By Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
27 May, 2015
In spite of it being too early to judge the Modi Government, his achievements in one year are in itself positive signals for the remainder of his tenure.
Usually it is military organizations and sometimes corporate business houses who love to delve into analyzing problems by classifying them as strategic, operational and tactical. In some advanced centers of military learning it is not unusual to see analyses of past personalities to assess whether their outlook, attitude, style, decisiveness and overall personality had the stamp of ‘strategic leader’ written all over it.
Among the analyses of foreign leaders, I’ve heard, Abraham Lincoln, Mao Tse Tung and Winston Churchill are a few. The Royal College of Defense Studies (RCDS), London expects all its attending fellows to write and deliver a talk on a strategic leader of their choice. The prime guidance for this is that one has to justify how the leadership of the concerned personality had a strategic effect on his country, internationally and overall for humanity. As an alumnus of RCDS I am tempted to apply a template or perhaps innovate a bit to ascertain whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi fits into that mould or is easing himself into it. It has only been a year since he took charge of India with its 1.2 billion strong multi-ethnic, multi-faith and multi-lingual population beset with problems and unable to yet fully realize its true potential.
It would be interesting and challenging to analyze his personality, functioning and achievements to ascertain where he fits into the barometer of a strategic leader and how safe India is in his hands.
There are far too many parameters which analysts apply in such analyses. Just a few factors may be sufficient and it commences with ‘Spoken Reputation’, the most abstract of factors. There is no denying that Mr Modi rose to the rank of front runner in the stakes within his own party on the basis of reputation of being a ‘doer’.
As Chief Minister of Gujarat he led his state to outperform all others in almost every parameter. Senior Army officers who were appointed in Ahmedabad and delegates visiting various institutions who interacted with him, came away impressed with his clarity of thought and focus. They were also impressed with his as ability to balance his personal involvement in issues.
The BJP election campaign was fought on the basis of a SWOT analysis, intellectual application on focus areas, catchy and effective communication, and selection of the right personalities with organizational skills. It got him the prize and in style but that is where the challenge re-commenced.
The complexity of leading India is a daunting task. It appeared that he was clear about one thing – change. Change management for a strategic leader involves identifying those aspects which if transformed from the state of inertia will deliver results at the tactical and operational level and converge to finally deliver at the strategic.
Possibly, Mr Modi saw India’s international reputation as a major stumbling block towards its growth. He had to change the way others viewed India. It could be done by hard diplomacy, multiple emissaries, public relations and campaigns. In spite of this, nobody could project India’s image abroad better than its own Prime Minister about whom there was a growing sense of curiosity; that curiosity was inevitable because India’s political scene was witnessing a rare stability which was ascribed to Mr Modi.
The first year of a government’s tenure is the bedding in period. Mr Modi has been criticized for his extensive travel in this period but no one can find fault with the fact that at the end of one year India’s reputation in the international community is returning to being hyphenated with China rather than with Pakistan.
Personal rapport developed with leaders of significant countries and neighbors is contributing towards trust. Three areas stand out in the plethora of positives. First, there is a visual display of the vision that Mr Modi has of a future India. Second, he has not hesitated in plainly speaking where he sees obstacles, putting on the table the need for a resolution. Not shunning China on its border issue is the best example, although the convenience of it would have been tempting. Third, in the realm of international relations Mr Modi has adopted a nuanced approach, something completely missing from Indian Foreign Policy for a couple of decades. This is best exemplified by his decisions to visit the Neuve Chapelle war memorial in France and treat Buddhist culture as a vehicle for bringing China closer to India.
In study of leadership in military terms we often like to examine in a leader his capability of following maneuver philosophy. It is important to briefly explain this. Maneuver Philosophy is a derivative from Maneuver Warfare and is essentially the ability to see a problem in its 360 degree dimension, identify areas where change or focus can have an out of proportion effect and ways of approaching such that your organization is placed at a distinct advantage. It is the opposite of Attrition Philosophy which too is a derivative from Attrition Warfare or the philosophy of direct approach. Mr Modi stands out as a man of maneuver, one who can see through a maze of complexity, think differently, follow diverse approaches, not be tied down by detail and yet retain the focus towards the ultimate vision.
The decision to engage with the diaspora in all his visits has resulted in enhancing the already very positive image of the Indian professionals; it gives the diasporas a temporary place under the sun in the host country and boosts self-esteem. All this contributes to the national image in the international environment. The personal quality of Mr Modi to be identified here is obviously his communication skill. While Mr Vajpayee too was an effective communicator he pitched himself at philosophical and intellectual levels. Mr Modi pitches for the more earthy connection with his communication.
It is not only about foreign policy. The decision to go in for the 36 Rafale Jets was almost a compulsion brought about due to the sheer neglect of the Indian Air Force for want of decisions. Even the decision to curtail the manpower for the Mountain Strike Corps (MSC) to 35000 from the authorized 90,000 is sound because it frees up budgetary support for acquisitions, infrastructure and even ammunition. The vision of a strategic leader emerges when one also realizes that there is no step to dismantle the MSC which can remain at optimum manpower levels through adjustments.
In the internal sphere Mr Modi has been emphasizing on current demands to meet long term aims. Simple decisions such as Swachh Bharat Abhiyan will contribute to national image besides the environment which is as yet an insufficiently realized aspect in India. Implementation will be slow because this is an issue involving sensitization and awareness. That is not being treated as an obstacle. However, for me the few measures which are seemingly small but hugely strategic for the nation are the campaign to open bank accounts, provide cheap insurance and set up skill development as a priority with a ministry dedicated to it. The cumulative effects of such decisions become strategic and draws upon the deep experience that Mr Modi has had as a successful Chief Minister. Such realization comes from an ability to think in all directions.
The Prime Minister will, I am quite certain, visit West Asia in the near future; he has not had the time although he has looked at important aspects such as the successful evacuation from Yemen and Iraq and ensured that he had the right people on the spot to oversee it. The diaspora in West Asia is a mix of high profile, white collar and low end, blue collar but the cumulative remittances total more than 30 billion USD annually. He will have to decide between Saudi Arabia and Iran in terms of priority and it will be interesting to see how this will be handled.
I have purposely kept the handling of Pakistan at low key because the issue otherwise hogs the limelight. In the case of Mr Modi he has displayed strategic balance by not going overboard in his dealings with Pakistan, treating it more as an irritant. The handling of the Afghanistan issue has shown greater strategic orientation. Allowing Ashraf Ghani to follow his priorities without getting acidic about it is an example of statesmanship. Giving China its space in Afghanistan is like following gut feelings and in some such aspects it is the gut feel which sometimes proves more effective.
The last of the many areas where Mr Modi has brought decisive changes even as many aspects get left out in this analysis, is the field of disaster management. Nepal has proven that once the leader on top gets it all right the follow up is swift and professional. India took the lead and helped the rest of the world’s rescue and relief efforts thanks to the early and correct decisions taken by Mr Modi.
It is a little early yet to pass final judgment when only one fifth of a term as Prime Minister is over. Mr Modi will no doubt bring all his experience to the fore and will not be intimidated by allegations that he is not delivering on promises. Effects of early decisions start being felt two or maybe even three years after a government comes to power. By that time Mr Modi will not need analysis such as this one to certify his strategic outlook and orientation. There will be too many celebrity writers pushing that image and rightly so.
Lt. Gen (retd) Syed Ata Hasnain is the former Corps Commander of the Srinagar based 15 Corps, and is currently associated with Vivekanand International Foundation and the Delhi Policy Group, two major strategic think tanks of Delhi