Originally Published 2014-05-13 05:26:04 Published on May 13, 2014
It may be useful if the post-poll political dispensation in New Delhi reviews the relevance of the office of the National Security Advisor in contemporary Indian context, and recasts the role, if its continued need was found to be justified.
Need to review and recast the relevance and role of the NSA
"Without questioning the capabilities, experience and achievements of successive incumbents since the office was created by the then Vajpayee Government, it may be useful if the post-poll political dispensation in New Delhi reviews the relevance of the office of the National Security Advisor (NSA) in contemporary Indian context, and recasts the role, if its continued need was found to be justified.

The question is whether the existing, time-tested institutional mechanisms were adequate to produce the kind of achievements that the office of the NSA might have made. If they had proved inadequate - whether the MEA, the Cabinet Secretariat, or whoever - as the Indian inability to predict and prepare for the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet ally, what transformation in the national/institutional thought-processes did the NSA’s creation brought with it is debatable, at best.

The NSA, as has been projected and practised thus far, is a quasi-political office, involving a combination of bureaucratic/diplomatic acumen with a political touch, but questions remain if such a combination is at all possible, again in the Indian politico-administrative context. It becomes more relevant since we seem to have imported an ’American model’, suited to American conditions of Executive Presidency. The limited Indian experience has shown that the NSA, with his vast administrative experience of one kind or the other, has proved to be best suited to be the interface between the political leadership and the existing bureaucratic set-up from which he has been drawn in the first place.

What was required in context was also the incumbent’s inherent ability, if any, to interact with political players forming part of the ruling party and the coalition on the one hand, and the political adversaries nearer home, and help evolve a ’national consensus’ that would hold good irrespective of the politico-electoral avalanches of the future. That part of the job came to rest on the shoulders of the political leadership, which alone carried with the credibility and conviction to carry the nation and its divided polity in the first place, given the traditional view of the power of the elected office.

Where divisions became inevitable, as was visible at the height of the civilian nuclear deal with the US, the NSA proved to be of little help to the political leadership on the domestic front. If the question relates to the adequacy of the existing levers of the Government to handle the external part of the negotiations, the answer would be a firm, ’Yes’. Otherwise, too, under a Third Front dispensation, the ’Gujral doctrine’, while acclaimed all over the nation’s neighbourhood, did/does not have many supporters among the practitioners in the country. They alone knew/know where the shoe actually pinches, or does not pinch, when intended.


In the Indian context, the President as the Head of State and also of the Government in certain ways "acts on the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers under the Prime Minister". If in the past the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) had functioned as a super-Cabinet Secretariat, over and above the head of the originally mandated bureaucratic hierarchy of the Centre, the office of the NSA seems to have evolved into a ’super-Cabinet’, with a life and hierarchy of its own.

If the Cabinet colleagues of neither Prime Minister Vajpayee, nor successor Manmohan Singh protested, it owed to a variety of reasons, most of them political. In the case of many Cabinet Ministers, they would have also been happier for it if sensitive issues and subjects were removed from their own plate, either as those heading individual ministries as the Cabinet as a whole. With the coalition scheme at the Centre throwing up regional parties and their first-time ministerial nominees, who had little understanding of national and international issues, both were happy to hand over whatever decisions that had to be taken to a third party. The NSA fitted the bill in a way, though that should also be an over-simplification.

At least in one particular case, that of S M Krishna as the External Affairs Minister (EAM) under UPA-2 for a time, he sort of defied whatever traditions had been put in place in the past. Not only was he pulled out of political exile in native Karnataka after losing an Assembly election as Chief Minister and completing a term as Maharashtra Governor, Krishna was also possibly the only one to have been catapulted to a senior and sensitive Cabinet position, without any previous ministerial experience whatsoever at the Centre. Most others in his place would have done a stint either as a junior minister, or as Cabinet Minister in a less glamorous and sensitive post before being considered for the EAM’s job, not S M Krishna.

Before S M Krishna, Jaswant Singh as NDA’s EAM for a time broke established diplomatic protocol by engaging directly with a junior US official in Strobe Talbott, and stirred up a political controversy nearer home even after both had left their respective positions. In both cases, the respective NSAs got to play a key role, and possibly not without reason. In the case of Jaswant Singh, the late Brajesh Mishra was the NSA. Through Krishna’s tenure, M K Narayanan, former IB boss and at present West Bengal Governor, and later on, Shivshanker Menon, ex-Foreign Secretary, held the office of the NSA.

Krishna’s induction reportedly sent out clear signals that the PMO wanted to manage external relations, either directly or through the NSA, or both. Or, at least that became an interpretation - which events proved was not wide off the mark. In a nation where the first and longest-serving Prime Minister in Jawaharlal Nehru having developed a fascination for heading the Foreign Office - and has set the tone and tenor of the nation’s foreign policy, from which there has been no full de-link, and for good reasons, every successor seems to have made the indirect control of MEA a kind of arrival/acceptance statement, so to say. In this particular case, when it became convenient for the PMO/NSA to handle foreign policy on the political front in particular, Salman Khurshid was brought in as EAM, and Krishna sent back home rather unceremoniously.

