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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Do we need another NSA?

Do we really need a national security adviser? Will we be any worse off without another one? Over the past week there has been a spate of analyses, most of it overblown, reverential, wide-eyed, accolade-laden, sycophantic accounts of what a great job the NSA had done in the years he had occupied that position. This is patently illogical. Consider for an intelligence person who occupied that position for so long he could not even fix the intelligence and now P Chidambaram has to do it all over again. If the NSA was doing such a great job then why did he have to leave so seemingly suddenly? The Union home minister P Chidambaram is on record (Hindustan Times, January 21) saying that the Kolkata retirement plan for M K Narayanan was presented to him in December, almost a month before it was formally announced. And Chidambaram, who reveals his wife shares a birthday with M K Narayanan, says that at that time he (Chidambaram) was in the dark about the prime minister’s retirement offer to NSA. Which probably explains some of the analyses that sought to put the spin that the governorship of West Bengal was somehow more important a job and more crucial a task than continuing as the NSA. If you analysed their subtext, it went as follows: Some people are born to become governors; some people achieve governorship; some people have governorships thrust upon them; but M K Narayanan, he is special — he had all three working for him. (I find that a little difficult to believe, frankly, considering the inordinate amount of time the NSA spent on doing political intelligence while being the NSA; political skullduggery was inbuilt in terms of the job skills Narayanan brought with him, a spillover from his hey days in the Intelligence Bureau which for most part is focused on political intelligence.) But newspapers reported that at the Army Day function at General Deepak Kapoor’s house NSA “looked directly” at Chidambaram and quipped: “Am I being sacked?” He was not sacked, really; he was just given a VRS that he couldn’t refuse, which (some argue) could be a reflection of character.

Between the offer and the acceptance and the ultimate announcement there elapsed a considerable period of time, considering that Gopal Gandhi hosted his farewell tea on December 13, 2009 and by then the Congress political managers would have zeroed in on the governor’s successor. Ideally Narayanan’s successor ought to have been announced the same day but it wasn’t. This is pure guesswork: consider the fact that the prime minister has made up his mind that Narayanan should exit the PMO and for some reason the UPA chairperson is also on the same page on this, a strange and inexplicable confluence of stars, considering especially what a brilliant job he had been doing. Why then did it take such a long time to announce the successor? Is it because they cannot find someone big enough to fill Narayanan’s shoes? Or is it because Narayanan’s shoe size had increased because of on the job training to such an extent that it distorted the nature of his job? We have had three NSAs so far. The first one (Brajesh Mishra) lost the job not because he refused a governorship but because his party lost the election; the next didn’t live long enough to accept a governorship — J N Dixit died in harness; the third one got promoted as governor. If the governor’s job is bigger than the NSA’s and governors are dime a dozen and there is only one NSA then ipso facto, we don’t really need an NSA. Might as well scrap the post.

When a prime minister like Manmohan Singh looks for an NSA he doesn’t really look for someone who can call a spade a spade and make his decision making generally more nuanced and difficult; he looks for someone who whines to a foreign publication that the Chinese are hacking into his computer; he looks for someone who does not raise the bar high enough when you negotiate the 123 agreement with the US, which is why you have a civil nuclear agreement where we have full civil nuclear co-operation with the US minus the reprocessing technology and heavy water component; the prime minister looks for science advisers who can make him say completely unrealistically, that we can achieve 40,000 MW of nuclear power in 20 years, that we can achieve 20,000 MW of solar power in 10 years and other similar things that you will not find even in fairy tales; he is looking for a national security adviser who understands his mind and his style of functioning. If we are to go by what Chidambaram is telling us, then you are looking at a prime minister and a party chairperson who do not tell their home minister that they are offering the job of governorship to the national security adviser. Which probably explains why it took a long time to find the next national security advisor.Now that they have zeroed in on Shiv Shankar Menon, till very recently our foreign secretary, what we will see in the coming days is the emergence of a super foreign secretary, just like the way Narayanan was a super DIB and RAW chief rolled into one (with one crucial difference — he was accountable to no one). Menon was the one who initially postulated that India and Pakistan are both equal victims of terrorism in a diplomatic stratagem to revive the Indo-Pak process after the Havana non aligned summit soon after the Mumbai train blasts; he was the one credited off the record with coming up with that delightful joint terror mechanism that blew up in our face; he was the one who fell on the sword by taking the blame for incorporating the word Balochistan in the Sharm el-Sheikh joint statement (while Narayanan mysteriously escaped the media opprobrium — was he on another planet when the joint statement was being drafted or is it that large sections of our media become automatically blind when it comes to our NSAs?); so the prime minister had good reasons to give him the job. Menon has to finish the job he left halfway. But it will have the effect of forcing the Ministry of External Affairs further into the role of a protocol division whereas it is supposed to be the repository of expertise on a range of subjects. It would have been better, however, for the prime minister, not to get bogged down by nomenclature and appoint instead a pool of experts in relevant subjects to advise him and take particular plans forward to fruition. That way it will meet some NREG (national retired officers employment guarantee scheme) targets as well. If you can have more than one deputy NSA there is no reason why you cannot have more one national adviser for each of the highly nuanced segments of the security spectrum.

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