laws are bad for the police. They are obviously bad for society. The disconnect they create between the two is bad for the Indian republic.

The recent arrest of the two young women in Palghar, Maharashtra under draconian provisions of the IT Act and the Indian Penal Code, and the subsequent government action against the policemen involved, demonstrates this. The only winners in that episode were the intolerant.

Instead of persisting with the increasingly counterproductive approach of rationing information, a better way would be for the government to manage its abundance. There is nothing stopping the government from putting timely, accurate information online. From traffic updates to weather, from law and order situations to authoritative updates on details of the operations of our security forces. When the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) published tweets and videos of their recent combat operation in near real-time, they ensured that their narrative prevailed over the usual confusion and misinformation that the fog-of-war creates. There are lessons here for our Home Affairs and Defence ministries.

Similarly, law enforcement authorities can keep their fingers on the zeitgeist and intervene with factual information in real time. Some are already doing this. The state police in Jammu & Kashmir have made good use of Facebook. Last month, the Ministry of Defence and Army Headquarters put out their version of the story even while Arvind Kejriwal was making allegations—concerning non-payment of emoluments to a NSG commando—at a press conference. This method can be used to good effect during times when there are malefactors spreading rumours online. Good information is the best way to counter bad information, obviating the need to block social media, ban websites and suspend telecom services.

Law enforcement authorities must have the powers to ensure public safety and order. However, the Policeman cannot be the arbiter of free speech. It is a mistake to ask police officers to develop the sophisticated sense to appreciate the finer nuances of what is acceptable speech. What we must do as part of a larger project of police reform is equip our law enforcement authorities with information management skills necessary to do their basic job—protecting our liberty—better.

Shutting down Geelani’s Grievance Factory

Jammu & Kashmir needs a guerilla development plan

Excerpts from my DNA column:

The business of manufacturing grievances, operated by the likes of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, involves both FDI and FII. Provocateurs and hardcore separatists act as the focus of violent unrest, mobilising young people using old methods and new. Motivated or excitable sections of the media add tickers, employing terms like “intifada” and “Jasmine” (or heaven-forbid, “Gandhian”), to describe the proceedings.

The separatist game plan is to prevent the state, especially its Kashmir region, from returning to what we all like to call “normalcy”.

To halt this cycle, it is necessary to both raise the costs of protesting and the benefits of not protesting. While the political and security machinery —wiser from handling last year’s stone-pelting experience — can well reduce the attractions of a summer job as a street-protester, the state has been less successful in creating alternative occupations.

The main reason New Delhi’s outlays fail to generate outcomes is because there is a lack of capacity in the state and local administrations. Even if it didn’t make its way to the wrong pockets, it is difficult to spend that much money simply because the Jammu & Kashmir doesn’t have sufficient numbers of competent officials who can implement programmes. It takes years to raise these numbers in the best of circumstances. The problem is, young people have to be kept off the streets right now.

Kashmir needs a guerilla development plan, using unconventional tactics to quickly create an economy that engages its youthful population. According to the Economic Freedom of the States of India 2011 report Jammu and Kashmir stood 9th (out of the 20 states studied) in terms of economic freedom, moving up from 15th position in 2005. It scores better than even Maharashtra, Punjab and Karnataka. So a plan that exploits and enlarges economic freedom might do the trick.

It should create zones in urban areas where entrepreneurs can move in and start business in a matter of days. Instead of waiting for training institutes to be built, it should facilitate skills training in small batches. It should avoid handouts, and inject resources into microfinance institutions for them to lend more and to younger people.

Such a plan stands a good chance of strengthening social capital and cultivating a sense of individual responsibility. This spring’s narrative can be different if Geelani’s “Grievance Factory” is made to suffer a labour shortage. [Read the rest on DNA]

Reforming the home ministry’s troops

In my DNA column – why India’s paramilitary forces need structural reform

This is an excerpt from the article that appears in today’s DNA.

