NSA Menon

At the heart of the Indian foreign-policy and security architecture is the pre-eminent position of the national-security advisor (NSA). The recent decision to appoint former Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon to this position is a positive step, holding the promise of creative diplomacy from the Indian establishment in addressing Southasia's pressing problems.

Since the office was conceptualised over a decade ago, in 1998, India has had three NSAs. Brajesh Mishra combined his role as the principal secretary to the prime minister and the NSA under Atal Behari Vajpayee until 2004. Manmohan Singh's first NSA was the veteran foreign-policy strategist J N Dixit, until his sudden death in January 2005. Singh then asked his serving internal-security advisor, M K Narayanan, to take over as NSA. Under each of these individuals, the NSA's role has had several consistent responsibilities: diplomacy, nuclear command and control, long-term strategic planning, coordination between different agencies and departments on national-security matters, and (in some cases) political fire-fighting for the prime minister.

The mandate is not rigid, however, and varies according to the nature and background of the incumbent. For example, Narayanan, who headed the Intelligence Bureau during the Rajiv Gandhi years, instinctively veered towards intelligence coordination as an additional responsibility. The fact that for most of the United Progressive Alliance government's first tenure there was a weak home minister meant that Narayanan quite comfortably won the command of the Intelligence Bureau, which reports to the Home Ministry. As India's external-intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) reports to the prime minister; thus, Narayanan was also an integral part of deliberations on external relations.

During his tenure, Narayanan performed several other functions as well. He was the special envoy on border negotiations with China. He played a key role in reconciling the positions of multiple internal actors on the US '123' nuclear deal, and helped the government to win the related parliamentary vote in 2008. He also helped frame policy on Pakistan (to talk and then cut down on engagement after the attacks of 26 November 2008), Sri Lanka (supporting the government offensive against the LTTE but pressuring them to minimise Tamil casualties), Nepal (engaging with the Maoists but keeping them out of the power structure until they undergo 'course correction') and Bangladesh (supporting the restoration of the democracy, and backing the Awami League).

Given his vast brief and excellent relations with the power-centre that is Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Singh, Narayanan's exit has come as a bit of a surprise. On 24 January, he was shipped out east, to take over as governor of West Bengal. Most New Delhi analysts attribute the change in the NSA office to two reasons. The first is P Chidambaram, who has emerged as the most powerful home minister in recent years. After taking over in the aftermath of the Bombay attacks of 26/11, Chidambaram has instituted a system of daily briefings by intelligence chiefs, to keep a close tab on information collated and the subsequent follow-up. His insistence on the need to make a "thorough and radical departure from the present structure" regarding internal security was seen as a snub to Narayanan, who had to settle for a more limited role.

The second reason was the prime minister himself, and his decision to focus on regional rapprochement during his new term. Prime Minister Singh seems to have made up his mind to give peace with Pakistan a chance. A number of events signal such a commitment: his near agreement with former President Pervez Musharraf on a non-territorial solution for Kashmir, the Sharm el-Sheikh statement where Prime Minister Singh departed from traditional Indian positions and de-linked terror and talks; and that he allowed, in the same statement, an indirect reference to Pakistan's concerns on India's involvement in Balochistan. This is where Shiv Shankar Menon provides a fit to the prime minister: while attending the meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Havana in 2006, he became the first diplomat to push the line that India and Pakistan are joint victims of 'terror'.

Four directions
There are four areas in which Menon can intervene immediately, signalling a positive departure from Narayanan's worldview. The first is creating an institutional framework to provide more coherence to Indian policy. A perennial complaint of India's neighbours has been that they can rarely figure out what India's 'bottom line' is, given the heterogeneity of actors and views. In Nepal, for instance, RAW may be encouraging the Maoists, the Indian External Affairs Ministry may be nurturing an international consensus to put pressure on the Maoists, the Indian Army may be using its leverage to preserve the status quo in the Nepal Army at the cost (particularly cost to the peace process), and the Home Ministry may have its own border-related concerns on which it acts independently. If Menon can bring in more convergence, through the National Security Council or other mechanisms, this alone will be an achievement.

The second area is China. The past year has seen a rising war of words between New Delhi and Beijing on issues such as Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet. But the two have also cooperated closely on trade and climate change, as seen at the Copenhagen climate summit. If anyone knows this 'competition-cooperation' dynamic it is Menon, and there is reason to believe that he would be able to defuse crisis situations if and when they crop up. It will be a real step forward if Menon can get India out of this competitive, and at times paranoid, mindset when India's neighbours engage with China.

The third issue is Pakistan. India's current policy of not engaging with Islamabad until there is more tangible action on the 26/11 accused, particularly Hafiz Saeed, cannot yield anything substantial. It ignores the predicament that Pakistan's civilian government is in, and weakens Islamabad's pro-peace lobby, which faces insinuations about India not reciprocating. Fortunately, Prime Minister Singh seems to recognise the problem – though he is still ahead of many in his own government, party and the New Delhi media on this question. While Menon cannot do much on his own, he can create a policy context allowing India to reach out to engage with Pakistan when opportunities present themselves.

The fourth site needing Menon's attention is Nepal – a country he knows well, having served as a joint secretary on the Nepal desk during the late 1990s, and then having been involved in the micro-politics of the peace process as foreign secretary. With less than four months to go before the country has to finalise its constitution, and with the Maoists continuing their crippling agitation, Nepal is stuck in a political stalemate. And the distance between India and the Nepali Maoists has grown as the latter have resorted to a movement based on 'national independence', which translates as anti-Indianism. This has the danger of emboldening the hardliners in the Indian establishment, who would like to see the Nepali Maoists crushed. It is crucial that Menon takes a big-picture view, and invests Indian political capital in completing the process that New Delhi helped to initiate. It is also important for him to ensure that India's burgeoning battle with its own Maoists not be allowed to affect the peace process involving the Nepali Maoists. The dynamics of the Nepali peace process, which India too helped to facilitate in 2005, should not be vitiated because of the changed context within India.

Shiv Shankar Menon is taking over at a critical time, at a moment when Indian engagement with the rest of the world, and influence in the Southasian neighbourhood, has grown markedly. However, viewing Narayanan as a hawk and Menon as a peacenik would be flawed; both come from a deep tradition of realpolitik and a state-centric national-security approach. The best that can be hoped for are tactical differences, an ability to grasp the nuances, and more-creative diplomacy.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian