Why India Needs an NSA Who is Duly Empowered But Also Knows His Limits

We are falling prey to the US model, where the president acts through advisers answerable only to him. But though there is all manner of congressional oversight over them, no such safeguards are adopted by India in the ersatz model.

Ufa: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with NSA Ajit Doval before a meeting in Ufa, Russia on Friday. PTI Photo by Manvender Vashist (PTI7_10_2015_000033B)

Ufa: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with NSA Ajit Doval before a meeting in Ufa, Russia on Friday. Credit: PTI

A veritable cacophony erupted in the wake of the Pathankot terrorist attack with the tradition and social media flooded with opinions ranging from the serious to the derisive. A host of questions are being raised. The professional security experts are looking at operational details, the media is expressing dissatisfaction over the official briefings, there is anger at the back stabbing and appreciation for the soldiers who stood their ground. It is but natural that the spotlight is focussed on the higher command and control structures of the security apparatus and the institution of the National Security Adviser. Without reference to the personalities involved – and it is quite fortuitous that hitherto all incumbents have been and are men of extremely high calibre, acumen and professional integrity – the question is whether the institutional structures have been soundly erected. Many would agree that it is not so and this is because well settled principles of governance have been diluted.

The threat scenario

Today’s external security threats are extremely complex and are a mixture of adversarial state power; unbridled non-state power under rogue leaderships quite independent of the jurisdictional legitimate political authority working either under a central authority or in autonomous cells; and lastly a dubious mix of state authority exercised over vast swathes of territory occupied by force (even having pretensions of a state, like the one established by ISIS) and working through non-state actors from within and outside the territory it holds.

These need to be met conceptually through deliberations, resulting in an enunciation of a strategic policy by involving as many instruments of the state with parliament at the apex. It should involve the professionals, academics, political parties and the wider population, taking into consideration diverse sets of opinion. Sadly such a strategic vision has not been attempted or enunciated in India in spite of the manifold threats it has faced and is facing over the years.

Since this is the preserve of the political executive, they need to bear the responsibility for the lack of such a doctrine. Apart from a few individuals, no political party has built a cadre of strategic thinkers, which is in sharp contrast to China – where their one single party has a tradition, starting from Mao, of concentrating on military and strategic issues with a long-term perspective.

Once such a doctrine is in position, the operational details elaborating upon the specific roles of structured formations comprising the armed forces, para-military forces, the state police and the intelligence apparatus, follows. It then gets further broken down at the tactical level, with defined roles in different circumstances (hostage situations; purely civilian targets like market places; moving and static targets; infrastructure; police and para-military targets and military establishments etc.). These are called Standing Operating Procedures for defined situations. In the physical world, the analogy would be a combination of the designer and artisan. Each uses different skills to obtain the final product.

Traditionally, the exercise of state belligerence has been well understood and responses have been studied through the ages. A formally structured adversary, generally the armed forces, is opposed by its counterparts. Long-term successful strategies are devised, both offensive and defensive. A good example is the cool, calculated planning, the choice of the right time and then a swift sweeping attack choreographed by Field Marshal Manekshaw, which saw the rout of the Pakistani forces in 1971. All these were decided well in advance, only the game was played out in real time by the field commanders.

Deliberations and operations are not the same

There is no alternative to deliberations but modern threats demand greater flexibility in thought and action. The non-state actors appear to be one step ahead. They are not recruiting but indoctrinating, political boundaries have no meaning for their supporters, age and sex are not of consideration. What is most worrisome is their capability to improvise and change tactics, whilst never forgoing their ultimate long-term objectives. Thus, faced with the decisive and ruthless American response to 9/11 – which resulted in severe damage to Al Qaeda and the Taliban – Daesh has targeted the soft underbelly of Western civilisation in Europe. And they deftly use fifth columnists in target countries who have been trained in countries closer to the European mainland in North Africa, Syria and Iraq, where reside large disillusioned populations who have seen the Arab Spring weltering. It is difficult for traditional structures to envisage the devious ways adopted by such adversaries, not hampered by the accepted rules of military engagement.

The key to good governance lies in creating structures where both the deliberative and operational aspects are attempted separately but yet are connected by an umbilical cord. Both aspects take into consideration the nature of the polity and citizenry they serve. These must be guided by constitutional provisions. Rightfully, after much deliberation, our founding fathers in the Constituent Assembly opted for the Westminster pattern which prescribed definite roles for a large representative legislative body, a smaller multi-bodied executive in the shape of the council of ministers, and an independent judiciary which is the guardian of individual rights and protector of the Constitution.

Beware the power of One

For our purposes it is the council of ministers with the prime minister as the primus inter pares which is of relevance. And coursing through all these structures is the basic principle of debate and discussion. There should be a right not only to free speech but the right to be heard (a plea met by a plea in the case of courts) and informed decisions taken after deliberations (regardless of whether it involves socio-economic development or war and terrorism).

