National Security Decision-Making

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NATIONAL SECURITY DECISION-MAKING When India won its independence in 1947, it had little experience in security policy making. Then, Field Marshal Kodandera Madappa Cariappa was the only Indian who had reached the highest rank of brigadier. British officers manned all higher echelons of the government's security establishment. Nor was the army always provided with everything necessary for an effective defense of the nation, as was evident in the border war with China in October 1962. Till then, India spent annually only 2.6 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru distrusted armed forces and at times questioned their loyalty to a democratic India. He desired to prevent army chiefs from interacting directly with the civilian heads of the government. Hence, members of the Indian Administrative Service, successor to the British Indian Civil Service, occupied higher echelons of the defense department, preventing chiefs of the armed services from directly placing their ideas and plans before the defense minister or the prime minister.

The British had left the structure of Defence Committee of the Cabinet and a Defence Minister's Committee. On the first, chiefs of three armed forces were attending as advisors while the latter was the only institution that gave the armed forces a chance to place their views before civilian authorities. These institutions, however, fell into disuse after the 1950s. As a result, independent India national security policy decision-making has been controlled by a few civilians and is ad hoc, responding to crises rather than being proactive.

During India's formative years, the morale of ministers and civil servants declined because of a lack of coordination in the decision-making process. These defects were distinctly noticeable in the ministry of defense, where internal tensions, favoritism in promotion to the top military offices, reduction of power of the chiefs of staff, and lack of discipline among civilians and military personnel led to the early resignation of the army chief of staff, General Koodendera Subayya Thimmayya, in 1961. Instead of investigating the situation, Nehru congratulated the defense minister, Krishna Menon, and snubbed General Thimmayya. A year later, as General Thimmayya had warned, China invaded and Krishna Menon was forced to resign in the wake of a humiliating Indian defeat.

Yet, the Indian army had earlier performed well in 1947–1948, expelling from two-thirds of Kashmir the Pakistani so-called tribal invaders. Even then, Nehru accepted the advice of Governor-General Lord Mountbatten to take India's charge of Pakistan's aggression to the Security Council of the United Nations, which arranged for a cease-fire in Jammu and Kashmir on 1 January 1949.

Institutions Making Security Policy

Nehru's successors, Lal Bahadur Shastri and, especially, Indira Gandhi, appreciated the need for coordinated security policy making. Shastri established in 1965 the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) to coordinate intelligence with an additional Secretary in Cabinet secretariat as its chairman. The Intelligence Bureau (IB) and intelligence agencies of three services hitherto functioning independently of one another were placed under the chairman, JIC. Gandhi realizing the importance of integrated intelligence in the making of security policy created the Research and Analysis Wing, a new intelligence agency to gather external intelligence in 1968 after splitting the IB, which was restricted to the work of domestic intelligence gathering. There was an apex committee under the cabinet secretary as the chairman with secretaries of ministry of external affairs and defense as members. She also established a Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, which considered a security matter before bringing it to the civilian authorities.

In spite of pragmatism exhibited by Prime Minister Gandhi in prosecuting the Bangladesh war in 1971, she was led to believe an "oral assurance" of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to gradually initiate action to make the Line of Control between India and Pakistan in Kashmir into an international border. Her secretary, P. N. Dhar, wrote on 4 April 1995 that she did not wish "to appear to be dictating terms to a defeated adversary." Equally disastrous was Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's decision to send Indian troops to Sri Lanka in July 1987 to "keep the peace" between Sri Lankan troops and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE). This decision turned India into a party to the dispute, an unfortunate change from its earlier role as an honest broker of peace between Sri Lanka's government and its rebellious Tamil minorities. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi made his crucial decision to send Indian troops to Sri Lanka on peacekeeping mission without proper deliberation within the cabinet or proper staff work, confident that he would prevail upon LTTE leader Prabhakaran to force his cadre to lay down the arms. The absence of adequate deliberations in decisionmaking thus landed India into a state of perpetual crisis with Sri Lanka.

Much of Indian security policy making before 1962, however, concerned relations with Pakistan. Thereafter the border war with China created a triangular security problem between India, China, and Pakistan. It then became a pentagonal problem during the Bangladesh war of 1971, with the Soviet Union and India on one side, and the United States, China, and Pakistan on the other. The disappearance of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war has changed the focus of Indian security policy.

This ad hoc approach to national security policy continued, however, under former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the coalition government led by his Bharatiya Janata Party. During the Agra Summit in July 2000, India agreed with Pakistan's proposition that all references to previous summits at Simla and Lahore be "dropped" in return for a Pakistani promise "to discard reference to the United Nations resolutions on Kashmir." Ultimately the Agra Summit between Vajpayee and General Pervez Musharraf failed.

