Happymon Jacob reviews How India Manages its National Security by Arvind Gupta


Having been through several wars, conflicts and national security crises, there is a growing recognition in India that the country needs a robust national security system, one that is properly structured, staffed with experts, free from bureaucratic red tape and devoid of ad hocism. This ‘national security consciousness’, if I may call it so, in the country started developing in the late 1990s and picked up after the Kargil war when the Kargil Review Committee and the Group on Ministers’ Committee made several thoughtful recommendations to strengthen the institutional foundations of India’s national security.

If pre-1999 national security planning was typically carried out in a disorganised manner, national security is increasingly getting concentrated in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) today, especially under the current regime. Recall that for two years, the current government didn’t even constitute the National Security Advisory Board. Moreover, despite the enormous power held by the country’s National Security Advisor, the post has no legal sanction. The two powerful committees set up by the government in the recent past — the Defence Planning Committee and Strategic Policy Group – are also headed by the NSA. Shouldn’t such a powerful post held by an unelected person be legally mandated and made more accountable?

Neither haphazard decision-making nor concentration of national security decisions in the PMO is desirable: India needs properly laid down and legally sanctioned national security systems and standard operating procedures in place. That said, contemporary Indian national security system is far more sophisticated than what previously existed, one that is constantly evolving, often through trial, error and innovation.

Key aspects

Arvind Gupta’s new book, How India Manages its National Security, tells us the story of that evolution — how India’s national security planning reached where it is today, and how the various systems and structures were put in place, brick by brick. Gupta would know: he was India’s Deputy National Security Adviser and Secretary at the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) till last year, and had earlier played a role in setting up the foundations of the country’s national security system as the Joint Secretary, NSCS from 1999 to 2007.

Divided into 12 chapters, the book deals with several key aspects of India’s national security including non-traditional issues such as water scarcity, communalism, police reforms, cyber security, among others. The book also gives a useful overview of the state of play on the more traditional aspects of India’s national security: armed forces, borer management, intelligence, among others.

No legal authority

One of the key arguments the book makes is the need to strengthen the functioning of India’s national security system in particular the National Security Council which is ‘supposed’ to be at the heart of such a system. Gupta correctly calls for amending the allocation of business rules of the government of India to give more teeth to the NSC given that advisory bodies often tend to get sidelined. In fact, the K.C. Pant Task Force had recommended in 1999 that the NSA should have the rank of a cabinet minister. Today, the NSC and NSA have no constitutional or legal imprimatur. The NSA derives his power form his/ her closeness to the PM. Moreover, given that the NSC and the Cabinet Committee on Security have exactly the same membership, the former rarely meets which further weakens the national security system of the country. While there are institutions in place, there continues to be a tendency to sidestep them preferring ad hoc arrangements instead.

The book does not shy away from being critical of the establishment, both political and bureaucratic. For instance, Gupta writes in the preface that “in recent years, there has been a tendency to politicise the actions of the armed forces. An example of this was the politicisation of the army’s surgical strikes against terrorist launch pads in Pakistan in 2016. Political parties freely used the army’s name in their election campaigns ahead of the State assembly elections in U.P. in 2017. This is a dangerous tendency which needs to be curbed.”

Calling on experts

He is also critical of the lack of police reforms in the country which often triggers governance crises, the lack of political inclination for defence reforms and the lacklustre performance of the DRDO. The book offers several suggestions to improve the country’s national security systems including incorporating more experts into the government. The author sharply points at what ails the national security decision making in India when he says that “the work culture in the government is still tuned to tactical rather than strategic thinking.”

The book could have focused more on the politics of decision-making, of which we know very little, and avoided lengthy discussions on the ‘national security environment’ which is available in abundance. One is also puzzled by the book’s repeated references to Hindu mythology given that Indian culture is way more than Hindu, and, in any case, mythology, while useful in discussing strategic culture, has little explanatory capability while analysing India’s national security management.

That said, this is a first-rate introduction to India’s national security management. It’s a thoughtfully-written, factually-accurate and analytically-sound addition to the literature. If you want to know how India manages its national security, this is the book to read.

How India Manages its National Security; Arvind Gupta, Viking/ PRH, ₹599.

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