SECURING INDIA - It is time the national security architecture was overhauled
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- Published 28.01.10
Rarely before in recent history has India had the unique opportunity to help shape the future of the world. Simultaneously, at few times since Independence have the security and strategic challenges been greater than they are today. The new national security adviser, Shiv Shankar Menon, is faced with a world that is taking India more and more seriously, and yet the Indian State still lacks both the will and the capacity to make use of this extraordinary opening. In addition, the open Indian secular, pluralistic democracy is increasingly vulnerable to a range of threats that could potentially undermine the very idea of India. The NSA, in addition to being the principal security adviser to the prime minister, needs to help India face up to an extraordinarily turbulent world while charting out clear policy goals based on a long-term strategic vision, a grand strategy. This will not and cannot happen until virtually a new security architecture is put in place; radical reform, not piecemeal incrementalism, is indeed the need of the day.
With an unsettled neighbourhood, an increasingly aggressive China and an ambivalent Obama-led United States of America, India’s external strategic environment is defined by uncertainty. Nowhere is this clearer than in India’s neighbourhood. Consider this conundrum. India’s military and economic prowess is greater than ever before, and yet India’s ability to shape and influence the principal countries in South Asia is less than what it was, say, 25 years ago. One successful Sheikh Hasina visit, unfortunately, does not make for a harmonious South Asia. An unstable Nepal with widespread anti-India sentiment, a triumphalist Sri Lanka where Sinhalese chauvinism is showing no signs of accommodating the legitimate aspirations of the Jaffna Tamils, a chaotic Pakistan, which is unwilling to even reassure New Delhi on future terrorist strikes, are only symptomatic of a region that is being pulled in different directions.
Do we not need to have a long-term strategic vision of South Asia? Will India really be taken seriously as a global player if it is unable to settle its own neighbourhood? How do we ensure that our South Asia policy based on five principles — bilateralism, non-reciprocity, non-interference, economic integration and irrelevance of borders — will work without effective instruments and expertise? How do we further the prime minister’s vision of a grand reconciliation with Pakistan, so essential also to heal communal relations within the subcontinent? What are the incentives and sanctions that can make Pakistan’s army and Inter-Services Intelligence directorate review its blinkered policy of bleeding India by affecting a thousand cuts? How does one confront radical jihadi Islam and prevent it from spreading its contagion in India? These are critical questions that the NSA cannot afford to ignore.
China’s recent assertiveness, acknowledged even by the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is symbolic of not just China’s rise, but it also signals that Beijing will be in the future, at best, our greatest challenge and, at worst, a security nightmare. A rising China is, of course, now a challenge for the entire international system. It is being increasingly recognized that there is a new generation of leaders in China who no longer believe in Deng Xiaoping’s 24-character strategy of hiding their light and keeping their heads low. China, as we know from its history, is prone to take risks, especially when it believes that the balance of power is in its favour. At Copenhagen, as Fareed Zakaria reminded us recently, China even “displayed an unprecedented level of disregard for the United States and other western countries.” A member of the delegation of the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, wagged a finger at President Barack Obama and shouted at him, which was so offensive that the Chinese premier had to ask the interpreter not to translate the words into English. Do we have a strategy for coping with a hegemonic and potentially belligerent China? Do we have a clear alternative vision of Asian stability and the security architecture needed to support it? And do we have the instruments, together with like-minded Asian States and perhaps the US, to ensure a balance in Asia and to prevent it from being submerged by Chinese interests and values?
Unfortunately, precisely at this moment of turbulence, India has to deal with a woolly-headed US, with no clear sense of geo-politics. Not surprisingly, a Heritage Foundation scholar recently described Obama’s first year as the ‘Audacity of Hype’, playing on the title of the president’s autobiography, Audacity of Hope. Notwithstanding the extraordinary reception that the Indian prime minister was given by President Obama in Washington, it is clear that the best outcome over the next few years would be to ensure a consolidation of the gains made during the Bush years. But, increasingly, there will be sparring between Indian and American negotiators over issues ranging from trade to climate change to non-proliferation and disarmament. We need a clear strategy to ensure this consolidation and to prevent, for instance, American back-peddling on the nuclear deal from having a wider ripple effect amongst other members of the nuclear suppliers group.
But security is more than just external challenges. In its essence, the objective of national security is to ensure for the country and its citizens freedom from fear. And the challenges on this road to comprehensive security are manifold: internal insurgencies including Naxalism, energy deficit, environmental decay, pandemics, migration and internal displacement, terrorism and particularly the threat of “nuclear” terrorism. These issues are far too important to be left to individual ministries. Indeed, even counter-terrorism cannot be just the domain of only the home ministry or the proposed National Counter-Terrorism Centre. The NSA must, by definition, be the principal assessor of major national security threats and provide the main security briefing to the prime minister and his cabinet team. It is vital, therefore, that the chiefs of the Research and Analysis Wing and the Intelligence Bureau have direct access to the prime minister through the NSA.
Fortunately, in Shiv Shankar Menon we have an outstanding officer with tremendous experience and a wealth of expertise. Most important, he enjoys the confidence of Manmohan Singh and shares his vision of India and its role in the neighbourhood and in world affairs. But to be an effective NSA, he will not just need to assert himself in unprecedented ways, but will also need to ensure that the moribund national security structure is revitalized. How often has the national security council met as the NSC and not as the cabinet committee on security? How often does the strategic policy group meet, and what has the follow-up been on its deliberations? Has the NSC secretariat not often been used to accommodate superannuating senior officers or to position those who may have missed out on plum postings? Should the NSCS not be restructured in a way that truly reflects India’s aspirations of playing a global role, by including far more area experts? Is there not a danger that the national security advisory board may descend into becoming an ‘old boys club’ of former diplomats, civil servants and superannuated officers of the armed forces? Should the NSAB not, instead, become a vibrant platform for providing the best advice to the NSA by those outside government on critical issues facing the nation? Finally, and most critically, there should be a dedicated cell within the NSCS which provides long-term assessment of the threats facing the nation, which may build on some of the work already done by the directorate of net assessment in the headquarters of the integrated defence staff and the former task force on long-term threats.