Even after fifty years of Indian independence, there has never been any structured interaction between the departments of defense, home, and external affairs, the three primary departments involved in security policy making. Modern national security policy, however, involves many other departments, including commerce, industry, petrochemicals, and finance. Coordination of policy took place, if at all, when the secretaries of these ministries met one another. J. N. Dixit, former foreign secretary noted that in the 1990s "an informal sort of National Security Advisory Group" existed in the cabinet secretariat.

National security coordination has assumed greater significance since the end of the cold war because security threats do not emanate from external conflicts alone but from internal issues as well, such as ethnic and religious conflicts, terrorism, the narcotics trade, illegal immigration, the criminal-terrorist nexus, and money laundering by the groups indulging in anti-national activities in league with international intelligence agencies inimical to India.

National Security Council

Should India establish a National Security Council (NSC) similar to that of the United States? Those who have opposed the idea argue that the NSC is a unique institution suitable for a presidential system of government, in which there is a concentration of powers in one individual. Hence, there is a dire need for advice in security policy making. However, in the parliamentary government, there is a collective body that works with the prime minister as its head; thus there is no need for another advisory or decision-making body. However, because India's Cabinet is so large a body, its political affairs subcommittee, consisting of the prime minister and the ministers for home, defense, and external affairs, considered issues of national security before any directions were given to officials.

Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh in 1989 promised to establish an NSC for effective national security decision-making; and though he did establish one by executive order in September 1990, his government went out of office the same year. When the Congress Party assumed power in 1991, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao emerged as a successful dodger of the idea even though he did not deny the need for an NSC, and he left office without establishing it.

Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, who had initially been minister of external affairs, during the brief tenure of the United Front government in 1996-1998, was committed to the idea of establishing NSC. He proclaimed it as his first priority on the first day in office but instead established a Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). The Bharatiya Janata Party led the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government that came to power in 1998, also committed to the formation of NSC. Thus, all of India's main political parties were agreed on the creation of an NSC, which was established by executive order.

The NSC, constituted by Prime Minister Vajpayee during the NDA coalition government, has the prime minister as its chairman, and the ministers for external affairs, home, defense, finance, and the deputy chairman of the planning commission as its members. Below the NSC, there is a National Security Group consisting of the secretaries of departments represented in the council and the chiefs of Research and Analysis Wing and the three services. This is the principal body to plan, coordinate, and integrate policy at the middle level of India's policy-making process.

The secretariat can function to coordinate security policy if it has an independent official called either national security adviser or the executive secretary of the NSC. However, the Vajpayee government made the prime minister's principal secretary act as the part-time national security adviser. Because the principal secretary to the prime minister is always overloaded with work, making him national security adviser added too great a burden on him. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government under Manmohan Singh, which came to office in May 2004, has continued the office of national security adviser, appointing J. N. Dixit to it without burdening him with a role of principal secretary to the prime minister. He died, however, of heart failure within a few months.

The NSC has also been given a National Security Advisory Board consisting of many retired officials and former leaders of the armed forces. But, since its establishment, the government has not used it effectively to coordinate policy. The government has made it a practice to use CCS as its policy-making mechanism.

Proliferation of Agencies in Security Decision-Making

The major problem that afflicts national security policy making is the proliferation of agencies involved in decision-making. The latest one is a Nuclear Command Authority with Political Council, with the prime minister at its head. An executive council, with the prime minister's national security adviser as its head, was created as part of India's national security doctrine. Nuclear weapons are under a Strategic Forces Command, headed by the chief of command. These collectively decide on the ultimate use of nuclear weapons and on issues like the deployment of short-range or long-range nuclear capable missiles.

Defense Minister George Fernandes revived the defense minister's committee after the Kargil crisis of 1999. As of 2005 there was a proposal before the government to create the post of chief of defense staff, which would rotate among the three service chiefs for a term of two years. Ongoing efforts to integrate the defense department with civilian authorities are designed to increase the accountability of India's defense forces.

P. M. Kamath


Dhar, P. N. "LAC as Border: Bhutto's Deal with Mrs. Gandhi." Times of India (Mumbai) (4 April 1995).

Directorate General of Infantry, Field Marshal K. M. Cariappa Memorial Lectures, 1995–2000. New Delhi: Lancer Publishers, 2001.

Kamath, P. M. Foreign Policy-Making and International Politics. New Delhi: Radiant Publishers, 1990.

Kamath, P. M National Security Council for India: Structure and Functions. Mumbai: Rambhau Mhalgi Prabodhini, 1998.

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National Security Decision-Making

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