April 06, 2020
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In The Tower Of Babel

The NSCs advisory board is a battleground of diametrically divergent views and inflated egos

In The Tower Of Babel

AT times, it sounds like a veritable clash of the titans. At others, like the squabbling of alley cats. But it's actually the members of the advisory board to the National Security Council proclaiming their independence from each other.

As of now, the recently-appointed body assigned to give recommendations to the government on security matters is unable even to bring itself to agree to disagree. For each member who believes it is not important to produce reports on defence-related issues that speak with one voice, there are others who feel that any report that reflects wildly diverging views would necessarily be a waste of time. "How different would that be from writing papers criticising each others points of view, something that we already do?" asks one member.

However, the convenor of the group, K. Subrahmanyam, disagrees. "I am glad that the board, a non-political body, is not made up of a bunch of like-minded people," he says. "And if we can't agree then let us make our disagreements explicit." According to him, it is more a case of reckoning with reality rather than accepting defeat.

The board meetings are an obvious face-off between various points of view. For instance, on the nuclear issue there are those who have been supporting non-weaponised deterrence and those who favour minimum nuclear deterrence. But there are serious personality clashes as well. "The fear is that Subrahmanyam dominates the discourse and people like Bharat Karnad, whose ideology lies between the two extremes, and a couple of others, who are totally graceless bullies and have a Taliban-like approach, will get left behind," says one member. This member accuses both Brahma Chellaney and Karnad, both from the Centre for Policy Research (cpr), of being "Kissinger wannabes... but these are just silly pipedreams". But he reveals he's himself no objective observer, when he adds: "Bharat (Karnad) thinks that because he's now a member of cpr, he has arrived. What really is his claim to fame? Chellaney, while refusing to get into these polemics, says it is not appropriate for board members to speak to the press, especially levelling allegations anonymously, which does not redound to their credit.

Subrahmanyam does not escape criticism either. Sometimes referred to as the father of strategic studies in India, he has been accused of giving lectures, of being didactic, by some of the other board members. A little disconcerted by the description, Subrahmanyam quickly brings over a dictionary to read aloud the exact definition of the word didactic. "I have never been accused of this before. At worst, I think my weakness is for logic and rationality," he says. Explains another member, "Subrahmanyam has always had this problem. He does not suffer fools gladly and argues very strongly. It can put people off. There are a large number of egos at play here and his style does grate at times." It's probably not Subrahmanyam's fault, but the point is there are people who are as senior as him in the board who resent his 'lecturing'.

KARNAD for his part believes that Jasjit Singh, director of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (idsa) and another board member, is merely Subrahmanyam's acolyte, and just one of many. But Singh shrugs it off: "I and people like me have been called 'eunuchs' and worse by people like Chellaney and Karnad. Karnad publicly abuses me... It's nothing new." He feels that the pettiness that personalises even the gravest of issues is a tendency built into the Indian mindset that will have to be overcome if the group is expected to go anywhere. "If 27 wise men in India can't agree, then the system will take over soon enough and the group will be dissolved." Certainly, not a very encouraging comment for a newly-appointed body which has had all of two meetings so far.

Appointed by the government and consisting of academics, journalists, former bureaucrats, think-tankers, scientists and others, it would be naive to expect total agreement in such an advisory body. But Karnad questions the validity of the choices made. To him, there are too many opinions about the same subjects and a lack of a holistic approach to national security. "Ironically, diversity of expertise is lacking." He adds, "The board is not a cohesive body. Some of its members are diametrically opposed. The method of its creation still remains a mystery to me," he says. He believes that there are way too many members already, and more are to join. All of them assigned to set out recommendations relating to India's nuclear doctrine and strategic defence review. "There should have been greater care to see that the various views cohere. As it is, great differences have already been manifested."

While familiarity may well breed waves of contempt between fellow-members, at least the roles have been repeatedly played out in the past and everybody knows their positions. There is a comfort in the known. But another kind of problem is being created by the presence of relative strangers whose influence on the group is still unknown. "There is no clear definition about the role of (principal secretary in the pmo) Brajesh Mishra who has attended only one of the two meetings," says one member. There is also little understanding about the relationship between the middle-tier strategic policy group, which includes government secretaries and others who are expected to provide inter-ministerial coordination and back-up to the council, and the advisory board. These two groups are expected to coordinate but "procedures of interface have yet to be worked out".

Although procedures can perhaps be worked out in time, it is not quite so easy to shrug off antagonism when the group meets around a table once a month. Some members believe strongly that there are too many thinkers in the group and not enough doers. One member reportedly asked the rest whether they had ever seen a tank - obviously sneering at the lack of hands-on experience in national defence. Another member commented similarly that the so-called experts opinions depended totally on which books they had read on the subject. But Subrahmanyam is quick to refute charges of too much academic knowledge. "National security is much bigger than tanks. One of the most distinguished soldiers - George C. Marshall, the man who led America to victory in the second world war - never fired a shot in his life."

Perhaps the group is already fatally flawed by the fact that none of the recommendations of a three-member task force assigned to suggest a model advisory body were taken up by the government prior to setting up the present board. A 10-page report written after consulting with 237 people was presented to the government on June 25, 1998. But when it came to implementation, it was as if the study had never been conducted. Fears have been voiced by some members that the same fate may befall any report that is actually produced by the advisory body. But this is getting beyond the immediate problems of the group itself.

One of these is the sense of frustration among some members that because classified information will not be easily available to them, they will never be able to give tactical advice and will instead be restricted to recommendations on long-term goals. Here too, however, other members of the group don't agree. "The matter of getting classified information is not a critical issue for me," says idsa's Singh. The issue will come up if and when we need that kind of hard intelligence. But others are more cynical. "You can't give the government substantive advice unless you have this information. But the Indian system is not geared to sharing information," comments one member. At best, the group can act as a sounding board, he added.

While many people have commented on the difficulties of evolving a coherent policy from such a dissonant group, there are even some liberal thinkers who feel that the board is comprised of too many like-minded people. Their contention is that the anti-bomb camp isn't represented. Jagat Mehta, possibly the oldest board member and a staunch anti-nuclear campaigner, has reportedly never attended even one meeting. Which could be a good thing, for his would have been one more discordant voice to the Babel that is the advisory board.

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