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The new Doval Durbar reduces India’s layered security system to a top-down Caliphate

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Ajit Doval is now India’s all-powerful security boss. This concentration of power disrupts our layered security system.

It is apt to compare a well-established structure of Indian governance — especially the relatively more conservative security bureaucracy — with our earth, made of layers dynamic, but moving at a pace so slow, you can never feel it. When these layers move suddenly and radically, it is a tectonic shift.

This is exactly what Prime Minister Narendra Modi has just brought about, overnight, with the power of a mere notification. It created an entirely new kind of national security architecture. It is the new-look Strategic Policy Group, headed by National Security Advisor Ajit Kumar Doval.

A picture of Shekhar Gupta, editor-in-chief of ThePrintIts 18 members include the usual suspects like the three service (Army, Navy, Air Force) and two intelligence chiefs (IB and RAW), defence, home, finance and space secretaries, but also some surprises: The governor of the Reserve Bank of India, vice-chairman of the NITI Aayog, revenue secretary and, the most interesting of all, cabinet secretary, traditionally and formally the most senior civil servant in the country. Cabinet secretary, incidentally, is a constitutional position; the NSA isn’t.

There are three more interesting points in the brief notification. One, that the NSA can summon secretaries from any other ministries to the SPG meeting. Two, that the cabinet secretary will “coordinate the implementation of SPG decisions by the Union Ministries/departments and state governments”. And three, that the notification is signed not by the relevant officer in the Prime Minister’s Office or the cabinet secretariat, but by a joint secretary in the National Security Council.

The SPG, as the notification indicates, was first set up by the Vajpayee government in April 1999. The difference is, it was then to be headed by the cabinet secretary. The NSA and the deputy chairman, Planning Commission, were special invitees and the group functionally resided in the cabinet secretariat. The notification has now shifted it to the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS). The cabinet secretary, instead of heading it, is now a member and executor of its decisions. The NSA is the new head.

It is tempting to unleash a line like the “clerk of the cabinet” has now become the “clerk of the NSCS”. But this is a change too sensitive for smart Alec-isms. Far from being merely an issue of bureaucratic pecking orders or inter-service hierarchies, it raises important questions on national security that call for robust debate.

The most important tectonic plate to shift is the formal and de jure authority for national security decisions from the cabinet secretariat to the NSCS. Cabinet secretariat, incidentally, is where the RAW is housed and its budget also comes from here. 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. At least not formally, or on the record. It is fair to say that since the NSA is the Prime Minister’s key counsel on security-related issues, he will be deciding on authority he (the Prime Minister) has delegated to him. But I am not sure the calcified Raisina Hill power structure will adjust easily to this relative informality.

Also read: Checking out the Doval detail: Some myth, some reality, and much folklore

Here are some more debate-worthy issues arising from this change:

One, will it not weaken whatever remains of the power and authority of the home, defence and finance ministers? Their officers and the service chiefs, effectively, come back and convey the decisions to them while the cabinet secretary ensures these are followed.

Two, what will it leave for the Cabinet Committee on Security to do? Collective responsibility is the bedrock of the cabinet system of governance. This implies that all of the CCS members have a say on a crucial issue and they then take a call collectively, obviously with the Prime Minister’s being the weightiest voice. A debate, difference of opinion, is normal and healthy in the CCS. Will it be possible now, if the decision or policy comes from this large SPG including all its top officials, service chiefs and wrapped in the Prime Minister’s authority? See it this way: When the Prime Minister’s mind is already known, what will you debate? Will the other ‘Big-4’ (home, defence, finance and external affairs ministers) just rubber-stamp it?

Three, it is not so important at this point because it is something that wasn’t going to happen any time soon anyway. But this will finish any prospect, or even debate, on the institution of a chief of defence staff.

The debate goes on. That under a strong Prime Minister, decisions often go top-down instead of bottom-up is a given. We saw this under Indira Gandhi. But this formal centralisation of authority with the Prime Minister, marginalisation of traditional structures, destruction of checks and balances, is rude.

