More effective externally than internally

With the record of 11 years and three incumbents before us, a review of the National Security Adviser’s role as an institution is needed to see what improvements are possible.

January 20, 2010 02:03 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:49 pm IST

India is unique in combining a parliamentary system with the institution of a National Security Adviser who has wide-ranging executive responsibilities in the areas of foreign policy, intelligence, nuclear command and control as well as long-term strategic planning.

Created in 1998 following a series of high-level committees that studied the management of national security and intelligence, the NSA was intended to be the prime mover of a multi-tiered planning structure with the National Security Council (NSC) headed by the Prime Minister at the apex. An NSC Secretariat (NSCS) was created to service the Council, which subsumed the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) and its staff within it. Finally, a National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) of outside experts was set up to generate independent inputs to the NSC.

A decade later, it is logical that the functioning of these structures be reviewed to see how effective the system has been.

In a series of on-the-record and background interviews with key participants in the NSC system over the past decade — including Brajesh Mishra, who was NSA from 1998 to 2004, and half-a-dozen former chiefs of India’s internal and external intelligence agencies — the picture that emerges is one of a system that has delivered mixed results and is in need of refinement, enhanced staffing and a clearer delineation of tasks.

If the institution of the NSA proved to be an unqualified success in dealing with complex foreign policy issues with national security implications such as the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008 highlighted the absence of focussed intelligence coordination. As for long-term national security assessment and planning — the original raison d’etre of the NSCS — most of the former officials interviewed by The Hindu believe this is the weakest link in the system, a view disputed by those who are currently on the inside.

As matters stand, the NSA today formally wears three broad hats. First, as coordinator of complex foreign policy initiatives and interlocutor with the big powers on strategic matters, he is diplomatic adviser to the Prime Minister. Second, as head of the NSCS, he is a long-term planner, anticipating new threats and challenges to national security. Third, as chair of the Executive Council of the Nuclear Command Authority, he is the overseer of India’s nuclear weapons programme and doctrine. Due to the legacy of weak leadership in the Ministry of Home Affairs during Shivraj Patil’s years, the NSA’s job under M.K. Narayanan slowly expanded to take on a fourth role — internal security issues like Kashmir, the North-East and Naxalism. Intelligence coordination and tasking, particularly in counter-terrorism, also became part of his turf, mainly because of his own background.

This was not how things were meant to be. The NSA, whether in presidential systems like the U.S. or Russia or parliamentary systems like Britain, where he is a diplomatic adviser, only deals with international issues, said Mr. Mishra.

While the main turf battle his predecessors waged was with the External Affairs Minister, Mr. Narayanan’s role as the country’s de facto internal security czar opened a second potential front of conflict. Intelligence chiefs reported to him, and his office became the clearing house for the collation, processing and tasking of intelligence. As long as the power vacuum created by a weak Ministry of Home Affairs remained, this front would remain dormant. But when P. Chidambaram moved into the Home Ministry in the wake of the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, things changed. Soon after that, Mr. Narayanan found himself joining the intelligence chiefs in a daily meeting chaired by the Home Minister in North Block. But he remained in charge of other bits of the intelligence set-up.

As was to be expected of an institution that was not only new but also alien to the existing patterns of bureaucracy, the NSC structure has evolved in a way that closely mirrors the priorities and focus of the NSA. Under Brajesh Mishra, who held the post from 1998 to 2004 concurrent with his job as Principal Secretary to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the NSCS was run by the Deputy to the NSA (DNSA), Satish Chandra, at the time a serving Secretary-level Foreign Service officer. Intelligence tasking was carried out by the Intelligence Coordination Group (ICG), which brought the consumers of intelligence products together with the producers under the chairmanship of the NSA, and the NSCS staff conducted research and produced papers on the long-term challenges to India’s security. “The NSCS had anticipated many of the threats we see now,” said Mr. Chandra in an interview. “For example, awareness about pandemics and their implications was discussed by us in 2000-2002 and pushed into the system”. As for the NSA himself, Mr. Mishra devoted most of his energy to foreign policy and did not involve himself too closely in intelligence matters

