(This piece first appeared on The Leaflet)
As we approach the final phases of India’s election to the 17th Lok Sabha, national security has emerged as one of the most debated issues of the season. On the one hand, the ruling party has portrayed the need for a majboor nahi,majboot sarkar espousing a muscular, aggressive approach to security threats within and outside our national borders. On the other hand, most opposition parties have taken a broader interpretation of what ‘national security’ entails. They have included economic and financial security as well as emerging threats to data and cyber security in their agenda alongside the more ‘traditional’ threats like border disputes, international terrorism and communal violence that need to be dealt with on a war footing.
In this piece, we examine whether the treatment of national security as an issue up for debate in election campaigning could jeopardize national security institutions? As a starting point, we must distinguish between the law that governs our national security and the policies that implement our national security goals.
National Security Law v. National Security Policy
It is relevant to mention that in the last five years, we have not had any substantive legislative changes to establish or alter the legal framework that applies to traditional or even emerging threats to national security. The war-making and emergency powers of the executive must still be exercised within the constitutional bounds. By corollary, counter-terror and counter-insurgency operations conducted within the law-enforcement paradigm must still respect and uphold the fundamental rights of citizens and guarantee due process rights to accused persons to the extent that such rights are not explicitly limited by any Parliamentary enactment.
We have, however, seen a tectonic shift in the policy that governs the administration of our security affairs with unprecedented emphasis and publicity given to, inter alia, covert operations and targeted operations dubbed as ‘surgical strikes’ to counter the evolving strategies of sub-conventional warfare employed by non-state actors.
Accountability to the House of the People v. Accountability to the people
The framing of national security as an election issue by the BJP has been lauded by many, including former diplomats and security experts. They seem to believe that this would lead to a democratization of India’s security complex, and open up debates on crucial issues. This argument is premised on the truism “security is everybody’s concern”.
Indeed, it is true that terror does not discriminate – and citizens from all social strata are at risk if the unity, territorial integrity or sovereignty of the country is threatened. However, the very reason for electing a democratic government is that citizens should not have to worry about day-to-day security, which is entrusted in the hands of an elected government that (we hope) will do so.
The social contract between government and citizenry is renewed after every democratic election.It demands that the government perform its core function as the sentinel on the qui vive. Except in countries that mandate conscription or compulsory military service for all adults (which India does not), the wider electorate must be the sentinel of the last resort.
I submit that it must not be left to the governed to choose whether an aggressive or conciliatory policy is better suited for the entire nation. These decisions ought to be based on a careful scrutiny of our operational and institutional strengths and vulnerabilities as they relate to every specific threat. Say, for example, the threat to the integrity of India’s national borders posed by China must obviously be dealt with differently to the threat posed by armed insurgencies fueled by the discontent of specific sections of the populace. A one-size fits all approach has far-reaching implications for threats to internal security. The securitization of the issue of migrants, and the treatment of refugees as illegal migrants within this category has ended up creating a new “other” from among “us”. The population of this “other” seems to be expanding rapidly – to include even rightful citizens from already marginalized communities within its ambit. In this particular category of threats to national security, an aggressive approach would serve to tighten the spiral from oppressive policy to retaliatory violence, making attacks more frequent and increasing the number of casualties on both sides.
A one-size fits all approach also militates against the fundamental doctrine of checks and balances enshrined in our Constitution. Merely by relying on the mandate of the electorate for aggressive responses to any nature of threat, the executive cannot be permitted to bypass discussing these issues in Parliament, with the duly elected representatives of the people. Backed by the legal protection of parliamentary privileges, the added layer of scrutiny by Departmentally Related Parliamentary Standing Committees (Defence, Home Affairs and External Affairs), makes it an appropriate forum – indeed, the appropriate forum to disclose relevant information to stakeholders who can then hold an informed debate and critically analyze these issues to support or where required, criticize the Government’s position on contentious issues.
Free and fair elections v. Opaque decisions in the interest of national security
This links directly to whether or not the average voter has made an informed choice between these policies. Accurate, reliable information on the nature, scope and gravity of threats to the security of the nation is sparse at best, and deliberately concealed at its worst. Security operations often require that certain information be kept from citizens, in order to afford greater agility and freedom of action for the effective conduct of operations by our security forces. Indeed, such provisions are essential to ensure the maximum degree of protection to our security forces in many cases.
