Removing the cobwebs: How Modi altered the national security approach

By personally authorising a surgical strike, and then announcing it to the world, Prime Minister Modi was truly living up to his growing reputation as a ‘risk taker’.

Surgical strikes inside PoK were indeed a massive political and diplomatic gamble.

A number of things could have gone wrong.The advancing parties could have been attacked, or ambushed, leaving Indian soldiers injured or killed in the area occupied by Pakistan. If the information regarding the targeted areas and routes had been found to be inaccurate, the mission could have failed to achieve its objectives. Most importantly, the success of the operation depended upon precise intelligence about the terrorist camps, their presence in those camps, and safe routes to access them which would be free from landmines.The precision and accuracy of intelligence therefore played a vital role.

It is imperative to note that if the trans-LoC raids had failed, the Indian PM would have lost face, as well as huge political capital. A setback in the raids would have further constricted India’s room to manoeuvre its policy against Pakistan, and politically, Modi would have been hobbled in domestic affairs. However, he went for the jugular, precisely because no one expected him to. Of course, the Prime Minister could take the risk because he had built a national security team led by Doval that had the requisite operational experience, and the ability to be meticulous in preparation of a plan and execution, based on precise real-time intelligence. The troops too were highly motivated and well trained. Over and above everything else, Modi had confidence in the ability of the forces to carry out the mission.
The Prime Minister’s critics have variously described this and some of his other unconventional decisions since coming to power as rash, thoughtless, gimmicky, and even dangerous.

Modi has nevertheless charted his own course.

The surgical strikes was just one such example. In the past 40 months, Modi has shown the ability to stay ahead of the curve and catch almost everyone off guard on many occasions.


Indeed that was the case as is evident from the bold, unconventional and swift moves in diplomacy, security, and administration, which has marked the Prime Minister’s tenure so far, often leaving his opponents stunned and supporters asking for more. One common thread across the spectrum in his approach has been the realisation that it has to be ‘India First’. Every decision that is taken and implemented is aimed at making India safe, stable, and prosperous.

Modi’s bold move to invite heads of states in the neighbourhood for his own swearing in was not a one-off ‘out of the box’ decision.

But what of Modi’s security policies? What is his approach?

At one level, because of his record as a no-nonsense administrator and his nationalistic views, it was a given that Modi would adopt a more robust security policy with respect to both Pakistan and China. Breaking years of status quo and hesitation have not been easy. Inevitably, there have been setbacks—in Kashmir and the Maoist-dominated areas—but in each case, the national security apparatus under Modi’s premiership has bounced back and reconfigured itself.

Ambassador Satish Chandra,seasoned diplomat and former deputy national security adviser, sums it up succinctly: ‘Modi is not looking at the past as a inhibiting factor.The Prime Minister will do what he thinks is right. He is not inhibited by lack of precedence. Every Prime Minister gets bogged down by countervailing forces within the well- established system. But Modi has been able to break out of the iron clad framework because he is a complete outsider. He is not part of the Delhi Durbar and can therefore think out of the box on most vital issues like foreign policy and national security.’

The results may not be immediately apparent, but many far- reaching changes, ushered in over the past three years, will strengthen national security, as the subsequent chapters will argue.

However, according to NSA Doval, it is dif cult to comprehend Modi’s security policies without understanding his vision for the nation. Groomed and nurtured ideologically in a strong nationalist mode, he has both a civilisational awareness and a long-term strategic vision of India’s security. He believes that a strong economy, transformed human capital of India, technological excellence, and powerful national consciousness of the Indian people are the guarantors of Indian security. His emphasis on human resource  development,indigenisation of defence production, and emphasis on technology in defence, are all aimed at making India strong and secure. A careful analysis of all his speeches and utterances make it clear that he considers the will of the nation as the main ingredient of its Comprehensive National Power (CNP). He wants the Indian people to be proud of their past, resolute in their present, and imbued with high hopes for the future. Most Indians credit him for raising the national consciousness to a much higher level.

With those objectives in mind, the Prime Minister wanted to build an effective and efficient team around him.The team members also needed to share his vision and jointly resolve to secure India, and to make it powerful, potent, and prosperous. Modi therefore, needed to have a team leader with experience, knowledge, integrity, and high credibility in the security domain.

He found that man in Ajit Doval, the old security czar, a legend in the highly competitive and covert world of intelligence, but more importantly someone, who like Modi, was uninhibited by personal biases and did not harbour a private agenda,except making India strong and secure. Doval had served for long years in the Intelligence Bureau and dealt with crucial matters of national security before retiring in 2005 as Director of the IB.

Indeed Doval’s appointment as National Security Adviser (NSA) was one of the  first official decisions that Modi took after assuming office on 26 May 2014.

