At the root of the UPA government’s continued failure to defeat left-wing extremism is the absence of a clear assessment of the ground reality and a larger political vision. By VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in New Delhi

THE strategies adopted by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government throughout its nine years in power to combat the guerilla tactics and growing political influence of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) have been characterised by ad hoc and ill-planned security initiatives. These initiatives have time and again fallen flat, underscoring the absence of a larger political vision to take on left-wing extremism (LWE). The gruesome attack by Maoist insurgents on a convoy of Congress leaders and workers at Darbha Ghati in Sukma district of Chhattisgarh’s Bastar division on May 25 and the developments before and after the attack have once again highlighted the confusion in the ruling dispensation on the question of combating insurgency. In fact, the situation in the context of the May 25 incident is far more complicated than before on account of a combination of political, administrative and security matters.

This is so because the Darbha Ghati incident has not only brought up questions about the efficacy of the anti-LWE security machinery and its evaluation at the administrative level but raised pointed queries about the collusion of segments of mainstream political leaders with the Maoists in perpetrating such acts of violence. Consequently, the topmost leadership of the Congress, the principal constituent of the UPA, has been compelled to launch its unpublicised internal probe into the incident, focussing primarily on the collusion angle. Given the track record of the Congress in the past nine years, this initiative may not result in altering the leadership’s vague perceptions about combating LWE.

The assessment

The biggest question, according to a senior security specialist who was part of the highly successful counterterrorism operations in Tripura, which shares its border with Bangladesh, during the late 1990s, is whether the security machinery, the administration and the political leadership can make realistic, fact-oriented and level-headed assessments about the situation on the ground and advance commensurate action on the basis of this assessment.

“The fact of the matter is all three levels had failed miserably in the assessment of the overall ground situation vis-a-vis LWE in the run-up to the Darbha Ghati incident,” the former security official told Frontline. “In the months preceding this gruesome attack, all these levels combined to generate and propagate a premise that the CPI (Maoist) had suffered telling blows and was so much on the back foot that it cannot bounce back. Warnings by several experts and observers against propagating this premise were not taken seriously,” he pointed out.

Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, describes the reports about crippling blows to Maoists as “sustained falsification”, which “has its sources in both the State and Central security establishments”. In his view, these were dishonest and politically opportunistic efforts to claim “successes” without having worked for them.

Pronouncements by the political leadership as well as senior officials of the Union Home Ministry underscore what has been pointed out by the Tripura official. Deposing before a Parliamentary Standing Committee barely two days before the Darbha Ghati incident, Home Secretary R.K. Singh claimed: “There has been an absolute turnaround in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand and now we are chasing the naxalite groups. In Odisha, we are chasing the naxalite groups. There is a U-turn in Gadchiroli [Maharashtra], where we are chasing naxals as well.” Continuing in the same vein, the UPA government’s report card of achievements, released in May, claimed that “the integrated action plan being implemented in the LWE-affected areas has helped chart out a new growth trajectory with decreasing violence”.

However, this patting on the back was not confined to the Congress and the UPA. The Raman Singh-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Chhattisgarh, too, sang its own praise for the so-called initiatives taken against LWE. Chhattisgarh’s Minister for Home Affairs, Nanki Ram Kanwar, claimed at the Chief Ministers’ conference on April 15 that the “welfare measures and other initiatives of the State government have been such that the naxalite menace has been contained”.

By all indications, these pronouncements were essentially triggered by a few successes that the security forces had managed to achieve during the past 10 months over the CPI (Maoist). These included a series of strikes between December 2012 and April 2013, which resulted in the killing of CPI (Maoist) central committee member Narmada Akka in December 2012; of 10 cadres led by Lalesh Yadav, secretary of the Bihar, Jharkhand North, Chhattisgarh special area committee, and Jaikumar Yadav, in Jharkhand in March; and of seven key Maoist activists belonging to the Khammam-Karimnagar-Warangal (KKW) divisional committee at Sukma in April. The last of these strikes was projected by the security establishment and the political leadership as a decisive one. The claim was that it had smashed the only hope of the Maoists of reviving their movement in Andhra Pradesh through the new activity districts, the KKW, bordering Chhattisgarh. The encounter was also highlighted as a clear sign of the success of the “hot pursuit” across different States being carried out jointly by various State police units under the guidance of the Union Home Ministry.

