Bottomline | The Strategist

Brajesh Mishra made national security a government priority

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

Writing Brajesh Mishra’s (who passed away on September 28) obituary, Vir Sanghvi informs us that Manmohan Singh on becoming Prime Minister asked Mishra to stay on as his principal secretary, an offer which Mishra declined. He could not have been asked to continue as National Security Advisor (NSA) because the late J.N. Dixit, close to Mrs Sonia Gandhi was a strong contender for that post. By making his offer, Manmohan Singh was not being magnanimous; he silently agreed with the way his predecessor’s government (Vajpayee was a poet) was run by Mishra. The latter was not just ‘brilliant’ as Sanghvi calls him; he was a strategist par excellence (a rarity in India), an epithet bandied about carelessly in the media.

I had met Brajesh Mishra twice. After his public denouncement of the 18 July 2005 framework agreement on civil-nuclear deal signed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Washington, he met me and gave an exclusive interview to FORCE (August 2005). Another time, three years later, he shared his thoughts on national security, and relations with China, Pakistan and the US. Before I go further, let me explain what is meant by a ‘strategist’; I recommend Colin S. Gray’s book ‘Explorations in Strategy’ to readers. Gray writes that:

‘By its very nature strategy is more demanding of the intellect and perhaps the imagination than is any structurally more simple activity — policy, operations, tactics, or logistics. The strategist’s task is not to create wise policy or successful schemes of military action, but rather to build and repair the bridge that connects the two, military power and political purpose. Stated bluntly, at the strategic level of performance there is more than can go wrong.’

So, the word strategy derived from Greek origins (the art of the general) is much more than that. As Gray writes:

‘By analogy, some of the more mechanical aspects of strategy, like art can be taught, but people cannot be taught reliably how to be great strategists any more than they can be taught to be great artists.’ 

Mishra was a born strategist, and in my assessment the best NSA India has had so far. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would have been saved embarrassment on numerous national security issues if Mishra had agreed to be his principal secretary (and maybe his NSA).

Let’s start with the civil nuclear deal on which an initially reluctant Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would later gamble his government. He had gone so far that it had become impossible to walk back with his dignity intact. The graphic insight into what happened when Manmohan Singh went calling in July 2005 to Washington has been given by the then US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice in her memoirs, ‘No Higher Honour’. She writes that, ‘Natwar (foreign minister Natwar Singh) was adamant. He wanted the deal, but the prime minister wasn’t sure he could sell it in New Delhi.’ Manmohan Singh even refused to meet Rice on this matter; Natwar’s prodding and Singh’s indecisiveness finally resulted in Rice meeting the Prime Minister hours before he was to meet President George Bush. The insider Sanghvi had earlier informed us that the then chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Anil Kakodkhar was flown from Delhi to Washington post haste to attest that India’s nuclear weapons programme would remain unaffected (he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 2009).

The reason Manmohan Singh was instinctively opposed to the deal was that the US and India were fundamentally not on the same page. For the US, the deal was about non-proliferation; India attempted to sell it as a civil nuclear programme. Rice writes that: ‘the key from our point of view was to get India within the IAEA regime, even if they could not and would not be party to NPT.’

The prescient Brajesh Mishra, architect of India’s relations with the US after the 1998 nuclear tests, understood it too well. Days after the signing of the 18 July 2005 agreement, according to him (FORCE, August 2005): ‘My view is that if you offer to identify and separate the civilian and military nuclear facilities and programmes, it will have a long-term national security impacts. By doing so, India would be abiding to the basic tenets of the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty.’ He added that, ‘Although the agreement says it will be implemented in a phased manner but as soon as one promise is converted to concrete action on the part of the US, India will be required to take much more reciprocal action. The agreement will limit the amount of fissile material India needs, and this is capping in a round-about way.’

Proving Mishra correct, within hours of India signing the (voluntary) separation plan for military and civilian facilities, the top US negotiator, under-secretary of state for political affairs, Nicholas Burns declared that: ‘The agreement is a major, major gain for the non-proliferation regime; eventually 90 per cent of India’s nuclear facilities will come under safeguards.’

