National Security Council: The Options

17 Apr, 1998    ·   77

P. R. Chari discusses options for the creation of a National Security Council

The BJP Government’s National Agenda for Governance specifies it would establish a National Security Council "to analyze 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". Now the Government has set up a three-man Task Force under the chairmanship of K.C. Pant to "work out the constitutional role and functions" of this body. Its report is desired in the shortest possible time.



The National Security Council has a dismal history. Several governments promised to establish it in the last decade. But, these promises were either forgotten, or the body established perished after a difficult childbirth. The National Front (V. P. Singh) government established a NSC in 1990—it was really the CCPA (Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs)—which met only once. It also set up a National Security Advisory Council that did not meet even once. This was perhaps just as well, since it had over 150 members at last count! The Congress (Rao) Government—1991-96, and the Deve Gowda/Gujral (United Front) Governments—1996-98, did nothing to revive or re-establish the NSC, whilst paying lip service to it. Several Parliamentary bodies like the Estimates Committee and the Standing Committee on Defence had also recommended its establishment. Will the BJP government exhibit greater commitment to the cause of the NSC? Hopefully, the precipitate appointment of the Task Force is not its knee-jerk reaction to Pakistan ’s Ghauri test.



The more germane question is why the NSC could not become functional. The short answer is opposition from the civil and military bureaucracies. They perceive the NSC as threatening their centrality in the defence decision-making process. They could cope with an advisory body with no real powers. But not a body that could challenge their predilections. None of the past governments felt either convinced enough or strong enough to bridle the bureaucracy and establish the NSC. Will the BJP government, with its wafer-thin majority in Parliament—one-third of its strength coming from non-BJP parties—and facing the determined opposition of the Congress and left-of-centre parties, display the courage needed to last the course?



Two models are available to it:



·                     The first is a compromise structure derived from within the system. It envisages a NSC by re-designating the Cabinet Committee on Parliamentary Affairs (CCPA). A strengthened Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) and Defence Planning Staff (DPS) would provide its Secretariat, that would submit its papers to the CCPA through the Committee of Secretaries (COS). This would ensure business as usual. The civilian/military bureaucracy can live with this arrangement, especially if the Secretary to the NSC is not too enthusiastic and bent on making waves. It is another matter that neither the CCPA nor the COS possesses the expertise or time to cogitate over intricate national security issues. Past experience also informs that COS meetings are generally attended by Joint Secretaries from the concerned Ministries, and the CCPA only meets on rare and infrequent occasions.


·                     The second model is more ambitious and assumes that expertise would be nurtured. A National Security Adviser (NSA) of standing should be appointed, enjoying direct access to the Prime Minister. A senior political personage with knowledge and interest in national security affairs would be ideal. Not a retired civilian, military or foreign service official—this would only ensure that at least one-half of the strategists in Delhi would be opposed to him from the very beginning! The NSA should, of course, be provided with a Secretariat of his choice. It would be of advantage if only serving Government officers were appointed to this Secretariat to ensure that confidentiality of information provided to them for undertaking realistic analyses would be maintained. The NSA should be co-opted into the CCPA, but have the right to advise the Prime Minister directly if urgency and importance so warrant. Like the heads of the Intelligence Bureau, Research & Analysis Wing or, for that matter, the Service Chiefs.


There are, of course, several variants and amalgams of these two models possible. There is also the question whether the NSC should be a statutory or executive authority. But the basic choice lies between a NSC that is cosmetic and one that is purposive. A role is possible here for retired officials and think tanks in the Delhi circuit. They could be tasked to provide the NSC with studies and position papers. The NSC should also become aware of the diversity of national opinion on national security, especially the views of informed persons and institutions outside Delhi ; this would acquaint it with regional concerns. Besides, the Strategic Defence Review, which the NSC shall be producing, needs to derive from a broader national consensus, that must obviously complement the views of persons sharing the BJP’s unique world-view.