Though Mr. Mishra was considered effective and influential, he was not without his critics at the time. K. Subrahmanyam, doyen of India’s strategic thinkers and in many ways the prime mover of the NSA/NSC concept within the country, repeatedly argued in favour of a full-time NSA unencumbered by the task of running the PMO. But in an interview to The Hindu, Mr. Subrahmanyam now acknowledges that Mr. Mishra’s political proximity to Prime Minister Vajpayee was an effective diplomatic instrument that allowed India to emerge as a global player. “By combining the jobs of Principal Secretary and NSA, Brajesh was able to interact with the big powers and very effectively projected India’s image as a major power,” he said. “Even though I was a critic, I don’t think he would have been able to play that role without combining the two jobs.”

When the United Progressive Alliance government headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came to power in 2004, J.N. Dixit, another former diplomat, was appointed NSA. At the same time, a new post of Special Advisor for Internal Security was created and Mr. Narayanan, a former Director of the IB, named to the job. Contrary to public impression, however, the new post was not intended to dilute the NSA’s mandate in any way. “An order was issued in June 2004 that the NSA will be responsible for intelligence and coordination and that the Internal Security Advisor ‘may also be marked’ on intelligence matters,” C.D. Sahay, who was head of RAW at the time, said in an interview. Other officials familiar with internal deliberations within the PMO said Mr. Narayanan was, in fact, Dr. Singh’s first choice for NSA but was unable to accept the position because of an illness. Upon Mr. Dixit’s sudden demise in January 2005, however, the job landed on to his plate after the Prime Minister first considered naming either Ronen Sen or S.K. Lambah, both former diplomats, to the job.

As NSA, Mr. Narayanan’s biggest achievement was managing the inter-agency process that fed into the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal. In January 2005, Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, then the French President’s Diplomatic Adviser, arrived in New Delhi with a non-paper spelling out a broad proposal on behalf of the U.S., France and Britain for the resumption of nuclear commerce with India. The July 2005 Indo-U.S. agreement grew out of that visit, with both Mr. Narayanan and the MEA playing key roles in framing the nature of the bargain. Negotiations with the U.S. over the separation of civil and military nuclear facilities, the nature of safeguards and fuel assurances, reprocessing and other issues were difficult and often saw the MEA, the Indian Embassy in Washington and the Department of Atomic Energy at logger-heads with each other. As head of the ‘apex group’ overseeing the negotiations, the NSA had to reconcile these positions. Later, he had to directly step in at the highest levels to get the U.S. to stick to its commitments.

Speaking of American NSAs, on whom the Indian equivalent was modelled, Ivo Daalder and I.M. Destler wrote: “They must provide confidential advice to the President yet establish a reputation as an honest broker between the conflicting officials and interests across the government.” The nuclear deal was, in many ways, tailor-made for the Indian NSA’s office because at an institutional level there was nobody else who could play that kind of co-ordinating role. The Prime Minister was committed to the nuclear deal but his officials were divided on its details. Forging a common position, mostly, as it turned out, on the basis of the DAE’s arguments, was Mr. Narayanan’s big contribution.

Mr. Narayanan also emerged as a key player in India’s renewed engagement with other big powers, especially Russia, France, China and Japan. Most of this never made the headlines. The NSA’s is by definition a plodding job in which he has to put lots of small things together, especially in order to cover for the inadequacies of the Indian bureaucratic system. Even the diplomatic adviser part is not just about having bright ideas but about installing the machinery to make things happen. And his importance internationally stems from the authority he carries as the Prime Minister’s representative.

When it came to Pakistan, however, the NSA’s multiple roles came into conflict with each other, especially in recent months. As diplomatic adviser, Mr. Narayanan should have found ways of pressing ahead with the kind of engagement the Prime Minister repeatedly said he favoured. But as an internal security czar who had fought off calls for his resignation after 26/11, he knew another terrorist strike would cost him his job — especially if he was seen as backing the idea of dialogue with Islamabad. Slowly but surely, the adviser had fallen out of step with the agenda of his principal.

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