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Worth The Mani

JN will be a hard man to replace, but possible successor MK is a good bet

Worth The Mani
Jitender Gupta
Worth The Mani
When National Security Advisor J.N. Dixit died of a heart attack in the early hours of January 3, his friends in diplomatic circles recalled several anecdotes involving the irrepressible Mani, as the deceased NSA was popularly called. One favourite with everyone was the exchange between Dixit and the redoubtable Gen Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan president in the ’80s.

Dixit was then India’s high commissioner to Colombo, where Gen Zia had come down as part of his SAARC familiarisation trip. The two were introduced. Zia was bewildered: he had earlier been in Dhaka where he had met India’s high commissioner I.S. Chadha, as short as Dixit; the Indian embassy in Islamabad then was headed by S.K. Singh, as diminutive as the other two. Amused, Gen Zia couldn’t resist asking Dixit: "Why is it that India sends such short people to the neighbourhood?" Prompt was Dixit’s reply, "Sir, it is because India wants to keep a low profile."

Of short height he may have been, but Dixit’s impact on India’s foreign policy was deep and lasting—and wasn’t "low" in profile either. He left his indelible imprint on the countries—Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan—he handled; ditto as foreign secretary. Not among those who tailor their opinions to please the political masters, Dixit stood by what he thought was right or, to use his words, "in the national interest". It was testimony to his stature that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited his residence on two consecutive days following his death—once to lay a wreath and then to condole his family members. To them the PM said it would be difficult to replace Dixit.

Obviously, the NSA slot is too vital to be left vacant inordinately. On January 4, the PM’s special advisor on internal security, Mayankod Kelath Narayanan, a 1955-batch IPS officer, was assigned to perform Dixit’s duties till further notice. Two conclusions were quickly drawn: there’s no immediate, or natural, replacement for Dixit; two, MK, as Narayanan is popularly called in intelligence circles, is the front-runner to become the NSA. Should MK consolidate his position, his powers in the PMO would be enhanced dramatically.

In many ways, MK and Dixit’s trajectories were closely linked, though their personalities differed remarkably. Unlike Dixit, MK is a teetotaller and a fitness freak who goes on a pilgrimage to Sabarimala every year. Both hail from Kerala (Dixit from Adoor, MK from Ottapalam, Palakkad); circumstances brought them to work together: MK was the director of Intelligence Bureau (DIB) in Delhi when Dixit was high commissioner in Colombo and then, later, in Islamabad. When LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran was being cajoled in New Delhi into supporting the Indo-Sri Lanka pact of 1987, both Dixit and MK together visited him at the capital’s Ashoka Hotel. As DIB, MK was considered close to the Congress, prompting the next PM, V.P. Singh, to remove him from the sensitive post. MK was made chairman, Joint Intelligence Council. But MK was back in business as soon as Singh resigned and Chandra Shekhar became prime minister with Congress support.

The moot question is: how good an NSA will MK make? Can he oversee his charge as effectively and naturally as Dixit did?

As a hard-boiled IB official, people in the intelligence community say MK specialised in handling Communism, an obsession in the ’70s and ’80s. As an ex-intelligence official says, "MK had one eye on Beijing, another on Moscow, with a peripheral vision on E.M.S. Namboodiripad." But MK’s expertise in handling Communism has much less relevance now. Nor has he dealt with Kashmir first-hand, except for the period he was DIB and the state had just started to burn. MK has had no foreign postings either. Consequently, his practical exposure to foreign affairs—which increasingly have a real bearing on national security—may not be as developed as Dixit’s. Foreign policy, diplomacy, strategic affairs and nuclear issues came naturally to Dixit.

Yet, those who’ve worked with MK do not hesitate to vouchsafe his intellect, ability, his enormous appetite for work and incessant acquisition of knowledge. Says V.K. Raghavan, a former CBI director who had been staff officer to him: "MK is no run-of-the-mill IB officer. He’s extraordinarily intelligent. He’ll learn on the job."

With the additional responsibility of NSA, many feel MK will now consolidate his position in the PMO. Already a part of the decision-making processes there, he can now bring a new focus on internal security matters in an unprecedented manner and help remove the inherent tension and friction. "It’s always murkier on the inside than it appears from outside," says a senior officer who’s worked in the PMO.

The new arrangement, however temporary, could partially restore the system in the PMO as it had existed under the nda government. Then, principal-secretary-cum-national security advisor Brajesh Mishra combined all the roles that had been trifurcated among principal secretary P.K.A. Nair, MK and Dixit. Even so, it was an open secret that there were differences of opinions between Mishra and Yashwant Sinha and Jaswant Singh when they were foreign ministers.

Such differences, however, were becoming noticeable in the six months of the upa government. Given his conviction and strong opinions, as also his familiarity with the MEA and its staff, Dixit did differ with foreign minister Natwar Singh on the importance of the non-aligned movement. Unlike Natwar, he was also willing to settle for a permanent UN Security Council seat without the veto in the short term. With Dixit emerging as the pointsman for two sensitive engagements—the backchannel talks with Pakistan as well as the boundary talks with China—his role in the PMO appeared increasingly to overlap with that of the MEA.

Where MK can almost certainly bring in a rare sense of evangelism is in the workings of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Till last week, he hadn’t been dealing with RAW on a daily basis. His interaction with it was confined to specific issues, including the question of reorganising the external intelligence agency. This was felt necessary following the defection of RAW official Rabinder Singh. "MK has a pretty dim view of RAW," says a senior intelligence officer. Adds Raghavan, "He will bring about a greater exchange of officers and ideas between the IB and RAW."

Coincidentally, IB chief A.K. Doval and RAW boss C.D. Sahay retire on January 31. This has sparked off speculation that MK, in his reformist zeal, might bring another IB man to head RAW, overlooking the two top contenders—Amber Sen and J.K. Sinha—for the post. The transition in the IB seems clearer with E.S.L. Narasimhan poised to take over from Doval. This was the situation before Dixit’s death. Now with the secretary, RAW, directly reporting to MK, it remains to be seen whether he, like Dixit, will be satisfied that the organisation is as professional as the IB.

These are still early days. But with MK becoming acting NSA, Manmohan Singh has somewhat dented the notion that the NSA should be someone with a strong foreign policy experience. This comes against the backdrop of India aspiring to a unsc permanent seat even as the neighbourhood remains the core concern of the country’s strategic interest.

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