April 05, 2020
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A One Man Band Called Brajesh Mishra

By taking on the mantle of national security advisor, he becomes more powerful than most ministers

A One Man Band Called Brajesh Mishra

HE heads the prime minister's office as his principal secretary. He is the de facto foreign minister and foreign secretary rolled into one. He is the prime minister's special emissary for tasks abroad. He conducts strategic dialogue with the French. Now he is the national security advisor (NSA) in the newly constituted National Security Council. No wonder he's called the one man band.

All of which makes for varying opinions on Brajesh Mishra, surely the most powerful principal secretary yet. His camp followers see in him an exceptionally capable official, wholly deserving of prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's extraordinary faith. Observers opposed to the BJP see in this the paucity of capable persons in the party, leaving one man to shoulder a host of burdens. Mishra's detractors—including a host of BJP insiders—say he himself wants all the power in his own hands. Yet others say the truth lies somewhere in between.

However, the fact is that Mishra has enough on his hands just running the PMO. Too much power is already concentrated in his hands. The formation of the NSC and his appointment as its chief figure has not only enhanced his clout in the government but also reinforced this impression. This is perhaps the principal flaw in the NSC—the principal secretary doubling as the NSA. It's difficult to see how Mishra can run both the PMO and the NSA apart from his pet pastime—managing the external affairs ministry, where even routine postings and assignments don't escape his attention.

Observers see a method in this. Says a former foreign minister: "Within the bureaucracy, the cabinet secretary and the principal secretary are the only two officials who have direct access to the PM. Neither wants a third power centre emerging in the form of an NSA, because whoever assumes the post will have direct access to the PM. During V.P. Singh's time when the NSC was first formed, he had assigned the task of the NSA to the cabinet secretary, without formally appointing him to that post. This time it's the principal secretary who has taken on that responsibility formally. The fact of the matter is that both the cabinet secretary and the principal secretary are overburdened in any government. The NSA's work is full time, therefore you need someone from outside."

Former prime minister I.K. Gujral agrees. Clarifying that he has nothing against Mishra personally, he argues that the NSA should be a person from outside with the status of a minister of state. He adds that in the Indian system, with the NSA reporting directly to the PM, it can create some problems, especially in coalition governments. Indeed, Gujral should know—it was during V.P. Singh's government that the NSC was first tried, though it was not revived when Narasimha Rao became prime minister.

But that's not the only flaw in the NSC. For one, the report of the three-member task force—headed by K.C. Pant and comprising the deputy chairman of planning commission, Jaswant Singh, and the director of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, Jasjit Singh—has been given a complete go by. There are even doubts about how seriously it was discussed at the political level.

While the report of the task force has largely been kept confidential, it broadly recommended that the NSC should consist of a cabinet committee on national security headed by the PM. Six ministries—defence, external affairs, home, finance, commerce and science and technology—should be represented on this apex body. It suggested that the NSA should be a person of cabinet rank, and therefore obviously political. It favoured the formation of three different cells: long-term strategic planning and formulation of national security strategy; coordination of current decisions; and a sophisticated intelligence unit to integrate inputs and assessments for national security planning. Each of the three cells was to have separate boards. The report argued that six institutes be set up to strengthen the resource base for planning national security policy.

Clearly, Mishra's appointment is a signal that the NSA will be a bureaucrat and not a politician, for there is no reason why his successor as principal secretary will not follow the precedent. Mishra has tried to fob off criticism by saying that his workload as principal secretary has come down considerably and if a foreign minister is appointed, it will be reduced even further.

This doesn't wash. As things stand, he is seen to be taking on too much. Besides, while it can be argued that Mishra, a former IFS officer, has a background in international affairs, his successor may well be completely innocent of the current concept of national security in the holistic sense but as principal secretary may be loathe to deprive himself of this additional clout. What happens to national security strategy in those circumstances?

As for the NSC, its members will be backed by a three-tiered structure comprising the strategic policy group, the national security advisory board and a secretariat represented by the JIC. The strategic policy group will be the nucleus providing inter-ministerial coordination. It will undertake a strategic defence review of short-term and long-term security threats. The JIC, which will be headed by India's envoy to Pakistan, Satish Chandra, will provide the secretariat. The national security advisory board will form the third element of the NSC. It will consist of eminent persons outside the government with expertise in external security, strategic analysis, foreign affairs, defence, the armed forces, internal security, science and technology and economics. This board will provide long-term assessments for the NSC.

Interestingly, the government tried to say that the framework of the NSC was essentially based on the Pant task force, serious doubts are already being expressed. "The JIC at present is a third-rate organisation," says a strategic affairs analyst, who does not want to be identified. It has not had a head for more than a year, no one provides it with any information though it is supposed to be coordinating, getting feedback from the various intelligence wings of the government and assessing it. According to him, the national security advisory board will be completely superfluous, to be used sooner or later to park "old fogies who will do nothing. What will be its function?"

BUT he has a more basic objection: "What can the NSC do if the arms which are supposed to supply inputs are rotting? The foreign office needs reform; the services and the defence ministry are at loggerheads; what's the quality of our intelligence gathering?" Intelligence gathering, particularly, he feels is severely flawed in India and there is no effort to review this aspect. He says that unless some basic improvements take place, the NSC can't function smoothly and effectively. He also feels that jamming the strategic policy group with secretaries, service chiefs and others is not going to help. "How much time do they have everyday? Ask a secretary how much time he gets to prepare for a meeting. They are attending meetings all the time. How can they produce any assessment or do a strategic defence review?"

It is not as if the difficulties in forming and running the NSC are not recognised. Gujral says that in the presidential system in the US, the NSC functions smoothly. He sees the fault-lines here not so much in the collection of intelligence but in the way it is interpreted and the lack of policy planning by the relevant ministries. He points out that the policy planning unit in the MEA is considered a punishment posting. He feels policy planning units should be set in relevant ministries, including culture, to interact with the NSC and there should be a two-way traffic so that ministries are also sensitised to the task of strategic defence review.

Then there are the hardened pessimists, who say the NSC could never work in India. As a former diplomat says sardonically: "I have been watching this NSC game for a long time. It can work only in the US, not in any parliamentary system. Margaret Thatcher had tried it and failed. Mishra is an honest and able man who enjoys the confidence of the prime minister. But let's see what happens. I am going to sit and watch the fun now." So will everyone else.

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