The appointment of M.K. Narayanan, a former director of the Intelligence Bureau (IB), as the country's National Security Advisor not only signals a change in the role of the NSA but it could also lead to a diminishing of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's authority.
The PM, a security expert wrote, should be "the driver of foreign and national security policies"—a role the late J.N. Dixit had helped Manmohan Singh perform. A former foreign secretary, he brought enormous energy and a coherent vision of India's strategic interests to his job. Narayanan, though regarded highly in intelligence circles, brings a different experience profile to the job: one circumscribed by the tag of 'internal security'. So, though he was appointed interim NSA a day after Dixit's death, the PM, sources say, would have preferred a "new NSA", as he hopes to continue playing a pre-eminent role in foreign and security policy, whether that relates to Pakistan, China or the US. Dixit's supporters—and there were many—felt an NSA with the ability to take a panoramic, rather than a sectional view of national security, integrating external and internal aspects, would have lent coherence not just to the PM's perspective but to the country's security responses.
If few people would question Dixit's vision—the substantive part of his job—his hands-on approach ruffled feathers in the ministries his job related to. The 22 days that elapsed between Dixit's demise on January 3 and Narayanan's appointment afforded an opportunity to assess what had been achieved by the NSA in the first eight months of the UPA reign and whether the role needed any redefinition. Only after that should the government have looked for a suitable person for the job. Instead, a section within the government and in the Congress who had felt sidelined by Dixit's personalised style worked to instal a new NSA first, one whose very ambit of experience facilitated a trimming of responsibilities.
Shortly before Narayanan's confirmation as NSA, sources close to the PM—referring to criticism emanating from ministries whose work sometimes clashed with the NSA's—told Outlook, "The new NSA's role will be redefined to the extent that he will not perform a line function anymore, that is, he won't look at files from the ministries. Foreign policymaking by the NSA too will be toned down. There will always be a problem between the PMO and the ministries. Every ministry would like to be independent, but the PM must be pre-eminent and should have his own advisors to constantly advise him."
But from the day Dixit died and a whisper campaign against the overweening power he had apparently wielded began, the emphasis was not so much on redefining the job as on clearing the way for a weakened NSA. If the signal came from the announcement that Narayanan was being asked to hold charge of the NSA's job "till further orders", the argument forwarded by a section within the PMO was that internal security—in Kashmir, the Northeast or with Naxalites—was causing far greater concern than external security.
Whether this argument was based on an assessment that the security environment had radically changed since the UPA government took charge, or whether it was simply because it suited a large number of players, is not clear. But the criticism was given more weight by the argument that the two earlier NSAs, Brajesh Mishra in the Vajpayee years, and Dixit, had neglected the non-foreign policy aspects of the job courtesy their diplomatic background. Vajpayee, after all, resisted all attempts by the BJP, his colleagues in government and even the RSS to drop Mishra or even clip his wings. Mishra, of course, had been more powerful than Dixit, being both NSA and principal secretary.
If his performing a "line function"—looking at files—was used as an excuse to re-examine the NSA role, fact is, Dixit did a great deal more. He was India's special representative on border talks with China even as he was working the backchannels with Pakistan's Tariq Aziz, President Musharraf's special envoy. These tasks will now be given to specially empowered envoys—former high commissioner Satinder Lambah may be given the latter task; foreign secretary Shyam Saran is likely to be India's pointsman for China.
The issue is not the suitability of any of these persons for key tasks but the criticism gaining ground that the NSA's role was being etched out in such a way as to 'weaken' the PMO. It was not just the mea but the ministries of home and defence who saw the role being played by Dixit as a challenge. Within the PMO, sources say, principal secretary T.K. Nair found files relating to these ministries going to the NSA, while Narayanan reportedly differed with Dixit on intelligence issues—the latter had more faith in RAW insiders, Narayanan tended to back those from the IPS who had been seconded to RAW.
Says a senior Congress MP: "Narayanan suits Sonia loyalists like Natwar Singh and Shivraj Patil. Besides, he has a good equation with 10, Janpath, dating back to the Rajiv years." Narayanan's appointment will ensure the mea regains its primacy over foreign policy issues, while the new NSA will focus on internal security, a subject on which he was, in any case, advising the PM. Not just that, the appointment of his former staff officer E.S.L. Narasimhan as the IB chief and of P.H. Tharakan, another protege, as RAW chief would suggest that Narayanan will be the undisputed intelligence czar of the country. Indeed, critics within the government say we will now have a Super IB head instead of an NSA and the National Security Council will be reduced to the Joint Intelligence Committee it was till April '99.
The buzzwords PMO officials attribute most often to the PM are "out-of-the-box thinking" and "creative tension". But evidently the system Manmohan Singh has inherited is too strong for him to bend.
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