Ajit Doval: India’s new NSA, more George Smiley than James Bond

The appointment of Ajit Doval as India’s 5th National Security Adviser (NSA) on Friday was never in doubt once Narandra Modi swept to power and took office as Prime Minister earlier this week.

For the past nine years, he was heading the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), a think tank known to be close to the BJP but more importantly doing significant work on critical issues in the realm of comprehensive national security.


Doval, a legend in the secretive world of intelligence and covert operations, retired as Director Intelligence Bureau in January 2005.


But he had attained fame much before he rose to the top. As a mid-level IB officer in the north-east, he infiltrated the underground Mizo National Front (MNF), then waging an insurgency against Indian state, weaned away half a dozen of its top commanders and all but broke the back of the MNF, forcing its leader Laldenga to sue for peace. The Mizo Accord of July 1986–after 20 years of insurgency–was propelled largely by Doval’s initiative.


But his exploits did not end there.


In the late 1980s when Punjab militancy was at its peak, Doval walked into the besieged Golden Temple in Amritsar, posing as a Pakistani agent months before the 1988 Operation Black Thunder and obtained vital intelligence on the militants holed up inside.


Doval, an 1968 batch IPS Officer of the Kerala cadre, also did his tour of duty in Pakistan, considered a high-risk, high reward assignment in an intelligence officer’s career. He also has the rare distinction of being the recipients of India’s 2nd highest gallantry award–the Kirti Chakra–for his daring exploit in the Golden Temple Operation. In Kashmir, he lured away prominent militants like Kukkay Parey and turned him and his colleagues into counter-insurgents, a policy criticized in some quarters but also praised by others as an effective tool that help combat militancy in Kashmir at its peak.


One of his last high profile acts in a career spanning 37 years was as part of the behind the scene negotiating team during the December 1999 hijack of the Indian Airlines flight IC 814 to Kandahar.


Doval was headed to an important post-retirement assignment if the NDA was voted back to power–as was largely predicted in 2004–but the BJP was narrowly beaten to the second place by the Congress, leading to the formation of UPA I government, effectively ending the chances of any role for Doval in the national security set up.


For majority of the past decade, Shiv Shankar Menon, a career foreign service officer, guided India’s foreign, diplomatic and security policies. But as NSA, Doval is expected to be different than his predecessor.


Exactly 10 years after he saw his big opportunity slipping away, Doval now has a chance to shape India’s national security policy.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Ajit Doval, both staunch believers in a strong state and stronger counter-terrorism measures, are likely to concentrate more on internal security situation, improving India’s covert operations capability in the neighbourhood even while they put in place an equally robust foreign and defence doctrine.
Doval, more George Smiley than James Bond, is truly India’s spy who came in from the cold.