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India’s National Security Advisor: What advice will Modi receive?

Commentary, 29 June 2014
Central and South Asia
India’s new National Security Advisor is a highly respected intelligence officer, whose extensive writings show him to be a cautious hawk with a strong focus on internal security.

India’s new National Security Advisor is a highly respected intelligence officer, whose extensive writings show him to be a cautious hawk with a strong focus on internal security. 

Ajit Doval

The foreign policy of recently elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is an open book: some expect an internationalist, economics-focused reformer; others a security-focused hawk. We have had few glimpses of Modi’s foreign policy in action, apart from purposeful engagement with India’s neighbours. But a leader’s choice of counsellors can be revealing.

Modi has sent an important signal in appointing former Intelligence Bureau (IB) chief Ajit Doval as his new National Security Advisor (NSA). Doval is a highly decorated intelligence officer who until his appointment had been leading the right-leaning Delhi think-tank, the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), in which capacity he participated in a number of projects with RUSI. Fortunately for analysts, Doval has left a rich seam of writing on national security issues, running to tens of thousands of words.

Doval’s Priorities

First, Doval clearly believes that national security begins at home. Reflecting his career in the field, his writings are marked by a consistent emphasis on the primacy of domestic problems over foreign ones. As early as 2006 Doval argued, ‘India's internal vulnerabilities are much higher than its external vulnerabilities’.

He therefore sees the most dangerous foreign threats as being those that target India’s domestic weaknesses, and stresses the importance of growing and equipping state police forces. But his severest warning is directed elsewhere: ‘I consider infiltration of Bangladeshis the biggest internal security problem. Bangladesh supports the demographic invasion of India’.

Second, Doval views internal security in broad and sweeping terms. One recurring theme is his disdain for ‘front organizations supporting the cause of anti-national forces, masquerading as human right groups’. This is an issue with particular resonance after the IB’s recent description of Greenpeace and its European funders as ‘a threat to national economic security’.

In a Hindi-language speech to an audience comprising largely of supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – the party of government – Doval also argued that a millennia-old Indian national identity was under threat. He also claimed that the core of national security was not physical security but cultural identity, and praised the BJP as the only political party promoting Indian-ness. This suggests that Doval envisages a crucial – and controversial – cultural dimension to internal security.

Third, Doval wants to add muscle to Indian intelligence. There has been considerable excitement that Modi will reverse former Indian Prime Minister IK Gujral’s decision to dismantle the covert action capability of India’s foreign intelligence service. Doval has accordingly strongly advocated ‘covert offensive operations duly empowered and legalised by the state’. He defines these as ‘a low cost sustainable offensive with high deniability aimed to bleed the enemy to submission’.

He despairs of New Delhi’s failures to sharpen its tools in this regard, and dismisses conventional wars as ‘cost-ineffective and high-risk ventures’. In his view, ‘the most effective way of dealing with terrorism would be to identify boys who have got the courage of conviction to match that of the fidayeens [commandos] and who are capable of taking risks. Identify them and put them in action’. He notes that ‘Pakistan has its own vulnerabilities many times higher than India’.

It should be noted that Doval’s predecessor MK Narayanan also pushed for covert action against Pakistan after the 2008 attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul, but was rebuffed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Modi might share this caution. However, high-level terrorist attacks linked to Pakistani would strongly affect this calculus.

However, Doval is not just talking about Abbotabad-style kill/capture raids, or assassinations. His writings repeatedly emphasise the importance of disrupting terrorist logistics and communications, rather than just leaders. In 2011, he lamented that Indian intelligence had become fixated on foreign terrorists rather than those within India, and argued that states’ district and local level intelligence units had to step up. He praised the formation of the long-delayed National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) the next year, but urged that it be beefed up with manpower, resources, and more legislative authority.

Fourth, Doval is pessimistic about Afghanistan’s stability as Western forces draw down. He squarely blames Pakistan for the insurgency, and is concerned about the impact on India. Last summer, he told a pro-India lobby group in Washington that if things worsened, ‘start preparing for the worst’, adding that ‘you often don’t have to fight the wars you had prepared for in advance’. Responding to attacks on Indian diplomatic missions in Afghanistan, Doval demanded ‘enhanced security cover and not abandonment or appeasement’.

How might Doval counsel Modi on outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s longstanding request for Indian arms? Two years ago, a RUSI-VIF working group on Afghanistan jointly recommended a ‘substantial and rapid’ growth of India’s role in building up Afghan security forces.

Doval has never publicly pressed for a greater Indian role in arms provision or other more assertive policies, but many of his VIF colleagues have publicly written along these lines. It seems likely that he will nudge Modi in a more assertive direction, particularly if Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah – India’s favoured candidate in 2009 – emerges as President Karzai’s successor.

Fifth, Doval has expressed ambivalence towards the United States, as is typical in officers of his generation. He warns that the US ‘will seek to outsource their counter-terrorism to Pakistan’ as they withdraw from Afghanistan. He was scathing of the US-India nuclear deal, bitterly warning in 2006 that ‘it will stunt India's emergence as a genuine nuclear weapon state, cripple its strategic deterrence, and reduce it to a US satrapy’.

However, a few years later Doval acknowledged: ‘the best shield for peace and stability depends on how India deals with the US. There is no alternative to a valued, trusted, democratic ally’.[1] Modi will likely continue to deepen the US-India relationship, although such thinking might have implications for whether the government will modify India’s controversially strict nuclear liability law, as per Washington’s wishes.

Taken together, these writings portray a methodical, inward-looking, and cautious hawk. He has written a moderate amount on Pakistan and Afghanistan, little on China, and almost nothing on India’s partners in East and Southeast Asia, let alone the Middle East or Europe. Doval may be the foil to the prime minister’s enthusiastic internationalism – an NSA for hard times in the neighbourhood.

Shashank Joshi is a Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute

This article is adapted from ‘An NSA for hard times’, which appeared in The Hindu on 23 June 2014.


[1] Jeff M. Smith, Cold Peace: China–India Rivalry in the Twenty-First Century, Lexington Books 2013, p. 124


Shashank Joshi
Advisory Board

Shashank Joshi is Defence Editor of The Economist, where he writes on a wide range of defence and... read more

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