The second requirement is the exercise of power with responsibility, with identified chains of command. In the case of the council of ministers, accountability is to Parliament. Even in times of war and crisis, such deliberative bodies have greater efficacy. Britain moved to a national government with a council of ministers of varied political hues during World War II. Contrast this with the fickleness of a dictator. Only Hitler’s arrogance could have turned the advantage of a Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact into a disaster that was Barbarossa.

Although these principles are basic to democracy and good governance, there is always the tendency to share power with as few as possible. The rule of a council is time and again substituted by that of One. Legitimacy was conferred by giving arguments of efficiency and more effective governance. Thus we find Periander of Corinth, a Tyrant (the Greek version of course ) amongst the seven sages along with Solon of Athens, a Lawgiver and Thales of Miletus, a Mathematician. Many a time, fictitious popular sovereignty cloaked the reality which was actually a rule by oligarchs, as in the Roman Republic. Even philosophers were not immune to this tendency and the democracy of the Age of Pericles got transformed into the ‘Laws ‘ of Plato. Thus when an alternative form of democratic system like the American presidency looms large, it attracts the attention and envy of those bound by the confines of a council of ministers system.

Just like in so many things cultural, where the United States exercises great influence and not always for the better, it has impacted on the Westminster pattern and we observe a creeping tendency to ape it and to transplant some of its institutional structures. Unfortunately, the mechanisms for checks and balances – especially congressional oversight over state instrumentalities – are not reproduced at the same time.

Apart from the American influence,  there are other factors too which are giving impetus to this tendency. A number of global issues (environment and climate change, trade, human migration including the refugee problem and human trafficking, international terrorism etc.) require frequent interaction at the highest political levels and modern communications makes this easy. A large number of ‘summits’ are being organised where portfolio ministers play a peripheral role after the chiefs have made their statements and gone off to attend another summit. Supplementary sets of meetings take place in countless regional groupings of various types as members, associate members or observers. Such spectacles are grist to the electronic media mill, which thrives on images of personalities and sound bites from them with no interest in issues and thoughtful debate.

Once having fallen prey to the presidential model, creating its advisory appendages is just a step away. Here again, the American model is based on unelected persons having the confidence of the president at the highest policy levels including the cabinet, and several top rungs in the bureaucracy filled under the spoils system. Of course, there is all manner of congressional oversight over them. No such safeguards are adopted by India in the ersatz model.

An anchor for the NSA

The formal system used to working under presidential orders promulgated under Article 77 of the Constitution (i.e. the ‘conduct of business’ rules) finds it difficult to interact and work smoothly with such institutions. The discomfort stems from the fact that such advisory offices do not always use the formal procedures, including notings on file which become permanent records. In the long run, it often happens that change in political leadership and governments results in downgrading even substantive work, because of the suspicion that incumbents of such offices have links to political masters under the spoils system. There is also a feeling that inspite of a subsidiary role, responsibility to parliament always remains that of the formal establishment – with secretaries appearing before committees of parliament and ministers before the house. And if some of the formal systems like that of the Crisis Management Group of the cabinet secretariat (which finds legitimacy as part of the cabinet secretariat) are by-passed or ignored, it results in another jolt to the established formations which take time to recover but always have a tendency to hold back or not give out their best.

The stark reality, however, is that although the collective deliberative and responsible model of the council of ministers (which includes their committees ) remains the best model, compromises need to be made as the process, which has now started, is not easily amenable to a U-turn.

The solution lies in bringing about legitimacy through legislation (as in the case of regulatory bodies), or better still by presidential orders under Article 77 of the Constitution. The powers, duties and responsibilities of the office of the NSA should be articulated in greater detail. At present, a very bland phrase describes the role of the PMO in the presidential orders.

The deliberative and conceptual role of the NSA’s office needs to be given prominence and it’s operational role, which steps on too many toes, needs to be eliminated. This is important. The Planning Commission, although conferred with authority under these constitutional provisions, could not resist the temptation to wield executive power and this to a large measure caused its demise. The long-term benefits of such a deliberative role which will adopt debate, discussion and inclusive interaction as its working credo will have far greater impact than at present.

Dhirendra Singh was Union Home Secretary from 2004 to 2005.

  • Anil Maheshwari

    Our country decided to follow the westminister model in a democracy. But temperamentally we love to have highly centralised power in the hands of a few person for which we should have been adopted the Presidential form of government in which a group of advisors help the head of the state to run the country. Till the division of the Congress by Mrs. Indira Gandhi to suit her personal interests the people and the parliament elected were sovereign. Since then the erosion in the authority of the parliament continue unabated. The bureaucrats in league with the politicians in power, having developed incestuous relations over the years, have devised an unique post of the National Security Advisor to assist the Prime Minister. Why are only retired bureaucrats man this important post? What is the need for such a post in a parliamentary democracy except to accommodate some superannuated officers? Moreover, what was the performance of these exalted and favoured officers when they were in the service or have they become wise in their post-retirement period?