Why do we need BSF for the border with Pakistan, but separate forces called ITBP for the border with China and the Sashastra Seema Bal for the borders with Nepal and Bhutan? Why should the Assam Rifles be distinct from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF)? My colleague Bibhu Prasad Routray argues that it is a good idea to merge the various central paramilitary forces into a single force. Indeed, given that most of them are doing each others’ jobs anyway, wouldn’t it make sense to bring them under one chain of command? If this is way too radical, then why not rationalise them into three forces with distinct roles—internal security, border security and infrastructure security? This is as good for accountability as it is for the forces to develop greater competence within their domains.

In fact, massive expansion of central paramilitary forces without structural reforms could end up being counterproductive. The most important links in the internal security chain are the beat constable, the local police station and the deputy superintendent of police. Policing is a state subject. The massive expansion of central para-military forces after 26/11 belies the total refusal of all state governments to implement the Supreme Court-ordered police reforms. Indian states persist with a colonial police structure designed to keep a subject population under the rulers’ thumb. Persuading them to change is hard enough. If a state government comes to believe that it has easy access to large numbers of central forces, it will have fewer incentives to improve its own police force.

The goal of internal security should not be about sending the CRPF (and certainly not the BSF) to Hyderabad. It should be about ensuring that the Andhra Pradesh police can handle the task without outside help. [DNA]

The Naxalites overreached

…and committed a strategic mistake at Dantewada

The reason why Naxalites have been able to sustain their insurgency for so long is due to three main reasons: the absence or failure of governance; the romanticism and propaganda of their overground sympathisers; and, finally, due to the relatively subliminal nature of their violence.

To the extent that their violence was distributed in space and time they could slip in and out of the public mind, pursue on-and-off talks with state governments and generally avoid provoking the government into hitting back hard. Over the last five years Naxalites have violently expanded the geographical spread of their extortion and protection rackets—yet, the violence in any given place and time has been below a certain threshold. That threshold itself is high for a number of reasons, including efforts by their sympathisers to romanticise their violence, spectacular terrorist attacks by jihadi groups and due to the remoteness of the areas of their operations. This allowed Naxalites to get away with murder. A lot of times. In a lot of places. Literally.

But killing 73 out of 80 (or 120) CRPF and police personnel in a short span of time in a single battle is no longer subliminal violence. In all likelihood the Naxalites have crossed a threshold—this incident is likely to stay much longer in the public mind and increase the pressure on politicians to tackle the Naxalite threat with greater resolve. Also, given that it has also become an issue of P Chidambaram’s—and hence the UPA government’s—reputation, the gloves are likely to come off in the coming weeks.

There’s a chance that India’s psychological threshold is even higher. But it is more likely that the Naxalites have overreached. Perhaps their leadership has calculated that they are in the next stage of their revolutionary war. If so, that would neither the first nor the only delusion in their minds.

The change of NSA is a manifestation of deeper change

India’s national security reform is in the second stage

Going by most media reports, you will be forgiven for believing that M K Narayanan’s movement to West Bengal as governor has got entirely to do with an energetic home minister winning turf battles and the Congress party president going one up on the prime minister. Or even that he was removed for obstructing prime minister’s move towards a (US-brokered) deal on Kashmir. It is entirely possible that some of these reports are true. They are, however, more the consequences of the change, rather than the change itself.

That change—and the India media have missed it almost entirely (save honourable exceptions)—involves the revamp of the national security apparatus in the wake of the terrorist attack on Mumbai in November 2008. The first stage was a relatively quiet series of administrative and operational changes introduced in the home ministry, intelligence agencies and related security forces. Home Minister P Chidambaram’s Intelligence Bureau Centenary Endowment Lecture was titled “radical restructuring of security architecture.” Restructuring in any organisation involves, shall we say, ‘staff movements’, the radical type even more so. Mr Narayanan’s departure and the appointment of a new NSA has to be seen in this light.

How should the NSA’s job description change? K Subrahmanyam makes the case:

The present model gives too high a profile to the NSA, and impinges on the effectiveness of his role.While Kissinger and Brzezinski had high profile roles and were innovators focussing on one policy (Kissinger on China and Brzezenski on Afghanistan), they were not the ideal NSAs for the system. In India, Brajesh Mishra was resented by most Cabinet ministers. Cabinet secretaries are not resented since they play a low profile role. Condeleezza Rice was a prima donna as the Secretary of State and so was Colin Powell. But they played a low profile role as NSAs.

