Forum of publication not known (1998)


M.L. Sondhi

Given the current interest in the proposal to set up a National Security Council, it is surprising that so little has been recalled about the abortive effort of the V.P. Singh Government to implement the National Front election manifesto in 1990.  Not only did V.P. Singh find himself on the defensive in Parliament in the face of critics who thought he was merely duplicating the work of the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs; he also failed to provide any substantial intellectual foundation for public policy response to India’s strategic needs in a changing world.

The Indian Administrative Service–dominated bureaucracy does not perceive the need to change the overall framework in which both the domestic politics and the public administration of national security are being pursued.  The typical IAS view is that the political and social consequences of adopting an integrated approach to bring together scientific, technological, administrative, managerial and political skills in developing India’s strategic assets would violate time honoured national principles and doctrines.  A look back at the V.P.Singh government’s experience thus shows that the IAS lobby generated enormous pressure to frustrate the effort to restructure the security guidelines and to develop the potential responsibility and role of the NSC.  The entrenched civilian bureaucracy in fact killed the idea by not activating the arrangements which had been notified in 1990.  The real question still is whether they are to be regarded as the sole architects of national security or whether the uniformed services, the scientific community and the host of Non Governmental Organisations concerned with non-military threats to national security (including Environmental issues) can be allowed to play their roles as fully functioning members of the security community.

The BJP led government must avoid the pitfalls of the last experiment if it is serious about preventing the erosion of confidence which has resulted from the politics of indecision on the part of successive governments.  The mandatory text of Paragraph 26 of the National Agenda for Governance reads:

The state of preparedness, morale and combat effectiveness of the Armed Forces shall receive early attention and appropriate remedial action.  We will establish a National Security Council to analyse the military, economic and political threats to the nation, also to continuously advise the government.  This council will undertake India’s first ever Strategic Defence Review.  To ensure the security, territorial integrity and unity of India we will take all necessary steps and exercise all available options.  Towards that end we will re-evaluate the nuclear policy and exercise the option to induct nuclear weapons.

The fundamental aim of this measure must therefore be to consolidate in both form i.e. substance the military and economic strength, national morale and overall credibility of the Indian state in pursuit of national interest.  Every effort must be made to avoid incompatible expectations which h would lead to diminution of accountability and weakening of collective national response to security threats.  It should be underlined that the National Security Council (NSC) concept is neither a parallel government nor a duplicate power centre.  In straight, simple administrative terms it is a committee headed by the Prime Minister, and empowered by the Cabinet to readjust priorities and goals through a mixed membership of Ministers, Chiefs of Staff, key officials, the heads of intelligence agencies and the critical S&T departments with special invitees as required on a continuous and anticipatory basis the NSC Secretariat would commission studies and analyses from Academics, Think tanks, NGOs and agencies outside government and enable them to conduct those studies by providing government–acquired information and data and de-classified information from the different administrative departments of the Government of India.  For this purpose a compact administrative body under a Secretary-General not exceeding a dozen senior handpicked officers will suffice.  They can supervise and coordinate activity and support the NSC in developing new security concepts and organisations and arrangements which will provide practical solutions to India’s security dilemmas.

The National Security Council should help to provide reassurance and stability in decision making and the Prime Minister could extract political leverage for both military security and non-military security goals.  In theory the Cabinet could amend, modify and even reject NSC advice.  The Prime Minister could establish a set of standards which would insulate the NSC from special interest lobbies and ensure that its policy related assessments and prescriptions gain universal acceptance by the nation cutting across party-lines.  Faithful adherence to norms will ensure that the Cabinet will automatically accept NSC advice and direct administrative departments to execute those decisions in accordance with normal current practices as monitored by the Cabinet.  The immediate gains of setting up the NSC can be illustrated by a concluding reference to the Indo-US strategic landscape.  There are both fragmentary and integrative trends in the Washington-New Delhi relationship.

If India is to act more coherently in the Indo-US strategic dialogue New Delhi has to address many fundamental questions which have remained sidelined so far.  So far the policy makers in Washington have been addressing “arms control proposals” to India which are based on abstract ideas about regimes and international security.  The diplomatic instruments available to India are inadequate for the meaningful bargaining with the United States, and broader issues concerning the changing geo-strategic environment have either been ignored or have led to mutual recrimination.  The National Security Council would have to think seriously about developing a critique of United States South Asia policy which is a hangover from the Cold War days and has diminished the cooperative potential of the Indo-US relationship by pursuing the fallacy of an Indo-Pakistani balance which is as nonsensical as the as the idea of a Canadian-US balance or a US-Mexican balance.  A globalist role for India in relation to America would also have to emphasise what has been cogently described as India’s role as “a status-quo, territorially, non-expansionist power”. 

As soon as it is constituted, the National Security Council should address in detail the negative emphasis of the United States in seeking the nuclear disarmament of India without definite new solutions to India’s security needs.  In spite of greater realism shown towards the Vajpayee government in this month’s Indo-US parleys, the agenda of Ambassador Tom Pickering still remains one of eventually capping and rolling back India’s nuclear and missile programme. 

To counteract the facile clichés which have found their way in Pentagon and State department thinking, the National Security Council would have to address security and proliferation concerns to project India’s capacity to stabilise and harmonise its strategies in relation to both US and India’s own neighbour on the basis of mutual respect and concern with security of “both sides”.

Once the NSC is in place, the Prime Minister will have a powerful tool for overcoming bureaucratic immobility and for preparing public opinion to advance initiatives covering political, economic and security developments.
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