Strategic thinkers through history — from Chanakya through Sun Tzu to Machiavelli and down to the Indian strategic guru K Subrahmanyam — have emphasised the pivotal role intelligence plays in the security of the nation. The need to know in advance the enemy’s capability, intentions and plans is as vital a component as one’s own military capability. Military history is replete with national security failures due to flawed or failed intelligence. In modern times, failed intelligence management led to the massive Indian military debacle against the Chinese in 1962. Failure to read Egyptian intentions led to Israeli failure on the Suez Canal. The failure to anticipate the attack on Twin Towers in New York and the US response to it changed the geopolitical equilibrium from the Arab world to Pakistan. Indian military embarrassment and the costly response in Kargil was a clear case of intelligence mismanagement. The current situation in Iraq, of the rapid advance by the ISIS forces up to Baghdad is the latest instance of such failure. Neither the US, nor the Iraqi government and Iran’s intelligence apparatus had seen the offensive coming or the capability of the ISIS forces.
India’s own experience in intelligence failures is not confined to military matters either. The assassination of Mujibur Rahman in Dacca, and those of Indira Gandhi and later of Rajiv Gandhi are prime examples of intelligence failures. The number of reports and recommendations to improve matters is evidence of the widespread national weakness. In this disquieting scene, the book by Vappala Balachandran is a welcome addition. Notwithstanding that it is a compilation of articles and papers written and talks given over thirteen years, the corpus of writings authored by an intelligence operative with experience at national and international levels, provides an insight into the conceptual and structural challenges intelligence management faces in the country. The author was a member of study groups amongst whom the latest was on the management of the 26/11 attacks on the Taj Mahal hotel and elsewhere in Mumbai. The failure to act on the steps indicated in that study is illustrative of the apathy with which intelligence and security management are handled.
A survey of the National Security apparatus shows its shortcomings in managing both the external and internal security challenges. The National Security Advisor’s appointment is not one empowered by law but by an executive order. The NSA in India’s federal system needs to work through the key ministries of the National Security Council, viz., Home, Defence, External Affairs and Finance. Each of these ministers is a power centre commanding substantial political clout. None of them will, and in fact have not in the past, allowed the space needed by the NSA to function boldly or imaginatively. The undermining of the NSA and his organisation is no surprise and the author rightly concludes that ‘our system can in the course of time devitalise any institution set up with great expectations’. He quotes approvingly of the speech in which Vice President Hamid Ansari had broken new ground in 2010, by advocating accountability and transparency in intelligence management.
As a police officer who moved from Maharashtra to the Centre and rose to be a Special Secretary, Balachandran has enough to say on the Indian Police and policing. Police reforms are a subject on which there have been numerous studies, and even a Supreme Court ruling. The folly of merely adding numbers to the police force without modernising the structures is obvious to everyone, and the author brings out the need through interesting historical and personal insights. The debate on whether the Delhi Police should be accountable to the Chief Minister has gone on for years with even the Aam Admi Party taking a position on it, and the book has a pithy piece on it. The author also has decided views on the CBI being given Constitutional status. The author’s speech to the National Advisory Council on South Asian Affairs in Washington DC, on Better Intelligence Management of Terrorism: A Blueprint for National Commission Investigating 9/11, is a fine analysis worth reading for its thoroughness and recommendations.
On matters of foreign affairs and intelligence, the author’s first hand experience provides for some acerbic opinions. He writes appreciatively of individuals with whom he has worked. The legendary Chief of RAW, Kao is subjected to a fine analysis both as a man and as an institution builder. The way in which presumptive and prejudiced choices of political masters affect intelligence and its operatives is narrated with skill and not a little sadness. As for the Ministry of External Affairs, the opinions of its short-lived MoS Shashi Tharoor come in for sharp remarks titled ‘Tharoor’s Foreign Policy Argument is Hyperbole’!
That intelligence related to national security is marked more by failures than successes is a sad reality. Multiple agencies, turf wars and short term remedies all combine to lead up to flawed outcomes. Centre –State relations have come in the way of efficient intelligence management. Some states have used their clout as coalition partners in the central government to play spoilers in the management of intelligence. It is time every state and the Centre join hands to make Indian intelligence management a success story. The book shows that it is going to be a long effort in time, money and technology.