Saturday, January 23, 2010

Narayanan's firing is a good time to ring in change

He was not the victim of a palace coup, or, as he believes, a target of Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram’s vindictive gaze. M. K. Narayanan was fired because he failed to do his job and hopefully his exit will set some standards of accountability in the second UPA government. His was a classic example of the Peter Principle; a man who rose to the level of his incompetence. He was no doubt a competent Intelligence Bureau officer, but as intelligence czar he was a failure, as indeed he was as the Indian special representative to negotiate the settlement of the Sino-Indian border dispute. His success in coordinating the Indo-US nuclear deal owed much to the fact that he followed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s agenda faithfully, rather than opposing it, as he did in several other instances.

Narayanan’s rise and his fall personifies the challenges India’s apex security management faces, and the failures that have marked the effort to do something about it. Ever since the wimpish governments of the 1990s gave way to the muscular NDA, India has made enormous efforts to work out an effective national security policy and mechanism to implement it.

This effort has been impelled in great measure by the events of the past decade—the nuclear tests of 1998, the Kargil embarrassment of 1999, the ignominy of the IC814 hijack, and a series of terrorist incidents culminating in the Mumbai carnage of 2008. But a little over a decade after the National Security Council was constituted and a National Security Adviser appointed, the country is still groping for an effective management system.
Narayanan was brought in at a peripheral level as a part-time adviser on internal security in 2004. However the sudden death of J.N.(Mani) Dixit propelled him into the centre-stage as the National Security Adviser. Out of the shadows, Narayanan began to enjoy the limelight—the foreign trips alone or accompanying the PM, the high-level meetings with foreign counterparts, the lengthy TV interviews and the fawning bureaucrats.


Only, it did not leave him enough time to do his day job. The nature of the job would have been a challenge for a harder working man, but in Narayanan’s case, it overwhelmed him. In part the problem was that he did not energise the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) which had subsumed the Joint Intelligence Committee. He began dealing individually with the heads of the various security departments and instead of working along the lines of the National Democratic Alliance Cabinet-approved reform proposals, he instituted his own changes and constituted his own task forces outside the NSCS.
He did not allow the Multi-Agency Centre to coordinate intelligence on terrorism to come up and the National Technical Research Office set up to consolidate high-tech intelligence was treated like a step-child. Neither did he clean up the ailing Research & Analysis Wing nor restructure and refocus the IB. The major consequence of this was that either he, or his office, missed out a vital clue on the eve of the Mumbai attack, information that could have prevented the carnage.
The failure was manifest, too, in the question of China. He assumed the mantle of the Special Representative at a key time. This was the vehicle that should have delivered the border settlement in quick time. This was evident from the fact that in the period 2003-2006, the SRs had an average of three meetings a year and produced the far-reaching agreement on “the political parameters and agreed guidelines for a border settlement between India and China” that virtually spelt out the contours of a border settlement on the basis of a mutual exchange of claims. But the following year, 2007, there was only one round, only one in 2008 as well on the sidelines of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Beijing in January that year, and the thirteenth round in August 2009. Significantly after this round, the two sides issued a press note which said that the two sides agreed that henceforth they would discuss “the entire gamut of bilateral relations and regional and international issues of mutual interest.”
In other words, a specific process for solving the border issue has for some unknown reason now been broadened to discuss the wider aspects of Sino-Indian relations. This was the round Narayanan claimed “was the best that I have had in the nine rounds that I have held with him.” This was a burden he should not have been given. Even his most ardent admirers will concede that Narayanan’s forte is not diplomacy, leave alone the complex arcana of the Sino-Indian border dispute.
So the country is back at the juncture where it needs to rethink its ideas on national security management at the apex level. As has been pointed out by commentators, the NSA’s position was skewed by the unique role played by the first incumbent of the office, Brajesh Mishra, who played a role as the top governmental aide to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as well as the NSA. Narayanan’s penchant for playing top spook, rather than intelligence czar or policy adviser created more distortions in the office. It took Mumbai and the failure with China to bring this out.


So, in trying to pick up the pieces, Home Minister Chidambaram, who got the defunct Multi-Agency Centre going, is proposing a National Counter-Terrorism Centre which will play the role of the key body that deals with the most important security challenge of our era. It would be wrong to see this as some kind of a bureaucratic power grab. Because he is talking principally about the internal dimension of the threat, the impression going around is that he wants to take charge of all of the intelligence infrastructure.
That is neither possible, nor desirable. To counter terrorism, inputs are certainly needed from agencies like the R&AW, IB, NTRO, Department of Revenue Intelligence, the Narcotics Control Bureau and so on. But these would be better off under a Director National Intelligence and have a dotted line link to the NCTC for the simple reason that these agencies also have to service other subsets of the security paradigm—the country’s political leadership, the armed forces and the finance and commerce ministries. The government would do well to take the opportunity presented to appoint a DNI at the same time that it creates the NCTC.


As for the NSA, it is clear that in the past his task has been dependent on what the Prime Minister wants, rather than an institutionalised requirement. In the Indian system of governance, executive responsibility is clearly devolved with ministers responsible to parliament, assisted by a bureaucracy. In that sense, any NSA with executive powers is bound to rub the system the wrong way. It would be a good idea, too, to replace the NSA in the Executive Council of the Nuclear Command Authority by a five-star Chief of Defence Staff.
The NSC’s function, as originally envisaged, was to think about medium to long-range options for the country in areas like military, economic, energy, health, food or water security through the agency of the NSCS, the Strategic Policy Group and the National Security Advisory Board. It also had various other support structures like the National Information Board (to look at IT related issues) and so on which have gone defunct in the recent years.
A new NSA will have more than his hands full if he sticks to the original remit laid down for his office, and the country’s decision-making processes will benefit from his ability to provide thoroughly considered advice to the executive system. Today, as any senior official will tell you, Cabinet members, secretaries and the like have hardly any time to apply their minds to a problem since they are
almost always overwhelmed by the immediate.
In the first decade of its existence, the office of the NSA has been dominated by personalities. The time has come now to build up the institution, rather than promote a personality.
This appeared in Mail Today January 21, 2010

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