Bottomline | National (in)Security Grows

Government should appoint a military officer as deputy National Security Advisor

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

M.K. Narayanan was the accidental National Security Advisor; he was elevated to the post when the incumbent NSA J.N. Dixit died in harness. Being a former intelligence chief, his fate was sealed after 26/11 attacks. His easing out was settled when home minister P. Chidambaram proposed the setting up of the National Counter Terrorism Centre, announcing that all terror-related intelligence activity will now be under him. When asked about NSA’s new job profile, Chidambaram told a television channel that he would be responsible for ‘nuclear deals, border issues and talks and so on’; a super-diplomat in the PMO. The first NSA who held the office for six years, Brajesh Mishra disagreed with Chidambaram. While dispensing altogether with the need for NSA, he said that the Prime Minister’s personal secretary should do the co-ordination work alluded to by Chidambaram. Another perspective has been aired by K. Subrahmanyam, on whose recommendation — The Kargil Review Committee Report — the office of NSA was formed in 1999. According to him, the NSA should not have any executive tasks in the nuclear command chain or in intelligence; he should do long-term security management/planning as head of the National Security Council.

Such divergent views suggest that even a decade after the NSA’s post was established, the job profile remains equivocal and diffused. This indicates that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, now into his sixth year in office, never particularly spelt out what he expected from his NSA. Unlike his predecessor, A.B. Vajpayee, who created the NSA office, the Prime Minister seems uncomfortable with this appointment. It is an open secret that Brajesh Mishra was Vajpayee’s alter-ego. A defence services’ chief who attended the meeting on 18 December 2001, after Pakistan-supported terror attack on the Indian Parliament, told me that it was Mishra and not Prime Minister Vajpayee who did the talking with the Chiefs of Staff Committee and ordered the mobilisation of the Indian Army against Pakistan. Vajpayee did not speak a word during that crucial meeting. The inescapable inference is that Mishra stood taller than the offices of the PM’s personal secretary and the NSA that he held. Thus, it was unnecessary for him to limit his own stature by defining the NSA’s tasks at a time when he could bestride the entire PMO like a colossus. On the other hand, being the first NSA after the 1998 nuclear tests, when India declared itself a nuclear weapons state, he was automatically sucked into the nuclear vortex; to establish India’s minimum credible deterrence. Mishra conceived the National Command Authority, created the office of the Strategic Forces Commander-in-Chief, and released a draft nuclear doctrine. Defining the credible nuclear deterrence (to the US) was left to Jaswant Singh. Vajpayee’s unenviable task was to balance the nuclear deterrence without displeasing the US. He succeeded partially in both.

Learning from the past and not being rigid about nuclear deterrence, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took the early decision to cosy with the US. This resulted in the July 2005 nuclear deal with the US followed by several similar arrangements with other major powers. Instead of focussing on the establishment of the credible nuclear deterrence, a key reason for creation of the NSA, Narayanan slipped easily into three executive roles: PMO interlocutor on nuclear deals, political representative on border talks with China, and intelligence-czar. The NSC under him remained more or less dormant; many of the National Security Advisory Board appointees have little to do with security expertise and more with being favourites. Narayanan had scant regard or understanding of deterrence, nuclear and conventional. I was horrified when a distinguished NSAB member told me that Narayanan had sought his views on telling the US that India was willing to dispense with the Army’s Cold Start doctrine if this would help the US case to keep the Pakistan Army focussed on the Afghanistan front. By extrapolation, it becomes clear why India follows Pakistan in nuclear and ballistic missiles capabilities. If the NSA is inattentive towards establishment of credible nuclear deterrence, there is little that the Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee and the SFC-in-C can do; the latter, while having qualified access to the NSA, reports to the former. And, the Group of Ministers report of February 2002 had acknowledged that the COSC is incapable of fulfilling its mandate. Against this backdrop, bombastic claims of India building the nuclear-powered submarines armed with submarine launched ballistic missiles, the furtive development of Agni-III and Agni-V ballistic missiles, the antiballistic missile and anti-satellite capabilities will have less to do with building the credible deterrence. Instead, all this provides propaganda ammunition to adversaries who smirk within.

Media reports now suggest that barring the intelligence role, the new NSA Shivshankar Menon will continue with what Narayanan was doing. This implies that while India under Chidambaram is building capabilities to defend against terrorist strikes, offensive capabilities to deter adversaries stand blunted; in the absence of a credible nuclear deterrence, conventional military capabilities cannot do much. The answer to India’s security lies in nominating a senior military officer who understands nuclear issues as the deputy NSA. Not doing so would invite disaster.


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