Ishita Chawla, UG’21 Last Tuesday, a bunch of enthusiastic (and hungry) Ashokans skipped their lunch hour
Professor Srinath Raghavan is one of the leading scholars on historical and contemporary aspects of Indian foreign policy and national security; he is also the Head of the International Relations Department at Ashoka University. Our Editor-in-Chief speaks to speaks to him about the upcoming 2019 elections.
Do you think that this election cycle has given an unnatural of attention to foreign policy and national security?
I’m not so sure it’s given a lot of attention to foreign policy issues per se but it has certainly given a lot of attention to Pakistan and the question of terrorism. I don’t see that necessarily as only something which has just happened recently, though obviously the crisis with Pakistan because of the Balakot strikes and the Pulwama terror attacks naturally have given it a fillip. But this has been building…we’ve been witnessing since the surgical strikes of 2016 onwards that the government has been front-ending this issue. And of course, the coming of this particular standoff at this point of time to stagger relations means that the issue is front and centre in the way that it’s looked at.
There is a lot being said about Pakistan; there are also accusations about the Opposition colluding with Pakistan and thus being anti-national. Do you think that so much of this rhetoric will at all impact India’s relationship with Pakistan or have any impact on the thoughts of Pakistani bureaucrats and military chiefs?
Well, evidently not. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has said on the record that he would rather that Mr. Modi came back to power because that would be better for India-Pakistan relations. Now, if that is a considered assessment, then I think we should go by what they are saying. I think the Pakistanis understand as much as we do that this is election time so a lot of things are being said and done clearly with an eye on the polls. So I think they would agree that once we have a new government in place, then hopefully we will have an attempt at thinking about sensible policy rather than just talk.
With regard to all of this, the former naval chief Arun Prakash had commented on the issue of Kashmir and said that the current government has done a better job while taking note of the apparent shortcomings of the previous government. Of course he did this in his individual capacity but do you think it was appropriate for him to do so…
I think you should update your question. The Air Force chief has recently said that if Rafale aircrafts had been inducted earlier, it would have helped during the post-Balakot aerial stand-off with Pakistan. That, I think, is a far more political statement to make.
Right, and thank you for that. Do you think it’s politicisation of the military that’s taking place?
It’s not just the politicisation of the military, there is an attempt to appropriate the military for a particular political variant of Indian nationalism and this has been on the cards for some time now. When the BJP government came to power one of the agendas that they championed was to position themselves as the party which was most favourable to the military, and they sought to do this through the One Rank One Pension issue. Since then, the Modi government’s consistent narrative has been that “We have given a lot more to the armed forces than anyone else”. Just a couple of weeks ago we had the UP Chief Minister calling the Indian Army ‘Modiji ki Sena’.
All of these are clearly not just attempts at politicising the military but appropriation. The question, therefore, becomes how much does the military want to get appropriated? And when I hear a statement like that of the Air Chief, I think that is unfortunate. He may not have intended it in the way that it is being read but that does not take away from the fact that these are things which are being said during election season. Moreover, these will be spun as an attack on the former government- which is exactly the way it is being done in the numerable WhatsApp groups and forwards.
What do you think might be the impact of this in social interactions, in terms of a normal conversation between people? If we have anyone critiquing the army, there are a whole lot of nasty things being said to them, is that something that can be backtracked at all?
Obviously, it can be backtracked in as much as you have civilian supremacy as an established principle in this country. And with regard to that, whatever anyone might say about Jawaharlal Nehru he at least instituted that much for the Republic. And that’s a pretty strong principle! But this whole new element which has come in post-Balakot that nobody should question or criticise the armed forces, it’s a very strange doctrine for a democracy like India to adopt. I think that the only democracy where the army cannot be questioned is that of Pakistan. If that’s what we want to become then, good luck.
About the Congress Party— in their manifesto, they had mentioned the Armed Forces Special Powers act and how they are willing to review it. However, there had been little action when they were in power. The BJP has responded saying that the Congress wants to weaken the nation with this promise. What do you make of this entire situation?
The Armed Forces Special Powers Act had been reviewed under the previous UPA government. At that point of time, the UPA government decided that they didn’t want to proceed further for the reason that the armed forces were quite resistant to any modification of the Act. So this is more of an issue of civil-military relations, than just politics.
Now the BJP government has been attacking this proposal in the Congress manifesto as another instance of the Congress party further weakening the armed forces, which ties into my earlier point of them trying to appropriate the armed forces for their variant of Indian nationalism. I think if the Congress party is sincere about any of this stuff, we should see a consistency in the way that they’ve been discussing these kinds of issues. This is not an issue that has just come up today, it has been on the table for a while. It remains to be seen what the Congress, or any other government for that matter, will do when they come to power; because the real stumbling block to the amendment to the AFSPA is the army’s stance. Therefore, it is not about the politics of it, it is about whether they can institutionally override or convince the armed forces that their concerns (about not being prosecuted for bonafide military operations) are addressed, even as human rights of the people living in these areas are secured.
Lastly, if the BJP are to come back to power, in what direction do you think Indian foreign policy and national security policy would be headed? And do you think that the government has centralised a lot of power in the office of the National Security Advisor?
I mean, all of that has already been happening. The NSA’s office has now become quite important, partly because he is now sitting on several other committees. It’s interesting that the Congress manifesto says that we need to have separate legislation for the national security council, something we don’t have at this point of time.
Beyond that, is that going to make that much of a difference to foreign policy? Obviously what is said and done in the heat of the elections shouldn’t be taken very seriously. We know in the past, in the 2014 elections, Mr. Modi has made statements about Pakistan, China etc., but as soon as he was sworn in as Prime Minister, he tried to reach out to them. So I think a broader attempt at the continuation of foreign policy will still be there but there are certain things that are being said and done now that will set the tone for how you deal with these issues, or what kind of risk you run. There are two things. First is putting the military on a pedestal, and arguing that they are beyond questioning; something which I think is an institutionally and politically incorrect thing to do. The second is about how the entire debate on terrorism is being played out. It is being played out directly with the view to retain domestic political benefits.
This has happened in the past as well. But today you see one of the main accused in the Malegaon terrorist attack is inducted into the BJP. What does that tell you about the person, who was named on a charge sheet for terrorism, is out on bail, and is now being given a ticket by the ruling political party? This is being done so that they can signal that they don’t believe in the idea of “Hindutva terror”, something which the Congress apparently “created”. If this is the level of polarisation of key national security challenges then I think there will be some kind of political price to pay for this. I don’t think everything is cost-free. Obviously, a lot will be said and forgotten before the elections get over, but some of these issues are likely to come back and play a role.