As the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi enters the final lap of its first term, it has set in motion a series of moves to streamline and synergise national security architecture. One of these has been the new appointments to the National Security Council Secretariat, which functions mainly as the office of the National Security Advisor (NSA). There are now three deputy national security advisors instead of just one, while the post of military advisor has been revived. Apart from this, the Strategic Policy Group, which had gone into disuse even during the UPA-2, has also been revived, but with one important difference. Instead of the Cabinet Secretary chairing the body, it is now the NSA who will preside. Several other moves, including the setting up of a Defence Planning Committee, again headed by the NSA, and a revived Advisory Board, also reporting to him, has been criticised as conferring too much power in a single office. Others like Manoj Joshi feel that these changes are only superficial, and will change nothing in the Ministry of Defence. The fact of the matter is that this is not about one individual or one ministry. This whole exercise is coordination. And it’s been a long time coming.
The National Security Council Secretariat, which is headed by the NSA, was set up following the 1998 nuclear tests by the then Bharatiya Janata Party government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Following the tests there was an understanding within the top political leadership that as a de-facto nuclear power, India would need greater emphasis on its security needs and compulsions. The NSCS was set up six months later and was meant to sit at the apex of the national security architecture, to ensure coordination between ministries and unity of purpose across government in the realm of national security. This, the NSCS has been able to do only fitfully. Simply put, the NSCS was only as effective as its NSA. An NSA well entrenched into the system, and enjoying the confidence of the prime minister, generally meant that the NSCS was able to fulfil its largely coordinating role. Its Policy Wing functioned as an impartial body that could coax reluctant bureaucrats to move quickly on various inter-ministerial issues. Second, the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) provided top officials with an ‘all source’ intelligence picture that was derived after sometimes heated discussions with all agencies sitting around a table. This made the JIC the only body that could provide an agreed upon assessment to the PM and his ministers, on upcoming threats and opportunities.
The JIC is not and was never meant to be an operational body. Its job was to provide early warning, and in this it had some marked successes. One was to correctly predict the 26/11 attacks. Separate Military and Cyber Wings were also created by an earlier government, but these also functioned under the charge of a single DyNSA. The changes that have been now made means that charge of each of these wings have been upgraded to a DyNSA level. Pankaj Saran from the external affairs ministry will head diplomatic strategy, R.N. Ravi formerly chairman of the JIC re-designated to head internal intelligence, Rajinder Khanna, former R&AW head is due to take the lead on intelligence and strategic technological issues, and former Defence Intelligence Lt Gen V.G. Khandare due to take over a revived Military Wing. All of these deputies are expected to function in a collegial manner, coordinating their moves with each other, even while each brings in relevant ministries around a single table in doing their separate jobs. Coordination, with more resources thrown in.
To take the second issue of the creation of the Defence Planning Committee (DPC). Committee after committee has pointed out to serious deficiencies in our defence management system, functioning seemingly independent of specific national security needs. In late 2017, MoS Ministry of Defence Suresh Bhamre commissioned an internal report on the procurement process. The findings were damning and emerged in the media only in February 2018. The report pointed to delay and lack of expertise, lambasting all concerned including ministry officials and acquisition processes of the armed forces. Most notably, it pointed out that the ‘Make In India’ initiative was languishing, due to ineptitude and a bureaucratic maze. Clearly, someone at the top was displeased. The announcement of a DPC came a few months later. Though its secretariat was designated as the HQ IDS, the DPC, chaired by the NSA, seems to have a wide mandate, with various sub-committees tasked with submitting drafts on National Security Strategy (NSS), a Strategic Defence Review and doctrines; an international defence engagement strategy; a roadmap to build defence manufacturing eco-system; a strategy to boost defence exports; and capability development plans for the armed forces”.
This rather onerous tasking seems to have got off to a flying start. The first meeting was attended by the service chiefs as well as heads of major ministries including the Expenditure Secretary. According to Nitin A. Gokhale, a national security document is also about to be released to the public. If so, this is a huge step forward. There were indeed several earlier iterations of such a document which were kept secret, thus defeating its very purpose. A bureaucracy that has no idea what national security priorities are can hardly work towards a common purpose. It is also pertinent to note there that no two bureaucrats (or ministries) could ever agree what national security actually meant, though they cited ‘national security concerns’ often enough at meetings to get their particular file through.
Certainly, the DPC seems to be a creature of many parts. At one level it seems to be an alternative to a Chief of Defence Staff, which has been postponed for decades since no one could agree on it. At another level, it is probably a creditable effort at ‘across the table’ decision making to clear the logjam in the ministry. At a third level, it’s again about coordination in aligning national security needs and defence resources, – which includes everything from defence production to the role of Defence Attaches – into one decision making box. Ambitious, but highly required in a bureaucracy that has been accustomed to running in several directions at once.