The national security exception enshrined in Section 8 of the Right to Information Act, 2005 is among the fundamental provisions that exempt our national security institutions from obligations of public disclosure of information. For instance, the Home Minister’s claim that the Government conducted three surgical strikes in the last 5 years, but was willing to publicly disclose only two, easily falls within the national security exception under the RTI Act, shielding it from public scrutiny. An added layer of protection from disclosure is the risk of prosecution under the Official Secrets Act, 1923 which no doubt dissuades public functionaries from publicly disclosing details or blowing the whistle on any State action that points to illegality in matters that relate to defensive or offensive security operations. Additionally, the threatened prosecutions of senior journalists under the Official Secrets Act bear testimony to the fact that the wider electorate will almost never have access to full information on the threats that imperil their lives and safety, the conduct of operations undertaken to combat these threats, and perhaps even the precise expenditure incurred by the State in its effort to combat these threats. Similarly, questions around the legality of the ‘non-military pre-emptive’ Balakot strikes and the casualties caused in the strike linger. In the absence of complete, accurate information and even the right to ask for information on these topics, one cannot reasonably conclude that the decision of the electorate would be a free, fully informed choice.
The exclusive availability of such information to the ruling party alone raises another distinct issue that concerns the fairness of the electoral process. By virtue of our information security laws as they stand, the ruling party has access to a much larger, deeper trove of information on India’s national security threats and opportunities than the opposition ever could. This in itself, militates against the principle of a ’level playing field’ between political parties contesting elections on these issues. The ruling party will always have better access to information, and thus, be free to politicize frame issues as they see fit to suit their needs. Many have voiced concerns against the politicization of the military and national security issues. Yet, the Election Commission has issued standing instructions to the effect that MCC requirements are not applicable to any matters pertaining directly to the armed forces, including defence purchases, effectively giving the ruling party a free reign to frame the issues up for debate. Its intervention on the issue is restricted to a general advisory requesting candidates to desist from using photographs of armed forces personnel in their election campaigns, as they are ‘apolitical stakeholders’.
In light of these legal positions that militate against transparent and accountable governance insofar as it relates to security issues in the context of elections, it is difficult to conclude that making the electorate the ultimate adjudicator of India’s security policies and positions is in the nation’s best interest.
Signaling strategic partnerships or shifting alliances?
The uncertainty in national security and foreign policy that is created in the process could also adversely impact the conduct of our foreign relations. Unlike the United States, or other western countries that periodically articulate and review their national security policies or strategies to signal their intent to allies and adversaries alike, no such document has been forthcoming by any of our governments previously. Indeed, some may argue, and justifiably so, that the articulation of such policies and placing them in the public domain is a ‘foolish’ move that only suits the security requirements of highly advanced, industrialized nations that manage their national security through longstanding military alliances and collective security arrangements. India does not benefit from any regional or collective security agreements. Indeed, the vast majority of security threats to the nation emanate from within the subcontinent.
However, in a time of shifting alliances in the face of what has been dubbed as “Cold War 2.0”, the failure to articulate a clear policy position that deviates from our traditionally non-aligned posture in the face of a polarized world order adds to the uncertainty in the minds of voters, aggravates adversaries and alienates potential allies. Political inclinations and international alliances that develop in the heat of election campaigning for electoral gains could easily unravel after the electoral mandate is secured, giving India the reputation of being an untrustworthy ally. For this reason, election manifestos of political parties announcing their intended policies are a poor substitute to a coherent and comprehensive policy framework backed by consensus in Parliament.
Thus, a legal and policy framework must urgently be formulated to strengthen Parliamentary oversight over institutions and infrastructure that govern India’s national security, if we truly wish to democratize the institutions and processes that ensure our national security. Populism in security matters without accountability and a reasonable level of transparency, irrespective of the party functioning in such a paradigm, is the anti-thesis of democratic governance. In the absence of accountable institutions, each time a politician asserts that “national security is our top priority”, in constitutional terms this implies that citizens with access to restricted information risk sacrificing their guaranteed fundamental rights at the altar of an aggressive national security policy with unpredictable spin-off effects, internally and externally.
Will the nation ever be “secure”?
For any party to claim that national security is an end-state that can be “achieved” or “attained” is nothing but a blatant attempt to mislead an already misinformed electorate. No nation – democratic or otherwise can ever claim to have “achieved national security” or be completely unencumbered by threats to the security of its governance infrastructure and especially, its security personnel. A state that has fully realized its aspirations for a secure national border, territory or population is a false utopia of perfect place where no external or internal forces threaten the sovereignty and integrity of the nation.
The ground reality of such a proposition translates into a scenario that pushes us closer to a state of perpetual war in the pursuit of this utopia, without any official declaration of war from Government or Parliament. National security, whether considered as an aspiration, principle or goal–can only be managed at best and its worst, must be salvaged.
And so, where the electorate is tasked with picking the best managers of our national security, the suitability of candidates for this job must be benchmarked against their willingness to ensure accountability and transparency in this everyday affair.