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Sunday, July 19, 2009

2719, 5 November 2008
National Security Adviser: Reviewing the Institution Firdaus AhmedFreelancere-mail firdyahmed@yahoo.com
The present National Security Adviser (NSA), MK Naryanan has often been in the news. He helped wrap up the nuclear deal with the US and went to China for border talks with his counterpart. In the wake of his trip to Srinagar, the Governor's policy of permitting the Valley to let off steam in mass demonstrations was discontinued. From the burden of responsibilities on the NSA's shoulders it can be surmised that this punishing schedule was perhaps partially the reason of the demise in office of the last NSA, the indefatigable book-a-year, JN Dixit. This ubiquity of the NSA begs the question: Is there a case for review of the institution of the NSA in light of the democratic character of the state? With the tenth anniversary coming up of the institution of NSC and its NSA early next year, the moment is apt to initiate a discussion on the institution of the NSA.
At its inception the office of the NSA was also held by the Principal Secretary to the prime minister. This drew criticism from none other than K Subrahmanyam. The double-hatting of the JIC as NSC Secretariat also drew fire. Over the years these teething problems have been overcome. However, from hyperactivity, can it be inferred that there is an over concentration of power and responsibility in the office of the NSA? A critique of the institution along this line would help it assimilate into the Indian system of democracy.
In a parliamentary democratic order as obtains in India, the responsibilities of an NSA cannot be as extensive as those in the US presidential system. The ministers in the Indian cabinet system have to discharge their functions, which if passed on to the NSA would negate the principle of people's representatives ensuring governance. Power pervading a whole system makes its components accountable and therefore functional. Though NSAs so far have been seasoned retired officers of experience, credibility and stature who have brought commendable energy to their jobs, there is the human constraint of age and attention span that has to be reckoned with. The office of the NSA was meant for forward thinking and coordination and not for imposing on the more routine functions of ministries or the cabinet secretariat. There is a case for a drawdown of the NSA's role as originally conceptualized.
In this the NSA has a responsibility restricted to security. Securitization of matters that are best dealt within the political and social domain leads to their removal from the pail of political intervention. The UPA government, unlike its predecessor, also has a CCPA with the cabinet secretary as its secretary; thus there exists a body for reflection on political questions. Therefore, only matters of interest to the CCS need be on the NSA's radar. Moreover, a major function is to keep a vigil over India's nuclear complex as head of the Executive Council of the Nuclear Command Authority. This is unlikely to be permissive of attention to detail regarding another's turf. The good health of the institution of the NSA would require review along these lines.
Caution is also warranted. In case the institution acquires 'holy cow' status, it could be found wanting as a cushion from shocks and set backs. Over-exposure could result in the NSA functioning as a lightening rod. Secondly, and more importantly, power corrupts. An over concentration of power in any one node has implications for human freedoms and constitutional liberties.
The NSC came to fore as a still born option in VP Singh's time. Revived by Vajpayee, it has under the watch of the NSA since systematised a strategic approach to security. It has competently assimilated nuclear weapons into India's strategic repertoire. It has helped implement restructuring of the higher defence organization. It has managed to navigate India through one war and one extended crisis. However, democratic vigilance demands that the NSA also be kept under check. An illustration is in order.
The NSA has been forced to make a statement on the Batla House encounter. First of all, this is the domain of the Home Ministry. Second, a forward-looking NSC is not meant to be tied down by otherwise routine matters as encounters. Any statement of the NSA on the politicized encounter can only be construed as a political one. This is an avoidable expansion in the domain of the NSA dragging the office into distracting controversy. Third, that the NSC is the repository of intelligence and analysis makes the position as voiced by the NSA potent. It is liable to motivated political appropriation. Finally, in case the the NSA's shoulder is being fired from by the political head, then the NSA would require to think through the implications. This is one direction that could be reviewed in institutionally stabilizing the NSA.
The NSA is an essential requirement for an emerging power to navigate in global politics. It would not do however, if the ministries concerned with security were to abdicate their responsibilities for exercise by the NSA and the NSC Secretariat. Therefore, a decadal review to check if this is the case may be timely.

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