What Mr. Doval as NSA means for Indian national security


With Mr. Ajit Doval poised to take charge as national security adviser, India has placed its cards on the table. After a lifetime in the “trade”, as intelligence practitioners affectionately call their craft universally, Mr. Doval cannot be expected to change his spots. He can therefore be expected to concentrate on what he is best at: covert operations.

Breathless biographies in the media suggest he has had a hand in outmanoeuvring Mizo and Sikh extremists. He is also credited with Kuka Parray turning coat in Kashmir. He had a role in the Kandahar exchange. In retirement, he has run a well-funded think tank that came up in the heart of Delhi’s diplomatic enclave.

What these hagiographies don’t tell is also equally significant. The think tank organised “vimarshas” that began with vedic recitations in Sanskrit. It has been linked with helping organise the BJP campaign that has swept it to power. There is little to take amiss in this. Conservative think tanks can be expected to help steer conservative parties to power. That Mr. Doval did this successfully is to his credit. However, as any cyber denizen knows, the BJP campaign gained speed with a cyber disinformation campaign, especially thinly disguised “black propaganda” directed at discrediting in particular the Gandhis. This suggests a masterly intelligence hand well-versed with “dirty tricks” behind it. By no means does the needle point to Mr. Doval. But then the jury needs to stay out longer on this. And, in all fairness, in contrast to Mr. Amit Shah’s doings in UP, that  in one commentator’s well argued case, have resulted in the communal polarisation in UP and Bihar that buoyed  the BJP to power, this is almost benign.

But the main reservation here is on the role of the top leadership of the intelligence fraternity in the early and mid-2000s. Since Mr. Doval was part of this august grouping, he cannot escape accountability and in that a share of the blame.

The fact is that the nefarious strategy of painting India’s minority as a fifth column lending itself to the expansion of the Pakistani proxy war from Kashmir to the Indian hinterland was thought up and implemented at a time when Mr. Doval was in the chair first as Special Director IB, under the first NDA regime, and later as Director IB under the first Manmohan Singh tenure.

Since Intelligence Bureau cannot but know the truth, even if Mr. Doval did not think up this strategy, to what extent did he exert to end it in first place and second to reverse it by putting behind bars the Hindutva activists, such as Aseemanand, who participated in it is a moot question.

It bears recall that the strategy was in full play in the run up to the “Shining India” campaign of the BJP. The idea was to suggest an India under siege from an expansion in Pakistan’s proxy war and BJP as the only party capable of pulling it out. Since the unwritten ceasefire of November 2003, cemented in an agreement at Islamabad in January 2004, signified a positive start in J&K, the ISI bogey was then redirected to place India’s minority on the defensive.  In Gujarat, it is by now well-established that the campaign, under the tutelage of Mr. Amit Shah, was aimed at embellishing the “56 inch” chest of the provincial strongman there: Mr. Modi. Since the strategy was carried out by Hindutva footsoldiers, including those in khaki such as Mr. Vanzara, as a masterly “black” operation, it also bears an intelligence stamp. The Gujarat IB head then who went on to hold Doval’s chair later as special director in IB, has been linked with the operation. Mr. Doval at the apex of the intelligence community then cannot but have known of the authorship. That the IB did not distinguish itself in the period, suggests not so much incompetence, but, at the least, indifference, and, more dangerously, complicity.

As far as Mr. Doval’s intervention in Kashmir is concerned, media hype has it that it helped turn round the insurgency. Kuka Parray was the epitome of a “divide and rule” initiative in which the “Ikhwan” was created to undercut the pro-Pakistan Hizbul Mujahedeen which by mid-nineties had successfully displaced the Kashmiri nationalist JKLF. It cleared the way for the dominance of Pakistani groups such as Lashkar thereafter. The advantage for India was to discredit the insurgency as externally inspired and therefore legitimised Indian political inaction. Further, once the proxy war dimension had been crucially established, it could be expanded by intelligence operations that expanded the “ISI footprint” into the rest of India. That the shadow of intelligence operations continues over certain episodes such as the Ansals Plaza killings and, more critically, the Parliament attack, is suggestive of an intelligence-led Indian strategy. This was to enable a shift to a hard line that included diplomatic coercion through a military mobilisation in case Pakistan proved unresponsive to India’s diplomatic initiatives such as the ill-thought out Lahore peace initiative. In the event, the intelligence-dominant strategy succeeded, not only externally but also internally, in boxing in Pakistan and India’s minority respectively.

Given that the only link between the two, the external and internal “Other” created by the strategy, is Muslimness, it is clear that at heart the strategy was anti-Muslim. It benefited from the Islamophobia that marked the times coinciding with the Bush years at the White House. Such a strategy cannot only have non-state actors at the core and at helm. It is not one that was thought up and implemented with such aplomb without state knowledge. That the state remained in stupor, in particular its IB, indicates state inaction at best and state complicity at worst. Since Mr. Doval is now termed as an intelligence czar, even if he had nothing to do with it, it is clear that he as a leader and “intelligence legend” did have a hand in setting the internal political and ethical compass of the institution and indeed can be taken as a protagonist in determining its institutional culture. In this Mr. Doval has failed spectacularly.

This background is necessary to understand which direction Indian security can now be expected to head. Mr. Doval was IB head in the first UPA government. His ambit was likely then to have been considerably restricted from what it might have been under a second NDA regime had the information operation, that the “Shining India” campaign essentially was, worked. Incidentally, it was the NDA that  had nominated Doval to IB directorship by easing out the incumbent then, ensuring that he went on premature leave pending retirement, so that Mr. Doval could take his place prior to the UPA getting into the driving seat and upsetting the applecart. In the event, Mr. Doval was ushered in by the UPA among its first actions when it came to power. As an aside, the BJP’s election time barbs over the nomination of the current chief designate by the previous government is therefore a bit rich, given its own actions on Mr. Doval’s behalf just recounted. Returning to the point, without the checks and balances that the UPA placed on him then, not least in the form of yet another intelligence man, MK Narayanan, in the NSA chair, Mr. Doval today will have the run of the place.

India by forthrightly nominating Mr. Doval has thrown down the gauntlet to Pakistan externally and has sent a message to its minority currently cowering under majoritarian triumphalism. The message for Pakistan is that it had better take India’s hand outstretched at the Rashtrapati Bhawan forecourt or else India will turn the tables on the ISI. Afghanistan offers a ready theatre for proxy war. If Pakistan hits back in Kashmir then onus for the fertility of the space can only be with Indian political inattention over the past decade. In case India’s intelligence stupor on the internal front continues, and indeed it will since even the Congress when in power could not turn the tide even by appointing and giving an extension to a Muslim as IB chief, then the Hindutva programme for India’s cultural reset can be expected to proceed without check. Clearly, Indian security is in for interesting times.

The author blogs at

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