Bottomline | Security at Stake

Will the NSA finally do his own job?

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has done the politically correct things. The late J.N. Dixit has been conferred with a Padma Vibhushan for services as the National Security Advisor. And instead of appointing a new NSA, the internal security advisor, M.K. Narayanan has been permanently given the additional charge of a NSA. This has removed the constant bickering between the external affairs ministry and the NSA. One wonders that if one man could do the jobs of both the NSA and internal security advisor, why two were kept in the first place. Insiders point out that both Dixit and Narayanan had to be accommodated. In the interim between Dixit’s death and Narayanan’s elevation, scores of policy analysts had either questioned the need for a NSA, or suggested that a NSA without a functioning National Security Council (NSC) is meaningless. All this leads to the cardinal question: What exactly is the role of a NSA?

India’s first NSA, Brajesh Mishra was playing three roles, in addition to being a NSA; he was the principal secretary to the Prime Minister, India’s political representative for talks with China, and Prime Minister’s special envoy for back-channel diplomacy with Pakistan. Mishra’s successor, Dixit had one job less, that of the principal secretary to the Prime Minister. And now we have Narayanan with two jobs. Even as we should feel happy that the NSA will finally be more focussed, India’s strategist, K. Subrahmanyam is clearly not. According to Subrahmanyam, the NSA’s primary job is to head the NSC, which in turn is meant to provide long-term assessments on national security issues, as different from the ministries which grapple with daily and short-term matters. He also says that the NSC has not met at all since its establishment by the Cabinet Secretariat resolution of 16 April 1999. The National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), comprising experts from outside the government, convenes periodically with the stated purpose of undertaking long-term thinking on strategic matters. Considering that the government is for ever hesitant to share information with outsiders, the NSAB members are really meant to defend the government’s known position in the media, seminars and such fora. Therefore, only those who support the government’s national security policies find berth in the NSAB.

Regarding the NSC, we need to ask why it has been non-functional since its inception. The NSC is a three-tier structure meant to undertake long-term thinking on national security matters. The first tier is more or less the Cabinet Committee on National Security, the second is the group of secretaries, and the National Security Advisory Board, comprising experts from outside the government is the lower-most tier. In its present form, the NSC suffers from three shortcomings: One, the second tier consisting of top bureaucrats, both civil and military, are double and triple hatters, whose total time is consumed in the day-to-day functioning of their departments. Two, even as the task of long-term thinking is left to the NSAB, in our culture, where the most innocuous information is classified, no serving bureaucrat shares information with the NSAB members (even when most of them are retired former colleagues). And three, for credible intelligence assessments necessary for the NSC, there is a need to revamp the Joint Intelligence Committee and make it separate from executive control. And the NSC needs an independent secretariat. With so many problems, it is obvious that in our dispensation the NSC in its present form cannot be successful.

A three-pronged approach could provide the desired results. One, the existing Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) under the ministry of defence could be institutionalised to assess external and internal threats, as well as strategic issues.

There is a provision for members of the Indian foreign services in the IDS which is a tri-service organisation. With full time serving officers, this organisation could take a long-term perspective on vital matters of terrorism, proliferation, disarmament and so on and provide options to the NSA. Two, the NSA could out-source non-military projects like economic, financial, social, trade and ecological threats to independent think-tanks. In these areas, serving officials may be a little more willing to share information with outsiders. And three, the Joint Intelligence Committee as an independent organisation outside the executive control needs to be constituted and institutionalised. The question that still remains unanswered is what should the NSA’s principal job be?

Created after the 1998 nuclear tests, the NSA’s primary job should be to ensure that India’s nuclear deterrence is credible. In the National Command Authority for nuclear weapons, the NSA is the only bridge between the political authority, headed by the Prime Minister meant to give orders for use of nuclear weapons, and the executive authority, consisting of representatives from Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Defence Research and Development Organisation, Chiefs of Staff Committee and Commander-in-Chief, Strategic Forces Command amongst others, meant for carrying out orders in a credible time-frame. This is a full-time task, and involves many ministries, departments and agencies. In the absence of a Chief of Defence Staff, the NSA’s task become more complex as he will be required to have an operational understanding about nuclear weapons and delivery systems as well. In short, the NSA should be the Prime Minister’s single door advisor on all aspects of strategic assets. Unfortunately, Dixit did not have much time for this, and Mishra did this with reluctance. Both indulged in the powerful job of conducting foreign and national security policies from inside the PMO, which created disharmony with the ministry of external affairs. Given this backdrop, it is essential for the prime minister to do not just the politically correct thing, but the necessary things as well.


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