As subsequent developments proved, India’s complex Sri Lanka policy, whether it was politically right or wrong, soon began acquiring a definitive stamp under Khurshid’s care. The MEA’s role in foreign policy-formulation became decisive. The Ministry and the Minister did not have to hide behind the higher-ups, be it the PMO/NSA or the Cabinet, to state the nation’s known and accepted policies in public. The days of the likes of then Union Home Minister (P Chidambaram, in this case) holding a news conference outside South Block, after discussing inter-ministerial issues (relating to Pakistani involvement in the ’Mumbai serial blasts’, in this case) also came to an end. The MEA took over, and only the voices of the Minister and the Foreign Secretary could be heard on the corridors of the South Block, talking to newsmen and others.

Transitional statement

It was no different in the case of the Vajpayee dispensation. Whatever the reason, Jaswant Singh came to be replaced by Yashwant Siinha, which only weakened the authority of the EAM’s office in a small way, though. But the NSA remained, and naturally provided the continuity and clarity which any transitional government required. That the Vajpayee Government itself was a transitional dispensation in a way should not be forgotten, either. If Pokhran-II became the ’transitional statement’ of India’s foreign policy, it did not go far enough. Once the Pokhran-II nuclear dust had settled down, it was business as usual, with Pakistan and China (the latter, a post-Cold War re-invention) were back on the platter. To conclude that Pokhran-II provided the compelling reason for the US to negotiate the civilian nuclear deal with India may be far-fetched, and needs to be examined if it would have happened even otherwise.

However, there is no denying that the creation of a super-Cabinet of the kind, with a single-man discussing and deciding the fate of bilateral equations with friends and foes alike comes with a lot of limitations to any government’s thought processes, particularly when independent ministries like the MEA, Defence, S&T, and autonomous institutions like the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) come with decades of institutional experience and memory that a political appointee cannot be expected to master overnight, however much super-human he or she be.

That such an office, leave alone the person, does not have to hold him ’accountable’ to the existing schemes and systems makes that office more powerful than may have been intended. With a wrong aide of the kind, any prime minister in the future too could acquire powers that democracy and the Constitution do not intend. What thus holds now is the political tradition attending on the prime minister, and the bureaucratic training, rather than expertise of those holding the office of the NSA.

Domain expertise, dual-hat

It is thus about the political nature of the NSA’s job profile, as it has come to be practised and accepted in a way. Falling outside the realm of the official hierarchy line of the Centre, to whichever department or institution he belongs to, no NSA thus far also seems to have looked exclusively at the ’national security’ aspect of the job, which require domain expertise of a kind that not most of the incumbents thus far have had.

In the post-poll scenario, this may have additional consequences, as there is no prescriptive qualification for the choice of the NSA, or definitive mandate for the office, as could be commonly understood. In situations like the one prevailing at present, a post-poll prime minister (now or years down the line) with minimal national experience and international exposure at once becomes dependent on his immediate advisors in all matters involving expertise that he in the first place could not hope to have had, anyway. Suffice is to point out that even a seasoned, well-experienced and so equally confident leader like Atal Behari Vajpayee thought it fit to create the NSA’s post, and used it almost exclusively as a parallel line of communication with the outside world.

There is a double-jeopardy in-waiting in the sense that a future prime minister emerging from regional politics (possibly other than those with a ’national party’ tag) could also tend to put personal loyalty above professional competence for the choice of such sensitive, and out-of-turn political appointment such as the NSA. This could have disastrous consequences, as some States are already experiencing, for the political leadership placing a premium on personal loyalty over professional experience and competence. In situations where such a person in the nation’s highest political office tends to think himself or herself as the ’chief minister of India’, rather than the Prime Minister, the consequences for internal and external relations could be disastrous and destructive, to say the least.

Leaving out the short-lived tenure of the late J N Dixit, all three other NSAs have had on their plate their dual role as the chief border negotiator with China, a vexatious issue involving a tiring-out neighbour. It required the kind of diplomatic and negotiation skills that the IFS produced, and already had in its institutional experience and memory. It’s also unclear if the NSA wearing a dual hat might have been an additional cause for avoidable delays, if any, in the border negotiations process with China. Or, if in the fitness of things, the dual-existence served a purpose in keeping the issue alive and a solution, distant, then the NSA served no purpose, either. A new government needs to review this dual-role of the NSA, as well.

Otherwise, NSAs negotiated the US civilian nuclear deal, a landmark achievement in more ways than one. The question needs to be addressed if such a pact could not have been signed through negotiations at the existing levels of Indian bureaucratic expertise and diplomatic experience. In an area requiring different expertise and skills, M K Narayanan succeeded wonderfully. When it came to his core competence, namely, internal security, he had to bow out after the 2008 ’Mumbai serial attacks’, which to say the least, should have been the job of the NSA’s office, from beginning till end.

Likewise, the creation of the NSAB, as if an extension of the NSA, too may require review. Having replaced, in a way, the field-level inputs and analyses provided by the Joint Intelligence Commission (JIC) with what might at best boil down to academic inputs for policy-making, without often reference to the ground situation, the NSAB could have served a better and greater purpose as an adjunct of the JIC, and not as an alternative or replacement.

As experience may have already shown, having veterans with vast experience by itself need not be an antidote to what might have been wrong in the nation’s security culture and existing apparatus. What is required is fresh thinking, not necessarily fresh positions, often headed by veterans, who may not be able to bring in additional inputs that is available outside the box, to the attention of the policy-makers at the appropriate levels.

Why, how and when to provide that inputs may be a different question, but that well could be an approach to national security policy-making, confining whatever authority that is existing or is required to be created with a specific agenda and required mandate - without keeping it all vague and winding. That way, a post-poll government should bring in new ideas, not stopping with new personalities, in security management.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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