Think, for a moment, what is the question on Rafale that the Supreme Court has asked. Was due procedure followed, or was it a decision taken and announced by the Prime Minister, even if in good faith, and passed down for necessary paperwork and formalities? This is a propriety issue. Of course, old, inherited bureaucratic structures are stifling, and need change. That shouldn’t mean a multi-layered constitutional system becomes a top-down caliphate.

Next, the bureaucratic “caste prejudice” (not my formulation, but the IPS Association’s in one of its representations to the government) needs to be challenged and reset on merit. This will be the issue with any service finding pre-eminence, not just the IAS. A quaint Modi government reality is how no top IPS officer seems to retire anymore. Most of them get re-employed in the government while most IAS and IFS officers go home, or to sinecures on corporate boards.

Also read: On security front, Modi’s favourite Ajit Doval has the power ball

Here’s a quick—and not definitive—count: Former RAW chief Rajinder Khanna is now Dy NSA. Preceding him was Alok Joshi, who was made chairman of the NTRO (National Technical Research Organisation) right after the NDA came to power. He has just gone home after reaching the age of 65. He has been replaced by Satish Jha, former special director IB, who was first appointed advisor NTRO on retirement. Now he has been elevated. Former IB chief Dineshwar Sharma is interlocutor for J&K. R.N. Ravi, retired from IB, has been the Naga interlocutor, but now also Deputy NSA. Amitabh (Tony) Mathur, ex-RAW, has been advisor, Tibetan Affairs. A.B. Mathur, also RAW ex-number two, is in the NSAB (National Security Advisory Board). Besides these, Karnal Singh is on post-retirement contract in the Enforcement Directorate and Sharad Kumar, the former NIA head, who was on post-retirement contract, is now one of the vigilance commissioners. All of them are retired IPS officers.

The NSCS budget has been increasing — from some Rs 81 crore in 2016-17 to Rs 333 crore in 2017-18. Sardar Patel Bhawan, where the NSCS is located, in central Lutyens’, is being emptied of many other existing offices. A new empire is being built.

A mere tweet from me on this earlier this week drew sharp reactions not just from the defenders of the government and Doval fans but amusingly, the angriest from the IPS Association. In a country where former police constables have become home minister (Sushil Kumar Shinde) and Vice-President (Bhairon Singh Shekhawat), I surely wouldn’t have a problem with a retired, stellar IPS officer becoming an all-powerful security czar. Particularly when he happens to be someone about whom my views are published, and not unflattering. But should one person, any one person, be all-powerful in a multi-layered, nuclear-armed nation of 1.34 billion, is a good question.

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  1. Prof PK Sharma, Freelance Journalist,Barnala (Punjab)

    In the Modi regime, the words Nation and Interest have now turned irrelevant !
    These two words stand belittled as these have ironically been replaced by a sheer
    selfish politics of five Ps -POWER, PELF, PARTY, PLOYS, POPULISM !

    The governance and politics in the four and a half years of NaMo rule has infact
    been reduced to a child’s play and a fun as decisions are being imposed recklessly
    without any thought, vision, planning and preparation to redress the grievances of
    the masses of the nation !

    So far as National Interest is concerned it has been left to Mr.Shekhar Gupta to see to
    it because for the duo of NaMo-Amit Shah winning polls is the only and only interest
    as well as religion !

    Their thinking and decision-making act reminds me of a time tested phrase :
    ” Fools rush in where angels fear to tread ” !

    Prof PK Sharma, Freelance Journalist
    Pom Anm Nest,Barnala(Punjab)

  2. The culture of working only in the policy domain without necessary statutory backing is fraught with the danger that the entire edifice may be simply rendered redundant by the next govt or demogogue. CCS is the essence of Indian Cabinet form of govt. This has been rendered defunct in a sustained and deliberate manner…
    Where is the check for this sort of continued madness?! Only with the voters?! Sad. I wish the other pillars were effective in bringing about a more consistent and constitutionally compliant approach.