Modi and Doval had a nodding acquaintance when Doval was in service, but they came to know each other better after 2005 when the NSA retired as head of the Intelligence Bureau. By that time, Modi was a well-established and undisputed leader in Gujarat. Gradually, Doval, who founded the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), a think-tank on strategic affairs after retirement, developed a great deal of admiration and saw in Modi a leader who could transform India. His critics allege that Doval used VIF for promoting BJP’s electoral prospects by lending legitimacy and garnering support for the RSS version of Indian nationalism. No one was however, able to substantiate the charge. Modi roped him in to establish the Raksha Shakti University in Gujarat. A one of its kind training institution, 
the Raksha Shakti University has a vision to ‘impart customised education to the youth of the country in all vital aspects of internal security to ensure that specialised and trained personnel are available for employment in various security agencies like police forces, defence, private security. It now attracts many talented young men and women interested in ‘understanding the world of security.’

After Doval took over as India’s  fifth National Security Adviser, he and the Prime Minister set about removing the cobwebs in the minds of security sector practitioners and the lethargy that had crept into the system.

In Doval, the Prime Minister had the advantage of a person who not only knew the inner workings of the security apparatus in the country, but also someone who commanded great respect amongst peers and juniors. The NSA’s operational exploits are well-known and his high decorations include the Kirti Chakra, one of the highest military gallantry awards. Indeed, his achievements during active years in service accords him an unparalleled standing among the younger generation of officers.

Over the past three years, the Modi-Doval combine has put together a core team of security professionals across the board and created a seamless system where bickering and infighting of yore has been eliminated. Speaking to this author over three longish sessions— Doval rarely comes on record, both due to the sensitivity of his job and also because of years of being in the habit of operating in the shadows- -the NSA remarked, ‘For Prime Minister Modi, the only criterion is national interest when it comes to formulating national security policies, or taking difficult decisions. He is completely oblivious to political consequences when it comes to taking the right decisions on national security.This attribute gives the PM rare clarity of thought. He is never in doubt over a decision once it is taken. Most strikingly, he is an innovative genius. I have yet to come across an instance when he does not add a new dimension, or offer an innovative suggestion to any issue brought before him.’

Doval reveals that Modi’s National Security approach is ‘without fetters’. ‘The advantage of such a doctrine is that he has no other focus except his deeply embedded patriotism and the awareness that for India to become a great power, a secure environment—both internal and external—is an absolute must,’ the NSA remarked. More importantly, Doval says the Prime Minister looks at national security from a long-term perspective and ‘does not get rattled with episodic ups and downs’, referring to occasional setbacks in the fight against the Maoists and in J&K. His larger strategic objective is to make India secure and stable, said Doval.

As a result of this clarity, as Doval observes, in the last three years, India has managed to enhance its intelligence capabilities, strengthen its border management, and silently but resolutely enhance defence preparedness.‘There are very few people talking about any intelligence failure these days,’ he points out.‘There has been enhancement in our real time response capability, speed and surprise in our operations, and a shift from improved coordination to inter-agency synergy,’ he adds. According to the NSA, the Prime Minister’s understanding of cyber security, maritime security, space research, and other such complex matters ‘continues to surprise us all’.

Doval, who perhaps meets the Prime Minister more than anyone else, reveals, ‘His comprehension and attention span is unbelievably high. His approach is essentially of a problem solver; he comes out with solutions that will often surprise you.’The NSA also reveals that the Modi approach to national security is also highly ‘value based’. He strongly believes that as a responsible nation, with a high potential and promising future, we should not do or support anything that is not in consonance with India’s core values, or that might be internationally unacceptable. The nation’s commitment to democracy and rule of law must always be upheld. He wants ‘India’s security apparatus to be professional, seamlessly coordinated, well-equipped, and innovative.’ Doval too believes in capability building, anticipating threats and leading from the front.As he observed,‘in security,it does matter what happens to you, but what matters more is how you respond.’ There’s no doubt that having spent long years of his life conducting operations on ground, Doval has developed a unique tactical and strategic sense. Elaborating further, he told me, ‘Strategy without tactics is noise before the defeat, and tactics without strategy is the shortest route to committing suicide. Both are equally important and intertwined. For example, neutralising a terrorist commander is tactical, but degrading the capacity of a terrorist outfit is strategic.’

He also does not agree that a terrorist, even in a suicide mode, can strike any time.‘I believe terrorist incidents take place when three curves meet: the curve of intention, the curve of capability, and the curve of opportunity. We change their intentions and capabilities through strategic and tactical means, while denial of opportunity is mainly tactical, degrading the capacity of a terror group by proactive or preventive means is strategic. An effective counter-terrorist policy should therefore aim to ensure that the triangle is never formed and if it does, the area is minimised,’ he stated.

(Excerpted from Securing India The Modi way: Pathankot, Surgical Strikes and more)

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