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Is Chidambaram on top of the Maoist issue?

December 28, 2010 21:22 IST
For the sake of India, let's hope Mr Chidambaram will keep his powder dry, use his tonnage to lean on the state governments to pull their weight and give a definitive click to the counterinsurgency measures.

Needless to add, the home minister needs to employ more tact and less 'arrogance', says M P Anil Kumar on the government's anti-Naxal strategy this year.

There are many elements to a campaign. Leadership is number one. Everything else is number two.

-- Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright

In other words, leadership can make or break a campaign.

Scroll of follies

► He locked horns with the Pakistani establishment in his first innings as the Union home minister. In his second, P Chidambaram took the Maoist bull by the horns; he rolled up his sleeves, girded his loins, padded up as the Naxal-buster, and motioned the outlaws to lay down their arms and sit across the table. It was a radical change from his asleep-at-the-wheel predecessor Shivraj Patil.

But the Maoists ignored him and continued with their bushwhacking ways. So he drew in his horns and offered to talk to the insurrectionists if they 'abjured' violence even if they did not lay down arms. The Maoists tossed it out of court.

He climbed down further and proposed that if the Maoists would suspend violence for just 72 hours, he would respond 'magnanimously' by fixing a date, place and time for talks, on anything the Maoists wished to talk about.

Kishenji, the leader of the Red Brigade, lobbed the grenade back into Chidambaram's office stating if the Centre cooperated, then they were willing to abjure violence for 72 days!

Taken aback by the riposte, Chidambaram turned schoolmaster: 'I would like a short, simple statement from the CPI (Maoist) to be faxed saying, "We will abjure violence and we are prepared for talks". I would like no ifs, no buts and no conditions.' The bloodshed raged.

Thereafter, whenever the stench of violence assailed his nose, he reflexly chanted 'talks', but the ultras thumbed their nose at the home minister. With his mantra of talks eliciting nil returns, what next? Perhaps, cap in hand, plead for 'dialogue' with the defiant extremists?

Governments deign to invite the rebels for talks from a position of strength. Since the state forces hadn't cornered the Maoists, Chidambaram himself knew more than anyone else did that coaxing them for talks was a mug's game. So why the charade? Smart governments engage go-betweens to nudge the rebels to the table, and never make a dog and pony show of talks.

► After the massacre of 76 CRPF personnel in Chintalnar (Dantewada, Chhattisgarh) on April 6, Chidambaram pronounced it was time to reconsider using the army and air force in the government's fight against left-wing extremism.

Had it not been for the prudent words of restraint by the chiefs of the army and air force, the swashbuckling home minister could have railroaded the defence ministry into 'press-ganging' the Services into anti-Maoist operations.

The state police, not the army, are the best bets against the Maoists.

► Though the Centre has a constitutional responsibility to discharge, dealing with the Maoists is the domain of the states. The gung-ho home minister usurped that role and thus projected it as the Centre's headache, and the state governments gladly allowed him to beat the war drum. Result: The states deftly shifted the onus on to the Centre.

In this protracted conflict, the Centre's principal job is four-fold:

  • Equip the states with necessary capacities and capabilities;
  • Ensure that the central funds are spent efficiently to modernise the police and to upgrade the police stations and outposts;
  • Enforce police reforms;
  • Encourage the states to confront the riffraff head-on.

The states are actually awash with moolah from the war chest, but they have squandered it and done zilch to force the Maoists on the backfoot. As for police reforms, the states have shrugged it off.

That he could not goad the states to pull their finger out has naturally triggered a drumfire of criticism, leaving the eager beaver minister to lick his self-inflicted wounds.

► In the media-coined Red Corridor (Maoist country), approximately half the landmass is under the thumb of the Maoists (People's Government in Naxal-speak), one-fourth under the shaky writ of the states, and the rest of the acreage is what the contenders are presently fighting for.

The 'anti-Naxal offensive' to dominate the one-fourth pie is primarily run by the Centre, and the stricken states have displayed little spine in taking on the insurgents. The understanding was that while the state police would spearhead the offensive, the paramilitary forces would array like a grid (a time-tested deployment drill adopted by the Indian Army in the Northeast and Jammu & Kashmir) to impose the presence of the state as well as to flush out the militants.

Once these badlands were sanitised, the state governments would deploy the army of babus to sow development.

The influx of state forces definitely has an impact, but only till the other side figures out the chinks. The Maoists were swift to read the script and plot the counteroffensive.

Be it conventional or guerrilla warfare, every assault hinges on deception and element of surprise. Mavens remind us time and again that insurgencies are fought with ideas as much as they are with weapons and gallantry. Like in any battle, tactical innovation is the key to successful counterinsurgency operations.

