At first sight, the decision to make National Security Adviser Ajit Kumar Doval the chairman of the Strategic Policy Group (SPG) of the National Security Council (NSC) would appear as though the government is working overtime to repair the rusted national security mechanisms of the country. The move has come along with other changes in the NSC system, and a couple of months after it took an even more consequential decision to appoint Doval the chair of the Defence Planning Committee, which virtually runs the Ministry of Defence.
A closer look would, however, reveal that this is, to quote Shakespeare, a lot “of sound and fury signifying nothing”. The Modi government has a record of making announcement and grand declarations that turn out to be just that – announcements and declarations. The changes in relation to Doval’s job description also appear to amount to that.
Worse, they could also be part of an effort to paper over the real problems relating to the dysfunctional defence system and the government’s inability to adequately address them. This is manifested most clearly by a little-noticed decision to replace Major General (retired) B.C. Khanduri as the chairman of the parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence (SCOD). Earlier this year, under his leadership, the SCOD came out with an authoritative report revealing the extent of the problems of the Indian armed forces.
To come to the latest decision on the SPG: the defence secretary was the designated chair of the SPG and now he has been replaced by the NSA. Some media commentary has gone over the top in suggesting that this gives Doval primacy over the entire government because key officials like the Reserve Bank of India governor and the cabinet secretary are also members of the SPG. That is simply not true, because the SPG carries out a specific function in relation to national security issues and there is nothing unusual in having the NSA chair it.
Actually, having the cabinet secretary in the chair was a bit of an anomaly, a holdover from the era when he was, indeed, the chief coordinator of India’s national security policy, including the nuclear weapons programme. That situation ended with the appointment of Brajesh Mishra as the first NSA.
A six-member NSC headed by the prime minister was set up in November 1998. The body comprised of the SPG consisting of senior officials like the chiefs of the intelligence agencies, the heads of the three armed forces, and other senior secretaries to the government as the key executive tier of the new body responsible for the inter-ministerial coordination of the national security system. At the second tier was the National Security Advisory Board comprising retired officials and non-government persons. Both these bodies and the NSA’s office were serviced by a National Security Council Secretariat.
The NSC was viewed as a body that would take a holistic view of national security issues based on the advice and specialist studies done by its constituent bodies, but the executive action on them would remain the purview of the Cabinet Committee on Security. The fact that the two bodies had a common membership helped the decision-making process.
In setting up the NSC, the government had hoped that it would bring a fresh angle to the traditional approaches to security. This would be facilitated by the independent advisers in the NSC system. But over time, things didn’t quite work that way. With former government officers dominating the alternate channels of advice, there was little by way of out-of-the-box thinking.
In any case, the NSC itself met fitfully over the years, and while the NSAB was always active, the SPG went through long periods when it simply did not meet.
Looking back, it is clear that the NSC system has not quite stabilised. To start with, the Joint Intelligence Committee was subsumed under the NSCS which was given the job of tasking the intelligence agencies. However under M.K. Narayanan, the JIC was again revived and the tasking system abandoned.
When Doval became NSA, he initially did away with the NSAB and chose not to have a military adviser, with the incumbent Lieutenant General Prakash Menon being re-designated Officer on Special Duty. Later a truncated NSAB came up with former ambassador to Russia P.S. Raghavan at its head, but without its crucial component of non-governmental experts. The chairman JIC R.N. Ravi, who was also the interlocutor for the Naga talks, has recently been re-designated as deputy NSA (internal). He is one of three such officials – Rajinder Khanna, former R&AW chief is deputy NSA looking after intelligence work and former diplomat Pankaj Saran deals with diplomatic issues. Whether the JIC has also again been subsumed by the NSCS is not clear.
The position itself has changed tenor since its first iteration. Its first incumbent Satish Chandra was “deputy to the NSA”, a notionally higher position. Subsequently, NSAs experimented with having one or two deputies. And now Doval has decided on three. According to a report, Lieutenant General V.G. Khandare, the former Defence Intelligence Agency chief, may now be appointed military adviser to the NSA.
Does the change of the chairmanship of the SPG amount to anything? Unlikely. As we have noted in the case of the Defence Planning Committee, the NSA simply has too much on his plate to devote time to issues of reform and restructuring that are needed in the area of defence. He is the principal security adviser to the prime minister, responsible for managing India’s policies towards Pakistan, China and the US. He manages India’s nuclear deterrent and, because of his background, also supervises the intelligence agencies. True, he has some highly capable people to assist him in carrying out his numerous tasks. But at the end of the day, the buck does stop with him.
Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.