Even as there were reports about LeT supremo Hafiz Saeed being sighted near the Wagah border, India’s ability to launch covert operations came into undesirable focus over statements attributed to Colonel (rtd) Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, a junior minister in the Union Cabinet.
In the course of a TV interview, Minister Rathore spoke about India’s security challenges (in Hindi) and inter alia, dwelt on special ops, covert ops and assured his interlocutor that India was always ready to ‘neutralize’ the enemy.
As expected, this interview was put out by a leading news agency (PTI) in English and the focus was on a response to a question about India’s enemies such as Dawood Ibrahim that read: “Wherever the enemy of India is, he should not think that India is not thinking anything about him.” And then added that as far as the Modi government is concerned, the approach is to use: ‘saam,daam,dand, beid’ (all means will be used).
Predictably, there was a flurry of media interest about this statement by the Minister and the inference drawn was that India was not so subtly ‘announcing’ its intent to launch a covert operation against Dawood et al. And very soon the clarification cum denial came through a tweet wherein the Minister noted: “Incorrect version of my statements allegedly on Dawood attributed to me.”
The TV channel has stood by its interview and the nuances are instructive. The Minister did not explicitly state that the Indian government would launch a covert operation against Dawood or any other individual – but the allusions were apparent for such inferences to be drawn. For instance Rathore’s comments on the distinction between a special operation and a covert operation were text-book like but the context cannot be ignored when the forum is a major TV channel.
This entire spectrum of special ops and other intel related options before the government is an intrinsically opaque area and the Modi government has skid on banana peels in the past year. The Myanmar operation by Indian special forces (in June), while operationally successful, was poorly handled in the public domain and the net result was the equivalent of egg in the face of the government and one presumes a strained relationship with a critical neighboring country.
In like fashion, Defence Minister Parrikar also alluded to India’s military options, apropos the terrorist challenge in May, by using an analogy (in Hindi) that would broadly correspond to ‘set a thief to catch a thief.’ Again, the statement attracted attention across the border and was skillfully exploited by Islamabad to cast aspersions against India and the Baluchistan charge was repeatedly made – namely that India has been supporting terror groups and separatists in different parts of Pakistan.
Against this backdrop of events from May to September, where the challenge of terrorism and the Hafiz Saeed-Dawood Ibrahim taunting has been a complex security and diplomatic challenge for Delhi, the need to invest in strat com – or strategic communication – is both imperative and urgent.
National security policies related to internal security and terrorism have to address both the tangible operational dimension where professional military capacity is central and concurrently – the narrative contour or the ‘story’ as the term goes. Strat com addresses the latter.
The terrorism challenge that India has been facing since May 1990 is complex and has many areas wherein the external and internal compulsions overlap. But over the least 25 years, the national security apex has not been able to evolve a boiler-plate narrative formulation about this security challenge and the manner in which it is to be articulated in the public domain – and to the 24 X 7 media in particular.
It would be a safe bet to assert that if all the members of the Union cabinet were to have a microphone thrust at them and asked to hold forth on terrorism, Pakistan and Dawood Ibrahim – the responses would be very wide-spectrum and some could veer towards the startling.
Strat com is now a universally recognized and respected tool in the national quiver and the rapid advances in cyber and media technology has only made this skill-set that much more relevant. The Rathore episode should not get mired into who said what and what inferences were drawn – but to internalize the embedded Chanakyan lesson. Invest in and acquire the necessary strat com skills – and there is no dearth of such expertise in the core Modi team.
– The author is Director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.