Chidambaram's strategists are obviously too slow-witted to grasp the theatre dynamics, and therefore easily outthought by the Maoists. No wonder then that the backwaters continue to remain the Maoist backyard. And frontyard. Credit to their generalship.

To his discredit, Chidambaram rushed in untrodden territory, with insufficient and ill-prepared personnel, to vie with well-organised Maoist dalams. Ah, the cardinal error of taking the plunge without having the forces, resources and intelligence-gathering apparatus in place.

In sum, the conceived operations were unsustainable from the outset. Is it any wonder that the slogan of 'dominate, clear, hold and develop' has not resonated?

The trick is no secret.

First, the paramilitary formations need to be trained for the task under officers of calibre.

Second, they need to be given the time to familiarise with the terrain and local tongue.

Third, they need to be told to respect the customs, traditions and rituals, as nothing agitates the locals more than the violation of their mores. Take your time, Sir, but do it right.

Chidambaram's second wind?

Given the raft of errors, fits-and-starts lunges at the Naxals, lack of political traction, he and his war council seem to rely on wishful thinking rather than astute strategy to contain the long festering contagion.

Is Chidambaram on top of the Maoist issue?

The fratricidal war being fought within his party, the name-calling, the washing of dirty linen in public, the muddle-headedness of his party on how to 'reclaim' the 'misled' Maoists, the please-all electoral politics, Union ministers hobnobbing with the outlaws, have all conspired against Chidambaram to paint him as a lone ranger, a self-appointed sheriff. To his credit, he has absorbed the recoil and potshots with enviable sang froid.

To be fair to Chidambaram, he had lamented about being hamstrung by a 'limited mandate'. Therefore, for my money, the buck really stops with the prime minister, but Dr Manmohan Singh is seemingly a man in office but not in power, eclectic in thought but static in action. Speeches punctuated with pledges and plans are all very well, but if his government intends to efface the footprint of the Maoists, the well-intentioned Good Doctor ought to walk the talk.

► At the rollout of the Union government's freshly minted 'anti-Naxal surge' formulation in July, the home minister enumerated the initiatives:

  • Raising of 34 new battalions of the India Reserve Battalion (IRB);
  • Induction of more Special Police Officers (SPO);
  • Creation/strengthening of 400 police stations in two years;
  • Improving road connectivity in 34 districts most affected by the Maoists;
  • Providing more helicopters for logistics support, troop movement and supplies;
  • Creation of a chief secretary-helmed Unified Command with a retired major general as advisor in Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand and West Bengal.

Late in the day yet laudable, especially the focus to get more boots on the ground and stay the course with police action. I have a bone to pick only with the last one.

A retired major general as consultant is neither fish nor fowl. Seems Chidambaram hasn't yet learned that advisors never win the war, only the troops on the battlefield do. (If he or the four chief secretaries need 24-carat advice, they must pow-wow with the field commanders.)

On that score, he needs to initiate four steps:

1. Instead of a superannuated major general as advisor, get a serving lieutenant general seconded to his ministry and appoint him as the director general of the CRPF.

2. Expedite the lateral entry of retired army officers and other ranks into the paramilitary forces. In fact, the Kargil Review Committee had made significant suggestions on this count like shrinking the colour service of soldiers from 17 to 7 to 10 years, and absorbing the army personnel into the paramilitary formations, which, besides keeping the army younger, would provide seasoned soldiers to the paramilitary services.

Trust our babus to stymie a good proposal. They have ensured the issue of seniority remains a bone of contention; the paramilitary forces want these army veterans to be treated as new recruits but the army is insistent, rightly, on their seniority being carried forward.

3. The Rashtriya Rifles experiment in Jammu and Kashmir has been a success. The permanent nature of their deployment tends to instil confidence among the locals. Creation of a similar force carved out of the central paramilitary formations could be telling.

4. Create an army-coached crack team of commandos -- men drawn from the state police and the central paramilitary forces -- to undertake special operations on the Maoist nerve-centres.

Irons in the fire

The Maoist-takeover hasn't happened overnight. They have simply colonised the neglected, tribal-dominated, sylvan countryside -- a natural habitat -- abdicated hectare-by-hectare by the state administration.

The silver-tongued apologists of the Maoists have portrayed the rebels as idealistic and aggrieved fellows struggling valiantly to overturn the injustice meted out by a savage State.

Make no mistake, the Maoists want to storm the Bastille and set off the Red Revolution. One cannot but concede their right to revolt against an apathetic State corroded by corruption and sloth, but one cannot accept their armed means to pursue the end. They need to be defanged.

So, for the sake of India, let's hope Mr Chidambaram will keep his powder dry, use his tonnage to lean on the state governments to pull their weight and give a definitive click to the counterinsurgency measures. Needless to add, he needs to employ more tact and less 'arrogance'.

