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The Hindu Profiles | Ajit Doval, CAATSA and Hagia Sophia

Ajit Doval | The spy who came in from the cold

The former IB chief is now a powerful adviser to the PM with a vast mandate ranging from internal security to border talks with China

July 11, 2020 09:54 pm | Updated July 12, 2020 09:47 am IST

Earlier this year, National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval walked through the narrow lanes of northeast Delhi that just witnessed one of the worst communal riots in more than three decades. With television cameras milling around, the 75-year-old Mr. Doval, a former Intelligence Bureau (IB) Director, marched and stopped to speak to residents, assuring them of peace and justice.

On February 26, as TV channels beamed the visuals and social media was agog with praises for the septuagenarian, reporters were duly informed that it was Home Minister Amit Shah’s idea to send Mr. Doval to the riot-hit areas. On March 11, Mr. Shah himself informed the Lok Sabha that it was on his request that the NSA visited northeast Delhi so that the latter “could motivate Delhi Police”. The police were criticised for being mute spectators as rioters burnt houses and went on a killing spree.

Ever since Mr. Doval was reappointed NSA in the second Modi government and Mr. Shah moved to North Block, there has been discussion on the power equation at play. The question often asked: whose words on internal security weigh more to the Prime Minister? Both have responsibilities and roles that often overlap. Mr. Doval had an amiable working equation with Rajnath Singh, Mr. Shah’s predecessor. After Article 370 was diluted last August and Jammu and Kashmir was placed under an unprecedented lockdown and a communication blockade, photos and videos of Mr. Doval eating chicken curry and rice with local people in southern Kashmir’s Shopian emerged. With the local cable channels snapped and the phone and Internet lines down, the video was played on loop on Delhi-based satellite news channels, the only connect Kashmiris had with the outside world. Cooped in their homes, with concertinas ringed at every lane, Kashmiris watched as Mr. Doval spoke of the benefits (of reading down Article 370 and turning the State into a Union Territory) and the bright future that awaited them. Officials say Mr. Doval is heavily invested in the security affairs of Kashmir.

Rise of a cop

Born in 1945 at Pauri Garhwal in the erstwhile United Provinces, now in Uttarakhand, Mr. Doval grew up in Ajmer, Rajasthan. His father was an officer in the Indian Army. After graduating from Agra University, he joined the IPS in 1968 in the Kerala cadre. He cut his teeth in anti-insurgency operations in Mizoram and Punjab, including undercover missions. In 1999, Mr. Doval was one of those who negotiated the release of passengers from the hijacked Indian Airlines flight IC-814 in Kandahar. In July 2004, he was appointed Director of the IB. After retirement in 2005, Mr. Doval retreated to his private life, often contributing to the national security discussions through commentaries and talks. When Mr. Modi came to power in 2014, the former spymaster returned to the government, as the country’s fifth NSA.

On June 3 last year, when Mr. Doval was reappointed, the NSA’s post was upgraded from the rank of Minister of State to Cabinet Minister in the table of precedence, a first since the post was created in 1998. The decision was reportedly taken as Mr. Doval was also leading strategic dialogues with many countries. A case in point being the talks between ‘Special Representatives of India and China on the Boundary Question.”

While China was represented by the State Councilor with a Cabinet rank, India was represented by the NSA with a Minister of State rank. The mismatch in hierarchy had raised protocol issues with the Chinese. The leg-up was also accelerated by the appointment of S. Jaishankar, a retired Foreign Secretary who was much junior in service to Mr. Doval, as the External Affairs Minister. In the first stint of the Modi government, the two differed on various foreign policy matters. Mr. Jaishankar, then Foreign Secretary, had shot off a terse letter to the Home Ministry and the NSA in 2016 after Chinese Uighur activist Dolkun Isa was granted a visa to attend a conference at Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh. In the letter, Mr. Jaishankar asked both to consult the Ministry of External Affairs to “better manage the political and media fallout from such decisions”.

To address the ongoing Chinese troops build-up at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, Mr. Doval quietly revived the China Study Group (CSG). An informal group constituted in 1997, the CSG comprises the Cabinet Secretary, Secretaries of Defence and Home, Army chief and Director of Intelligence Bureau, among others. The group has met at least on three occasions since May. The government had initially denied any serious crisis on the LAC. The extent of the Chinese build-up was later established through satellite images. On July 5, Mr. Doval held talks with China’s Special Representative Wang Yi on the disengagement plan at all the confrontation points, including the Galwan Valley where 20 Indian soldiers were killed in violent clashes with the Chinese on June 15.

Before he sat for the talks on the phone, the ground commanders were sent again to check if the Chinese had indeed moved back 2 km as agreed during the June 30 Corps Commander level talks. As per the agreement, Indian troops also pulled back 1.5 km from India’s perception of the LAC with a 30-day moratorium on foot patrolling. Two days before the Doval-Wang meeting, Prime Minister Modi made a surprise visit to Ladakh. Mr. Doval did not accompany the Prime Minister as he was in self-isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Advisory group

Though he has an office in South Block, in 2018, Mr. Doval ensured that the Sardar Patel Bhavan at Parliament Street in New Delhi was taken over exclusively for the functioning of the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS). The NSCS, headed by Mr. Doval, works as an advisory group, comprising various experts on security related matters. Several Ministries and departments were moved out of the five-storeyed building to make space for the NSCS.

Last August, the Cabinet Secretariat amended the Allocation of Business Rules, 1961 to include the NSCS, granting it a constitutional authority. Through the order, the NSCS has been empowered to generate Cabinet notes, a role till now reserved for the concerned Ministries. The order said the Secretariat would “assist the National Security Adviser, the Principal Adviser on National Security matters to the Prime Minister; and the National Security Council”. The Hindu has learnt that the NSCS has so far not generated a single proposal for consideration of the Union Cabinet.

The oft-repeated tales of his undercover operations in Pakistan have helped craft his image as a “super spy” among the common people. When the NSA enters a government building, security personnel and civilians stand in reverence, a gesture duly acknowledged by Mr. Doval.

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