[This review first appeared in The Business Standard’s 16th November 2018 edition]
Title: How India Manages Its National Security
Author: Arvind Gupta
Publisher: Penguin Random House India
Even after having researched on Indian foreign policy for nearly five years I’m unsure of how the different pieces of India’s national security apparatus fit together at the top. So I picked up How India Manages Its National Security with the hope that it might clarify some niggling questions. It delivered on most counts.
The author, himself a former national security advisor addresses a general reader through this book. His aim is to raise awareness about India’s national security issues and the institutional design that manages them. The emphasis is on the descriptive aspects of India’s national security system. Having seen it from within, the author combines personal experience with official publications and reports to give an empirical account of our security establishment.
What I found most refreshing about the book is that it employs a broader definition of security, one that considers wellbeing of the individual as an integral part of national security. Thus, discussions in the book go beyond the conventional security issues such as Pakistan, China, border management, and terrorism. Instead education, healthcare, job creation, urbanisation, and climate change have also been looked at from a national security lens. Acknowledging that ‘the emphasis on human security sometimes runs counter to the priorities of the nation state’, the book throws light on some of the linkages between the two paradigms. For example, a country with poor governance will make itself vulnerable to machinations of other countries. Or that climate change will have severe implications on terrain and military operations as well.
Chapters two through eleven each focus on one constituent of India’s national security establishment in detail. Thus, there are chapters on India’s armed forces, police forces, intelligence agencies, cybersecurity agencies and so forth. The treatment of these topics prioritises breadth over depth. The chapters ‘diplomacy and national security’ and ‘non-traditional security issues in national security’ are particularly interesting. What’s also worth noting is that the chapter on border management includes a section on coastal security, a topic that finds little mention in India’s security circles. Also, the chapter on ‘technology and security’ gives a good account of the bearing that technology has on national security.
How these large number of institutions talk to each other at the top is of great importance. Who formulates a consistent security strategy, who gets a buy-in from the various stakeholders, and who takes the blame when there are security failures are questions that determine the policy direction and core organisational design. The last major rethink on these questions took place after the nuclear tests in 1998, and a National Security Council was setup. Twenty years hence, the chapter on this institution conveys the impression that this system still needs a lot of upgrades for effective and efficient operation.
NSC. NSCS. NSA. CCS. The author expertly navigates through this alphabet soup and discusses the strengths and weaknesses of how they operate at present. I gathered that the National Security Council (NSC) is an advisory body. But this NSC rarely meets. On the other hand, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), with the same membership as the NSC, is the ultimate-decision making body on security matters. The key position in the NSC structure is that of the NSA who is the channel between the NSC and the government on security matters. The NSA is further assisted by the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) which is supposed to prepare assessments of national security threats in a holistic manner. The NSC has one more advisory group called NSAB which is composed of non-officials meant to provide independent advice on national security matters. Even this preliminary glance at this organisation suggests that the system has many redundancies. The author proposes that the role of the NSCS should be bolstered. He also finds some merit in the NSC system’s alternative — a ministry for national security headed by a cabinet minister to carry out national security policy.
Further, as one goes through the book, it becomes clear that ‘governance gap’ is perhaps the biggest challenge for our national security establishment. Our governments are not as competent as our economy and society. On many occasions, expertise lies outside the government. And hence, adequate training, bringing in expertise from outside the government, and focusing on human resources aspects during service, are some reforms that appear across many chapters.
While it is on solid ground while discussing organisational aspects, the book slips up in a few places. For example, talking about the threat posed by communalism, it remarks that ‘the appeasement of various sections of society for the purpose of votes is the root cause of communal politics in the country with some parties spreading apprehension in the minds of minority groups’. This is problematic because there’s no evidence for instance to say that appeasement was the root cause of the recent round of communal lynchings. Secondly, the prescriptions for improving the national security architecture are tentative and brief. So, there is very little the book has to say on how to systematically align incentives for managing India’s national security better.
Overall, How India Manages Its National Security is an excellent primer for anyone wondering how India’s security systems have evolved. It serves as a wonderful reference that one can keep going back to whenever complicated government structures and procedures related to national security matters start overwhelming you.