For the new NSA , much of the executive role for intelligence will shift out of his hands and so also internal security management, which will shift to the revamped home ministry.But it is necessary to ensure that all intelligence inputs of DNI are routed to the PM through him. The NSA should continue to have his coordinating role in respect of internal security in order to apprise the NSC of the continuing developments in the internal security situation. Our cabinet system functions on the basis that each minister is autonomous in respect of his own jurisdiction.The NSC concept is based on the recognition that on national security, the ministries need to be coordinated and that responsibility vests with NSA. Shedding of various executive responsibilities and assuming an expanded coordinating role will make the NSA more effective and permit the PM to implement his strategic vision better.

Civil servants have a preference for hands-on administrative roles.The purpose of NSC is to function as a thinktank for the strategic advancement of the nation. Such visions have to come from the political leadership.The most important challenges currently facing India are the rise of China and the new industrial revolution consequent on climate change on the external front, and terrorism and problems of left-wing extremism, ethnic sessionism and good and effective governance on the internal front. For an NSA or NSC to tackle this, India needs more thinking and planning, and a hands-on administration. [IE]

That the UPA government is embarking on a radical reform of the national security architecture is to be welcomed. But to the extent the media focus is on the superficial politics, on ‘frontrunners for the position’ and on perceived turf wars, there is little public scrutiny of the actual reform itself.

Friday Squib: A poet and a revolutionary

But then…

So what if you are one of the top leaders of one of India’s largest underground Maoist party. You still need to get in touch with the wife. In an interview with Romita and Aveek Datta, Mint‘s intrepid reporters, Communist Party of India (Maoist) politburo member Koteshwar Rao says:

My wife Maina is now at Dandakaranya—she is in charge of a group in Bastar (district of Chhattisgarh). We met in Hyderabad when I was state secretary (of Andhra Pradesh) and she was a comrade. The last time we met was two years ago. We communicate through letters—use of mobile phones has been banned by our central committee. I write poems to her and make sure the Indian postal department delivers them to her. I wrote poems after the landmine attack on Buddhbabu’s convoy and also on the day somebody hurled a shoe at (George) Bush. [Mint]

Now before female readers of this blog start forwarding this to their significant others, they should also know that in the very next breath, Mr Rao says that he doesn’t have kids, because “the leadership expects the women in our party to undergo sterilization after marriage.” His interviewers didn’t ask him why vasectomies were not similarly expected of the men in the party. Especially after the comrade declared that his party works for “women’s liberation”.

Overcoming the fear of the assault rifle

Citizens and self-defence

What should you do if you are confronted by a terrorist? Over at INI Signal, a decorated former army officer argues that potential ‘victims’ must charge on the terrorist and incapacitate him.

A marksman who can ‘shoot to kill’, achieves that status by practice, practice and only practice. In contrast, a terrorist in most of the cases is introduced to the weapon and after a very minimal induction, sent on a mission. With such minimal exposure, he resorts to indiscriminate firing and escapes if confronted with least opposition. His reflexes will only push him behind and the intended victim though unarmed, will gain an upper hand…

This myth of an assault rifle being disastrous should be killed and we should realize that it is the man behind the weapon and not the weapon which needs to be addressed. If the man behind the weapon is weak, a state of art weapon is equivalent to that of a block of wood. Soldiers who have had occasion to demonstrate courage under fire would perhaps be the first to accept that almost no one is devoid of fear when bullets fly. An understanding of the real destructive power of the enemy, training, being in a ‘kill or be killed’ situation and the knowledge that ‘offense is the best form of defense’ is what allows soldiers to overcome their fear and do the seemingly impossible. I am not suggesting that we train every citizen to be a soldier, but if we can do just enough so that every citizen is aware of the basics of what is the real capability of the commonly used ‘terror weapons’ and if we can educate them on how to react in adverse situations, we may have done our bit. [INI Signal]

Ram Kumar calls for a national movement to educate citizens so that they do not end up as easy prey in a soft state.

