Decoding the worldview of India’s new National Security Advisor

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I have a piece in today’s Hindu on India’s new National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and the advice he might give to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A few excerpts. On his view of internal security:

[H]e views internal security in broad and sweeping terms. One recurring theme is his disdain for “front organizations supporting the cause of anti-national forces, masquerading as human right groups.” This is an issue with particular resonance after the IB’s recent description of Greenpeace and its European funders as “a threat to national economic security,” and the government’s subsequent crackdown on transfers.

In a Hindi speech to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) last summer, Mr. Doval also argued that a millennia-old Indian national identity was under threat. He bemoaned the tendency to emphasise Indian diversity, rather than unity. Most remarkably of all, he claimed that the core of national security was not physical security but cultural identity, and praised the BJP as being the only political party promoting Indian-ness. This suggests a crucial — and controversial — cultural dimension to internal security.

On covert action:

Over the years, Mr. Doval has talked of the importance of covert action. In a 2012 article, he defines these as “a low cost sustainable offensive with high deniability aimed to bleed the enemy to submission.” He despairs of New Delhi’s failures to sharpen its tools in this regard, and dismisses conventional wars as “cost-ineffective and high-risk ventures.” In his view, “the most effective way of dealing with terrorism would be to identify boys who have got the courage of conviction to match that of the fidayeens and who are capable of taking risks. Identify them and put them in action.” He notes, ominously, that “Pakistan has its own vulnerabilities many times higher than India.”

And on the United States:

Mr. Doval does not trust the United States — as is typical in officers of his generation. He warns that the U.S. “will seek to outsource their counter-terrorism to Pakistan” as they withdraw from Afghanistan. He was scathing of the U.S.-India nuclear deal, bitterly warning in 2006 that “it will stunt India’s emergence as a genuine nuclear weapon state, cripple its strategic deterrence, and reduce it to a US satrapy.” Of course, Mr. Modi is extremely unlikely to downgrade the strategic relationship with the U.S. It transcends national security. But such thinking might have implications for whether the government will modify India’s draconian nuclear liability law, as per the wishes of Washington and other Indian nuclear suppliers.

I conclude:

Taken together, these writings portray a details-oriented, methodical, and pragmatic thinker. Mr. Doval is not one for grand, cooperative schemes. He is a hawk, but a cautious one. His diagnoses are gloomy, but his prescriptions restrained. His vision is quite different to Mr. Modi’s globalism. It is more inward looking, localised, and distrustful. His vision of national security is primarily internal, peripheral, and — perhaps most intriguingly — cultural. Farther afield, Mr. Doval warns of developments in Afghanistan and strikes an uncompromising tone on Pakistan — but there is little on China, let alone India’s partners in East and Southeast Asia. Europe and the Middle East are almost entirely absent. Mr. Doval is the foil to the Prime Minister’s enthusiastic internationalism — an NSA for hard times in the neighbourhood?

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