Change in public perception about strategic affairs signals arrival of a new India

The strategic culture of India, in my opinion, was so poor and the ignorance on issues of geopolitical affairs so profound that I wondered whether people read beyond the newspaper headlines.

Published: 26th August 2017 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 26th August 2017 03:17 PM   |  A+A-

Image for representational purpose only.

A few years ago when I entered the world of strategic analysis, I had an enduring complaint. I always felt people in India, even the better educated ones, had no idea about strategic matters and no interest either. They were content to pursue their individual activities happily with the knowledge that there was someone else out there who was responsible to look after their security.

The strategic culture of India, in my opinion, was so poor and the ignorance on issues of geopolitical and geo-strategic affairs so profound that I wondered whether people read beyond the newspaper headlines.

Not any longer. Things appear to have turned around in public perception and it’s largely because of media—print, electronic and social.

How does this thought emerge in my mind? As a public speaker and a self-styled thought leader, a few years ago I stepped out boldly to see how much perception I could change. My talks have taken me to schools, colleges, military academies, civil services training institutions, high profile companies, corporate organisations and even private informal fireside chats with intellectuals from all walks of life.

I am beginning to get impressed by what may be signalling the arrival of a new India. It’s not difficult to comprehend change. The quality of comments and questions has changed dramatically. More women and youths are attending the talks voluntarily. They are yet shy to publicly put questions in gatherings, but more and more of them catch me outside the venue and have questions ready. None of these queries are immature or inane. Some note my contact details and email to inquire about things they did not understand. I recently spoke at the Policy Boot Camp organised by Vision India Foundation at Jindal Global University.

The session could have continued for a couple of hours beyond the shutdown time and queries through social media did not stop for next few days. I spoke on Jammu & Kashmir, one of the red-hot topics.

From the perception that I could sense a few years ago—where people wondered why the Army was suffering casualties, and why we pandered to the Kashmiri populace with soft power—I now receive far more balanced views, especially when I explain the dynamics of such long proxy conflicts, and how they manifest over time. People have accepted with grace and understanding that it is the terrorists and their sponsors who are the villains and need to be targeted, not the people. It is the youth which needs to be engaged positively even though many of them throw stones at our security forces. Earlier, there was a reluctance to accept this, but no longer. A wonderful session at the Banaras Hindu University with faculty and students gave me insight into the progressively changing perception that national security does not lie at the borders alone, but in diverse fields which contribute towards achieving our national aspirations.

Much of what I explain to the diverse audiences focuses on the changing concept of conflict. People have generally continued to believe that conflict is yet conventional in content and needs only the military to address it. That it is completely hybrid in nature today and the world is studying it from that angle rather avidly, is not yet fully in the ambit of our public thinking—but the message is going home.

Explaining the significance of the government decision to go after the financial networks, which fuelled activities in Kashmir, is important to that understanding. There appears much greater appreciation for the resilience of Jammu & Kashmir police and its ability to withstand all the targeting it was subjected to.

With Doklam the flavour of the day and articles by military professionals filling up intellectual space, public seems to be getting a welcome dose of insight into an area which was thus far largely opaque. China remained a distant but fearful entity. Self-doubts about India’s capability on northern borders appear to have stemmed, at least temporarily. Yet it’s vital that public is not misled into perceiving that India’s military capabilities with reference to China are sufficiently robust. India still needs more robust infrastructure and lethal capability.

The one area which is yet not fully comprehended and something on which I am beginning to receive queries of late is the aspect of psychological warfare, a rather archaic term; in professional circles, it is more often referred as communication strategy.

The crude methodology of Chinese communication strategy needs to be countered with a professional and mature explanation to the public on what China is attempting at. That is for our own public. To send home the right perception to the Chinese leadership, military and diplomatic corps, a structured and well-conceived policy may be necessary without leaving it to the media and military professionals.

Lastly, the need for better strategic understanding at the level of policy makers and legislators cannot be overemphasised. Just as an aside, it may be good to know that London’s Royal College of Defence Studies has in attendance for its year-long programmes, five elected members of Parliament. They attend the programme even as Parliament is in session and not only get enriched with strategic orientation, but bring graceful presence to the institution’s strategic debates.

Lt Gen (retd) Syed Ata Hasnain

Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps

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