Without saying so, Mishra’s take was that Manmohan Singh should not have abandoned the Vajpayee government’s agreed Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP); rushing into an embrace with the US, a global power, was not good strategy. Mishra told FORCE that as the NSA, he had offered three-to-five existing civil nuclear reactors (14 in number with nine under construction) for safeguards, but the US did not accept it. The NSSP, suggested by the US, was to cover three areas of civil space programme, civil nuclear activities, and high-technology trade in three phases. Started in January 2004, just when phase-one of NSSP dealing with domestic export control laws were completed, the Vajpayee government fell and NSSP was abruptly ended. In walked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with an opinionated Natwar Singh as his external affairs minister, keen to run into deep engagement with the US, which given the two histories and global perspectives was not a sensible move. The rest as they say is history. The deal did not deliver desired results ending in heart-burns, with the two governments now finally starting anew.

I recently asked a senior US diplomat (she cannot be named as the interaction was non-attributable) posted in Delhi what she thought India had got out of the nuclear deal. Her reply was that Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is not mentioned when talking about India. While discerning people are welcome to make their own judgement calls, it is worth mentioning that Pakistan has gained aplenty from the India-US nuclear deal. China has given Pakistan two additional illegal nuclear reactors, capability to make low-yield nuclear warheads (for use in battlefield ballistic missile, Nasr), and the US administration acknowledged that Pakistan has the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world. Without doubt, Mishra was right in his dealing with the US. It is another matter, that in later years, an isolated Mishra gave public legitimacy to the Manmohan Singh government’s nuclear deal, something he should not have done.

Now, let’s see how the two governments responded to Pakistan-supported terrorist attacks on Indian soil: 13 December 2001 attack on the Parliament, and 26/11. Mishra, with Prime Minister Vajpayee’s backing, was the key player in deciding the course of action after the brazen attack on the Parliament. The three defence service chiefs were summoned by the Cabinet Committee on Security with the Prime Minister in the chair within 72 hours of the daring assault. It was Mishra who told them to mobilise the armed forces; Operation Parakram had been launched. His thinking was that after the terrorist attack on the Jammu and Kashmir state assembly the previous month, Pakistan could not be allowed to go scot-free. Firmness had to be shown to convey the message that enough is enough.

Twice during the 10-month long military stand-off, India and Pakistan were close to war, in January 2002 and May 2002. In later years, Vajpayee admitted that not going to war in January 2002 (Pakistan Army was unprepared with bulk of its reserve forces committed in US-led Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan) was a mistake. A surgical strike was possible, with good military options available in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. When Operation Parakram was finally called off in October 2002, the Vajpayee government declared that it was about coercive diplomacy, and India had won. President Musharraf in a televised address on two occasions, on 12 January 2002 and 27 May 2002, said that Pakistani soil would not be allowed for terrorist activity against India. While Mishra did not confirm to me, I believe that in January 2002, the US was able to dissuade Vajpayee’s senior colleagues (maybe Jaswant Singh) to not go to war; and hence Vajpayee’s regret in later years.

The second occasion in May 2002 was different. This time around, the Pakistan Army was prepared for war; on three occasions between March and May 2002, Musharraf, by test-firing his nuclear-capable ballistic missile, demonstrated his will, preparedness and the course the war, if escalated, would take. As a good strategist, Mishra understood that war at this juncture would not be in India’s favour. Condoleezza Rice, then the US National Security Advisor confirms in her memoirs that: ‘I received an urgent call from Brajesh Mishra and was pulled from the President’s meeting. “I cannot contain the war lobby here without some help,” he said. Making it clear that he was acting on his own, he asked that the President (Bush) make the statement, calling on Musharraf to live up to the promises he’d made in his earlier speech (January 12)’.

While certain questions remain unanswered about the biggest mobilisation done by the Indian Army since the 1971 war, what is clear is that Mishra, the master strategist remained on top of the situation. Undoubtedly, the deft handling of Operation Parakram followed by intense back-channel diplomacy by Mishra led to the biggest breakthrough in bilateral relations within a year: Pakistan and India agreed to a ceasefire on the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir on 26 November 2003. While the ceasefire has held since then, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh lost the opportunity with President Musharraf to resolve the Kashmir issue; his NSA, M.K. Narayanan was hardly the man for the occasion.

