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.
Its 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.
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.
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.