Among the most consequential of appointments awaiting the attention of the next Prime Minister of India will be the selection of his National Security Adviser (NSA). From the time that Atal Behari Vajpayee chose his confidant Brajesh Mishra for the job, the NSA has played a keystone role in governance, operating under the shadow of the immense authority of the Prime Minister, of course assuming the PM to be independent of “remote controls”. Mishra was also principal secretary to the PM, and the joining together of two whole-time responsibilities ensured the neglect of one, which was the NSA’s responsibility. While there has been much praise lavished on the Vajpayee era, chiefly because almost any other Prime Minister would appear stellar when compared to the hapless Manmohan Singh, the reality is that several grave failures of both foresight as well as judgement took place during his watch. The most commented upon has been the Kathmandu hijack of an Indian Airlines Airbus by an ISI-backed group, and the subsequent failure to ensure that the aircraft could not take off from Amritsar. Either because of his other responsibilities, or because of poor staff backup, Mishra delayed the taking of decisions which ought not merely to have been taken with despatch, but which ought to have been left to lower levels to sort out. That there was no protocol for dealing with an incident as predictable as the hijacking of an aircraft indicated the lack of sustained and professional attention paid to such contingencies.
The laughable nature — if the consequences were not so tragic — of Brajesh Mishra’s response to the Kathmandu hijack parallel similar fumbling, notably at Kargil, where a trusting approach towards the Pakistan establishment led to the abandoning of army posts in that crucial sector. Worse, reconnaissance flights along that stretch of the Line of Control (LoC) were apparently discontinued, again in the belief that Nawaz Sharif was sincere in his protestations of peaceful intent. The only Pakistan President in recent memory to have been sincere in his desire to avoid doing harm to India through (usually harebrained) schemes of the military was Asif Ali Zardari, and he was neutered by then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in favour of the Punjabi establishment in the Pakistan army and their favourite, Chief Justice Iftikhar Choudhury.
The fact that the Indian Army (as well as an Air Force severely hobbled by the constraints placed on their operation by Mishra) was able to evict the Pakistan army regulars from the peaks has concealed the fact that the Kargil incursion took place at all was a disastrous failure of the Higher Command.
Add to the litany of misjudgements the hugely expensive and ultimately useless Operation Parakram, the repeated unilateral ceasefires in Kashmir, and the avoidance of ensuring that intelligence professionals were given the status and responsibilities which they had been denied by “birds of passage” from other services into R&AW or other intelligence agencies, and it would be apparent that while Brajesh Mishra got a good grade as Principal Secretary (“Prinsec”), he failed in his role as National Security Adviser.
The fact that the Indian Army , was able to evict the Pakistan army regulars from the peaks has concealed the fact that the Kargil incursion took place at all was a disastrous failure of the Higher Command.
There is logic in the US system of bringing in those outside the formal processes of government in key posts such as that of the NSA, but in India’s cadre officer-centred mechanism of governance, such an innovation seems remote.
The fact is that the NSA needs to advice, not control. He or she has to stop himself (or be stopped by the PM) from involvement in operations. Rather, the brief should be to monitor and yes, to advice, leaving it to those directly tasked with operational responsibilities to handle matters within their own spheres. In the words of Nikolai Lenin, the NSA has to accept the maxim of “better less (powers) but better” (in his work).
The “Jack of all trades” tradition in the governance system in India needs to get replaced by ensuring that professional brains (who understand the complexities of their craft and what needs to be done to face challenges) get directly involved in ministries such as Home or Defence. Or indeed, in the National Security Council Secretariat.