In stark contrast, India’s handling of 26/11 could have been better. Nine terrorists from Pakistan unleashed mayhem for three days in Mumbai killing 166 innocents and wounding many. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met the three services chiefs only once, five days after Pakistan struck, to get their views on the military option. The air chief suggested surgical strikes, and the army chief spelt out doable swift options in the desert (reaching Fort Abbas) and Kashmir. The Prime Minister said nothing, and a week after the meeting, his NSA, Narayanan informed the three chiefs that the military option would not be exercised. Just then, responding to a media query, senior minister Pranab Mukherjee said that all options (including military option) were on the table. Quick retaliation came from the Pakistan army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, daring India to exercise the military option. New Delhi queasily decided to keep quiet, and that is how 26/11 ended for India.

Learning lessons from 26/11 aftermath, General Kayani, in later years, plugged two major operational gaps where Indian Army had the military advantage. With People’s Liberation Army (PLA) (Chinese soldiers masquerading as civil engineers) milling around in Northern Areas, and after Beijing declared in 2010 that it no longer has a border with India in Kashmir, Indian Army’s advantage of large numbers in Jammu and Kashmir stand nullified. The Pakistan Army has also fielded its 60km range Nasr (Hatf-IX) ballistic missile to be used with low-yield warhead in desert battlefield against swift and sudden offensive (areas around Fort Abbas). Nasr is not a tactical nuclear weapon, as it is referred to by experts, because its command and control will remain centralised at the highest Pakistan Army level.

Move on to China. Brajesh Mishra, the strategist, grasped that China in 2000, which was fast emerging as a global power, had to be dealt upfront. As PLA intrusions into Indian territories increased phenomenally after the 1999 Kargil war, he took two major decisions. It was his initiative that led to both sides agreeing in 2003 to have special political representatives handling the border resolution. Unfortunately, with his departure, his successors neither had the desired political backing nor strategic acumen to deliver results. Moreover, the Vajpayee government sanctioned Rs 2,000 crore in 2003 to commence work on strategic roads on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The roads had earlier been identified by the task force on Border Management set up by the Vajpayee government after the Kargil war. Needless to add, once the Manmohan Singh government assumed office, all files relating to the previous government were consigned to cold storage.

Step back still further. After the May 1998 series of nuclear tests, the Vajpayee government (read Brajesh Mishra, who as NSA set up the National Command Authority) initiated numerous steps with transparency on national security as behoving a ‘state with nuclear weapons.’ Following the Group of Ministers report (made public in February 2002), Strategic Forces Command, Andaman and Nicobar Command, and Integrated Defence Headquarters were formed; the three services headquarters were re-designated as ‘Integrated Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence;’ and the draft nuclear doctrine was made public (by the NSA himself). Today, all these organisations have stabilised and are delivering well. It is my belief that had Mishra continued in office, much more would have been done for national security. Unlike the Congress party, for Mishra national security was a priority.

I cannot supress the urge to share a personal matter. As the NSA, Mishra used to regularly meet the three defence services chiefs, a practice discontinued in the Manmohan Singh government. During one such meeting in March 2004, Mishra’s attention was drawn towards a report in FORCE February 2004 issue which had a few details on problems in India’s nuclear weapons delivery. Completely out of context, the chief of air staff, ACM S. Krishnaswamy decided to vent his pique (He had nearly thrown me out of his office at Air Headquarters a month earlier when during a formal interview I dwelt excessively on reports in the Hindu newspaper that newly-inducted Su-30MKI had major engine problem). Glancing sharply at the chief of army staff, General N.C. Vij, ACM Krishnaswamy asked if the army was backing (insinuating financial support) FORCE newsmagazine. The army chief denied what was not true. However, General Vij passed instructions that FORCE newsmagazine should not be allowed journalistic access to army installation. I know these details because Mishra told me when I met him for the first time. He was gracious to say that he wanted to meet me. That was Brajesh Mishra, beyond all pettiness.


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