One can be forgiven for thinking we're in 1909, rather than 2009. Emerging powers, anticipatory alliances, a scramble for colonies, terrorism, arms races, a belief in short wars, a cult of the offensive, speedy mobilisation schedules, militarism, all awaiting the proverbial spark. Minus the grand scale of the run up to the Great War, there are similar ingredients in the current setting: the global war on terror accelerates, emerging powers India and China seek strategic space, recession continues, the footprint of terror remains, nuclear weaponisation and unrecognised arms races continue, and military thinking on quick-start and short wars is dominant. What makes the comparison even tidier is the short fuse to all this tinder.

The buzz on the global front - and the many threats attendant to it - should not, however, distract us from matters that need pressing attention within the country. On most 'international' issues India is only an observer. This is also true for the events in the immediate periphery including the portentous and lamentable happenings in Sri Lanka. Therefore, it would only be prudent to acknowledge the fires burning within the borders.

The next government

The agenda of the incoming Indian government will depend on its complexion and composition. If it is of the centre-right, it will be outward oriented, and if of the centre-left, inward focussed. That much seems certain. This bias will in turn determine the approach to the various raging and incipient problems. But there is no escaping both dimensions of security - internal and external - regardless of who takes the reins of power. Not only would the government have to tackle the growing left wing insurgency internally, but also engage with the expanding instability in Afghanistan-Pakistan, among other demanding concerns.

Liberalisation has buoyed west and south India, but wide swathes of the rest remain untended.

 •  Awakening the state
 •  Fateful decisions loom

Focussing on the inward challenges will be the more difficult of the two. The decade of centre-right coalitions - the NDA and then the UPA - which have preferred an outward focus, such a shift will be even more problematic. Firstly, mindsets and habits in the security establishment will persist, and get in the way. Secondly, the strategic community is dominated by international relations and strategy specialists who are by inclination outward-oriented. Thirdly, failure can always be attributed elsewhere externally. Lastly, expanding defence budgets and the defence technology and industrial base would prefer a continuance of the threat perception.

With all this, the agenda of any center-left dispensation is particularly fraught to begin with. It would involve a power struggle initially to realign the system grown comfortable with the belief that as an emerging power India needs to proactively engage with the international community in both the major problems it is faced with - global terror and meltdown.

Even if the next government were to be formed by the Third Front, it would not be adequate for a shift of focus to the internal agenda. The 'verdict' of the electorate would not be sufficient for such a government to push through the necessary changes. Besides, being weak and possibly fractious, it may not have the political weight necessary. Nevertheless, even if the current focus were to be continued - as is expected from either a Congress or BJP led coalition - we cannot supersede internal considerations without paying a price over the long term. In case the internal front is neglected, than it would eventually distract from the external focus since India would be under-prepared for the responsibility it would have, in the event, prematurely taken on.

Still, there are persuasive arguments available that should lead us to a stronger internal focus.

The need for internal focus

The Af-Pak issue already has the attention of the Obama administration. India's role here is marginal, though Indian policy makers are chafing at the bit for a greater role, sensing that this would be at the expense and chagrin of Pakistan. The outstanding border issue with China is also only superficially an external one. A consensus needs to be built internally for a reasonable 'give and take' approach with China for border 'negotiations', which by definition imply 'compromise'. With Pakistan too the Kashmir issue is only seemingly external. The autonomy aspect of the issue is within the internal constitutional domain.

One other issue of internal-external dimension is that of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The BJP manifesto promises 'Launch a massive programme to detect, detain and deport illegal immigrants' within a hundred days of coming to power. Clearly here is an explosive issue requiring application of thinkers outside of the narrow confines of the security establishment, to include media minders, Bengali intelligentsia and civil societies in effected states.

The other security issues are eminently in the domain of the internal, in particular left wing extremism. The latest multi-crore recruiting scam to surface from the cow-dust belt - on the recruitment for the COBRA (Commando Battalions for Resolute Action) battalions in specialised counter insurgency tasks in central India - indicates the flaws in the anti Naxal strategy. The dimensions of the scam, which has been going on since 2003, are still being unearthed. What is already clear is that the main force, the CRPF, designated for internal security tasks by the N N Vohra-led Task Force on Internal Security and approved by the Group of Ministers now stands compromised. The products of a corrupt system cannot be expected to take 'resolute action', but only to intrude on freedoms.

This has equal implications for the North East as well, where vulnerable and equally marginal communities are subject to incessant counter insurgency tactics of population control measures of state security agencies.

A singular focus on a developmental agenda for the Central as well as the North-eastern regions would help avert their future snowballing. Liberalisation has buoyed west and south India, but wide swathes of the rest remain untended. Developing these regions would alleviate India's Human Development Index standing of 132, given that theoretically insurgencies originate in a combination of two factors: lack of development and identity. Their sustenance in part by external intervention is not reason enough for treating them on par with genuine external issues by characterising them as proxy wars.

A greater focus on internal security issues would also likely have the effect of moving to a human security agenda instead of a state-centric one. This transition will not be easy, but there isn't any alternative, in the long run, and for this reason, even a right-of-centre government would need to engage with this reality at some point. Over the past decade, 'India Shining' has only given way to 'Jai Ho'. Electoral democracy is not enough; the masses need to be heard too in a democracy of substance.