The decision to make National Security Adviser Ajit Kumar Doval as the chairman of the Strategic Policy Group (SPG) of the beleaguered and unwieldy National Security Council (NSC) has surprised many strategicians in the country. Earlier Doval was appointed chairman of the Defence Planning Committee (DPC), which virtually runs the Ministry of Defence. It has three Service Chiefs, Defence Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Secretary of Expenditure as members of the committee. It is an institutional body that will envisage a draft national security strategy and will also formulate an international defence engagement strategy. The new strategic think-tank will also oversee foreign acquisitions and sales, making defence preparedness much more than an acquisition-centric exercise. This job is best suited for Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) – when appointed –to render valid single-point military advice to the National Security Council (NSC) as National Security Advisor (External Security), and the existing NSA to be NSA (Internal Security).
The members of the SPG are heads of intelligence agencies (RAW & IB), heads of three defence services (army, navy and air force), cabinet secretary and governor Reserve Bank of India.
Centre has now strengthened NSC secretariat, and in addition to advising the government on security issues, it will now coordinate with the ministries concerned to implement the action plans on the ground, including development of infrastructure, which is also a key to the security of the nation.
Stress has also been given on keeping a close watch on all the developments in the neighbouring countries, which is vital for the internal security of the country. The office of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) has been abolished and it will now function as a part of the NSC. Lt. Gen. V.G. Khandare, the former Defence Intelligence Agency chief, is likely to be military adviser to the NSA.
Giving details of the new scheme of things, the Prime Minister heads the NSC, while, the ministers in charges of Home, Defence, External Affairs and Finance are members of the Council. The National Security Adviser heads the NSC Secretariat (NSCS) and now has three Deputy NSAs’ to look into three different aspects of overall national security. The former Indian Foreign Service Officer Pankaj Saran has taken over as Deputy NSA (External Affairs)who will take care of External Affairs wing of NSC. Former JIC chief RN Ravi has taken over as the Deputy NSA (Internal Security) and apart from monitoring the situation inside the country, he will also be responsible for monitoring the situation in the neighbouring countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, China, and so on as any development in those countries can have a direct impact on the overall situation in India. Former RAW secretary R Khanna has taken over as the Deputy NSA (Technology), who will extend all required help to the other two Deputy NSAs. Surprisingly there is no defence officer as Deputy NSA for Defence and external national security matters, which is a must for formulating professional strategies. From now on, the NSA secretariat would not only give recommendations to the National Security Council, but also coordinate with the ministries concerned and the State governments to ensure that the plans are properly implemented on the ground.
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. A National Security Council Secretariat serviced both these bodies and the NSA’s office, which hardly functioned as such.
Since then NSC and SPG hardly met to carry out its objectives resultantly became a defunct body because with former government officers dominating the alternate channels of advice, there was little by way of out-of-the-box thinking. Also the member ministers of NSC approached the PMO directly for fast decisions. The holistic view of national security remained within the purview of Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) for decision-making being common members of NSC and CCS.
Being the head of the two very important organisations DPC and SPG, besides his own job as NSA, Doval has too much on his plate to devote time to issues of reform and restructuring that are needed in the area of defence and national security. He is also responsible for managing India’s policies towards Pakistan, China and the US. He manages India’s nuclear deterrent and, because of his background, supervises the intelligence agencies. Though he has highly capable three deputies to assist him in carrying out his wide ranging tasks yet it is humanly not possible to handle the most important defence matters unless a professional CDS is appointed in MoD to render valid single-point military advice to the Prime Minister.
There are a number of issues that need to be debated for smooth functioning of this new NSC.
Firstly, earlier, the Cabinet Secretary was the designated chair of the SPG and now the NSA, suggesting that this gives Doval primacy over the entire government because key officials like the Governor Reserve Bank of India and the Cabinet Secretary is also members of the SPG. Incidentally RBI Governor and Cabinet Secretary have constitutional positions but NSA is not. How can this arrangement fit in?
Secondly, the most important point is the authority for passing national security decisions from the cabinet secretariat to the NSCS. Technically, the status quo will be maintained as the decisions of the SPG will still be executed by the cabinet secretary, but the authority won’t be his, or the cabinet’s. How can this arrangement function?
Thirdly, authority of the home, defence, external affairs and finance minister will get diluted as their officers and the service chiefs, effectively, come back and convey the decisions to them while the cabinet secretary ensures these are followed.
Fourthly, hence, Cabinet Committee on Security will have very little to discuss because CCS members have already taken decisions at the SPG meeting under NSA. The collective responsibility of the cabinet system of governance will then get nuteralised. A debate, difference of opinion, which is the hallmark and healthy in the CCS will have very little space left for its members. The other ‘Big-4’ (home, defence, finance and external affairs ministers) will only become a rubber stamp.
Fifthly, Strategic think tanks and experts hold that military operations in coming years would be short and intense, and that the aggressor could gain an initial advantage. There is also the distinct possibility of India conducting war on two fronts, due to the nexus between our adversaries. In these circumstances, the speed and strength of our military response in defence or strike would be vital. This would depend upon the appropriate deployment, coordination and proportionate launch of our army, navy, air force, missiles, drones and cyber forces in the theatres under attack or threat. India’s military response therefore will have to be as joint military operations of our three Defence Services (army, navy and air force). Further, credible capability of such jointness would serve as a deterrent to neighbours from undertaking any military adventures. Effective joint operations necessitate unified military command by a military officer superior in rank to the three Service chiefs, designated as, say, CDS. The CDS would also serve to render valid single-point military advice to the NSC as National Security Advisor (External Security), and the existing NSA would be NSA (Internal Security). At present, there being no CDS, the Chairman and members of NSC cannot receive single-point advice on military and external security matters, which is so necessary for rapid and valid decision-making at the national level, vital especially for short and intense armed conflicts.
Under a strong Prime Minister, decisions often go top-down instead of bottom-up approach. We saw this under Indira Gandhi also resulting in stupendous victory in 1971 Indo-Pak war. But this NSC formal centralisation of authority now with the Prime Minister, marginalisation of traditional structures, destruction of checks and balances seem to be erratic.