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Paper No. 123

by Dr. Subash Kapila


We have in the past hosted critical comments on the National Security Council by various scholars. The writer of this paper has both an army and civil background. The views expressed here are his own. - Director

India’s national security decision-making processes have stood neglected for the last 50 years or so. No effective and institutionalised structures or mechanisms catering to India’s unique security needs were designed despite India having been subjected to four aggressive wars by China and Pakistan besides a host of insurgencies and proxy wars sponsored by them. The reasons for this strange neglect in the vital area of national security were mainly political and bureaucratic.

The evolution of an Indian National Security Council (NSC) should have been a natural corollary, which should have been nurtured by India’s Political leadership in the first few years of Independence, as military conflict and civil strife emerged simultaneously with the partition of India into two separate nations. Politically India’s first Prime Minister deliberately prevented this evolution. Nehru had a misperceived distrust of the Indian Armed Forces arising form the then contemporary developments where military dictatorships emerged in countries, which had recently won freedom from colonial rule. Nehru completely sidelined the Indian Armed Forces from any effective participation in national security decision making. Here the civil bureaucracy, too, had a convergence of interest with the political leadership, in that they did not want the emergence of a rival elite with direct access to the political leadership.

Subsequent political leaderships for similar reasons continued this policy. Even the 1962 debacle, which brought into focus, India’s lack of effective national security decision making, could not prompt the Government to evolve a National Security Council, while many changes were made in the structure of the Armed Forces. If India achieved some measure of success in the 1965 and 1971 wars it was despite the absence of an institutionalised national security decision making.

Later on, attempts by the V. P. Singh, Narasimha Rao governments to bring into existence a National Security Council, (which all advanced democratic countries have in their systems), were effectively scuttled by opposition from the civil bureaucracy.

Fifty years down the road when the BJP Government announced on 19 November, 1998 the creation of India’s first structured National Security Council in fulfillment of its electoral manifesto National Agenda, the decision was mercifully welcomed and it also raised high expectations. However, a year and a half of its setting up, expectations stand belied and it seems that the creation of the NSC has been an exercise in futility

Nuclear weaponisation of South Asia, the proxy war in J & K, the turbulent regional security environment and the rising internal security threats dictate India’s NSC to be an effective instrument of national security decision making. The issues and problems attendant therefore, need to be reviewed once again in their entirety.

India’s National Security Decision making –Existent Shortcomings

The most glaring shortcoming in this field is the lack of strategic culture in India’s polity and civil bureaucracy. This has run through right from 1947 to 1999 i.e. the Kargil War. The lack of strategic culture in India stands commented upon by independent observers from abroad, namely the more commonly read views of George Tanham in the RAND study for the US Department of Defence. Further to borrow Henry Kissinger’s views in another context, it can be said that neither education nor exposure nor incentives existed for the Indian political leadership and civil bureaucracies to think in strategic terms or appreciate matters military. The correction could have been applied at the formative stage of independent India, but it was not.

India’s national security decision-making processes so far have been archaic and anarchic. The military high command stands divorced from national security decision making and the structure of the newly created NSC reflects this deficiency. The defenders of the existing system would quote existence of various Cabinet and MOD Committees to support that effective mechanisms exist, but the lessons learnt from the 1965, 1971 and Kargil wars expose their limitations.

In all advanced democracies like USA and Britain the appointment of Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff and Chief of Defenced Staff exists at the apex of the military hierarchy. He provides an institutionalised link between the political leadership and the Armed Forces in terms of higher direction of war and also as an agency for institutionalised contingency planning on behalf of the nation. Successive Governments in India have refused to consider this imperative due to opposition from the civil bureaucracy, who fear that this would marginalise their roles.

India has no strategic think tanks worth the name and independence of thought to make effective contribution to the NSC process. India’s strategic community comprises arm-chair strategists from the academic and media who attempt to apply borrowed strategic concepts templates on India’s peculiar strategic requirements and a sprinkling of retired diplomats and generals, who during their service never contributed to original thinking on national security matters. So creation of independent think tanks would require independent funding from sources other than the Government.

India’s National Security Council Structure – A Review

The Government announcing the formation of the NSC on 19 November 1998 did not release full details other than giving a broad outline of the structure. Besides the apex six member NSC headed by the Prime Minister, the NSC comprises of a Strategic Policy Group (SPG), a National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) and a Secretariat whose nucleus would be provided by the existing Joint Intelligence Committee. In addition there would be the National Security Advisor (NSA).

The SPG stated to be responsible for inter-ministerial coordination is a bureaucratic body comprising the Cabinet Secretary, three Service Chiefs and secretaries of core ministries like foreign affairs, defence, interior, finance, atomic energy and space beside the heads of the Intelligence agencies and the Governor of Reserve Bank. The NSAB announced comprises basically of retired officials – four foreign secretaries, three Service Chiefs, one retired major general, former heads of Atomic and space agency, besides three heads of central police organisations connected with internal security. Four strategic analysts and two economic analysts also find place in the 32 members NSAB. The NSA would be the present Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister.

