Missing the woods for the trees? India’s discordant national security discourse

India’s national security discourse is often carried out along discordant lines. Our ‘public intellectuals’, academic scholars, and politicians often rake up irrelevant issues. Concurrently, they remain blissfully ignorant about many vital national security issues. We just heard out eyebrows being raised about the so-called increase in budgetary provisions for the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) in last couple of years. Budget increases, based on functional and schematic justifications, take place in many Government organisations. But raking up false narratives like budgetary indulgence may actually harm and distract the national security discourse and the policy deliverables.

India’s national security discourse is in transition stage, both at the conceptual and processing levels and at the planning and implementation levels. The definitional aspects of national security have also undergone change and proliferated to cover many non-traditional aspects. Similar is the effect on the national security architecture. Much of the new environment of national security system in India revolves around the NSCS. However, NSCS is a fledgling institution and grew slowly in last two decades. Until some time back, the NSCS didn’t even figure in the Allocation of Business Rules and had no ministerial powers! It was dependent upon other ministries to get some of its schemes and programmes implemented.

However, in recent times, there has been an expansion in the mandate and scope of NSCS. The NSCS has also streamlined its functionality and given itself an institutional shape akin to its counterparts in developed countries like the US. Such increase in scope and functionality of NSCS, along with manpower, would be ‘meaningful’ only with ‘commensurate’ budgetary support. Those who advocate ‘penny wise, pound foolish’ approach need to realise that successful missions like Balakot may not have happened unless coordinated and resourced by the NSCS in a flawless manner and that it is not a ‘talking shop’ like other think-tanks.

While the national security discourse is by and large consensual in advanced democracies, the Indian variant is increasingly marked by certain discordants. First, we have several dichotomies pulling apart the national security discourse. There is a mainstream vs peripheral national security discourse wherein the Delhi think-tanks and scholars monopolize the agenda setting as well as discourse itself. This Delhi cadre is contemptuous of peripheral voices; so we will often not get to hear them. For example, the Indo-Nepal or Indo-Myanmar borders are full of activities but they seldom find mention as concerns by Delhi scholars. Then, there is military vs civil tussle about the very definition of security, budgetary issues and a game of one-upmanship about decision making processes, core agenda and the very composition of national security discourse. Last but not least, we also have a dichotomy between sincere scholars on the one hand and some ideologues and politicians on the other hand who have partisan approach and often irrelevant issues (like the present one) as affecting the national security discourse.

Second, positives narratives are often being missed out while debating national security. For instance, few years back, Diane Coffey and Dean Spears came out with a book (Where India Goes, Harper Collins, 2017) wherein they spoke about India’s stunted growth due to open defecation in rural areas. If the writers were to write another edition of the book today, they would surely be lauding our public policy initiatives that have overcome this problem to a great extent! Similarly, malnutrition was another problem hurting India’s attempts for a healthy environment for its school-going children. But now a recent study findings published in Nature has established the positive correlates of India’s mid-day meal schemes in better physical growth among the beneficiary children, apart from having multiplier effect on their subsequent generation as well! Similarly, the naxal menace was quite overwhelming until few years back. Today, the gun-carrying ideologues are confined to small pockets in few states and one can roam around freely in many former hard-core naxal belts. Such positive traditional and non-traditional security narratives deserve celebration, marketing and proliferation for larger benefit of the national audience.

Third, the changing national security dimension is also often missed out by our literati. The ongoing flood related havoc in Maharashtra and Karnataka or their recurrent droughts are certainly serious national security concerns. Year after year, the two states remain the largest recipients of Central assistance from the National Disaster Relief Fund. Similarly, many river systems, emanating from Nepal, create recurrent havoc in Northern Bihar on year-to-year basis that calls for a national security perspective. Further, the covid experience brings home the necessity to overcome the country’s poor health infrastructure. These may be non-traditional security concerns but warrant NSCS attention. Wish, those feeling upset on some extra coins being spent by NSCS could spare some time to pontificate on such issues as well!

Why do we often become victims of discordant national security discourse? Part of the reason is that India’s national security culture is still in developmental stage, notwithstanding the seven decades plus republican experience. Institutional pillars like the NSCS are barely two decades old and so are the other institutions and think-tanks that are just proliferating (with the sole exception of Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses that came up in late sixties). But ideational pillars like norms, belief systems, and identity suffer from divergence at times. National security issues, therefore, are often appropriated on selective and partisan basis than rational and consensual basis. Many elites lack centrality of imagination in configuring out the valid security perceptions. Therefore, they resort to negative politics and push false narratives masquerading as national security issues.

It doesn’t serve to be a rebel in national security matters. The literati should, instead, raise valid national security issues, proliferate national security consciousness and provide constructive alternatives for policy deliverables. The brouhaha over NSCS budget-related issues, therefore, is avoidable and militates against our attempts towards a dynamic and meaningful national security discourse.

Note: The author is in the Indian Defence Accounts Service. Views are personal.



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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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