Friday, January 22, 2010
India matters, not America
I had hoped a loyal babu willing to do his master's bidding wouldn't be appointed successor to MK Narayanan. But I was wrong. Shiv Shankar Menon, of Sharm el-Sheikh fame, has been appointed NSA. The consequences will be along expected lines -- on Pakistan, on Jammu & Kashmir and on America.]
As National Security Adviser MK Narayanan prepares to exit the Prime Minister’s Office and spend the coming years in the splendid isolation of a Raj Bhavan, it would be appropriate to review his tenure as Mr Manmohan Singh’s top aide. Given his unimpeachable loyalty to the first family of the Congress if not to the party (it would be facetious to suggest that one is concomitant to the other) it did not surprise anybody when he was inducted into the PMO after the UPA came to power. Nor was it surprising that his initial assignment was that of Internal Security Adviser. Having served as Director of Intelligence Bureau (when Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister) and a ‘National Security Adviser’ of sorts to VP Singh during his brief stint in office, he was a natural choice for the job. Known as a ‘tough-though-thinking cop’, apart from excelling at gathering ‘political intelligence’, his presence in the PMO, it was felt, would be a perfect counterfoil to the soft approach of the Government to issues linked to internal security as well as help shore up a regime dependent on unreliable allies by working the back channels with parties like the DMK.
There was a problem, though. JN Dixit, who was appointed National Security Adviser to the Prime Minister, saw his role as not being dissimilar to that played by his predecessor, Mr Brajesh Mishra, who handled both external and internal security-related issues loosely structured within the matrix of strategic affairs. The Director of IB, the Secretary heading Research & Analysis Wing, those handling Military Intelligence, the Joint Intelligence Committee, the Scientific Adviser, the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (who is also Secretary of the Department of Atomic Energy), the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary would directly brief Mr Mishra who, in turn, would brief Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Mr LK Advani wasn’t too happy with the arrangement and was definitely displeased about the Home Secretary hopping across from North Block to South Block to keep Mr Mishra posted, but there was little that he (or for that matter the Raksha Mantri and the Videsh Mantri) could do about it. Mr Mishra was the foreign policy czar (he was appointed special representative for crucial talks with several countries, including Pakistan, China, Russia and France and had over-riding authority), the initiator of strategic dialogue with the US, and the chief operational intelligence coordinator. All this apart from his responsibilities as Principal Secretary, which involved inter-Ministry coordination and routine administrative duties as chief of the PMO staff. That Mr Vajpayee never had any reason to complain is an abiding tribute to Mr Mishra’s amazing abilities.
Mr Singh (or was it someone else?) decided not to vest any one person with so much responsibility. Mr TKA Nair was appointed Principal Secretary, a job which the veteran bureaucrat with an impeccable record still holds. But it remains unclear whether an effort was made to delineate the task of the National Security Adviser from that of the Internal Security Adviser. What is known is that Dixit, held in awe by the Foreign Office and feared by India’s neighbourhood, was never too sure about his remit. Dixit may have been a grand strategist, but he was a poor tactician. On the other hand, Mr Narayanan, confident of his political backing, tactically exploited the situation to his advantage, appropriating for himself virtually every segment of the national security matrix and more. With Mr Shivraj Patil as Minister for Home Affairs, he met with no resistance: All pink note-sheets would land on his desk before they were read by anybody else.
The brewing conflict between Dixit and Mr Narayanan was resolved in the most unexpected and tragic manner. Dixit, popularly known as Mani, died on January 3, 2005, barely seven months after the UPA came to power. Mr Singh, hesitant to replicate his experiment, promptly anointed Mr Narayanan National Security Adviser and since then he has held the post, minding both external and internal security issues and strategic affairs. In between deciding who gets to head IB and R&AW (usually favourites from the Kerala cadre of the IPS), he also ran political errands, for instance coercing Panthers Party chief Bhim Singh to vote for the Congress-led Government and convincing DMK supremo M Karunanidhi not to push the envelope too far on India refusing to come to the LTTE’s rescue.
Meanwhile, the national security situation deteriorated rapidly with terrorists striking with impunity across the country, extracting a terrible toll of human lives and shaking confidence in the Government’s ability to protect the country’s citizens from jihadi marauders. The Maoist menace at home and the mess in Nepal bear further testimony to his sterling abilities. Mr Narayanan was clearly out of his depth in the vastly changed security scenario, though it is claimed he played a crucial role in finalising the India-US civilian nuclear cooperation agreement which, lest we forget, is yet to become ‘operational’.
Despite all this and a lot more, it would have been an uninterrupted run for Mr Narayanan had nemesis not struck by way of the November 26, 2008 fidayeen attacks on multiple targets in Mumbai and the resultant outrage followed by the sacking of Mr Patil. Both the National Security Adviser and the Home Minister should have been unceremoniously dumped after the July 11, 2006 Mumbai commuter train bombings in which more people were killed than in the carnage two years later. But then, 26/11 was telecast live while 11/7 wasn’t; more than 200 Indian commuters died in the first attack and six Americans were among the 166 who perished in the second massacre. So, Mr Patil made an ignominious exit, Mr P Chidambaram took charge as Home Minister and Mr Narayanan found his remit severely curtailed. Over the past year, national security has been the preserve of the Ministry of Home Affairs and Mr Chidambaram has done a commendable job.
We are now told that the Government proposes to have two separate Security Advisers — one for homeland security and the other for external security. That’s an excellent proposal and merits immediate implementation. If that happens — and it’s a very big ‘if’ — the defunct National Security Council (when was the last time it met to discuss strategic security, political, economic and energy concerns?), the Strategic Policy Group (comprising babus not known for coming up with scintillating ideas) and the Joint Intelligence Committee should be immediately disbanded. Structures of the past cannot meet challenges of the future. We need a brand new system with the right people for whom India matters more than America, not loyal bureaucrats who will blindly do the Prime Minister’s bidding.
[This appeared as my Sunday column, Coffee Break, in The Pioneer on January 17, 2010]