A review of this structure would indicate the following shortcomings;

  1. The Armed Forces have no direct access to the political leadership at the apex level and continue to be deprived of participation in the decision making process of NSC.
  2. The NSC should have had a separate secretariat and the JIC retained as a separate intelligence component. Mixing the two functions was not advisable.
  3. The NSA should have been an independent appointment with no doubling up of functions, as national security requires single-minded focus and attention. The present NSA does these duties in addition to being PS to PM. Again an ex-bureaucrat occupies this appointment.
  4. The NSAB is packed with retired government officials. Out of 32 appointees only six were from outside this orbit. This deprives the NSAB of more independent strategic thinking.

NSC Functions – High Functional Expectations Justified.

The country’s high expectations of the NSC are legitimate and justified and the Government should have borne this in mind while structuring and constituting the NSC as the NSC is expected to discharge the following vital functions:

  1. NSC is a decision facilitating body to assist and advise the Prime Minister. In a country, which lacks strategic culture the Armed Forces have a more vital role to play as compared to civil bureaucrats.
  2. The above proposition gets further reinforced by the absence of a Chief of Defence Staff in India’s NSC structures. The Political leadership should have taken this into account.
  3. The NSC has a vital function in the formulation of NATIONAL SECURITY STRATEGIES, which provide the basis for formulation of NATIONAL MILITARY STRATEGIES by the military hierarchy. The present NSC is not structured to carry out this function.
  4. The NSC has another vital task – to EVALUATE, COORDINATE and INTEGRATE strategic information, advice, expertise and suggestions from the Armed Forces, Govt. agencies and think tanks/institutions. The existing NSC is inadequate for this task.

The weaknesses that emerged from the conduct of Kargil War in terms of politico- strategic short comings and the escalation of proxy war in J & K thereafter indicate that the existing NSC structures and functions need to be reviewed in light of the shortcomings analysed. Further, the pivotal role of NSA needs to be recognised and a fresh appointee required. There is also a requirement to inherit experiences of other nations to evolve India’s NSC into a more effective instrument of national security decision making.

Pivotal Role of National Security Advisor (NSA)

The NSA has a pivotal role to play in the effectiveness of the NSC. He should be an eminent individual enjoying the full TRUST and CONFIDENCE of the Pm. The PM should be statutory free to select the NSA of his choice from any field – political, bureaucracy, armed forces or strategic think tanks.

Besides the conventional tasks of the NSA, some salient ones that need to be emphasised in the Indian context are:

* Bring in new advisers to argue for unpopular decisions.

* Setting up new channels of information so that PM is not dependent on a single channel for strategic decision making.

* Arranging for independent evaluation of decisional premises and options where necessary.

Future Evolution of NSC – Need to Inherit Experience of Other Nations

While no other country can serve as a full model for NSC apparatus, it can not be denied that putting distinguishing characteristics aside, all western democracies (whether Presidential or Parliamentary) share some common features like public debates, some dominant national values, free press and the need for a wide consensus on national security. National security decisions can therefore be said to be made against a common background in democracies and India can therefore in the future evolution of its NSC inherit experience of other nations in this respect.

After a comparative study of national security decision making processes of countries like USA, UK, France, Germany and Israel, what strikes one is that keeping in mind our own requirements and experience, India needs to inherit experiences from USA & France.

The Unites States has the most highly developed, formal NSC system and also one on which extensive and well-researched material is available. In particular what India needs to note is the imperative to bring about a legislated existence of NSC, NSA. Legislation should like USA, stipulate that the NSC is a statutory body. Our past experiences indicate the personalised conduct of foreign policy and national security planning. India like Israel could also learn extensively from USA about the "Crisis Management" structures and functioning of the NSC.

France has two or three unique mechanisms not found in any other country and which we need to consider like the Estate-Major particular (EMP) and the Institute des Hautes Etudes de Defense National (IHEDN). The former is an elite group of high-ranking military officers located in the President’s office to advise him. The latter is a prestigious think tank whose findings are not publicised but available to the French NSC equivalent.

Legislative Safeguards Required to Institutionalise the NSC:

The NSC has presently come into existence by an executive order. Its existence and continuity needs to be sanctioned by an Act of Parliament like USA. Some of the legislative safeguards that must be incorporated in light of our past sorry experiences of national security decision making are – (1) PM is bound to consult and be advised by the NSC (2) Preparation of NSC Directives be mandatory once PM has made final decisions (3) NSC Directives be personally signed by the PMs so that they are held responsible and accountable for national security decisions – to prevent a repeat of 1962.


India’s NSC as currently structured and constituted reflects all the traditional shortcomings of the last 50 years, which have been repeated both in this paper and elsewhere ad nauseum. The Kargil crisis the IC-814 hijacking and the escalation of proxy war in J & K all highlight that ‘ad-hocism’ and centralisation of all security decision making in the hands of civil bureaucrats and more specifically in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) ill-serve India’s national security decision making processes.

India’s NSC needs to be constituted and structured in a manner which facilitates serious deliberation of strategic threats and problems in an independent and objective manner on a whole time basis. Civil bureaucrats doubling up in NSC without strategic culture, exposure or thought cannot provide the sinews of the NSC. This should be left to the military hierarchy, strategic think tanks and a NSC Secretariat composed of professional, whole time strategic and intelligence analysts, even incorporated in a consultancy basis for specific projects.

Lastly, the historical background of our national security processes in the last 50 years mandate that NSC should be legislatively institutionalised as a constitutional body so that there is a continuum in national security decisions. National Security Directives should bear the signature of the incumbent Prime Minister so that accountability is assured.