Early on in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tenure, it was quite commonplace to see stories about National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s daring past exploits and articles about how he is micromanaging the country’s most important issues. As a Caravan magazine profile of one of Modi’s most important bureaucrats pointed out, acts as simple as picking up sheets of paper could be spun into “How Doval rescued Modi” headlines. In a government run by a prime minister obsessed with centralising power and looming large over all, Doval was given leeway to do some mythmaking of his own. “What do you get if you mix Henry Kissinger and James Bond?” asked one news story. Ajit Doval.
Those stories have not aged well. As National Security Advisor, Doval is responsible for advising the prime minister on internal and external threats, and putting forward a strategic framework for the country. But few would be able to point to any major successes on these fronts: Doval’s offensive defense approach for Kashmir has only led to an increase in militancy, while also eroding space for the political mainstream.
Not one of India’s neighbours is content, never mind happy, since New Delhi has been overbearing in some form or the other without balancing out over the last four years. Things look better further afield, in relations with both the US and China, but even on those fronts Modi’s government has been inconsistent. And on Pakistan, the central strategic challenge and primary issue for any National Security Advisor, Modi and Doval have achieved so little that they are leaving some decision-making to the jawans. The 2016 Pathankot incident, when Doval was already being cheered by some for solving the attacks even while the militants were still at large, is almost perfectly emblematic of India’s NSA.
So naturally, he is getting a promotion. The government this week announced that Doval would head the Strategic Policy Group, a committee that would have the National Security Advisor at its chair. This means the Cabinet Secretary, the chiefs of the military staffs, the Reserve Bank of India governor and more will all have to report to Doval. NDTV says this makes him the most powerful bureaucrat in 20 years. There has been little indication about why India would need such group, and the timing, not long before general elections are called, makes the move inherently suspect.
Quicker, more decision-making on important strategic issues would be a great development. Similarly, using that forum to settle disputes between ministries or individuals in government in order to resolve issues would be ideal. Yet, considering Doval’s record, one may as well be sceptical. He has achieved little and even the adulatory press seems to have died down a bit now. So in the run-up to elections, Doval is entrusted with massive amounts of power, meaning he might be in a position to even order the chiefs of military staff around. With his “offence is the best defence” slogan echoing sharply, it almost seems trite to ask: What could possibly go wrong?