Swarajya magazine interviewed me on eve of the publication of my book Securing India The Modi Way: Pathankot, Surgical strikes and more, to be released on 29 September. Here are some excerpts
Rishabh (Swarajya magazine): So, my first question to you is that your book is rather curiously titled ‘Securing India the Modi Way’, what the title implies to me is that there has been a clear departure from the management of India’s security apparatus, pre- and post Modi, how radical has this departure been?
Nitin Gokhale (NG): Well, yes, certainly your assessment is right that the title implies that there has been a major change in the way the national security is handled by the Modi Govt. and the difference is: In many ways it is more robust, more muscular, it is predicated on the fact that India being the rising power needs to punch according to its weight. There are instances that have happened in the last three, three and half years now, in forty months which bear testimony to what the Modi government has done as far as the national security is concerned. Therefore the title. The book includes not just various operations but the fundamental changes that have been brought in to management of national security.
Rishabh: Okay, could you give any examples of certain incidents that have struck your eye?
NG: Yes, in fact they all feature–at least two or three of those examples–in the book but the prominent one, the biggest one is India’s approach towards China and I’ve called that chapter ‘Standing up to China’, because if you look at some of the incidents that have happened at the border, be it in Chumar in 2014, when President Xi Jinping was in fact in India and the way India handled the stand-off at the border, then at Dolam, which is popularly being called as Doklam, which is the Chinese name, the Dolam plateau crisis in recent months, in which the underlying theory or the underlying principle in handling that crisis was that India will be resolute on the border but reasonable in diplomacy. Now that is something which is a major departure, which I think the world over people have come to recognize as far as dealing with China is concerned that you’re looking at Chinese which is as a nation, China as a military power, as an economic power is much bigger than India but Modi as Prime Minister and his security team led by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval have decided that you can’t let China bully India, you have to stand firm at various places and at the same time do not treat China as the enemy. It is a challenger, it is an adversary but India is not exactly pining for a fight, is what India’s response has been as far as China is concerned and that to me is a major departure from past.
Rishabh: You refer to Mr. Modi’s robustness in terms of the security apparatus. Last year saw the much touted cross border strikes which were heralded as the great personal triumph of the PM, was this option open to previous governments too?
NG: Oh well yes, if you speak to military commanders which I often do, these options were always on the table, that the military, the army especially has always looked at it as one of the options and you speak to former chiefs or former army commanders in Northern Command which looks after the Pakistan border, they’ll tell you that there were some shallow raids, some cross-border raids in the past. Nobody is denying that. The difference between those raids and what happened on 29th September 2016 is the fact that it was the first time such a raid was owned by the PM, it was authorized personally by the PM in consultation with his security team which included the Defence Minister, the National Security Advisor and the Army Chief and which was then not only publicly announced but authorized as I said by the PM but owned. So, there was big gamble, both political and military gamble with this because if something had gone wrong in the raid, India would’ve been shamed. It is this gamble that previous PMs did not want to take. Their approach was: if you want to raid, do a cross-border raid in Pakistan or POK, go ahead, but don’t tell us.
Rishabh: Okay, so, speaking of this personal political gamble what reaction would PM Modi would’ve expected from the world and Pakistan after the strike, what were the different types of reactions do you recon would’ve played-out in his head?
NG: Well, you know I detail that in the book. India factored in a kind of escalation even if it seemed remote at that time, they had factored in, India’s security managers had factored in a likely escalation or retaliation from Pakistan and had sort of prepared for any eventuality including a wider conflict but that didn’t happen and Pakistan went completely quiet and in a denial mode was because it was stunned in to silence because they did not expect, the Pakistan establishment and the Pakistanis Army did not expect this to happen. Going by the reactions and the radio chatter and the kind of movements that happened in the PoK, one can very firmly surmise that tactical raids and they were tactical raids–they were seven points in which the raids took place but across the wide frontier of about 250 KM from Uri north of Pir Panjal to Naushera, South of Pir Panjal– simultaneous raids actually had a strategic impact.
Rishabh: Mr Doval has been known as the point person for Mr. Modi on security aspects, what has been your assessment of him in the role of NSA? His role in Pathankot for instance.
NG: Pathankot forms a major chapter in my book, in which I bust many myths that were built, many misconceptions that were built around that attack and the role or no role that Ajit Doval as the NSA had played in preventing the attack. If you go through what I’ve written I have said that it was because of a proactive approach adopted under the leadership of the NSA, that India did not lose any of the vital strategic assets i.e. aircraft, the missiles, the ammunition dump and neither was any hostage situation allowed to be developed on that big campus which is the Pathankot Airbase which has about 2000 Acres of area and had 10,000 civilians living on that campus., you should compare that kind of an attack in our neighbourhood, in Afghanistan where the US airbase was attacked or in Pakistan twice or in Sri Lanka there were huge damages to aircraft, missiles and the infrastructure. In this case, yes, India did lose seven brave men but those were because of circumstances or lack of information on ground at that point in time but there was only one combat fatality really in chasing the terrorists. So, it was proactive intelligence wise and proactive combat wise. Because of this I think Pathankot is a bigger success, contrary to what people believe or say.
