India needs a national security document too. But don’t do a Pakistan
In the absence of an NSS, the Integrated Defence Staff has made an effort to flesh out a Joint Doctrine outlining the roles the military is likely to undertake.
Pakistan’s rather less than revolutionary National Security Policy has been debated vigorously, with the most generous assessment wondering what the document seeks to achieve, even against India. The full 110-page document remains classified, so the whole could have far more direction than is evident. But what’s more interesting is why Pakistan chose to put this out at all. After all, it’s not that every country publishes such a document, other than the large powers like the US, France, or China. India certainly hasn’t drafted one despite calls from analysts and former officials that it should.
Should India put out such a document, not because Pakistan has, but because it’s necessary for diverse reasons? Or would putting this out in public be detrimental to our objectives?
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Why a National Security Policy/National Security Strategy?
It is first necessary to understand why countries put out such documents in the form of an NSP or a sharper National Security Strategy (NSS). The White House is mandated by law to present an NSS to Congress. This then cues into the National Defence Strategy, and thereafter the complicated task of defence authorisations, all of which is scrutinised closely by domestic and foreign audiences. China produces a Defence White Paper intermittently, aimed heavily at external audiences, with its warnings of ‘hegemony’ and its 73 references to ‘peace’. Its stated goal “to fully transform the ‘people’s armed forces’ into world-class forces by the mid-21st century” succeeded in alarming neighbours and competitors alike, even while it gave a definite direction to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
The UK, under Boris Johnson, has gone one up on previous governments by bringing in an Integrated Review 2021, aiming for a “Global Britain”, and the Defence Command Paper 2021, which says that British troops will move from a “force of last resort” to being “persistently engaged globally”, is a startling directional change. France brought out a Strategic Update that commits itself to modernisation goals and raising the budget to two per cent of GDP by 2025. That’s real long-term planning. In Japan, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will replace the NSS of Shinzo Abe with a significantly stronger role for defence, in a signal to the world that Japan is preparing to shrug off constitutional constraints.
In a way, all these documents assess and prioritise perceived challenges, chart a direction to deal with them, all of this with an eye on available funds. They are addressed to both internal and external audiences, and act as a platform for the government of the day. Most such documents identify enemies obliquely, though it is perfectly clear that China rules in terms of threat for the others mentioned above. Not for Pakistan though. Its NSP flatters the Chinese connection, but devotes one cold paragraph to the US despite Washington being the highest donor of grant-based assistance. All NSS’ are, therefore, also used for signalling even if it means twisting the facts. Another aspect common to all is that each highlights its particular value system. The US hails democracy, France its strategic independence, China its people’s system, and Pakistan its ‘Islamic Status’.
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Getting your priorities right
Given all this, what would be the benefits of an Indian NSS?
First, it would provide a ‘whole of government’ direction on what to prioritise in a national security scenario that includes almost everything from human security, economy, and environment to defence. Limited resources make it a difficult exercise. For instance, India increased its health expenditure by 137 per cent in Budget 2021-22. Defence got 2.15 per cent of GDP, the lowest in six years. That seems incomprehensible to those studying the China threat, but is lauded by those battling the pandemic. In another instance, agriculture subsidies stand at about two per cent of GDP, which doesn’t include costs of electricity, irrigation etc. Compare that with the defence of this country, and you get the picture.
So, an NSS would force bureaucrats to justify every penny, and choose which is paramount. With government debt projected to rise to 90.60 per cent of GDP in the current fiscal, scarce resources is the bottom line of an NSS prioritisation exercise in a budgeting that has to stand at least till 2032. But remember, such prioritisation will also be scrutinised by the enemy to know your weakest points, and that’s where it will hit.
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Decide on your values
Then there is the sticky question of values that permeate any NSS. India can pride itself on its democracy, however noisy and unruly. But an NSS will have to decide how it will phrase ‘secular’, a word that may be increasingly suspect but is part and parcel of the Constitution. It can be argued that there is no need to refer to it at all. But it will have to be implicit somewhere in the text when laying out internal security.
An NSS that makes the statement that all faiths are free to prosper in India would be a powerful message for all audiences, including political party workers and top men. That means ditching legislation such as the Citizenship Amendment Act, for instance, or rewriting it to say that ‘all minorities’ from India’s neighbourhood will be welcome home. Since these are anyway all Hindus and Sikhs, and some Christians, it makes little difference. The question is whether this government wants to stress national unity, or Hinduism. It matters.
An NSS is also about political messaging, especially in the second tenure when the gloss usually fades. The present government had highlighted a strong image, and delivery of social schemes as its central message after the first term. Ministries cannot, however, get away by presenting an array of ‘yojanas’. What is required is a direction towards a goal that sits well within the parameters of politics and resources. In this regard, the agricultural reforms were just right – they were revolutionary, and would have cut the Gordian knot of debt-ridden farming and poor planning. Politics and poor communications put an end to that.
An NSS can be an ideal platform to communicate with the people of India — not just the Hindi belt — for instance, a mention of the economic and technology fields it intends to prioritise for the next ten years. Industry and startups will find that to be a clear commitment in black and white, backed by the requisite funds, rather than rely on a chancy commitment from a minister.
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And messaging outwards
The exact language used for diplomatic and military directives is what will be watched closely by external actors. At one level, the simplest way out is to say that India’s national security objectives are best met by a peaceful neighbourhood, and international cooperation. But there is hardly any point in putting out an NSS that utters such platitudes. Somewhere, it has to acknowledge the rise and threat from China, which means diluting to some extent the careful diplomacy that has prevailed so far. True, policy has already been enunciated by Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, who referred to ‘three mutuals and eight principles’ as key to relationship with Beijing.
And how would an NSS frame the Quad? It is all very well to say that Quad “reflects globalisation and compulsion of countries to work together”. But China will remain suspicious, and the US impatient for a more concrete commitment. The difficulty is how to put India’s careful manoeuvring into a language that doesn’t degenerate into mere high-flown English while remaining close enough to the US to avoid sanctions such as on the S-400 missile purchase.
Finally, the security aspect.
In the absence of an NSS, the Integrated Defence Staff has made a praiseworthy effort to flesh out a Joint Doctrine that outlines the various roles that the military is likely to be called to undertake. It makes no mention at all of any enemy, or whether we are capable of fighting a possible two-front war. That’s a key question for the future.
Then there is the question of operational honesty. While it is admirable that the armed forces commit themselves to defend to the death, it is also important to state clearly what they cannot do. One example is of the US Defence Strategic Guidance 2012 that warned amid budget cuts that “the balance between available resources and our security needs has never been more delicate”. In simple words, any hollowness needs to be spelt out to political leaders, and ministries. That’s not going to be easy.
There’s a lot more, such as an environment policy which in a time of severe climate change is as strategic as it gets. Or a cyber threat and opportunity mandate. All of this and more would benefit from an NSS that forces ministries to strategise, plan and execute, particularly if this is followed up with a yearly strategic review. Except that it’s not that simple.
Transparency has always been for the powerful nations, since it suits them to showcase their might, and future plans. A weaker country doesn’t benefit from showing the world that their purse is small and ambitions even smaller. But the benefits of forward planning would seem on balance, to far outweigh the risks. It is true that India has always been good at a ‘fire-fighting’ policy – visible recently in Ladakh, or in rising to the Covid challenge. But such policies are expensive and risky, and cannot replace true forward planning, ideally for as much as ten years, and forward budgeting. An NSS doesn’t have to reveal all these details, but it should provide clear and simple direction, which can withstand the test of time, and a volley of near-certain criticism, rather than the catechism and posturing that characterises the Pakistani document.
The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.