The blame lies squarely at the door of one man — National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan. However you look at the incidents of terrorism in the past year – Ayodhya (5/7), Delhi (29/10), Bangalore (28/12), Varanasi (7/3) and now Mumbai — they all point to one thing: intelligence failure. And with Narayanan functioning as India’s intelligence czar, the buck stops with him.
Additionally: the word is that the Navy war room leak case is going to be one of the issues dominating Parliament’s monsoon session later this month. And not just by the Opposition NDA, but also by the government’s allies, the Left. Club that with the recent cyber-security spy scandal and 11/7, and it’s clear that Narayanan has tough days ahead.
The irony is that when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s first NSA J.N. Dixit passed away in January 2005, many in the intelligence community were glad that their own was chosen over a career diplomat — both Dixit and our first NSA Brajesh Mishra were retired IFS officials. Today it’s a different story. “Maybe a foreign service person should have been chosen,” says a professional who’s known Narayanan for decades. Says another: “Has intelligence been strengthened or weakened the past two years? I’d have to say weakened.”
Intelligence is the key to fighting terrorism for two reasons. Firstly, there is a mantra that professionals swear by: that one response to terrorism should be making it costlier. “If ten bombs go off in Mumbai, then set off 20 in Karachi,” hypothesises a serving official, speaking anonymously.
But this can only be the domain of either the Intelligence Bureau (IB) or the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). And for this the agencies presently don’t have a capability, because the Prime Minister isn’t keen. “The moment he gives the green signal, capabilities can be built up in 18 months,” says a government source. “Till then, our hands are tied.”
The other aspect is defensive: aggressive intelligence operations to “penetrate” more “modules” (single-mission units). Incidents can be prevented by catching terrorists in action, or by keeping them on the run, at the very least, so that they don’t have the luxury of planning an elaborate strike like 11/7.
At the moment, the aggression is missing. This is due to Narayanan’s poor man management that has led to plummeting morale. Favouritism has guided the top appointments at IB and RAW; the chiefs have been forbidden from meeting the PM (the NSA now does the intelligence briefings himself); they are seen as ill-prepared for leading their organisations; and loyalty – not merit – has been the guiding principle in key postings.
Everywhere in the world, intelligence chiefs are key advisors to the head of government. “The lack of access here is the intangible that has damaged morale,” says a retired intelligence chief. This has especially hurt the IB – which after Kargil was identified as the nodal agency for counter-intelligence. More than that, it has cramped the grooming of a younger generation of IB officers – the future of India’s domestic intelligence.
At the RAW, things aren’t much better; morale is down and the ever-present factionalism is up (ex-Army vs ex-IPS). Two spy scandals in two years haven’t helped.
But there’s a more serious problem: Narayanan’s neglect of intelligence mechanisms set up after Kargil (see box).
Desirable over vital
This is partly due to Narayanan’s style. He’s said to take on too much himself. “How can someone be involved in border talks with China, the Indo-US nuclear deal and also want to know the nuts and bolts of intelligence activities?” says a bureaucrat.
This has other consequences: “Papers pile up, and Narayanan loses track of things,” says another bureaucrat. That’s unlike Dixit, who took immediate decisions. And no one gets to remind Narayanan of pending matters; “He’s inaccessible,” says an official, contrasting him with Mishra, who’d give everybody time, even if it was for precisely 15 minutes.
A retired intelligence chief talks about the ‘VED analysis’ (Vital, Essential, Desirable): “Mishra and Dixit focused on the Vital, while Narayanan focuses on the Desirable. In doing so, he loses track of the Vital.”
And then there’s politics. “As in Rajiv Gandhi’s time (when Narayanan was the IB chief), the NSA makes the IB do a lot of political work,” says an insider. That means a diversion of resources. So countering terrorism has gotten harder.
Egg on PM’s face
Worse off under Narayanan has been policy, and particularly of matters linked to terrorism: Pakistan and Kashmir. The approach on both has been embarrassing for Manmohan Singh.
Take the PM’s Srinagar roundtable conference in May. No homework was done to ensure the participation of the separatist Hurriyat conference. They boycotted, and the PM had egg on his face. This, surprisingly, after an April assessment that there had been no better time to sort out the Kashmir issue. And the NSA seems resigned to continuing without a clear Kashmir policy. “So expect more violence,” says an old Kashmir hand.
The Pakistanis, sources say, are hopping mad that no Siachen deal has been reached, as they were given an assurance. The deal fell through due to opposition from various departments in government, which should have been dealt with by the NSA. And if giving the assurance was wrong – that too is the responsibility of the NSA. Either way, the PM is seen as insincere.
Narayanan came to the job looking to clean up the intelligence community – which, by all accounts, it needs. All he’s managed to do is make a lot of enemies. Which probably wouldn’t matter so much, if over 200 people hadn’t died on Tuesday.