Millennium Post

Forging a national security state

Glowing tributes have been lavished on Brajesh Mishra, the former Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister and National Security Adviser [NSA] who died last week, mourning him as a visionary and statesman. Any death is a human tragedy to be mourned. But amidst the deluge of eulogies about Mishra’s ‘steely determination’, ‘conceptual clarity’, and his ‘guile’ coupled with ‘generosity’, it must not be forgotten that he was pivotal to bringing about far-reaching but questionable shifts in India’s security and foreign policy stances and forging a hard-line national security apparatus.

Mishra was indeed a key figure who wrought a radical transformation in India’s conventional posture of Non-Alignment, neutrality and peace, reshaped her relations with the Great Powers, in particular by building a ‘strategic partnership’ with the United States, effectively abandoned the goal of a nuclear weapons-free world, and pushed India into the global arena of competitive but cynical realpolitik and jockeying for dominance.  

Mishra’s clear-headedness, brilliance and decisiveness, all undeniable, endeared him to many people. The media, which loves simple, clear, unambiguous briefings, admired him. But these virtues must be judged against the content of the policy shifts he executed and the merits of pursuing a primarily militarist approach to security threats. He built up a massively armed, but democratically unaccountable, national security structure, which could be used as effectively against India’s own citizens as against their enemies.

Judged thus, Mishra wasn’t a ‘modern-day Chanakya’, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh admiringly described him, but a hawk obsessed with military power, who had a strong pro-US bias.

True, Mishra wasn’t the only person to influence the reshaping of India’s foreign and security policies. PV Narasimha Rao decided in 1991 that the West had won the Cold War, and the US’s would be the only game left in a ‘unipolar’ world. So if that means a shift to reckless ‘free market’ policies and a pro-US stance, so be it! One only has to read his pseudo-fictional novel, The Insider, to note this and understand why he gave Singh a carte blanche to unleash neoliberalism.

Similarly, other NSAs, hawkish strategists like K Subrahmaniam and his Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses camp-followers, and foreign ministry officials like JN Dixit [who went on to become the NSA under the United Progressive Alliance government in 2004], also contributed to hardening India’s security posture. As did former Army chief K Sundarji to some extent.

JN Dixit, India’s Foreign Secretary in the early 1990s, radically changed the balance in India’s atomic policy-making between the nuclear establishment and his own Ministry of External Affairs, who opposed the doctrine of nuclear deterrence and promoted nuclear disarmament in international forums. This change paved the way for opposing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1995-96, and prepared the ground for the embrace of nuclear deterrence in 1998.    

However, it was Mishra, who was pivotal, with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in taking the final, crucial step of crossing the nuclear threshold within weeks of the National Democratic Alliance coming to power in March 1998. By then, Mishra had already made up his mind that the topmost priority of the new government would be to  ‘go nuclear’ and said so to many journalists off the record. The five Pokharan-II nuclear blasts followed on May 11 and 13.   

The decision to conduct the tests was hidden not only from the Cabinet, but, until May 9, also from the armed services chiefs, and even from Defence Minister George Fernandes.

The BJP had declared in its February 1998 election manifesto and the NDA’s National Agenda for Governance of March that it would ‘review India’s nuclear policy’ and consider inducting nuclear weapons only after conducting a proper assessment of India’s strategic environment and security needs. No such assessment was made.

Mishra’s mind was made up on an issue on which successive governments beginning with Lal Bahdur Shastri’s – which was asked to respond to the Chinese nuclear tests of 1964 – had hesitated to take a stand because of the nature of nuclear armaments as weapons of mass destruction and India’ long-standing advocacy of their abolition.

Decisive on this Mishra certainly was. But as if for abundant caution, he drafted the infamous May 11 letter from Mr Vajpayee to President Bill Clinton, justifying the tests by blaming China and Pakistan. The US treated this with utter contempt and promptly leaked it to The New York Times. The whole world now knew that India had breached its own international pledges and the domestic consensus, which favoured maintaining a nuclear capability but not crossing the threshold. This wasn’t done for security reasons, but out of a false sense of international ‘prestige’.

Exploiting his proximity to  Vajpayee, and his powerful dual position as his Principal Secretary and the NSA, Mishra usurped all manner of powers and redefined India’s strategic posture and evolved its nuclear doctrine through the National Security Advisory Board headed by fellow-hawk K Subrahmaniam. This further hardened India’s nuclear stance by demanding a ‘triadic’ arsenal, based on land, air and the sea, with no limits on its technological capacities, and a token commitment to No First Use of nuclear weapons, which was soon diluted.

Yet, for all his legendary Machiavellian shrewdness, Mishra failed to anticipate that Pakistan too would conduct six nuclear tests on May 28 and 30—to ‘get even’ with India’s recent five blasts plus the 1974 test. Nor did he estimate the profoundly destabilising regional impact of nuclearisation, which took a menacing form with the Kargil war a year later, when both states readied their nuclear weapons, and taunted and challenged each other to use them. Such scary exchanges were repeated twice during the 10-months-long eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation after the 2001 Parliament attack.

Perhaps equally damaging was Mishra’s enunciation of a tough policy towards India’s neighbours, regarded as threat sources, and his adoption of a hard-line attitude bordering on Islamophobia towards internal security problems, especially terrorism.

Mishra was frequently consulted both by Dr Singh and NSA Dixit and given India’s second-highest civilian honour. The hard-line security template Mishra created has never been changed or even questioned.  

Mishra repaid his debt to Singh by breaking ranks with the BJP on the US-India nuclear deal. [IPA]
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