New Do­val Dur­bar

Ajit Do­val’s new job de­scrip­tion won’t change In­dia’s na­tional se­cu­rity man­age­ment

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At first sight, the de­ci­sion to make Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser Ajit Ku­mar Do­val the chair­man of the Strate­gic Pol­icy Group (SPG) of the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil (NSC) would ap­pear as though the govern­ment is work­ing over­time to re­pair the rusted na­tional se­cu­rity mech­a­nisms of the coun­try. The move has come along with other changes in the NSC sys­tem, and a cou­ple of months af­ter it took an even more con­se­quen­tial de­ci­sion to ap­point Do­val the chair of the De­fense Plan­ning Com­mit­tee, which vir­tu­ally runs the Min­istry of De­fense.

A closer look would, how­ever, re­veal that this is, to quote Shake­speare, a lot “of sound and fury sig­ni­fy­ing noth­ing”. The Modi govern­ment has a record of mak­ing an­nounce­ment and grand dec­la­ra­tions that turn out to be just that – an­nounce­ments and dec­la­ra­tions. The changes in re­la­tion to Do­val’s job de­scrip­tion also ap­pear to amount to that.

Worse, they could also be part of an ef­fort to pa­per over the real prob­lems re­lat­ing to the dys­func­tional de­fense sys­tem and the govern­ment’s in­abil­ity to ad­e­quately ad­dress them. This is man­i­fested most clearly by a lit­tle-no­ticed de­ci­sion to re­place Ma­jor Gen­eral (re­tired) BC Khan­duri as the chair­man of the par­lia­ment’s Stand­ing Com­mit­tee on De­fense (SCOD). Ear­lier this year, un­der his lead­er­ship, the SCOD came out with an au­thor­i­ta­tive re­port re­veal­ing the ex­tent of the prob­lems of the In­dian armed forces.

To come to the lat­est de­ci­sion on the SPG: the de­fense sec­re­tary was the des­ig­nated chair of the SPG and now he has been re­placed by the NSA. Some me­dia com­men­tary has gone over the top in sug­gest­ing that this gives Do­val pri­macy over the en­tire govern­ment be­cause key of­fi­cials like the Re­serve Bank of In­dia gover­nor and the cab­i­net sec­re­tary are also mem­bers of the SPG. That is sim­ply not true, be­cause the SPG car­ries out a spe­cific func­tion in re­la­tion to na­tional se­cu­rity is­sues and there is noth­ing un­usual in hav­ing the NSA chair it.

Ac­tu­ally, hav­ing the cab­i­net sec­re­tary in the chair was a bit of an anom­aly, a holdover from the era when he was, in­deed, the chief co­or­di­na­tor of In­dia’s na­tional se­cu­rity pol­icy, in­clud­ing the nu­clear weapons pro­gramme. That sit­u­a­tion ended with the ap­point­ment of Bra­jesh Mishra as the first NSA.

A six-mem­ber NSC headed by the Prime Min­is­ter was set up in Novem­ber 1998. The body com­prised of the SPG con­sist­ing of se­nior of­fi­cials like the chiefs of the in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, the heads of

the three armed forces, and other se­nior sec­re­taries to the govern­ment as the key ex­ec­u­tive tier of the new body re­spon­si­ble for the in­ter-min­is­te­rial co­or­di­na­tion of the na­tional se­cu­rity sys­tem. At the sec­ond tier ex­isted the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­vi­sory Board com­pris­ing re­tired of­fi­cials and non­govern­ment per­sons. Both th­ese bod­ies and the NSA’s of­fice were ser­viced by a Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil Sec­re­tariat.

The NSC was viewed as a body that would take a holis­tic view of na­tional se­cu­rity is­sues based on the ad­vice and spe­cial­ist stud­ies done by its con­stituent bod­ies, but the ex­ec­u­tive ac­tion on them would re­main the purview of the Cab­i­net Com­mit­tee on Se­cu­rity. The fact that the two bod­ies had a com­mon mem­ber­ship helped the de­ci­sion­mak­ing process.

In set­ting up the NSC, the govern­ment had hoped that it would bring a fresh an­gle to the tra­di­tional ap­proaches to se­cu­rity. This would be fa­cil­i­tated by the in­de­pen­dent ad­vis­ers in the NSC sys­tem. But over time, things didn’t quite work that way. With for­mer govern­ment of­fi­cers dom­i­nat­ing the al­ter­nate chan­nels of ad­vice, there was lit­tle by way of out-of-the-box think­ing.

In any case, the NSC it­self met fit­fully over the years, and while the NSAB was al­ways ac­tive, the SPG went through long pe­ri­ods when it sim­ply did not meet.

Look­ing back, it is clear that the NSC sys­tem has not quite sta­bi­lized. To start with, the Joint In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee was sub­sumed un­der the NSCS which was given the job of task­ing the in­tel­li­gence agen­cies. How­ever un­der M.K. Narayanan, the JIC was again re­vived and the task­ing sys­tem aban­doned.

When Do­val be­came NSA, he ini­tially did away with the NSAB and chose not to have a mil­i­tary ad­viser, with the in­cum­bent Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Prakash Menon be­ing re-des­ig­nated Of­fi­cer on Spe­cial Duty. Later a trun­cated NSAB came up with for­mer am­bas­sador to Rus­sia P.S. Raghavan at its head, but with­out its cru­cial com­po­nent of non-gov­ern­men­tal ex­perts. The chair­man JIC R.N. Ravi, who was also the in­ter­locu­tor for the Naga talks, has re­cently been re­des­ig­nated as deputy NSA (in­ter­nal). He is one of three such of­fi­cials – Ra­jin­der Khanna, for­mer R&AW chief is deputy NSA look­ing af­ter in­tel­li­gence work and for­mer diplo­mat Pankaj Saran deals with diplo­matic is­sues. Whether the JIC has also again been sub­sumed by the NSCS is not clear.

The po­si­tion it­self has changed tenor since its first it­er­a­tion. Its first in­cum­bent Satish Chan­dra was “deputy to the NSA”, a no­tion­ally higher po­si­tion. Sub­se­quently, NSAs ex­per­i­mented with hav­ing one or two deputies. And now Do­val has de­cided on three. Ac­cord­ing to a re­port, Lieu­tenant Gen­eral VG Khan­dare, the for­mer De­fense In­tel­li­gence Agency chief, may now be ap­pointed mil­i­tary ad­viser to the NSA.

Does the change of the chair­man­ship of the SPG amount to any­thing? Un­likely. As we have noted in the case of the De­fense Plan­ning Com­mit­tee, the NSA sim­ply has too much on his plate to de­vote time to is­sues of re­form and re­struc­tur­ing that are needed in the area of de­fense. He is the prin­ci­pal se­cu­rity ad­viser to the prime min­is­ter, re­spon­si­ble for man­ag­ing In­dia’s poli­cies to­wards Pakistan, China and the US. He man­ages In­dia’s nu­clear de­ter­rent and, be­cause of his back­ground, also su­per­vises the in­tel­li­gence agen­cies. True, he has some highly ca­pa­ble peo­ple to as­sist him in car­ry­ing out his numer­ous tasks. But at the end of the day, the buck does stop with him.

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