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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Emulating the US

The proceedings of the CCS are appropriately not in the open domain. Only its decisions, where required, are made known to the public, as was done in case of its endorsement of India’s nuclear doctrine in January 2003. However, the recent washing of dirty linen in public by those in the CCS during the NDA’s first term over the Kandahar hijack episode bespeaks of lack of institutionalisation of national security decision making at the apex level. This is of a piece with India’s amorphous strategic culture. While matters are likely to have improved in the decade since owing to the National Security Council and its secretariat having firmed in, there is a case for bringing greater formality into the proceedings of bodies such as the CCS, the NSC and the Political Council of the NCA.

These three bodies, having virtually identical membership, are vested with decision making responsibility in the national security sphere. Since the system has not let India down so far, there is no cause for unwarranted alarm. However, this is no reason not to constantly improve it. It would then be able to cope with the demands it may be faced with in future. Two scenarios buttress this point. In the first, there could be difficulty in case there is a weak minority government in power, as was being apprehended in the run up to the elections only a hundred days ago. Representatives of various fractious parties without a national profile could in such a circumstance be taking decisions that, while within their responsibility, could be outside of their ken. The second is in formulation of India’s response in case of breakdown in deterrence. Whatever the decision arrived it, in the aftermath of the resulting nuclear exchange India would require an explanation of the rationale. Since life would not be the same again, accountability would require to be apportioned. For doing this adequately there is need to institute procedures now.

Learning from the US experience is in order. Three aspects stand out. One is that those charged with policy and decision making can be held directly responsible. Replication would do away with the proverbial ‘kitchen cabinets’ that have characterised the Indian system, at least till the late eighties. So much so that such informal bodies virtually crafted India’s nuclear trajectory till the Shakti tests. Reforms would minimise the baleful influence of unaccountable lobbies, such as that exercised by parent ideological formations on political parties. The recent stewardship by the RSS of a troubled BJP indicates that there is more to exercise of constitutional authority than meets the eye.

Second, is the manner the US maintains records. Not only is the historical record is enriched by perspectives of players, for instance Nixon’s take on Indira Gandhi in 1971; but, more importantly, they can be held accountable. The latter may not be required so much in case of wrong decisions, but more so in case of mal-intent. Perversely, it is taken as an ‘achievement’ that there are no written records of India’s transition to becoming a nuclear power!
And lastly, the release of these records into public domain. This would help not so much with building the sense of history that Indians reputedly sorely lack, but with keeping a check on leaders. For instance, prospective Prime Minister’s would not be emboldened with impunity into fudging their role in national decision making that’s gone wrong for some reason! While such deliberations are understandably kept out of the remit of the Right to Information Act, perhaps thirty years on these could be made public as done elsewhere. This would help researchers understand the compulsions and analysts to recommend improvements in the approach to security. Presently, relying on whistle blowing, such as happened recently over the hydrogen bomb ‘fizzle’, bespeaks of much ground yet to be traversed for India to acquire a credible, functional and accountable system.

It is interesting to speculate on why India’s national security system is both impervious and underdeveloped. Answering the question, ‘Who benefits?’ could provide the clue. One answer this question would not throw up is the legislative. Legislative accountability of the executive could do with emulating the US, even though theirs is a Presidential system. While parliamentary committees do perform, US style congressional hearings help. This would lend balance in a system which otherwise lends itself to competing constituencies pulling in wilful ways. A recent example is the manner a section of scientists have expressed an interest in further nuclear tests. Taking a call on whether India needs a thermonuclear based deterrent is not within their ambit; yet the controversy.

The recent remarks of the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee on the developments in Pakistani nuclear deterrent underlines that India is in a dangerous neighbourhood. It is also an aspiring great power. Both require continuous evolution of its national security system. The gravamen of the otherwise discrete controversies over this month, is that the Indian system is still a work in progress.

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