India convened the ‘Third Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan’ on November 10. The national security advisers/ secretaries of the National Security Councils of Iran, Russia and the five Central Asian Republics joined the Indian NSA at, what the ministry of external affairs said, was to be a “high-level” dialogue to “deliberate upon measures to address the relevant security challenges and support the people of Afghanistan in promoting peace, security and stability”. The MEA statement was sedate. Not so low-key was a background briefing given by a senior National Security Council Secretariat official prior to the meeting.
The official emphasized that the NSAs’ meeting was not to be a run-of-the-mill gathering of diplomats but a dialogue of “security czars” to take practical measures. The term, “security czar”, is new to the official Indian lexicon; used even in a background briefing lends it that colour. It reflects both the significant and increasing influence of the NSA’s office and the primacy of its present incumbent in the formulation and the management of India’s security and foreign policies. The use of the word, ‘czar’, is troubling. It shows a mindset which may be in keeping with the spirit of these times but is hardly in accordance with the tenets of India’s constitutional and political system.
The word, ‘czar’, is derived from the word, ‘Caesar’. It denotes an all-powerful and authoritarian leader. Certainly, any adviser, howsoever influential, would not seek to arrogate to his person the role of a decision-maker. That role lies only with the elected executive, which is responsible to the people through Parliament. The role of consultants, advisers and civil servants is to give their professional views; they must avoid wading into politics even if they hold ‘political’ appointments. Equally, they must also leave political theories and ideological contestations to politicians and civil society. And their advice to budding civil servants, whether of the uniformed services or otherwise, has to be that they act in accordance with the law irrespective of their personal preferences. To do otherwise would make security and police service officers no better than vigilantes.
Traditionally, Indian civil and uniformed services, advisers and consultants have kept within the limits of their mandates. In Pakistan, it has been otherwise. Thus, the Pakistan army openly proclaims that it is the defender of not only Pakistan’s territorial frontiers but of the Nazaria-e-Pakistan or the country’s ideology derived from the two-nation theory. It has not allowed any institution to depart from Pakistan’s ideological foundations not only during periods of its direct rule but also during the time of elected governments. Certainly, it would be far from the intention of anyone in the Indian system to take a leaf out of Pakistan’s book. But when advisers become ideologically motivated, they step on a slippery slope.
Over the past two decades, the institutional framework of security and foreign policy making has become more complex. In these years, the role of the NSA has got consolidated and that of the NSCS, which does the staff work for the National Security Council through the NSA, has become augmented. Interestingly, the NSA and the NSCS have gained influence in respect to India’s neighbourhood. It is now widely perceived that both are playing a more active role not only in policy-formulation but also in its execution with all the neighbouring countries. Consequently, it is believed that the role of the ministry of external affairs has suffered. It may not be so but perceptions and beliefs on where power and influence are located impact the approaches of partners and adversaries in international relations.
A foreign-policy area where the security establishment has to play a natural role relates to Pakistan. Pakistan has always posed a security challenge. Hence, the NSA has to make a basic contribution to India-Pakistan ties. Even before the creation of the NSA’s office, Indian intelligence agencies’ and the defence services’ views impacted the country’s policies towards Pakistan. It was also known that the R&AW chief occasionally met the DG, ISI. However, relations were largely managed through the diplomatic establishments and if a backchannel was established it was also handled by a retired diplomat or a public person. This situation has now changed.
The last foreign-minister-level contact with Pakistan was in December 2015 when the late Sushma Swaraj travelled to Islamabad but only after the NSA accompanied by the foreign secretary had met his Pakistani counterpart in Bangkok. The approach of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, to the Pakistani political leadership led by the then prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was effectively sabotaged by the Pakistan army through the Pathankot terrorist attack of January 2016 and, later, the Uri terrorist attack of September that year. The India-Pakistan relationship has, thereafter, remained mired in total negativity.
Indeed, Pakistan’s irrational response to the constitutional changes of August 2019 in Jammu and Kashmir have only made relations worse for since then the two respective missions are not led at high-commissioner levels. In these times, there have been reports of continuing contacts of the NSA on the backchannel with the Pakistani army leadership. Certainly, the director-generals’ of military operations joint statement of February 2021 on the ceasefire along the Line of Control and the international border in Jammu and Kashmir could not have been possible without it being worked out on the backchannel. It also bore marks of diplomatic draftsmanship but the primary role of the NSA in working it out was clear. Since then, reports about the NSA continuing backchannel contacts have been circulating.
By convening a meeting of the regional and the Russian NSAs on Afghanistan, the Indian system, once again, profiled its role and that of the NSCS in the management of critical areas of the neighbourhood. It is true that an effort was made to ensure that the MEA was not totally kept out of the loop but that only profiled its marginalization.
As the influence and the heft of the NSA’s office rises further, it becomes all the more essential that the holder remains totally professional and leaves ideological issues to the political class and civil society.
Vivek Katju is a retired Indian Foreign Service officer