India's national security bureaucracy doesn't really have an inspired record. It seems to lack the grit to fight the country's battles abroad and wants to stay holed up in fortress India. This article was published in Hindustan Times November 29, 2006
As 2006 draws to a close, there is some satisfaction in knowing that despite turbulence — some of it caused by our own instrumentalities — India’s most important foreign relations, that with Pakistan and China, are on track. The year began with expectations of rapid movement on the Pakistan front, only to be belied by the Varanasi blasts, the blockade on Siachen, the recriminations of the Mumbai blasts, followed by postponement of the foreign secretary-level dialogue. Towards the year’s end, a throwaway remark on Arunachal Pradesh led to another kind of turmoil, one often caused by the circulation of a lot of hot air.
As is our national wont, we have been convinced that all the problems were caused by our adversaries, real and potential. Our own actions and motives are, and have always been, as pure as driven snow. However, more than anytime in the past, there were disturbing signs of a kind of dissonance being introduced into the system by what is politely called the ‘national security bureaucracy’. This comprises members from the armed forces, the intelligence agencies, police forces and the civilian babus who believe that they have the exclusive franchise on deciding what constitutes the national interest, and the best way of preserving it.
The best (worst?) example of this was the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) paper warning against investment by China into certain important sectors. This was sent out to various ministries reportedly by the principal secretary to the Prime Minister and has done a great deal to needlessly roil Sino-Indian relations. Just why this was done is a bit of a mystery.
The NSCS, comprising relatively junior officials, is meant to merely service the National Security Council. The latter body comprising the Prime Minister himself and his ministers for defence, finance, home and external affairs, take the actual decisions. To advise the NSC, two additional deliberative bodies have been provided — the National Security Advisory Board, comprising experts in various fields and a clutch of retired officials, and the Strategic Policy Group. While the former is meant to be the source of external advice to the NSC, the latter, comprising all the top secretaries to the government, the chiefs of the three services and the intelligence agencies, is the top advisory and deliberative body to the NSC. Its additional value is that it is supposed to undertake what the Americans call an ‘inter-agency process’, where the views of various important departments and ministries are put forward and reconciled before becoming official policy. A parallel system servicing the Cabinet is the committee of secretaries. In the case of the Chinese investment policy, it is well-known that the finance, surface transport and external affairs ministries disagreed with the NSCS’s view. But since a senior PMO official has fired the guns from the shoulders of the NSC secretariat, what we have is an ill-considered, hawkish policy, rather than a balanced and considered opinion of the government.
The aim no doubt was to upset the government’s China policy. As indeed was the needless furore on the Chinese envoy Sun Yuxi’s remarks. While Sun could have had a better sense of timing to reiterate Beijing’s known views on the subject, it was not particularly edifying to hear the whining and sloganeering over what is a well-known Chinese position. A country aspiring to be a global player, must have the maturity to accept that if it has a point of view, so do others.
No doubt there are similar forces at work within Pakistan and China as well. But in India, we have the benefit of living in an all-too-transparent system where manoeuvres of mendacious officialdom are easily visible. Such openness is not available in Pakistan or China. The actions of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in using jehadis as a cat’s paw are not easy to prove, even though we must cope with their impact. The Chinese system is even more opaque. But its policy is to use Pakistan as a foil against India, rather than do anything negative frontally.
Fortunately, on both Pakistan and China, the political leadership of the country has shown a strong and steady hand. They have ensured that the momentum of efforts to normalise ties with these countries have not been derailed. At every stage of improving relations with difficult neighbours, the political class has had to lead. Rajiv Gandhi had to overrule officials before his pathbreaking visit to Beijing in 1988. Manmohan Singh, who does not have Rajiv’s clout, has had to fight every step of the way against bureaucrats and ministers who claim they are the repository of Rajiv’s legacy. It was on his insistence that the Hurriyat was permitted to travel to Pakistan without visas. He has also expended personal political capital on pushing the Indo-US nuclear deal.
The PM and his team have pushed through the anti-terror mechanism with Pakistan and the result has been a distinct improvement in India-Pakistan relations. Despite uncalled for pressure by the army, they have set the resolution of the Siachen and Sir Creek issues as a benchmark for the coming months. They are keeping their eyes firmly on the capstone of the peace process — the final settlement of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute. This process is further down the road than publicly acknowledged.
Likewise, despite Chinese procrastination, the government has steadily pushed for a final settlement of the Sino-Indian border dispute. The recent visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao gives a feel of the texture of New Delhi’s global policies. The latest Sino-Indian joint communiqué talks of the “global and strategic” significance of the relations between the two countries — a factual description of the current reality. It says that the two countries do not see themselves as “rivals or competitors but [are] partners for mutual benefit”. This sounds somewhat rhetorical, but is again true in that the unmoderated rivalry and competition between two nuclear armed States in a globalised economy is tantamount to mutually assured destruction. So the statement adds that “they agree that there is enough space for them to grow together”, a practical and forward-looking formulation. While the opacity we have referred to does cloud a better understanding of Chinese policies towards India, the facts are that Beijing is shifting towards a neutral position on the India-Pakistan issues, especially on Kashmir.
The broader Indian strategy, as probably that of China, is to enhance relations with a cross-section of important countries — the US, the EU, Japan, Russia, the Asean, South Africa, Brazil, etc. Based on the values that shape our nation and its foreign policies — secularism and democracy — it is inevitable that our ties with some countries will have a flavour quite different from those of others. But this does not mean that one set of relations will be benevolent, and the other conflict-ridden.
As long as human relationships are about power, the only way to promote restraint is to maintain a balance of power. But where in the past this was seen as a zero-sum game, in today’s inter-dependent world, it requires an appreciation of the balance of interests of various nations.
In this new vision of the world, too much is at stake to allow the national security bureaucracies to decide the direction of policies. While we must heed their views with all the seriousness they deserve, because it is their task to keep track of the family silver, we cannot allow them to run away with the agenda. They have the right to be suspicious of our real and potential adversaries. But suspicion unrelieved by any effort towards amelioration usually becomes paranoia. It breeds a ‘fortress mentality’ that takes comfort in hiding behind the high walls of national security. But the threats outside will inevitably breach the walls if not countered, through flexible and innovative strategies, at some remove from the walls of our fort.