If the appointment of Shiv Shankar Menon as India’s new National Security Adviser is major news, this is as much because of the impressive qualities the new incumbent brings to the job as the manner in which the scope and ambit of the office expanded under M.K. Narayanan. Some of that expansion was not always useful or advisable and has since been reversed. This is particularly true of the handling of counter-terrorism and intelligence at the tactical level, which will now be handled by the Ministry of Home Affairs’ proposed National Centre for Counter Terrorism with a full-time director. But P. Chidamabaram’s reputation as an efficient Home Minister has prompted calls for a further paring down of the NSA’s mandate. The fact that the NSA has multiple functions — diplomatic adviser to the Prime Minister, de facto overseer of the country’s nuclear weapons programme, and catalyst for long-term threat assessment and national security planning — has led some to argue these roles need not be played by a single person. Some have even begun to question the constitutionality of an executive, ‘unaccountable’ NSA in a parliamentary system. The last objection is misplaced because the NSA derives his existence and authority directly from the Prime Minister, to whom he is accountable and who, in turn, is fully accountable to Parliament. But the calls for trifurcation of the NSA’s role also have no merit.
As India’s engagement with the outside world grows steadily more complex, the government’s ability to manage present and future security problems is contingent on an institutional structure that can pull things together in space and time. The NSA’s role is to facilitate spatial coordination between ministries and departments on national security matters and also get the system to anticipate and prepare for the next set of strategic challenges. With so much of modern diplomacy conducted at the summit level, the NSA, as the principal staff officer of the Prime Minister tasked with overseeing India’s national security, is indispensable as an empowered interlocutor with foreign powers. As for the NSA’s role in the Nuclear Command Authority, it is unreasonable and perhaps even dangerous to suggest, as some have done, that a military officer should chair the Executive Council because ‘only the Army’ understands nuclear matters. India’s strategic assets are under civilian control and the NSA helps the Prime Minister exercise that control. It is clear that the national security structure in India needs revamping. The biggest weakness is the lack of an organic link between the NSA and the National Security Council Secretariat. The absence of a well-staffed ‘back office’ has hampered the functioning of the NSA and undermined the prospects for the kind of long-term strategic planning India needs. The NSA urgently needs to be provided with instruments that allow him to exercise his true mandate.