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From Vajpayee to Modi, BJP's national security policy has been consistent; Congress' claim of reduced defence spending fallacious

For good or for evil, national security has become part and parcel of electioneering and point scoring. This is quite unprecedented as, barring the bipartisan rejoicing after the 1971 war, election campaigns have only marginally looked at national security issues. Not that leaders haven’t periodically raged or railed against Pakistan, but that’s not national security, which covers a far greater range of issues than the public is generally aware of.

It is to the BJP’s credit — whatever else it may do — that the party has rather consistently focussed on these issues.

Remember that it was the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government that undertook the very first national security overhaul of the system. In 2000, a panel of a Group of Ministers was set up to examine deficiencies across the board, as a result of findings of a separate committee under the redoubtable K Subrahmanyam. The Kargil review committee undertook an honest and searing review of the shortcomings that led to that near debacle. Only a small part of this was ever made public, or indeed, even written down. The discussions covered every aspect of the lacunae in not only intelligence sharing, but also border management, internal security and defence management. The first strategic defence review ever undertaken was done at this time and later upgraded to a national security review.

 From Vajpayee to Modi, BJPs national security policy has been consistent; Congress claim of reduced defence spending fallacious

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Reuters

Not overly wanting a complete reliance on the bureaucracy, which usually interprets national security departmentally, the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) was set up, which included some of the most brilliant minds of the time. This included not only MK Narayanan — who later became the National Security Advisor under the Congress — but also scientists such as Roddam Narasimha and well-known journalists, some of them strong critics of the government.

This body also came up with the first Draft Nuclear Doctrine and set up the first Technical Intelligence Agency, as well as a multi-tiered structure for intelligence sharing, which involved more than just gathering of information and having it filed for the boss alone. That’s a lot of firsts for any government in the realm of national security, even when the nuclear tests undertaken are not taken into account.

Typically of India, much of this momentum was lost in the succeeding years, in part due to bureaucratic inertia and also due to the lack of power of the Prime Minister’s Office in the later years of Congress rule. Therefore, the present BJP government inherited an NSAB that was more a retirement club of friends of the government rather than the highly critical and acerbic body that it was once was. Some of the reforms carried out earlier — like accountability for border defence — held through the years, but much of the others dissipated.

The focus, however, remained the same through both the BJP governments of 1998 and 2014 in terms of an ‘India first’ approach. Both promised to strengthen the armed forces by increasing defence expenditure, even while vilifying earlier governments for not doing so. The Vajpayee government actually did so, announcing an increase of nearly 14 percent, with the 11th Financial Commission stating the need for a yearly rise of 15 percent to take care of previous shortfalls. Although it only rose by about 10 percent at that time, it did rise.

However, since then, defence expenditure has been falling as a percentage of total GDP, which as analysts argue is an incorrect representation of the importance of defence. For one, India’s GDP has grown substantially, even while the total allocations for defence have remained within affordable limits. The accusation that BJP has reduced defence expenditure to its “lowest in 50 years’ — as the Congress manifesto says — is a figure that may not stand the process of analysis. Indeed, as a percentage of Central government expenditure, actual defence spending has remained constant over the last decade at about 16 to 17 percent.

The saffron party, therefore, seems to stand by its promise of strengthening — to the extent affordable — the capacity of the armed forces. More importantly, like Vajpayee before him, Prime Minister Narendra Modi allows the services to decide on the “what, when and how” of response in times of crisis. Both leaders gave a general direction, but after careful consultation with the chiefs. Both also made a foray to Pakistan with the intent of friendship, and both were betrayed. The comparison ends here. Modi adopted a vastly more muscular response — in every sense of the word — and does not hesitate to display just that, evident in how he made the Balakot air strikes an important part of this electioneering.

The distaste analysts have shown at this “chest thumping” is somewhat misplaced and is actually the least of the issues to should be considered. Remember that former US president Barrack Obama was soundly criticised for making the raid that brought down Osama bin Laden in Pakistan a centrepiece in his own campaign. This is what politicians do, though in India, it is naturally magnified a thousand times, as befits a population that lives on a steady diet of drama and Bollywood.

The problem lies in the oversimplification of national security in recent times. In 1998, the nuclear tests forced the BJP to think in global terms, even as it faced sanctions and international opprobrium. The present government seems to now restrict itself to a sub-continental view, through emphasising the air strikes, which while immensely important, doesn’t require the breadth of vision that the Vajpayee government did. This is not even the BJP of 2014, which had a far wider view of its place in the world.

In sum, however, the BJP has had a consistent approach to national security in broad terms. Both Modi and Vajpayee's BJP believe in a strong defence and a demand that India be accepted as an important actor on the world stage. The difference lies in the detail — where the Vajpayee government followed a policy of consultation with critics and friends alike, the Modi government has acquired a reputation of “tribalism” in an inner coterie and an undesirable degree of secrecy.

On Kashmir, both followed the party line on opposing Article 370. But Vajpayee had the grace (and the advisors) to actually provide direction. This government has the right ideas in pushing governance and infrastructure, which it assumes — probably rightly — will undercut terrorism and not just terrorists. The trouble is it lacks even a modicum of public graciousness.

There is, however, one important saving grace. So far, the prime minister has stated precisely and carefully what he means to do and then gone ahead and done it. This applies across the board from demonetisation to defence. It is this quality that has given him the reputation of a no-nonsense leader capable of delivery on the ground.

However, muscularity in national security sprang from a comfortable coalition in the last election. Now, electoral math will decide whether the next coalition will be made of men of mettle or muscle. Ideally, both qualities should dominate in decision-making related to national security, but that's hoping for the ideal.

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Updated Date: May 05, 2019 16:01:35 IST