For some serious policing

Planned spending, informed planning

Sushant K Singh and Ramavtar Yadav make a case for police reforms in today’s Mint.

Social and economic security needs to be immediately adopted as one of the Plan sectors by the commission. This sector should set national objectives and provide assured resources—funds, manpower, equipment and training—for policing and encompass crimes, crimogens, criminal justice system (CJS), police organization, correctional services and judicial service.

There have been incessant calls to discard the archaic system of centralized planning and the distinction between Plan and non-Plan accounting, which has many drawbacks. In the present scheme of things, however, a Plan scheme acquires priority and urgency by virtue of being a Plan item of expenditure. A very elaborate process governs the fixing of Plan expenditure by the government and the commission. Non-Plan expenditure suffers from a lack of cost consciousness, no medium-term perspective for continuing activities and allocations, lack of macropolicy knowledge at the level where budget estimates are made and lack of feedback on performance and results. The underlying logic of identifying and channelling resources into core sectors through planned expenditures will provide policing with the necessary legitimacy, urgency and impetus in the present government set-up. [Mint]

They also call for a national crime survey that can form the basis for planning. If that sounds like common sense to you, isn’t it shocking that the current approach lacks it?

Policing is a state subject

Centralisation is not a silver bullet. Citizens will get internal security only when they demand it from their elected representatives.

In this month’s issue of Pragati, Ajit Kumar Doval, former chief of the Intelligence Bureau, argues that the “structural architecture of India’s legal-constitutional framework” poses a challenge to evolving a national counter-terrorism policy. He points out that

(While) national security, including internal security, is the responsibility of the Centre, most of the instruments—like powers to maintain law and order, the criminal administration system, police and prisons—are controlled by the constituent states. The states, keen to preserve their turf and apprehensive of the central government’s political interference are unwilling to provide any space to the Centre that could empower it to take direct action in security related matters. This renders the task of a holistic tackling of internal security threats difficult.

While the states lack capabilities to cope with these threats on their own they are unwilling to allow any direct intervention by the Centre. This seriously limits the Centre’s ability to formulate, execute, monitor and resource national counter terrorist policies in an effective and comprehensive manner.[Ajit K Doval/Pragati]

It is tempting to see a solution in shifting the responsibility to the central government. The new National Investigating Agency (a poor choice of words, “investigations” would have been better) that is now in the process of being instituted is likely to take this route. Now, it makes sense to charge a central agency with the mandate to investigate inter-state crimes like terrorism, drug trafficking and counterfeiting. But the need for a new agency was debatable—and because the parliament passed it in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Mumbai, it did not sufficiently debate this. Couldn’t the existing Central Bureau of Investigation have been given additional responsibilities, powers, resources and most importantly, independence?

While central agencies have a role to play, it is the police forces of the states that are on the frontline in the battle against terrorists. Literally, as Mumbai showed. So improving the quality of local policing and equipping them for the twenty-first century is the main act. Seductive as it is to push policing to the central government, it insidiously changes the centre-state balance. This is undesirable in principle, at least not without careful debate. But it is also dangerous: just imagine a scenario where policing is fully centralised and another Shivraj Patil is in charge.

Even financing police (linkthanks PE)through the central government’s funds carries a moral hazard—states are likely to abdicate their fiscal responsibility (or rather, never develop such a responsibility at all), and with it, begin to point fingers at New Delhi for their own failures. Citizens must hold their MLAs and state governments accountable for maintaining law and order. Central overreach disrupts this basic constitutional relationship of democratic accountability.

India didn’t suffer from this campaign of terrorist attacks because it lacked a NIA. The proximate cause is a grand mismanagement of internal security under an incompetent home minister and an ineffective prime minister. The fundamental cause is that there has been a systematic under-investment in improving policing and intelligence over the last three decades. Unless voters hold their elected representatives to account, matters will remain much the same.

Related Post:Towards a new national counter-terrorism policy