The recent decision that the National Security Advisor or the NSA will now chair the Strategic Planning Group (SPG) as well, with cabinet secretary only as its member, will have far-reaching implications for the nature and functioning of the Indian state. There is as yet no proper explanation of why such a change has been brought about. But the manner in which the new arrangement has been put in place reflects a lack of understanding of the nature and complexity of security challenges the country confronts.
It was soon after India became a nuclear-weapon state in May 1998 that its national security architecture underwent a significant change. At the apex, a National Security Council (NSC) was set up with the Prime Minister (PM) as the chairman and ministers of home, defence, external affairs and finance as its permanent members. The NSC was provided with a secretariat and a new post of National Security Advisor (NSA) — a position currently held by Ajit Doval — was created to serve as the Secretary of the NSC. In addition, a Strategic Planning Group (SPG) was established under the chairmanship of the cabinet secretary, who is the head of the civil services, and it included all the key secretaries to the government as well as the three armed forces chiefs, the head of the external intelligence (R&AW), the Director of the Intelligence Bureau. A National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) was also set up, comprising a number of retired civil and military officials, and it had direct access to the PM. After the Kargil war, a Defence Intelligence Agency (to coordinate military-related intelligence) and a Nuclear Command Authority or NCA (to manage India’s nuclear weapon arsenal) were also set up. In essence, the stress was on providing political leadership with multiple sources of information on security issues. In this regard, the role of the NSA was that of a key advisor to the government on longer-term strategic issues, such as how to tackle Left-wing extremism, and he did not have a say in day-to-day security issues.
However, in recent years, the NSA, by virtue of his location in the PM’s Office, has become an influential figure, even though there is no constitutional sanction for the post. But as seen in the inadequate response to the Mumbai terror attack of 2008, where ad hoc decisions were taken, no single individual, no matter how accomplished, can manage so many moving parts and fast-changing situations on their own. What makes the increased reliance on the NSA even more questionable is the fact that he is an advisor, and as such, should he go wrong, it is unclear where the accountability would lie.
The latest decision is even more worrying because already the NSA’s responsibilities have been expanded sharply. He now chairs the Defence Planning Group, with responsibility for military planning, even as the NSAB’s role has been downgraded. Further, the role of the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, too, has been downgraded and in essence, the political leadership will have intelligence inputs and security assessments processed at the level of NSA with no opportunity for dissenting opinions being placed before it. The NSA is also the head of the Executive Council of the NCA. Even a highly centralised state cannot afford to have a singular channel for the flow of such critical information, let alone a democracy.