Rishabh: Could you briefly outline how the overall decision making within the security establishment works, like what are our strong points or the chinks in our armour?
NG: See, there’s nothing as good which can’t bettered in any circumstances but what has happened in last three, three and half years is that there’s a lot of proactive measures, there’s a lot of coordination and synergy between different agencies. Gone is the bickering of the old where there were turf battles between different agencies, intelligence as well as the security forces that’s because the NSA is an experienced and a respected man and the PM gives a very clear directive in what needs to be done and once he takes a decision he does not waiver no matter what the political consequences, when it comes to securing India’s national interest. That is what underlines his national security policy. It is India first and not anything else, so therefore, that is the big change, there’s no compromise on the core interests of India. However I think we need urgent police reforms in India. The law enforcers need to be better equipped and better trained and the military needs to overcome its critical shortages which have historically been there for past 20 years or so. I’m not expecting them to be made up quickly but they’re moving towards it. So, I think there has been no major terror attacks in any of the states other than J&K and parts of Punjab bordering Pakistan in the past 40 months in prevailing circumstances the world over, I think is a major achievement.
Rishabh: What are views on how government manages the military procurement in the country, the strategic partnership model and a lot of other ideas being meted out, are these helping yet in your opinion?
NG: Well, it’s a start and as I’ve said many fundamental policy changes have taken place in defence procurement, in policy but no policy is perfect and the Strategic Partnership Model I think needs a bit of tweaking, it needs further discussion between all the stake holders but the Defence Procurement Policy 2016 which was unveiled during the Defence Expo is a path braking initiative because it gives primacy to IDDM product, the indigenously designed developed and manufactured product in defence, so, that gives top most preference to Indian products in the military segments. That said, India has a long way to go to become self sufficient and self reliant, self reliant in defence but it’s a start and of course the Modi Govt needs to do more than what they’ve done or what they’ve managed to do so far but I’m hopeful, given that the focus is on the national security in a big way, those wrinkles will be ironed out very soon.
Rishabh: You’re someone who’s deeply interested in the north-east, the Myanmar border raid on the NSCN terrorists was an Indian cross-border operation, was it the first time that such an operation had taken place?
NG: Well again as I said, owning-up of the operation was the first time, certainly to my mind. I’ve lived in and reported from the north-east for 23 years between 1983 and 2006. In my mind there have been raids on as I said the headquarters of militant groups or camps of militant groups, all that has happened in the past. There was one operation that comes to mind, Operation Golden Bird, which happened in 1995, where the Indian and the Myanmarese army acted in concert to prevent huge influx and huge consignment of arms coming into northeast, that was there but in this case, it was an immediate raid that took place and certainly the Indian army Special Forces went into Myanmar and decimated a big camp of all the North-East militants living together, a large camp and therefore I think that was the first. And again let me tell you that it was because of the success of the Myanmarese operation that the army and the security establishment at the highest level thought of doing similar cross border raids across the LoC in the PoK, so in a way it can be said that it was a start of the proactive policy in terms of tackling militants and terrorists on both western and eastern fronts.
Rishabh: Do you envision more such operations taking place across the border?
NG: Well, let me say this or paraphrase Lt Gen DS Hooda, who has been all over the media for past 2-3 days, “Can India do a similar raid again? Yes it can, because it broke the glass ceiling” as he says in the interviews, it actually unshackled the fetters that were in the minds of the Indian military planners because they were never given the political clearance to do this. Because it was seen escalatory, a raid across the LOC in PoK. You ask me if they can be repeated, yes, they can be but no two raids of special forces are similar. Therefore, there are other options now that India can exercise when it needed but what it has done is that it has created an uncertainty in the minds of the Pakistani military establishment where they no know how India will react. Earlier, the reaction or retaliation used to be very predictable.
Rishabh: Going back to the north-east, what has been your estimation of PM Modi handling of the Naga talks and the other insurgencies in the north-east?
NG: Well, the insurgencies have I won’t say petered out or come under manageable control but about the Naga talks I’m slightly disappointed in the sense that it’s been more than two years now that the framework accord were signed but there has been no final conclusion to the accord. But I’m not surprised because the history of Naga Insurgency in India, remember it’s the oldest insurgency at least in Asia started in 1956 and it has a very chequered history of failed accords, hopes and optimism rising. Remember it has been almost 20 years when the ceasefire was ordered with the NSCN (IM) in August 1997. I would think that the government is working towards a solution, where, when will it come, whether it’ll come in this tenure of the government, I’m not sure but it’ll come, if you ask me what is my desire or what is my wish, it should come very soon.
Rishabh: That was it for us, Nitin. Thank you for talking to us.