However, even as these gains were being welcomed, seasoned security analysts such as Sahni cautioned that the operations would have just pushed the Maoists to a “tactical retreat” and not to a state of permanent collapse. Writing in South Asia Intelligence Review in March, he observed: “The Maoists are currently in a phase of tactical retreat, focussing on a reconsolidation of strengths, the enhancement of recruitment to the PLGA [People’s Liberation Guerilla Army], the construction of alternative communication channels to prevent leakage of information, the intensification of propaganda through mass contacts, and escalating overground activities and protests.... The state must not mistake the decline in intensity of violence as a destruction of capacity of the Maoists to engage in violence.” The Darbha Ghati incident has underscored the validity of such assessments.

Political reaction

The immediate political reaction to the incident in the Congress and the UPA government has been twofold. The government has sought support for moves to strengthen the security establishment, particularly through the formation of the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC). Addressing a meeting of Chief Ministers in New Delhi on June 5, called to discuss internal security, both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde indicated that they were ready to dilute the provisions of the earlier draft on the NCTC in order to take the opposition parties along. The move, however, did not cut much ice with the non-Congress-ruled States. At the level of the Congress, the reaction to the Darbha Ghati incident has been marked by a revival of some animated discourse on the definition of Maoist activity itself as also the ways and means of combating it. At the centre of the discourse were Shinde, Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh and Tribal Affairs Minister Kishore Chandra Deo. Their Ministries address the concerns of the regions with Maoist presence. As Home Minister, Shinde has an evident role in addressing the aftermath of Darbha Ghati. But from the reactions of the Ministers it is clear that they are not on the same page. Ramesh called the Darbha Ghati attack an act of terrorism; Shinde said it was “bigger than terrorism”. Deo’s reaction was more nuanced. He said: “Nothing can justify the attack in Bastar and it could be described as an act akin to a terrorist act, but you cannot call it terrorism—that has different connotations, and I would beg to differ on that usage.”

Deo said that the allegations of nexus between big mining companies and certain Maoist groups needed to be investigated thoroughly. He specifically drew attention to the charges that these companies were giving large sums of money to Maoist insurgents through couriers.

Debates in the Congress

The Congress had witnessed similar debates based on larger issues between former Home Minister P. Chidambaram and party general secretary Digvijay Singh in 2010, with the latter doubting whether Chidambaram had laid too much emphasis on combating Maoist insurgency with military measures alone when he should have been combining development concerns of the tribal population with security initiatives. Several Congress activists at different levels of the party hierarchy perceive the potential of a fundamental ideological tussle in these verbal battles. They point out that in October 2004, the All India Congress Committee task force on naxalite violence, led by M. Shashidhar Reddy, a Member of the Legislative Assembly from Andhra Pradesh, had categorised Maoist insurgents as a group with no ideological grounding antithetical to democracy and had opined that “providing sustainable development options and addressing the grievances of underdevelopment would end the problem”. But there is a growing view that Maoists may have to be categorised as an ideological threat to democracy.

All these debates in the Congress have been intermittent and indecisive, and in all probability the fate of the ongoing debate among Shinde, Ramesh and Deo will be the same. However, the problem indicated by Deo with his demand for an investigation into the collusion between Maoists and corporate entities seems to be coming up to trouble the Congress politically.

Significantly, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) has raised the apprehension that some Congress leaders could be hand in glove with the Maoists in perpetrating the attack, which virtually wiped out the top leadership of the party in the State. The manner in which the suggestion has come up has rattled the central leadership, and it is on account of this that the party has initiated its own inquiry into the Darbha Ghati attack.

The results of the investigations of both the NIA and the party could well create some reverberations in the Congress and the UPA. The big question, as the former Tripura official pointed out, is whether the ruling political establishment will be able to draw the right lessons from these and formulate the correct action plan to address LWE.