An NSA for hard times

Ajit Doval clearly believes that national security begins at home. Reflecting his career in the field, his writings are marked by a consistent emphasis on the primacy of domestic problems over foreign ones

June 23, 2014 12:56 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:05 pm IST

The foreign policy of Narendra Modi presently serves as the Rorschach test. Pundits can read into it what they wish. For some, Mr. Modi will jump-start India’s moribund economy by plugging it back into world economy, boosting trade and investment flows with friend and foe alike. Others hope for a ruthless hawk who punches back against Chinese border incursions and Pakistani terrorist attacks, a man who will replace 10 pusillanimous years with a new era of vim, verve, and — when necessary — violence. Sometimes these two Modis come together. In America’s Foreign Policy magazine, Mr. Modi is cast as a Gujarati Ronald Reagan: an ideological west coast moderniser to clean the stables after Manmohan Singh’s hapless Jimmy Carter.

In truth, we have had few glimpses of Mr. Modi’s foreign policy in action. Inviting South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) leaders to his inauguration and picking Bhutan for his first foreign trip were shrewd moves, but both were in keeping with Dr. Singh’s long-standing and admirable emphasis on South Asian regional integration. Mr. Modi’s proposed visit to Washington in September was viewed as an act of wise magnanimity, but he had always insisted that his own visa travails would never be allowed to interfere with Indian foreign policy. And it is too early to judge his government’s performance with respect to the 40 Indian workers abducted by jihadists in northern Iraq.

At the helm However, there is another source of clues. Since 1998, Indian Prime Ministers have appointed a National Security Advisor (NSA). The post is a powerful one. Its occupant enjoys excellent access to the Prime Minister, holds a key position in India’s nuclear chain of command, and sits atop the intelligence agencies.

Mr. Modi’s predecessors chose all but one of their NSAs from among the nation’s senior-most diplomats. The exception was former Intelligence Bureau (IB) chief M.K. Narayanan, who filled the seat in the crucial years from 2005 to 2010 when the U.S. and India struck a series of historic deals. Mr. Modi has now sent out an important signal in appointing as his NSA one of Mr. Narayanan’s protégés: former IB chief Ajit Doval, a highly decorated intelligence officer who until his appointment had been leading the right-leaning Delhi think-tank, the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF).

Mr. Doval is an acclaimed spook. He is reputed to have infiltrated the Golden Temple in the 1980s posing as an Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officer, spent many years in Pakistan, turned in insurgent leaders in Mizoram and Kashmir, and negotiated the infamous release of hostages aboard hijacked Indian Airlines Flight 814 in Kandahar in 1999.

Security starts at home Fortunately for analysts, Mr. Doval has left a rich seam of writing on national security issues, running to tens of thousands of words. It would be unfair to Mr. Doval to treat these as a perfectly formed body of thought. Moreover, officials’ behaviour in government frequently diverges from their rhetoric in opposition. But Mr. Doval’s arguments could help us understand the sort of advice that Mr. Modi might receive.

First, Mr. Doval clearly believes that national security begins at home. Reflecting his career in the field, his writings are marked by a consistent emphasis on the primacy of domestic problems over foreign ones. Indeed, as early as 2006, Mr. Doval argued, “India’s internal vulnerabilities are much higher than its external vulnerabilities.” He therefore sees the most dangerous foreign threats as being those that target India’s domestic weaknesses, and lays stress on the importance of growing and equipping State police forces (he calls for a minimum of 200 policemen per lakh population). But his severest warning is directed elsewhere: “I consider infiltration of Bangladeshis the biggest internal security problem. Bangladesh supports the demographic invasion of India.”

Second, he views internal security in broad and sweeping terms. One recurring theme is his disdain for “front organizations supporting the cause of anti-national forces, masquerading as human right groups.” This is an issue with particular resonance after the IB’s recent description of Greenpeace and its European funders as “a threat to national economic security,” and the government’s subsequent crackdown on transfers.

