Dear Rahul, Making NSA Accountable to Parliament Isn’t A Good Idea
The Congress party position, spelt out in its recent General Election Manifesto released by Rahul Gandhi, is that it will make the National Security Advisor accountable to parliament sounds good at first ring. The reasoning goes that providing the NSA statutory status—like the Comptroller & Auditor General or the Chief Election Commissioner—would strengthen his authority.
It will also curb what the party sees is an extra-constitutional authority wielded by the current incumbent, Ajit Doval.
But, on a closer look, the idea is not a particularly good one, unless you reform the Indian national security system top to bottom. The current NSA derives his authority as the advisor to the Prime Minister. In that sense his accountability comes through the PM who is, of course, answerable to Parliament.
Why Talk About NSA’s Accountability to Parliament?
The NSA wears many hats. First, he is the secretary to the National Security Council which is the apex government body deliberating on National Security issues. It comprises of the Prime Minister (chairman) and the Finance Minister, External Affairs Minister, Defence Minister and the Home Minister as members. For taking decisions, the same five persons wear their hat as the Union Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS).
This is where the key issues are laid out. The NSC, therefore, gets the best advice through the NSC system and the NSA.
But when it comes to decision-making, the chain of command goes through the line ministries of Finance, External Affairs, Defence and Home, who are responsible for the execution of policy and, of course, to Parliament.
There is one more duty that the NSA performs—he is the Special Representative for talks on the border issue and other related subjects with China. His counterpart there is a State Councillor (one rank above a Minister). Currently, it is Wang Yi who is also the Minister of Foreign Affairs for China. Since the eventual decisions—be it on the border or other issues—will be taken by the CCS or the Prime Minister, it is they who will be accountable to Parliament. But, that will only happen after the two SRs have finalised their report. As of now they have not, despite 21 rounds of meetings since 2003.
Security and Secrecy
The current NSA de facto supervises the intelligence agencies—the Intelligence Bureau (which is formally an “attached office” of the Union Home Ministry), the Research & Analysis Wing and the National Technical Research Office (NTRO). Since none of these agencies have legislative sanction, they are not answerable to Parliament.
They are provided a charter of duties by the executive but these are secret and not available to either Parliament or public.
The NSA is also the chairman of the executive council of the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA). This body services the Political Council, the sole body authorised to use nuclear weapons, which is chaired by the Prime Minister. In that sense, the NSA is the official custodian of the national nuclear weapons programme. Here, again, given the nature of the subject, there is little interface with the Parliament.
Yes, Present NSA Did Cross a Line
The problematic areas of the current NSA’s functioning have emerged in his appointment as the chairman of the Defence Planning Committee (DPC). Under an order issued by the Ministry of Defence, a new Defence Planning Committee was set up in April last year.
This would be a permanent body under the chairmanship of the National Security Advisor. The other members of the Committee were the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC), the Service chiefs, the Defence and Foreign Secretaries, and the Secretary (Expenditure) Ministry of Finance. The Chief of the Integrated Staff Committee (CISC) would be the Secretary to the Committee and his HQ Integrated Defence Staff would be its Secretariat.
The DPC would analyse and evaluate “all relevant inputs” relating to defence planning, national defence and security priorities, foreign policy imperatives, operational directives, strategic doctrines, acquisitions, technology developments, and so on.
It would then prepare drafts of a national security strategy, international defence engagement strategy, ways to build a defence manufacturing eco-system, strategy to boost defence exports and capability development plans for the armed forces.
All these drafts would be given to the Defence Minister and their approvals sought, presumably from the CCS.
You can have differing opinions of the decision to create a DPC. But unlike in the other cases, the NSA here is crossing a line. He is now the central advisor to a line Ministry, and yet, he is not accountable to Parliament.
NSA Does Not Figure in the 1961 Rules
The other problem that arises is that nowhere does the NSA figure in the Government’s Allocation of Business Rules (AOBR) that were approved by the President of India in 1961. These are the rules that lay out how the business of the government of India is allocated through the Ministries, Departments, Secretariats and Offices and their subordinate and attached offices.
The companion Transaction of Business Rules (TOBR)—also issued in 1961—outline the way government would actually transact its business. They also define the relationship of Ministers who would be in-charge with the PM, the Cabinet and the President. It details the work of the various Committees of the Cabinet and those whose appointments require Cabinet approval, cases that must be submitted to Cabinet, or the PM and the President.
Nowhere is the NSA or the National Security Council mentioned in either the AOBR or TOBR. Nor, as it is famously noted, as any role or responsibility been spelt out for the military chiefs of the country.
These rules are important. For example when the government announced its decision to create a Nuclear Command Authority in January 2003, it did ensure that an amendment was brought to the TOBR in March that year. It was noted that cases related to the implementation of the nuclear doctrine and handling and deployment of strategic assets would be dealt with by the Political Council of the NCA.
Overhauling the National Security System, Not Focus on Doval, is Needed
The Congress position is, of course, a political manifesto. Interestingly, even in its 2004 manifesto, the Congress had focused on the lack of institutional cohesion in the NSC and the ad hocism in its decision making and the inadequate utilisation of its various component units. However, they had not focused too much on the NSA and had, indeed, adopted the system they had inherited more or less without change.
The issue is bigger than simply making the NSA accountable to Parliament. To do that would require an overhaul of the entire manner in which the current machinery works. Perhaps, the better suggestion would be that the national security system be brought in under an omnibus legislation that would include all those who are currently functioning outside it—the NSC system, the intelligence apparatus, and so on. This would be a break from the ad hoc system that currently prevails.
An example India can follow is that of the US where national security issues are legislated. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 that created the post of Director National Intelligence to supervise the US intelligence community described his role and duties in more than a dozen pages. The US NSC system, as indeed, its military command are very much laid out in legislation.