Ajit Doval’s admirers know him to be a brilliant, “khurafati” intelligence mind.
As Ajit Doval becomes the first National Security Adviser to have a cabinet rank, and his legend continues to grow, here’s my insight on the myth and reality of his fascinating – and controversial –life.
That Ajit Doval has had an outstanding career in the Intelligence Bureau is widely accepted. I did write in a National Interest a few years ago that our careers, in our respective professions, have run, sort of, parallel as I have mostly ended up covering the situations he was tackling at different junctures. He has stayed a couple of steps ahead because of seniority and years – he will turn 74 next January. But if I got to a story even shortly after Doval had been there, he had left enough of a reputation to still be a talking point.
In January 1981, as the new northeast correspondent of The Indian Express, when I made my first visit to Mizoram, the chief minister, Thenphunga Sailo, gave me a long lecture on the past and the future. One key point he made was how things would have been so much better if “we had a few more officers like that A.K. Doval”. Doval had headed the Mizoram unit of the IB (called Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau) as assistant director until recently then.
Almost exactly a year later, when I arrived in Gangtok to cover the funeral of Palden Thondup Namgyal, the Chogyal (or rather former Chogyal as Indira Gandhi had abolished the title after the merger in 1975), the name of Doval was mentioned often enough – in adulation or awe – for you to know that he had recently been there and had left his mark.
My next big story took me often to Punjab. Doval wasn’t there yet, but he was across the border, quite legitimately and legally, in the Indian mission in Islamabad. He was undercover only to the extent that his posting, if I recall correctly, was as head of the commercial section. I do not believe there was so much commerce between India and Pakistan. Doval was busy, however, keeping a close eye, among other things, on the subversion and separatist propaganda to which Sikh pilgrims visiting their holy places in Pakistan were exposed. In an ugly and unfortunate incident, instigated and orchestrated by Pakistan intelligence, he was once attacked by a jatha at one of these pilgrimages.
Ajit Doval is an IPS officer from the 1968 batch, but like many others of his ilk who came to the IB early – including equally legendary M.K. Narayanan – became an IB citizen for life. Messrs Doval and Narayanan, incidentally, are from the same Kerala cadre and made quite a team at the IB in their heyday. Kolkata publisher and my friend Aveek Sarkar has the most apt description for them: if Doval was the 007, Narayanan was the ‘M’ who controlled him.
From the moment Doval returned to India, he walked straight into the Punjab/Sikh crisis and that kept him busy for nearly a decade until that insurgency ended as K.P.S Gill’s Punjab Police, with quiet help from a rejuvenated IB, destroyed what is often described as the third, and longest, phase in that decade of terror. I am grateful to Gill for the access he gave me, not just to himself and his key officers, but also to a large group of former top (A and B category, as they were classified) militants who were now detained in the Punjab Armed Police centre in Jalandhar.
Their capitulation had been spectacular as just until a few months back they held sway over much of the western districts of Punjab. Most of them were barely in their mid-20s and spoke with a degree of innocence. One, a self-styled “major-general”, in fact, told me he had already killed 87 Hindus to attain that rank. If only he had killed 13 more, or three policemen (one cop equalled five Hindus), he would have automatically become “lt-general”, but that was not to be.
Their stories made it clear to me that the success in Punjab was of the local police, as well as the IB. I have often said that each A or B category Punjab militant killed or captured in the Operation Black Thunder phase (1986-88) should be marked “caught Doval, bowled Gill”. In the last phase, Doval was more involved in tracking Khalistani terrorists across the country, and did that with his usual panache.
Terror ended in Punjab, but another full-fledged crisis had meanwhile grown in Kashmir. Doval was back to what he so loves: operations. You would find his calling card in many key operations, from Kashmir to Dawood. Some of his more “proper” seniors did not approve of his methods. But he was widely respected for his ability to deliver and it was the UPA government that appointed him director, Intelligence Bureau, in July 2004.
Doval’s subsequent career is relatively better known. He was the prime mover behind Vivekananda Foundation, which filled the vacuum for a right-of-centre think tank. He was a key mind behind the spectacular anti-corruption campaign, including Anna Hazare’s. The Foundation became a key source of talent for Narendra Modi’s government. His principal secretary, Nripendra Mishra, was there too. Doval, with his hardline image and the legend built around him, was a natural choice for national security advisor (NSA).
The essential truth about him, that his mentors, peers and protégés would tell you, is that he is still compulsively an operations man. Just a whiff of a live operation, and he is back in the field, at least in his mind. That is why the immediate decision to send the National Security Guard (NSG) to Pathankot. But there is a difference between classical intelligence or counter-terror operation and dealing with a larger threat to a place as sensitive and sprawling as an air force base.
This is what led to confusion and mix-ups. This left Doval no room for denial as he was widely seen to be controlling the operation. Frankly, I do not even know for sure whether he was. But folklore is often stronger than reality. Doval’s admirers from the ‘80s and the ‘90s know him to be a brilliant, “khurafati” intelligence mind. This was a tactical military operation in a very sensitive military environment.
Doval is our fifth NSA. In some ways, on the security side, he is our most powerful yet. The first, Brajesh Mishra, combined the job of principal secretary, but had his focus on running the PMO and foreign policy. The UPA then split the job between J.N. Dixit (foreign policy) and M.K. Narayanan (security) until the former passed away. Narayanan controlled intelligence and key levers of foreign policy but left governance alone as that was the remit of T.K.A Nair. Shiv Shankar Menon, as you would expect, was more focused on foreign policy although he did focus on the military, filling the gap left by A.K. Antony’s uncommunicative indecision. Doval now brings a compulsive operational mind to the job – and to that extent, makes the NSA’s position much newsier.
An earlier version of this article was published on 10 October 2018.
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