► Although history is replete with militias turning up trumps, only the state should employ armed forces. A state midwifed a militia to battle the Maoists, but the Salwa Judum itself became a law unto itself. Disband it pronto.

► To grab the mining windfall, another force to reckon with has sneaked in to the mineral-rich forestland -- the expropriatory and exploitative pack of politicos, officials, fixers and businessmen who will do business with anyone. Throw the book at the mining mafia.

► Cogently refute the overground spokespersons of the Maoists to set up the edge on the propaganda war.

► That the posse of security personnel in Dandakaranya and elsewhere has become skeet-shooting practice for the Maoist foot-soldiers allude to lack of strategic imagination and gutless leadership (political and police).

What Bertolt Brecht mused about leadership is germane to the ongoing anti-Maoist campaign. Inferior leadership will surely mar and prolong the campaign, and demoralise the rank and file.

Food for thought: Whereas young officers who live and toil every day with their troops lead the operations undertaken by the Indian Army, the police and paramilitary contingents are led by over-the-hill men who seldom sweat it out with the constables they command.

With the inept leadership of the IPS officers having come to light, it's time to examine the very concept of the 'Indian Police Service'. It surely makes more sense to have the central forces and the state police to be led by its own cadre officers -- Army-like -- rather than the 'twice-born' IPS officers. Why not dissolve the IPS?

► Triumphant counterinsurgency campaigns are not far to seek; we need to look not beyond Mizoram, Punjab, Tripura and Andhra Pradesh. Ajai Sahni, our own counterterrorism expert, has listed four imperatives in a drawn-out engagement with the Maoists:

  • Capacity building;
  • Intelligence augmentation;
  • Targeted operations;
  • Management of populace.

One deed he omitted is cracking the nexus of the vested interests. As big money and political patronage are sustaining the Maoists, smashing this coterie is vital to gain ground in the anti-Naxal drive. Who will bell the cat?

The situation is crying for a 'call to arms' to the civil services, but with the babus having evolved into city-domiciled lotus-eaters, where will we find committed administrators to labour in the backwoods?

Short service commissioned officers of the armed forces can be retrained and inducted into a special civil services cadre specifically meant for the Red Corridor. Their career opportunities and rewards, of course, must match those of the regular IAS officers.

► If the Maoists continue to dig their heels in, does Chidambaram plan to subdue the entire legion of Maoists? Broadly speaking, there are two types of Maoists:

  • The stalwarts wedded to the ideology;
  • The victims of State brutality and the commoners disgruntled with awful governmental services who joined the Maoist ranks to avenge the maltreatment.

The campaign should primarily target the former (ideologues) through surgical Special Forces' operations. Once the kingpins are taken out and the centre of gravity dismantled, weaning away the latter (embittered lot) should not be burdensome. An exacting mission but the impact could be galvanic. And it would achieve the foremost objective with minimal blood-spilling.

Ah, Brecht's emphasis on leadership again, this time how disabling the bellwethers could swing the campaign in your favour.

► Modern-day insurgencies are fundamentally driven by social, political, economic and now religious discords. Therefore, while contriving the counterinsurgency campaign, the martial dynamic must never be allowed to overshadow the political dynamic.

We never tire of recycling mistakes

Chidambaram had unshelled the silver bullet to extinguish Maoism -- the oft-chanted mantra: development and police action. (But he is mum about the third incantation -- governance.) Prodded by Chidambaram, the Planning Commission pegged away at contriving schemes to nourish the Naxal-hit districts with development, and thus begat the Integrated Action Plan (IAP).

Last month, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs benevolently approved the IAP in 60 tribal-and-backward districts: To diminish the development deficit, each district would be allocated a block grant of Rs 25 crore in 2010-11 and Rs 30 crore in 2011-12.

These funds (Rs 3,300 crores) are to be managed by the usual suspects -- collector, superintendent of police and forest officer of the district. Of course, with strings attached -- compliance of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996 and the Forests Rights Act 2006 -- to immunise the IAP against corruption.

Well-meant, but since the governmental delivery-mechanisms are paralysed in these benighted districts, since our babus are past masters at faking compliance, the crores are ripe for embezzlement, and the vermin must be licking their chops at the imminent feast!

Development, unfortunately, does not germinate from thin air; you need functional agencies as vehicles to deliver development. So, how about infusing a modicum of governance first, Sir? How about enforcing social audit to minimise misappropriation?

Last thing

Whenever the 'talks' materialise, the government-nominated interlocutors might find instructive a West African axiom (wrongly attributed to Theodore Roosevelt): Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.

M P Anil Kumar is a former Indian Air Force fighter pilot. He lives in Pune.

M P Anil Kumar