National security management under the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime can best be described as the management of systemic inefficiency, with the institutional and ideational foundations of the country’s national security architecture having become weaker since the new government took charge almost two years ago.
For sure, the NDA did inherit a fragile national security architecture, which it has made worse, through commissions, omissions and a shocking lack of direction. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s presidential style of national security management without bothering to create, consult and strengthen the country’s national security institutions is further contributing to this ominous structural decay.
In fact, strengthening national security was one of the major electoral planks the BJP used in the run-up to the 2014 parliamentary elections. It is only fair then that we assess its performance on the basis of the key national security promises it made in its >2014 election manifesto : “Reform the National Security Council to make it the hub of all sector-related assessments”, “completely revamp the intelligence gathering system by modernising the intelligence department”, “ensure greater participation of Armed Forces in the decision-making process of the Ministry of Defence”, and “study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times”. A factual analysis shows that the Modi government’s performance on each of these stated goals has been grossly incompetent.
Institutional dysfunction Mr. Modi’s presidential style is hampering key institutions of national security management which traditionally functioned on the basis of regular deliberations, briefings, and constant assessment of threat scenarios by experts, both internal and external. Take the example of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), which was set up during the previous BJP-led government (1998-2004) “to undertake long-term analysis of and provide perspectives on issues of national security. Its policy recommendations and options are conveyed to the National Security Council for its consideration”. The term of the ninth NSAB came to an end in January 2015 and the new government has not only not bothered to reconstitute it, but is actively thinking of doing away with it. We certainly need a more empowered NSAB, with access to classified files and whose inputs are regularly used for national security management by the leadership. But doing away with an existing institution, at a juncture when the government needs a lot of fresh ideas and outside expertise for strengthening the country’s national security, is an ill-advised move.
The National Security Council (NSC), comprising of the members of the Cabinet Committee on Security and the National Security Adviser, which is supposed to be the locus of deliberations and decision-making relating to national security as well as oversee the formulation of the country’s nuclear strategy, hardly ever meets to take stock of the security environment. So with deliberative mechanisms such as the NSAB and NSC not doing their job, the country’s national security management is a one-man show based out of the Prime Minister’s Office.
>What about nuclear strategy? The Manmohan Singh government had created a highly specialised Strategy Programme Staff “to work on a perspective plan for India's nuclear deterrent in accordance with a 10-year cycle”. There are legitimate concerns today about the mandate of this body, and how empowered it is to deliberate, strategise and engage in strategic nuclear planning. What is also evident is that despite the BJP’s claims in its 2014 manifesto, the NDA government is showing absolutely no interest in the country’s nuclear strategy. With the advisory/deliberative mechanisms either defunct or not in place, there is a danger of loosening political control over the evolution of the country’s nuclear strategy, potentially even the numerical shape of the arsenal itself. India’s nuclear strategy, as is widely recognised, has a number of doctrinal inadequacies which need to be addressed and corrected by the government, something the BJP specifically referred to in its manifesto. This has so far remained an empty promise. The more India’s nuclear strategy remains unarticulated, the less political control there will be.
Hamstrung intelligence community What about the intelligence agencies which collect and process raw intelligence and provide policy inputs to the government? Both the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and Research and Analysis Wing are short-staffed at every level with acute deficiency reported at the level of foreign language speakers. Despite the threat of the Islamic State and Islamist terror that India has been faced with, the IB has just three Arabic translators! The agencies clearly need a lot more trained personnel today than ever before due to the complexity of challenges and threats that the country faces. But instead of giving state-of-the-art training to the new recruits, the government has actually reduced their training period. These organisations, in short, face a number of challenges today in terms of shortage of sophisticated equipment, inadequate training and staffing, and promotion and career prospects for non-Indian Police Service officers. But nothing has been done by the NDA government to fulfil their promise to “completely revamp the intelligence gathering system by modernising the intelligence department”.
Another key post-26/11 institution that is in trouble today is the NATGRID. Created to function as a metadata intelligence grid by networking multiple datasets available with various agencies, >NATGRID, a pet project of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, is neither fully operational nor given adequate importance by the NDA regime — it does not even have a full-time chief since the NDA government refused to renew the contract of its CEO close to two years ago.
Key legislation ignored How satisfactory has been the NDA government’s performance on national security/defence-related legislation and reforms? The demand for reforms in India’s higher defence management is a long-standing one and has been recommended by the Kargil Review Committee (1999), the Group of Ministers’ (GoM) report (2000), and the Naresh Chandra Task Force (2012). One key recommendation of these reports has been to create the post of Chief of Defence Staff as a single, authoritative source of military advice to the government.
Indeed, a number of Parliamentary Standing Committee reports have also expressly supported this. A 2007 Standing Committee report said, “The Government should take the GoM’s recommendations as well as this Committee’s concern in this matter seriously and take the final decision on CDS at the earliest.” Another committee repeated this demand two years later saying it is “of the considered view that the creation of an additional post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) to act as Chairman of the CoSC [Chiefs of Staff Committee] is essential to ensure optimum level of jointness among the different wings of the Armed Forces and to provide single-point military advice to the Government”.
Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has also been promising, as recently as December 2015, defence reforms including the appointment of a CDS, in keeping with his party’s electoral promise. But no tangible action has been taken so far in this regard.
Nuclear safety, security and regulation is another key area that the government needs to focus on. Worrying incidents like the >recent heavy water leak at the Kakrapar Atomic Power Station in Gujarat and India’s ambitious civilian nuclear expansion plans demand utmost priority to civilian nuclear issues. Indeed, various Parliamentary Standing Committees as well as the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) had recommended the creation of an independent civilian nuclear regulatory authority. Keeping in mind this pressing need to carry out structural reforms in the civilian nuclear sector, the UPA government had presented the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority (NSRA) Bill to the Lok Sabha in 2011. The Bill is currently lapsed, and the new government has done precious little to bring an amended version for consideration of Parliament. Unwillingness to carry out structural reforms can have disastrous implications for the country’s expanding civilian nuclear industry.
Mismanaging Kashmir Kashmir is back on the boil, this time with far more disenchantment with New Delhi. Radicalisation is on the rise and youngsters are joining the ranks of militancy, not to speak of the growing support for it in the Valley. While anti-India sentiments in Kashmir have been rising for some time now, the BJP’s inability to handle its political alliance with the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) with sensitivity and statesmanship has only made things worse. By refusing to abide by the sensible approaches laid down in the PDP-BJP ‘Agenda of the Alliance’, the BJP has lost a historic chance to contain anti-India sentiments in the Valley and reduce the psychological distance between New Delhi and Srinagar. If the huge congregations of mourners turning up at the funerals of militants killed by security forces are any indication, we are looking at troubled days ahead in Jammu and Kashmir.
Finally, despite all its claims of giving primacy to strengthening and safeguarding India’s national security, the BJP-led government continues to adopt an unmistakably ham-handed and visionless approach to national security issues and institutions. There has been no attempt so far to reform or strengthen the country’s national security institutions, articulate a much-needed grand strategic approach to national security, and legislate on important national security matters. Despite all its pre-election rhetoric on national security and the ongoing grandstanding on securing and strengthening the nation, the BJP government’s approach to national security has been less than satisfactory. Close to two years in office, it should remember that high-pitched nationalist rhetoric can’t secure the country, but painstaking institutional reforms, legal provisions and a sense of purpose could.
(Happymon Jacob is Associate Professor of Disarmament Studies at the Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, School of International Studies, JNU.)