  3. Factually Cabinet Secretary isn’t Constitutional Post. It can be considered equivalent to Constitutional Post since Attorney General and LG Delhi ranks 11th along with him in table of precendence.

  4. Modi is clueless and shooting in dark hoping that Doval ???? may hit the target.
    Too much dependence on anyone may backfire resulting in redundancy in the system.
    Ajit Doval with all power (without responsibility) in his hand, whenever he meet with a failure, can easily blame or will shift the burden on the subordinates.

  5. Few Indians would be able to name the Cabinet Secretary. A fixed two year term, more often than not an extra couple of years by way of extensions. Three intervening batches miss their shot at greatness. Would not mind the new arrangement at all. The real test would lie in results delivered. First visible in our troubled neighbourhood.

  6. I don’t see what the fuss is about ….. our national security apparatus is ossified and dysfunctional and the PM is doing something to shake things up. The heart of the problem is coordination and control of multiple sprawling bureaucracies – foreign ministry, defense, policing, intelligence and so on – and this looks like a mechanism to improve that. The criticism seems to be rooted in ruffled bureaucratic feathers, hurt egos (IAS vs IFS vs IPS vs Armed forces nonsense) and not in logic. Let’s give this a chance and see …. things don’t have to stay the way they have been since the Raj.

  7. The most cringeworthy thing about the episode was that tweet response from IPS association. Reeked of a sense of entitlement and the tone was “how dare you question us?”.
    We had gone to great lengths to ensure that we don’t end up becoming a military dictatorship. Seems like we have overcorrected for it and are now oblivious to the dangers of being a police-state!

    • I saw nothing cringeworthy or reflective of a sense of entitlement in the IPS Association tweet. Rather, they had merely reacted in a measured way – drawing attention to Doval’s record – to Mr Gupta’s statement that for the first time an IAS officer would report to an IPS officer. It is the statement from Mr Gupta that is cringeworthy and mischievous … it seems to suggest that the IAS has an automatic entitlement to primacy in any governmental set up. Doval is no longer a serving officer – he is there because of his position as NSA, not as an IPS officer. It is also wrong to characterize the nature of the relationships within this new group as “reporting” relationships ….. all members are heads of their respective organizations, and the NSA is the senior figure. At this level of government, it is expected that people have the maturity to work together collaboratively and not remain stuck in the rut of who-outranks-whom, bureaucratic backbiting and so forth. And if the Cabinet Secretary has to report to the NSA, an IAS officer to an IPS officer then so what? Things should work on merit and logic, not caste.

  8. “…And three that the notification is signed not by the relevant officer in the Prime Minister’s Office or the cabinet secretariat, but by a joint secretary in the National Security Council..”

    By getting the above notification signed by a junior bureaucrat Modi ji thinks he can rescind it any time.

    Mao had said, “power flows from the barrel of the gun”. By this notice Modi ji has brought the power-centre closer to the gun, taking it away from CCS which had few civilian cabinet ministers as its members. This way Modi ji thinks he has the gun. It may not be obvious yet that even Ajit Doval has no gun… The gun is in the hand of those who actually have the gun, as simple as that! I do not remember it fully now, but I don’t know why the Iskander Mirza Ayub Khan story is coming to my mind!

    God is being very kind to our country, believe it or not. If you can not read between the lines, don’t ask me to read between the lines. Even I can’t. Has that become a kind of national creed or what — passing the buck?! The buck can boomerang. Again don’t ask me to read between the lines.

  9. Well worded and precise. but is any one there lisiting. Our institutions are going through testing times. Whos going to bell the cat and when are we leave it to time only.

  10. The title of your article took me by surprise because I thought you have become a part of it, the organization you have described. Ha ha. Any way criticism has lost it s sting and majority government has its own antidotes. Only one question : whose brain child is this ? Some group of not so knowledgeable has been working on it and must have been pushed from Nagpur (?). So after getting rid of Planning Commission, UGC etc this is the new victim. Will this go the same way as NITI ayog which as pet an article in your Print has not given any importance by own brother ane. ?

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