NSA Ajit Doval could not have accumulated this kind of power without the consent of the Prime Minister.
As India’s very raw and still very hesitant #MeToo campaign names a junior minister in the external affairs ministry on social media, setting the dovecotes in those hallowed precincts aflutter, two significant developments have taken place in the world around us.
The first is a consolidation of power by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. Last week, he appointed a third deputy national security advisor, R.N. Ravi, a former head of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Along with former RAW chief Rajinder Khanna and former ambassador to Russia Pankaj Saran, these three deputy national security advisors now form a triumvirate under Doval.
Then on Monday, even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, home minister Rajnath Singh and BJP president Amit Shah busied themselves in the ongoing local body polls in Jammu and Kashmir as well as in campaigning in the states going to the polls – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram – Doval moved to further strengthen himself.
The Strategic Policy Group, a powerful body once headed by former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s national security advisor Brajesh Mishra, has been revived. It came into being after the Kargil conflict and continued into the first UPA government. Henceforth, this will lead all inter-ministerial discussions related to foreign and strategic affairs.
Members include the foreign, defence, home and finance secretaries, besides the three military chiefs, the Reserve Bank of India governor and the vice-chairman of the Niti Aayog. Top officers of the Intelligence Bureau, atomic energy, space and revenue will also participate.
Doval will call the meetings, says the NDTV report, and the cabinet secretary will “coordinate with ministries and states for the implementation of its decisions.” Any guesses to what this reduces Cabinet Secretary P.K. Sinha to?
Move over, everyone else. The most powerful bureaucrat in the country, Ajit Doval, has taken charge. Certainly, he could not have accumulated this kind of power without the consent of the Prime Minister.
The move brings back the jostling for power in the Vajpayee era, between Brajesh Mishra and then-external affairs minister Jaswant Singh. Mishra was Vajpayee’s eyes and ears, but Jaswant Singh was a BJP old-timer and Vajpayee’s comrade-in-arms. There was no one who understood him better.
In the Modi era, the jostling for influence in the foreign policy-strategy sphere has mostly remained under the surface. But make no mistake, over the last four years, as Doval has expanded decision-making in India’s neighbourhood – as well as in Russia, China and the US – external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, without saying one word publicly, has deftly, albeit occasionally, made her presence known.
The recent decision on cancelling the foreign minister-level talks with Pakistan, within 24 hours of confirming them, and then issuing an undiplomatic statement on the “evil face” of Imran Khan’s government is a case in point. Who authorised this language, Ajit Doval or Sushma Swaraj?
Back to Doval’s close confidantes Rajinder Khanna, Pankaj Saran and R.N. Ravi. Ravi, like Doval, is an Intelligence Bureau guy, who supposedly stitched up the Naga framework agreement in 2015, which allegedly persuaded the recalcitrant Naga groups to give up their demand for sovereignty and redrawing of boundaries. Except it is three years now, and the public still knows nothing about it.
In Doval’s new scheme of things, Rajinder Khanna, former chief of India’s external intelligence wing, will look after intelligence, which means that India’s neighbourhood is his key charge – he was last seen in public in May with former Afghan NSA Haneef Atmar.
Pankaj Saran will look after foreign policy, a key position, considering Modi and Putin seem to be rediscovering their mojo in the last six months. Public embraces in Sochi and Delhi between the two leaders are as much personal as political.
India has committed to buying five units of the S-400 surface-to-air missile for $5.34 billion, and the offset requirement has been waived. Delhi is also sneering at the US sanctions that Washington threatens will be applied on India and Russia.
More interestingly – and this is the second important development these last few days as India’s #MeToo campaign gathers strength – India has decided it will continue to buy oil from Iran and has placed two orders of a total of nine million barrels.
Delhi believes that the two can play the game: If Donald Trump wants a much more transactional relationship with India, counting up its almonds and chicken breasts and steel and aluminium exports, at the risk of China becoming the world’s most powerful nation, then Delhi can respond by cosying up to another transactional hug with Putin.
Modi’s embrace of Putin has another key aspect, which is the Modi-Trump relationship. American journalist Bob Woodward noted in his book that Modi wanted to go to Camp David when he visited the US last year, but the Americans turned down the request. Then, there was the time that Modi felt offended at the ASEAN summit in Manila last year when Trump apparently treated him like “just another Asian leader.”
If Trump agrees to come to India for the Republic Day celebrations in January 2019, or otherwise, Modi will certainly be even more strengthened, having been backed by the world’s other authoritarian figure, Vladimir Putin.
Still, all that’s in the future. This week’s home-truth is that NSA Doval is even stronger than before and calling the shots. Modi’s security man for all seasons is in place.