Former R&AW chief in India’s national security team

Former R&AW chief in India’s national security team

Subir Bhaumik,

No deputy to the National Security Advisor (NSA) in India has attracted so much attention in Delhi’s policy making circles as Rajinder Khanna did when he was appointed deputy NSA recently.

He is the first chief of external intelligence R&AW to make it — two former chiefs of Intelligence Bureau, M K Narayanan and current NSA Ajit Doval, have made the top job but this is the first time a former R&AW chief is deputy NSA. There hangs a tale.

The practice in Indian government has been that if the NSA is from a security services background, his deputy has been from the foreign service and vice versa.

When Brajesh Mishra, J N Dixit or Shiv Shankar Menon ran the office of National Security Advisor, the foreign services lobby had a field day in controlling the emerging national security establishment.

Even when former Intelligence Bureau Chief M K Narayanan took over as NSA during the UPA-1 regime under PM Manmohan Singh, the IFS lobby controlled the national security structure.

Narayanan got the position due to his undying loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family but lost it unceremoniously to Menon, a former Foreign Secretary, due to his failure in handling in the 2008 Mumbai terror strike. He had overlooked definitive intelligence generated by R&AW suggesting an imminent terror strike on Mumbai. When he snubbed former R&AW chief Ashok Chaturvedi and his brilliant Pakistan expert Rana Banerji, shelving important proposals like cooperation with Afghan intelligence, Narayanan was only demonstrating the IB’s usual hatred for R&AW.

NSA Ajit Doval has clearly not made that mistake. He knows that cooperation between the IB and R&AW is criticial to the consolidation of Indian intelligence, especially after some failures in the neighborhood, Nepal being a startling example. While the R&AW had pulled it off in Sri Lankan elections by clubbing an anti-Rajapaksa alliance, the failure of Indian intelligence to anticipate a leftist alliance that torpedoed Nepali Congress was a wake-up call. Backing the Madhesis, largely an IB initiative, had boomeranged.

On the other hand, some Indian moves in Myanmar have worked well. Indian diplomats and intelligence officials have played a huge role in pushing Myanmar to accept a Rohingya repatriation agreement with Bangladesh, because that is seen as a boost to pro-Indian PM Sheikh Hasina’s credibility, especially in an election year. Khanna played a key role in the process. He visited Yangon for a seminar in November 2017 and used the opportunity to pitch for an India-Bangladesh-Myanmar real time intelligence sharing. He also used his considerable contacts in Myanmar military and political circles to achieve a breakthrough on the Rohingya issue through secret parleys.

Doval has had very good relations with Khanna when he was R&AW chief. By inducting him as deputy NSA, not only has Doval managed to consolidate the grip of the intelligence services on the national security architecture but also staved off a strong challenge from the foreign services lobby. Rumours were doing the round that Foreign Secretary S Jaishanker was a strong contender for NSA position after his recent retirement because Doval was ageing. The diplomats have much reservations for Doval’s hardline approach. But Doklam was Doval’s moment — his firm stand on Indian troops holding their ground in Bhutanese territory and not backing off under huge Chinese pressure finally forced China to back off and go for a mutual pullout. In this, Doval got huge support from army chief General Bipin Rawat and R&AW chief Anil Dasmana, both hailing from Uttarkhand like Doval himself.

Ajit Doval is one of few Indian intelligence officers who have worked undercover in the neighborhood, not with the safe diplomatic cover but as an illegal resident with all its attended risks. Khanna has been R&AW station chief in Yangon and managed Bangladesh, Northeast and Myanmar desks in R&AW besides being the founder of its counter-terrorism cell. Khanna’s cool operation brain is an ideal counterfoil to Doval’s aggression. The duo’s control over the national security architecture would mean a rise in India’s covert operations profile, especially in the neighborhood. It would also mean the marginalisation of the foreign services lobby in the national security issues and in Modi’s neighborhood policy. One may expect a return to the days of Indira Gandhi when India’s covert operations muscle showed up strongly — from Sri Lanka to Bangladesh to Pakistan and Nepal.

The first national security advisor of India was Brajesh Mishra, a career diplomat. Others before him have exercised greater influence on an Indian prime minister (like P N Haksar on Indira Gandhi) but no one’s influence has been so extensive particularly in foreign policy and security related areas. This was, perhaps, an inevitability given Mishra’s close personal friendship with Vajpayee dating back to the latter’s days in the opposition, his simultaneous occupation of the key offices of principal secretary to PM and the National Security Advisor and his foreign policy expertise.

Mishra was no ideologue but a supreme pragmatist. He could easily accommodate the imperative for a better relationship with the United States with the requirement of a modus vivendi with China. That India under the Vajpayee regime was able to make much progress in revamping our relationship with both the USA and China, and that too after the nuclear tests which were distasteful to both, is testimony to Mishra’s diplomatic skill.

Being the prime minister’s pointman on security, in his capacity as the NSA, Mishra was inevitably involved in all security related issues both internal and external. One of his most important contributions in his role as NSA was to build a host of new security related institutions and structures. It was thus under his direction that the National Security Council system (comprising the National Security Council, the National Security Council Secretariat, the Strategic Policy Group, the National Security Advisory Board, and the office of the National Security Advisor) was set up designed to cope with both existing and emerging security challenges as well as to fuse and coordinate intelligence.

In addition, an Intelligence Coordination Group was created to task the intelligence agencies and ensure their accountability, a National Information Board was established for national level policy formulation on information warfare and information security and an apex techintel agency was set up in the shape of NTFO.

All these newly created entities and structures were assiduously nurtured by Mishra and had begun to find their feet by the time he demitted office. He, however, candidly admitted that while the NDA government had embedded these entities in the Indian security firmament they would take years to fully establish themselves and accordingly their future would depend upon whether or not succeeding governments would continue to similarly support them.

It may be mentioned that by virtue of his position as the NSA and his heading the Intelligence Coordination Board, Mishra in effect became India’s first intelligence tsar who regularly interacted with all the intelligence agencies and sought to exercise effective oversight over them and to ensure proper intelligence sharing.

Now Doval is seeking to achieve that position but by cutting out the powerful foreign services lobby. With Khanna as his deputy and his extensive diplomatic cover experience and Doval’s tactical operational skills, Indian intelligence services are likely to play a bigger role in the neighborhood. Much more than the foreign office. Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj is already marginalised, reduced to what some derisively describe as “Twitter Minister”.

The powerful IFS lobby may now have to take a back seat. But Khanna enjoys the loyalty of the R&AW residents because he was their chief until the other day and they can connect him to Indian ambassdors in various capitals. The success of Indian back channel maneuvers in Myanmar has much to do with Khanna’s secret moves and to ambassador Vikram Misri’s drive. Bangladesh was worried over the lack of time frame in the Rohingya repatriation agreement but India has pushed Myanmar to get the process started sooner than expected by promising a flood of pre-fab housing, keeping in mind the rehab process in the Andaman islands after the tsunami. Though China enjoys much more clout in Myanmar, India will clearly punch beyond its weight and run away with critical publicity mileage when the repatriation starts and Indian housing material start reaching Rakhine.