Kashmir Times, 11 September 2015
India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval in a public lecture averred that India’s propensity to punch below its weight needed correction. India’s diplomatic and security shuffles ever since Mr. Modi’s election can be credited to India’s national security reset under Mr. Doval.
The latest example of Indian operational footwork is the creation of conditions under which Pakistan’s NSA was forced to cancel his trip to New Delhi. The trip itself had a promising beginning going back to the very first ‘surprise’ by the government in the invite to SAARC leaders, including Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif, for Prime Minister Modi’s swearing-in.
India roughed up the sheen with its very next move by calling off foreign secretary talks with Pakistan last August. Even so, it yet again created space for a potential opening in the joint statement of the two foreign secretaries at Ufa when the two prime ministers met on the sidelines of the SCO meet in July.
Perplexing move are in other areas as well.
When in Paris, the prime minister made a step-back from ‘Make in India’ to short-circuit the long drawn defence acquisition process in buying 36 Rafale aircraft off-the-shelf. The sudden signing of a framework agreement with Naga interlocutors is another example.
Whereas these actions suggest decisiveness, could they also have an underside in a shortcutting of the decision making process?
That the NSA is in the driver’s seat is unmistakable. He has figured prominently in what would otherwise be matters to be handled by the relevant institutions rather than by intervention of the NSA.
Media let on that the NSA was off, along with the then IB head, to Iraq on a rescue mission for Indians numbering in the double digits reportedly taken hostage by the ISIS. Could not this mission have been left to IB’s Asif Ibrahim who has since taken over as Special Envoy for West Asia and AfPak region?
Doval skipped the prime minister’s Bangladesh trip in order to organize the somewhat belated ‘hot pursuit’ operation in Myanmar after Naga hostiles killed 18 army men in an ambush in Manipur in early June. Apparently, the Indian army chief was also in tow, overseeing a tactical level action that could well have been left to the reputed corps commander there.
Where ordinarily the foreign ministry, in charge of Modi’s ‘Act East’ strategy, could have stepped in, instead Doval went over to assuage Myanmar’s hurt over possible sovereignty violations after the raid.
Another controversy over ‘turf’ has been in his getting on the phone for berating the Pakistani high commissioner in New Delhi and instructing India’s high commissioner in Islamabad to tell Pakistan to lay off firing on the Line of Control.
In what could be seen as undermining state governments, including in the BJP’s, he was spotted in Mumbai to supervise control over any backlash in the aftermath of the hanging of Yakub Memon. He queried Delhi Police on the Uber cab rape case. Though the NIA was already seized of the case, he visited Burdwan over the accidental blast there killed two alleged Bangladeshi bomb makers. In Kashmir, a new strategy to keep Kashmiri youth from radicalism was attributed to him after his visit there.
Clearly, Doval is indeed a man of action, as the numerous hagiographical profiles had it when he took over as one of Modi’s first appointees. However, Doval’s numerous interventions bring under cloud his remonstrations of teamwork, reinforcing criticism of Modi running an over-centralised ship.
Institutional good health depends on due processes and cohesion. The NSA can at best play a coordinating and facilitating role, and needs being self-effacing when about it in order that a national security culture based on institutions rather than individuals develops.
Concentration of power and authority in the person leads to an avoidable premium on personality factors, with an underside. Observers point to a Pakistan obsession resulting from the NSA’s long stint under cover there that can potentially render India’s Pakistan strategy awry.
More significantly, ideology potentially contaminates strategic rationality. The web-pages on culture and history of the foundation Doval headed for close to a decade, Vivekananda International Foundation, and that of his son, the India Foundation, reflect the Hindutva narrative. Ideology leads to a colouring of perceptions of national interest, with corresponding knock-on impact on national security.
Finally, expertise necessarily implies narrowness. A forte for intelligence does not necessarily imply operational dexterity or strategic finesse. Indian cultural constraints and bureaucratic deference, compounded by Doval’s omnipresence from the tactical to strategic level policy making and implementation, can result in a dearth of practitioners willingness to ‘speak the truth to power’.
While it is too early to write his report card or write-off Doval, a cautionary word can prove timely. Policy entrepreneurship and individual hyper-activism are recipes for personal and, worse, institutional failure with prohibitive national security consequences.