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The NSA’s role has been downsized

It is clear that the PMO has decided to lighten its burden as far as security concerns go, paving the way for a bigger role for the home ministry, writes Pankaj Vohra.

india Updated: Jan 24, 2010 21:49 IST
Pankaj Vohra

Former National Security Adviser (NSA) M.K. Narayanan’s appointment as West Bengal Governor clearly indicates that the Prime Minister has decided to downgrade the position of his NSA and perhaps vest greater powers in the home ministry. The development is also an endorsement of Home Minister P. Chidambaram’s proposal for a new security architecture inspired by the Homeland Security department’s success in the United States. It may eventually lead to the creation of the National Counter Terrorism Centre.

As the Home Minister is busy preparing a discussion paper for presentation to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Committee on Security, the role of the NSA has obviously been curtailed. Shiv Shankar Menon, the new appointee, is certainly not going to enjoy the same kind of sweeping powers his predecessor did. In matters of security, he does not possess the same kind of knowledge of several agencies dealing with the subject. He is at best a distinguished diplomat, the Sharm el-Sheikh controversy notwithstanding, and if control over the intelligence agencies is taken away from him, he will be reduced to being the National Diplomatic Adviser.

Unfortunately, there are not too many officers to fill MK’s shoes as far as security concerns go. His strength lay in the fact that he knew the entire security establishment from close quarters and was conversant with the capabilities of senior officers. There is no doubt that he provided patronage even to mediocre men. But he drew on his vast experience at times to give direction to policy as also to cover up for people on occasion.

The position of the NSA was created during the NDA regime and Brajesh Mishra was the first person to occupy the office. Mishra was the one who made the A.B. Vajpayee government tick, as he was also the principal secretary to the PM. But he knew his limitations on the security front, and allowed his hand-picked persons to run the show while he concentrated on diplomacy and matters of State.

J.N. Dixit, who succeeded him after the UPA came to power, was one of the most outstanding foreign secretaries we’ve had. But his role had more to do with diplomacy and foreign policy; M.K. Narayanan presided over internal security. After his demise, MK got to occupy the post and became super-powerful. While it is the government’s prerogative to appoint anyone of its choice, there is a feeling among intelligence agencies that it is not necessary that only a former foreign service officer should hold the post. For that matter, it’s not essential even for a former police officer to be entrusted with the job. The NSA can be from the Indian Administrative Service or the armed forces. The primary concern for any country should be its security, which should finally determine its foreign policy.

It is clear that the PMO has decided to lighten its burden as far as security concerns go, paving the way for a bigger role for the home ministry. It means that the new charter defining the NSA’s role may limit his brief. He may then carry forward the foreign policy initiatives that the PM wants, besides advising him on nuclear and other subjects concerning relationships with key countries. This could lead to a situation where the NSA becomes a parallel foreign office functionary in the same way as MK had substituted the work of many in the home ministry.

MK’s exit has also made many of his hand-picked officers vulnerable. The government must hurry with its plans for a new security architecture and find the best officers to hold key positions in the new set-up. MK’s exit is bound to lead to a major overhaul. For many, his absence will mean that the buffer has disappeared. The slogan will be ‘perform or perish’. And security issues will obviously remain paramount. Between us.