Away from the increasing politicisation of the recent surgical strikes that the Indian armed forces conducted across the Line of Control (LoC), one aspect that is not properly highlighted in our discourse on the subject is the fact that it was a “strategic decision” — a decision taken at the highest level of the political leadership of the country (involving the Prime Minister of India). Such strikes, as the Congress rightly points out, were carried out in the past (it claims that there were three such strikes in between 2011 and 2014). But the difference between the strikes conducted when Manmohan Singh was the prime minister and the ones conducted last fortnight is that unlike the recent ones, the past strikes were “tactical” in nature. And this is something both the former army chief General Bikram Singh, and his DGMO Lieutenant-General Vinod Bhatia, have confirmed.
Though attempts have been made in a section of the media to portray that General Bikram Singh and General Bhatia have said differently (presumably because of their differing political preferences) on the subject, any dispassionate analysis will reveal that in essence, they were talking the same language. Both of them have said that the strikes across the LoC in the past were “a routine matter” and “tactical” in nature, which the previous governments were keeping secret.
In fact, General Singh has repeated what he had said on 31 July, 2014, the day he retired. While talking to the press on his last day in office, he informed how India gave a befitting reply to Pakistan, whose Army, on 8 January, 2013, had beheaded Lance Naik Hemraj and mutilated the body of Lance Naik Sudhakar Singh along the LoC in Poonch sector of J&K. “It (retaliation) has been done. Please understand that when we use force, that use is from tactical to operational to strategic levels...It has been done at the tactical level by local commanders… chiefs don’t get involved in it.”
It is worth emphasising what General Singh had said. The force is used “from tactical to operational to strategic levels”. Strategic level decisions are made by the political leadership, operational level decisions are taken by the senior military commanders in coordination with or permission from the Army Headquarters in Delhi, and tactical decisions are the preserve of the local commanders, where “chiefs don’t get involved in it.”
General Bhatia, in his interview to a TV channel, has also said the same thing. Though political twists have been given to his statement as he challenged the Congress thesis that under the UPA regime, the three surgical strikes were similar in nature to the latest strikes under the Modi-government, the former DGMO had a point when he said, "We never carried out such strikes earlier. They were not strikes, but actions carried out at very very local level. When you are firefighting, you may go across the LoC a few meters, but then you cannot call them cross border strikes.”
What exactly then are the differences? The surgical strikes this time were conducted simultaneously at multiple spots, a first of its kind. "The current strikes are a class apart, they are perfect. They are a well thought out action done at a national level, with strategic and tactical planning. They have yielded the desired results and more importantly, they have displayed India's strategic resolve and strong political will,” General Bhatia said.
Not only has the Modi government gone to town on these strikes, which have been video-graphed (but not released), but, according to some reports, the Prime Minister and Defence Minister were seeing the live-actions throughout the night (like US President Barack Obama who, with his team, witnessed in 2011 the live-actions of his Special Forces, Navy Seal, killing Osama bin Laden in Abottabad). Secondly, the follow-ups of the strikes have been well-coordinated with the Ministry of External Affairs; the Indian diplomacy has been pretty active in explaining to the international community only why the strikes took place but also its limited nature (of fighting the terror outfits in Pakistani soil, not waging a limited war against Pakistan).
Of course, it is a legitimate question whether it was a proper decision to conduct surgical strikes of this intensity (at the strategic level) that has got every possibility of counter-strikes from Pakistan, resulting in an unavoidable war between the two countries. Would not it have been better to conduct a tactical-level strike following the Uri-attack?
Answer to this question has to be “political” in the sense that the Modi government has taken a political risk by what it has done. It can justify its actions by arguing that these are difficult times that the country is undergoing. The national morale was very low following the terror strikes at the Uri military camp, and that too at a time when the Kashmir valley is under turbulence and Pakistan is leaving no stone unturned to internationalise the Kashmir problem. In such a situation, it is incumbent on the Prime Minister of the day to intervene and restore the national confidence by creating situations whose symbolic value is immense for the nation and the rest of the world to take note of. But this does not necessarily mean that the Prime Minister will always be involved in matters that are best left to the local commanders. The surgical strikes in question should, therefore, be treated as a rare or one-time case.
But now the more important questions are: how did the Prime Minister take this one-time decision? Was it a collective decision of the Cabinet Committee on Security that he heads and comprises the Minister of Defence, the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Home Affairs, and the Minister of External Affairs? Did the National Security Council (NSC) provide some inputs to the decision-making? Or, was it essentially a decision taken in an ad hoc manner by the Prime Minister with a select group of officials, including the National Security Adviser (NSA), involved in the process? All these are very important questions that, surprisingly, have not figured properly in our national discourse following the latest surgical strikes.
Let us face the sad reality that India’s national security decision-making processes so far have been archaic and anarchic. We have a got an NSC about whose functioning nobody knows. The NSC is supposed to be a three-tiered organisation that operates within the office of the Prime Minister, “liaising between the government’s executive branch and the intelligence services, advising leadership on intelligence and security issues”. It comprises the Strategic Policy Group (headed by the Cabinet Secretary, it is responsible for inter-ministerial coordination and involves three Service Chiefs and secretaries of core ministries like foreign affairs, defence, interior, finance, atomic energy and space beside the heads of the Intelligence agencies and the Governor of Reserve Bank), the National Security Advisory Board(consisting of retired officials and strategic analysts from the media, think-tanks and universities), a secretariat from the Joint Intelligence Committee and the NSA.
However, nobody knows how exactly the NSC functions. There is a complete dearth of information on the functioning of the NSC. In fact, many doubt whether it functions at all. Former Deputy NSA Satish Chandra has described the performance of the NSC as far from satisfactory. The SPG (Strategic Policy Group) hardly meets. In strict sense of the term, there is no National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) at the moment. The NSAB’s two-year tenure ended in January 2015, but the Modi government has not constituted a new one in its place as yet. In fact, there have been reports that the government wants to do away with the NSAB as a body altogether.
Even otherwise, the Modi government has not undertaken any major reforms in the arena of national security in the last two-and-a-half years of its tenure. The military leadership of the country is highly disgruntled that its voice is not being heard in the civilian-controlled Ministry of Defence. A long standing demand for having a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) or any other equivalent post to be a single-source of interactions between the military and the political leadership has not been made. The country’s intelligence-gathering system is highly fragmented.
All these things are really surprising since many expected that if any government could vitalise India’s national security structure, it was the Modi government. In fact, the BJP’s elections manifesto in 2014 had promised that the Modi government will “reform the National Security Council to make it the hub of all sector-related assessments”, “completely revamp the intelligence gathering system by modernising the intelligence department”, and “ensure greater participation of Armed Forces in the decision-making process of the Ministry of Defence”. Regrettably, there have been no signs of implementation of such promises, although the present government has competed half of its term.
And that means that behind all the bravado surrounding the latest surgical strikes, India’s national security decisions continue to be ad hoc in nature, a sad scenario for a rising global power.