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Lonely at the top

A chief of staff despised by the bureaucracy is bound to kill the NSA’s office, no matter how brilliant the man at the top is, writes Raja Menon.

india Updated: Jan 20, 2010 23:11 IST
Raja Menon

Gathering internal intelligence and counter-terrorism mechanisms to itself, the ministry of home affairs has changed the emphasis on what the future National Security Advisor (NSA) will have to do. The NSA was always a figure ill at ease in a parliamentary system inherited from the British, where external crises were to be solved by the long defunct Defence Committee of the Cabinet.

The office of NSA was set up in the US in 1963 and his task, briefly, was to offer policy options to the president on matters of national security with the aid of a staff that included the brightest. The strength of the system lay in the brilliance, integrity and diligence of the national security staff, and the trust between the president and the NSA.

When we set up the office of the NSA in a parliamentary system, we dismissed the idea of sanctioning a staff, asking the Joint Intelligence Council to fulfil the role instead. This was a catastrophic decision, as every second lieutenant knows that intelligence, intelligence analysis and policy formulation should never be done by the same people, so as to avoid the tail wagging the dog. But there was plenty of trust between the NSA and the PM, and that made the system work, albeit like a tricycle with two wheels.

As India’s powers grew and the NSA was increasingly required to give the PM advice on external affairs, the weakness of the national security staff become apparent, with the result that within a huge bureaucracy, the number of people looking at the future and making intelligent analyses were probably two or three. The NSA is also responsible for the state of nuclear deterrence — the correlation between India’s forces and its nuclear rivals, for which, bizarrely, no staff exists in India. Nor is there a central targeting staff, with the risk that when the world begins to implement Obama’s nuclear zero, the sub-continental arsenals, still growing, will get capped in disorderly confusion.

According to Samuel Huntington’s famous criteria of organisational effectiveness, being in the national security staff in India is considered a death sentence, given the prospect of getting stuck in an uninspiring office, doing uninspiring work. The home minister’s counter-terrorism office does not affect the NSA’s functions and, in the US, though the counter-terrorism office’s mandate is much bigger, it doesn’t tread on the NSA’s toes.

Back home, a new NSA is soon to be appointed to advise the PM, for which he needs the PM’s trust. But he also needs an inspiring chief of staff. Thus, anyone despised by the bureaucracy is bound to kill the office, no matter how brilliant the NSA is. Institutional outputs are superior to one man’s thinking, particularly when the PM has to be briefed daily, and accurately. Henry Kissinger was in his office at 7 am and briefed the president at 8 am every day. His staff was up half the night.

Organisationally there are many choices. The American NSA is not a member of the Cabinet. The Canadian NSA is in the Privy Council and answers to the defence minister for coordination among the defence and intelligence wings. In India we need an NSA who will coordinate defence, foreign affairs, science and external intelligence but, most of all, he needs to cover the ground the bureaucracy ignores. Governance is not his role. His role is to strategise and plan for the future, and recommend options to the PM with regard to national security. Well before he’s asked.

Raja Menon is former Chairman of a Task Force in the National Security Council Staff

The views expressed by the author are personal