Now that the dust has subsided after a momentous national election, the new administration has to get down to the business of governing. The general outlook on this is that there is unlikely to be any radical departure from the policies of the outgoing government. This semblance of continuity owes to the fact that the Congress, while in opposition earlier, constantly harped about the pedigree of the previous BJP-led government's initiatives, particularly in reference to India Shining on the economic front, and to the Pokhran II blasts on the security front.
If China has now chosen to include Sikkim as part of India in their maps, the Congress would have it that the process was set in motion with the Rajiv Gandhi visit of 1988. On the Pakistan front, the Congress would have others believe that the seeds of the Lahore process were in the non-papers submitted by the prospective National Security Adviser, Mr. J N Dixit to his Pakistani counterpart in 1994. With respect to the West, India's strategic partnership with the United States is attributed to policy shifts dating back to India's economic reforms initiated by the new Prime Minister during his tenure as the Finance Minister in the Narasimha Rao government, and to subsequent adjustments to the changing global order of the 1990s. Thus the strategic agenda of today, it can be claimed, has its origin in the earlier initiatives of the last Congress government.
Any changes to the current policies, then, would amount to a correction in emphasis, rather than substance. India, during the previous government's tenure, acquired the image of being overly inclined towards the US. So much so that it was the Congress statement against the recent gross violations of the Geneva Conventions by the US in Iraq that forced the government to speak out in like manner. India's policy towards Pakistan was characterized by 'surprise' moves in both dangerously heightening temperatures as well as ushering peace back in. In Kashmir the 'human touch' may well be taken to its logical conclusion since the Center and the state governments are both now being run by the same PDP-Congress combine. Earlier the supervision by the Advani-Fernandes duo of the security forces in Kashmir had virtually rendered Vajpayee's promising hand of friendship a tactical move rather than a genuine change of heart.
A long-term security guarantee can only spring from a course correction placing the common man at the center of the economic agenda, and ensuring gains for the majority from any new agenda.
Defence or development? With respect to nuclear weapons, pressure from the Left parties may result in a changed emphasis from weaponisation to nuclear confidence building with Pakistan. The overtures of the Vajpayee government towards the Musharraf regime are likely to be carried forward with greater commitment since this government does not carry a chip on the shoulder over the Kargil episode.
The similarities notwithstanding, there are three major areas where the new government will have to demonstrate clear differences from the past. The first is with respect to economic policy. The government has promised 'reforms with a human face'. The people of India have indicated that India Shining was applicable only for the rich micro-minority. A long-term security guarantee can only spring from a course correction placing the proverbial common man at the center of the economic agenda without derailing it. The arc of insecurity developing across India from the Nepal border to Telengana, the deepening rural-urban divide, the dismantling of the social security net built up by earlier socialist and nationalist policies, privatization without due regard to livelihood issues of the poor, and over-emphasis on cutting edge sectors, are some economic areas having a bearing on 'human security'. An increased sense of participation stemming from gains from reforms among the majority would ensure stability not only of the reforms but also of polity over the long haul.
Second, of greater consequence over the middle term, is the rebuilding of national cohesiveness that had suffered a severe setback over the recent past. While the Sangh parivar-backed government has much to answer for in this regard, the Congress must also be faulted for its competitive flirtation with soft Hindutva beginning with Indira Gandhi's second term.
An unambiguous message of the voter in these landmark elections is for an end to politics of hate. The holding of the two highest offices of the land by members of minorities testifies to India's secular depth. This strength has to be continually nurtured in the face of future events arising from both external and internal circumstance. The BJP may veer to the Right in preparing itself for Elections 2009 and thereby posing problems on the socio-political front. Externally, the spread of Islamism, that has spared India thus far, could penetrate India's minority enclaves in case other Gujarats resulting from the anticipated rightist assault are not prevented through sound policies building social cohesion and violence put down with unbiased commitment to law and order.
A third arena for distinct change arises from a news report that unsurprisingly got swept away from the headlines by the election results. It was on the attempted fraud by a Major and a Colonel up at Siachen Glacier to grab national awards for valour. The bright side of the sorry episode has been that the supervisory authorities detected the attempt in a timely manner. However, the downside is that the episode may point to a certain decline in the culture of service in the armed forces. While this may be attributable to the fall in societal values generally and in features internal to the forces as promotion avenues, etc. this is also a pointer to the manner of handling by the political masters.
The defense forces had come perilously close to being politicized, best exemplified by the firing of an Admiral. A decline in professionalism is axiomatic in such circumstance. At the level where the boot hits the turf, this could have life-threatening implications for citizens subject to counter terrorism operations. It is no wonder that the voting percentages in areas that count in terms of demonstrating the success of Indian democracy such as in Srinagar and South Kashmir were as low as 20%. The US predicament over revelations from Abu Ghraib prison indicates that while aberrations may take place, policies at systemic levels must bear some of the blame. Therefore the new government would do well to take a fresh look at the autonomy-political supervision equation of security forces. The tail must cease to wag the dog.
While defense may be at the heart of security, it is not necessarily the most important sector for security. Pro-poor economic policies, ending of the era of social divisiveness, and a foreign policy bringing back balance from an uncritical acceptance of unilateralism in a unipolar world should form the critical context for reframing national security in terms of 'human security'. The elevation of a clean non-politician to the highest executive office is a healthy portent for fulfilling this national aspiration.