At a third and newest level is the revival of the Strategic Policy Group, once headed by the Cabinet Secretary – and not by the defence secretary as some analysts have said – but now to be headed by the NSA. This was always an advisory body, unlike the Cabinet Committee on Security which is a decision making body. The members as before, include the main ministries, the three chiefs, RBI, Space, Finance, Atomic Energy, the Intelligence Chiefs, and in the addition of the Chairman of NITI Aayog which is the renamed Planning Commission. The Cabinet Secretary will now attend as a member, rather than in the chair. The point here that everyone seems to miss – including Shekhar Gupta of The Print – is that the SPG as a body has always considered matters dealing with national security. The change ensures that the “minister in charge’ is now in the chair, and that Minister is the NSA. Notably, as a minister of state, the NSA is senior in protocol. Moreover, the Cabinet Secretary has sat in on meetings chaired by earlier NSAs. Only these tended to be less formalised arrangements. This time it’s on paper.
At a fourth level is the reconstitution of the National Security Advisory Board in a different format in July 2018. Once comprising a motley crew of some 14 to 28 members including retired government officials, prominent media persons and scientists, it has now been whittled down to a mere four members, headed by former Ambassador to Russia P.S. Raghavan, together with three others – a former chief of the external intelligence, a retired Lieutenant General who specialises on China and the head of a prestigious Law University in Gujarat. In effect, these senior members are expected to work with and within the system – unlike the earlier board, which was merely briefed by government officials, but were generally denied classified data, barring a few exceptions. Earlier Boards, such as the one chaired by the late K. Subrahmanyam did benefit from free wheeling and often heated discussions, resulting in such invaluable documents such as the Draft Nuclear Doctrine. Later Boards were simply wordy.
The new NSAB can claim to have had a hand in coordinating and fleshing out the new national security architecture that is slowly being put in place. Other moves – like the creation of separate Defence Space Agency, A Defence Cyber Agency and the Special Operations Division, all grew out of recommendations made years ago and all pointing to the need to encourage ‘jointness” (instead of the three services doing each job separately ) to allow maximum use of very scarce resources indeed. The difference is that they are now finally being rolled out. Which brings in the question of timing. The media has rather predictably linked this to the elections and the BJP selling itself to the voters. Nothing could be further from the truth. Voters are largely indifferent to such grand strategy in areas they don’t understand and have nothing to do with. Politicians know this better than anyone else. The changes are the result of a draft plan that is nearly two years old, and simply means that the file has been cleared by the prime minister, just before he goes neck deep into elections.
What does this exercise finally mean? It means that the government is implementing what others should have done long ago. In layman’s language it means that all concerned are being forced to sit around a table and decide on a common objective, in a specific time frame, and most importantly, within specific resources. In national security making it’s vital that you cut your coat according to your cloth. And that is what is the crux of the exercise.
Is the NSA taking on too much on himself? Not really. That’s why the number of deputies have gone up. They’re supposed to do all the groundwork and sweat blood. Decisions only have to be okayed. The problem however is not of an overworked NSA. It could be one of accountability and linearity of government decision making. The Cabinet Secretary and Defence Secretary for instance are government servants who head their ministries and are accountable to Parliament. The NSA is not. Earlier NSAs such as Brajesh Mishra, were careful to ensure that the Cabinet Secretary’s position as head of the bureaucracy was never eroded, nor the accountability of the heads of Ministries reduced. This move makes the bureaucracy even more politically subservient than before. That may be a good thing for faster decision-making, but may not necessarily ensure impartial advice from ministries, especially with a government that is perceived as heavy-handed. On the whole, one would bat for faster decisions in an environment where for instance, it takes more than 30 years to procure much needed artillery.
Finally, there is only one apparent casualty. The JIC seems to back in a kind of limbo. With the two major intelligence agencies now at the topmost levels of the hierarchy, there seems to be a perception that the JIC – staffed by subject experts – can be done away with. This is dangerous. Elsewhere, national security agencies are focusing even more on all source intelligence and coopting universities and academics in an exercise that aims to build the capability of both. The US for instance has set up 14 schools that operate Intelligence Community Centres of National Excellence. This is a recognition of the fact that there is a vast sea of information waiting to be converted into intelligence.
In India, this could be done by a reconstituted JIC that will act analyse both intelligence reports and flesh out gaps by outsourcing specific studies to universities, particularly those with national security departments. These departments are at present pretty much interpreting national security for themselves and achieving nothing as a result. An exercise that allows the JIC to shape the way universities study the subject, and hopefully also create courses on intelligence analysis, would be able to realise the potential of the extremely bright and innovative new generation that is out there right now, texting away their lives. Intelligence and national security needs to be made trendy. What better way than to use the mystique of the NSA to power a new outreach?
Tara Kartha was Director, National Security Council Secretariat. She is now a Distinguished Fellow at IPCS.