In a Hindi speech to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) last summer, Mr. Doval also argued that a millennia-old Indian national identity was under threat. He bemoaned the tendency to emphasise Indian diversity, rather than unity. Most remarkably of all, he claimed that the core of national security was not physical security but cultural identity, and praised the BJP as being the only political party promoting Indian-ness. This suggests a crucial — and controversial — cultural dimension to internal security.

Adding muscle to intelligence Third, he wants to add muscle to Indian intelligence. There has been considerable excitement that Mr. Modi will reverse I.K. Gujral’s purported decision to dismantle the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)’s covert action capability. Some are salivating for Abbottabad-style raids. It is clear that the NSA sympathises, though his language is guarded.

Over the years, Mr. Doval has talked of the importance of covert action. In a 2012 article, he defines these as “a low cost sustainable offensive with high deniability aimed to bleed the enemy to submission.” He despairs of New Delhi’s failures to sharpen its tools in this regard, and dismisses conventional wars as “cost-ineffective and high-risk ventures.” In his view, “the most effective way of dealing with terrorism would be to identify boys who have got the courage of conviction to match that of the fidayeens and who are capable of taking risks. Identify them and put them in action.” He notes, ominously, that “Pakistan has its own vulnerabilities many times higher than India.”

Mr. M.K. Narayanan also pushed for covert action against Pakistan after the 2008 attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul, but was rebuffed by Dr. Singh. Mr. Modi might well share this caution, although another Mumbai would almost certainly tip the scales.

But Mr. Doval is not just talking about assassination. His writings repeatedly emphasise the importance of disrupting terrorist logistics and communications, rather than just leaders. In 2011, he lamented that Indian intelligence had become fixated on foreign terrorists rather than those within India, and argued that the States’ district and local level intelligence units had to step up. He praised the formation of the long-delayed National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) the next year, but urged that it be beefed up with manpower, resources and more legislative authority.

Fourth, the NSA is pessimistic about Afghanistan’s stability as western forces draw down. He squarely blames Pakistan for the insurgency, and is concerned about the impact on India. Last summer, he told a pro-India lobby group in Washington that if things worsened, “start preparing for the worst,” adding that “you often don’t have to fight the wars you had prepared for in advance.” Responding to attacks on Indian diplomatic missions in Afghanistan, Mr. Doval demanded “enhanced security cover and not abandonment or appeasement.”

How might Mr. Doval counsel Mr. Modi on outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s long-standing request for Indian arms? Two years ago, I served alongside Mr. Doval on a British-Indian working group on Afghanistan, whose joint recommendations included a “substantial and rapid” growth of India’s role in building up Afghan security forces. Mr. Doval has never been explicit on this question, but he seems likely to nudge Mr. Modi in a more assertive direction.

On the U.S. Fifth, Mr. Doval does not trust the United States — as is typical in officers of his generation. He warns that the U.S. “will seek to outsource their counter-terrorism to Pakistan” as they withdraw from Afghanistan. He was scathing of the U.S.-India nuclear deal, bitterly warning in 2006 that “it will stunt India’s emergence as a genuine nuclear weapon state, cripple its strategic deterrence, and reduce it to a US satrapy.” Of course, Mr. Modi is extremely unlikely to downgrade the strategic relationship with the U.S. It transcends national security. But such thinking might have implications for whether the government will modify India’s draconian nuclear liability law, as per the wishes of Washington and other Indian nuclear suppliers.

Taken together, these writings portray a details-oriented, methodical, and pragmatic thinker. Mr. Doval is not one for grand, cooperative schemes. He is a hawk, but a cautious one. His diagnoses are gloomy, but his prescriptions restrained. His vision is quite different to Mr. Modi’s globalism. It is more inward looking, localised, and distrustful. His vision of national security is primarily internal, peripheral, and — perhaps most intriguingly — cultural. Farther afield, Mr. Doval warns of developments in Afghanistan and strikes an uncompromising tone on Pakistan — but there is little on China, let alone India’s partners in East and Southeast Asia. Europe and the Middle East are almost entirely absent. Mr. Doval is the foil to the Prime Minister’s enthusiastic internationalism — an NSA for hard times in the neighbourhood?

(Shashank Joshi is a research fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London and a PhD candidate at Harvard University.)

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