Next govt must cut NSA to size

Published: May 13, 2019, 05:54 IST | Aditya Sinha

Decision-making should return to the Foreign, Defence and Home ministries instead of being centralised at the Prime Minister's Office

Next govt must cut NSA to size
Ajit Doval (right) is India's fifth NSA and has been our most visible one. Doval's stint has been marked by a foreign policy that has been either highly personalised or highly aggressive, and he’s followed a muscular policy on Kashmir. File pic

Aditya SinhaNational Security Advisor Ajit Doval has apparently let it be known that no matter who forms the next government, he will not be returning. (This itself tells you about the ruling party's nervousness over the election's outcome.) One of the new government's first tasks will be to appoint a new NSA. Hopefully, it will not be a retired spy or diplomat. If the new government has imagination it could consider an academic, or better yet, a young parliamentarian.

My reasoning is two-fold: one, India has to break out of the unhealthy habit of appointing retired bureaucrats, many of whom served cautiously and without distinction, to sinecures that are just rewards of loyalty. Two, despite the best efforts of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, we are still a parliamentary democracy with a Cabinet system of decision-making, and thus the next NSA's appointment ought to be a part of restoring the Cabinet's primacy.

Ajit Doval has had an action-packed career and after May 2014 emerged as the second most powerful man in Modi's government. He has always been known as an out-of-the-box thinker, and his inclination towards the BJP possibly became clear in the late 1990s while he served as the head of the Intelligence Bureau's (IB) Kashmir station. Though he later became Director, IB, for approximately six months under PM Manmohan Singh, he left on a sour note as he felt he had been short-changed; it was when his successor, ESL Narasimhan, came aboard that the government fixed the tenure of intelligence chiefs at two years.

Notable about Doval's stint is his proclivity to act as the super chief of each of the intelligence agencies, the super chief of the armed forces, the super foreign minister, the super defence minister, the super home minister, the super chief election commissioner, the super Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, etc. It is no secret that Sushma Swaraj as the external affairs minister is most effective only on twitter; the late Manohar Parrikar confessed that as defence minister he had no clue that the deal for the Rafale fighter jets was being renegotiated by Modi himself, with assistance from Doval; that Rajnath Singh has often been blindsided on Kashmir by Modi, Doval and party general secretary Ram Madhav; etc.

Doval is India's fifth NSA and has been our most visible one. The first NSA was Brajesh Mishra, who was also the PM's principal secretary but nonetheless kept a low profile at all meetings of the Cabinet or the Cabinet Committee on Security; if Mishra had a query he would quietly take it up one-on-one after such meetings. Mishra was succeeded by JN Dixit who was rated highly by everyone in the world but died in his eighth month in office. Narayanan then took over and is remembered as the worst NSA India has had. He was succeeded by Shiv Shankar Menon, whose tenure was marked by his trying to keep on the right side of things, even while the government sank into deep political morass.

Doval's stint has been marked by a foreign policy that has been either highly personalised or highly aggressive, and he's followed a muscular policy on Kashmir. His string of failures is long. Kashmir is in bad shape, and Kashmiris more alienated from India than ever before. His accord with the Nagas remains incomplete (even if it has been managed well). He could not get a meeting for Modi with US President-elect Donald Trump – even though Japan's PM Shinzo Abe managed the same before Trump's inauguration. He could not even get Trump to visit India as a guest on Republic Day, which was embarrassingly announced beforehand anyway. India has alienated much of its immediate neighbourhood. Our relationship with China has been marked by ups and downs, with more energy expended in managing the relationship rather than leveraging it.

The best remedy in a parliamentary system is to return primacy to the individual ministries rather than centralising work, policy and strategy with the PM's office. It would be good to do away with this spy/diplomat monopoly of the NSA's office. A young MP might not only gain valuable experience in this job, she would help return it to being that of a coordinator, as it is in the country from where we took this idea, the USA.

Finally, there is no need to appoint retired officials to any job. Why should the election commission be filled with retired IAS officers? Why should retired armymen become governors? Why should judges be appointed to the National Human Rights Commission? It makes little sense given the high level of specialisation available now in Indian society. Worse, it is counterproductive to politicise these services by doling out post-retirement rewards. The next government will hopefully change its thinking on such appointments, starting with that of the NSA.

Aditya Sinha's latest book, India Unmade: How the Modi Government Broke the Economy, with Yashwant Sinha, is out now. He tweets @autumnshade Send your feedback to
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