During his May 27 meeting with Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, raised the issue of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack and insisted that the perpetrators be brought to book without delay. India’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has thus made it sufficiently clear that Pakistan’s soil must not be used for the export of terror to India and attacks on its assets in the neighbourhood must stop if a dialogue is to take place. Reference to the Mumbai attack has also brought the focus back to India’s worst intelligence failure in recent memory. The Modi government has a special reason to thank its stars — and the Afghan self-defence forces — for averting a major embarrassment even as it was being sworn in. The Afghans have ‘credible intelligence’ to suggest that the attack on India’s Herat consulate was a Laskhar-e-Toiba operation and was aimed at creating a hostage situation a la Kandahar just before Modi’s swearing-in with all South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation leaders in tow. That should make revamping of India’s intelligence a huge priority for Modi.
From the Kargil intrusions to the Kandahar hijack, from the attack on Parliament to the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, the list of intelligence failures is long and embarrassing. And it cuts across regimes to indicate serious systemic malaise. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government set up the Subrahmanyam committee after Kargil, the Manmohan Singh government restricted itself to replacing the home minister, Shivraj Patil, and the national security advisor, M.K. Narayanan, after the 26/11 attacks. But neither went in for any structural reforms to improve the functioning of intelligence.
It is in the fitness of things that a prime minister with as clear a mandate and as strong a resolve as Modi must take firm and concrete — if necessary some out-of-the-box — steps to modernize India’s intelligence machinery and make it worth the taxpayers’ money spent on it.
The task of getting Indian intelligence to deliver will fall on Modi’s NSA, Ajit Doval. The former chief of the Intelligence Bureau is a highly decorated officer with an enviable track record. One of India’s greatest spymasters , B.B. Nandi, once narrated how one of his immediate subordinates (who later went to become the Research and Analysis Wing chief) asked him once after having completed two foreign postings about how a source can be enticed with money. Unlike such over-rated czars, Doval is a hands-on operative, not someone who would spend a whole career without having ever run a single effective source in their target region or organization. And though an IB officer with focus on domestic intelligence (and counter-intelligence), Doval has also served in foreign postings including Pakistan. One would expect him to be free of the ‘agency bias’ that afflicted some of his predecessors and created serious problems in functioning.
There are five challenges for Doval.
The first is to find a way to end turf wars and create an collaborative environment between various agencies involved in gathering, processing and dissemination of intelligence. India’s neighbourhood, where there is a clear overlap of domestic and external intelligence agencies, would be one major area where operational effectiveness can only come from inter-agency cooperation .
The second is to improve the quality of actionable intelligence. Very often, state governments complain about the growing flow of alerts and inputs from Central agencies which cannot be verified or do not hold up.
The third is to refocus on developing human intelligence, sacrificed often in recent years with our growing dependence on Sigint and Techint. Even the CIA and MI-6 have started to realize the problems of over-dependence on technology and is concentrating on developing highly effective moles in target countries. This is a long, time-consuming and often an expensive exercise, but there is no substitute to having a mole in foreign cabinet because the information he is capable of generating will never be available through Techint or Sigint.
The fourth challenge, linked to the third, is to rework the recruitment process to be able to draw the best and brightest to the intelligence services and be able to get, through a system of lateral entry, some highly qualified professionals needed for specific tasks. Linked to this is the need for continuous training to meet emerging challenges. Now that Modi’s first cabinet meeting has created a SIT to unearth black money and chiefs of RAW and IB have been taken on it, both the agencies will need officers with proven expertise in financial intelligence to generate actionable intelligence on where Indians have parked their black money at home and abroad.
The final challenge is to bring about a culture of accountability, so far absent in the Indian intelligence system. That would include considering a system of parliamentary oversight. Most Western intelligence agencies like the CIA and MI-5 and MI-6 , and even the dreaded Mossad, have improved their performance by developing systems of operational and financial audit and it is time Indian intelligence agencies are brought under a regime of effective but not intrusive monitoring.
If Modi makes a revamp of intelligence, Doval’s priority as NSA would still have to consider a response to a private members bill introduced by Manish Tiwari, a former United Progressive Alliance minister. The intelligence services (powers and regulation) bill 2011 was aimed at empowering intelligence agencies through a legal charter with clear elements of supervision and oversight. Tiwari’s effort was supported by much research and interaction and it challenged obsolete notions of national security. Most importantly, the bill sought to establish a legal mandate for the intelligence agencies, by giving each of them a clear charter, without which they often tend to operate without a clear policy parameter and their focus and priorities are often compromised by personal whims.
If the RAW had a clear charter in the late 1990s, it could have legally pre-empted the order of the former prime minister, I.K. Gujral, to abandon all operations in Pakistan, something that cost India accumulated ground assets and huge reach developed over 30 years of efforts. The bill also sought to create a system of operational and financial audit to prevent misuse and ensure optimum use of financial resources.
India will have to have something like a national intelligence and security oversight committee to address the issue of control, collation and collective responsibility. And also a national intelligence tribunal that protects both the citizen and the operative working for intelligence agencies. Members of parliament include those from the Opposition have to be made members of such a committee to cut out allegations of political manipulation. Intelligence is one of the least reformed and the most feudalized elements of India’s government services. It is for prime minister who promises effective governance to take steps to professionalize and modernize a key element of national power. The bill placed by Tiwari should be considered and improved in depth and a new legislation should be drawn up to ensure Indian intelligence agencies have a legal basis and a professional culture.