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National Security Strategy: For India's Internal Stability & Peaceful Periphery

An NSS usually provides the means of messaging the country's red lines to its adversaries.

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According to reports, the National Security Council Secretariat has once again begun work on a National Security Strategy for India.

India is one of the few major countries that has no published NSS. China makes do with the periodic issuance of White Papers on Defence, the last of which was in July 2019. Japan’s NSS was issued in 2022, the first since 2013 and the second ever.

Just last month, the former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon revealed at a book release function that there have been at last three drafts of the NSS at various points of time, but all have failed to get the approval from the government.

Just why they did not meet government approval is not known, but perhaps, Menon speculated, the governments chose not to approve any of them because that would have also meant that they would have to find the resources to back up the strategy.

At the same function, former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, who was probably involved in the production of at least one of the drafts, wondered whether it was because governments wanted to keep all options open, which in practice often meant adopting none of the options.

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In 2018, the task of working on a NSS was given to the newly formed Defence Planning Committee (DPC) chaired by the National Security Adviser Ajit Doval. This DPC comprised of the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (now the Chief of Defence Staff), the three Service Chiefs, the Defence Secretary, the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary (Expenditure) in the Ministry of Finance.

According to a notification by the Ministry of Defence, the DPC “would prepare drafts of (a) national security strategy, strategic defence review and doctrines (b) international defence engagement strategy, c)roadmap to build defence manufacturing eco-system d) strategy to boost defence exports and (e) prioritized capability development plans for the armed forces….”

Little has been heard about the work of the DPC because the very next year, the government appointed General Bipin Rawat as Chief of Defence Staff and Secretary to the Department of Military Affairs in the Ministry of Defence. It Is not clear whether the current effort comes through the DPC or through the traditional route of the NSCS.

Both are, of course, headed by NSA Ajit Doval.

Why We Need an NSS

Though it is called a subcontinent, India is really a continent with more than a two dozen states, many of them the size of a European country. Yet, this country, with the fifth-largest economy and the third-largest military spending in the world, is unusually coy about laying out its national security perspective. This is all the more so because it has disputed boundaries with its western and northern neighbours and has in the past been racked by internal insurgency, terrorism and separatism.

A National Security Strategy (NSS) must stem from the country’s vision as a nation. As far as India is concerned, its vision for this period is given by its circumstances as a large and very poor country. So, the economic transformation of this country and removing the burden of poverty from hundreds of millions of its citizens has to be the primary goal of the nation.

Naturally, then, the aim of the NSS must be to enable conditions for India to meet its primary aim, which is of ensuring a peaceful periphery and internal stability.

It is at this point that the problems occur.

Depending on where you stand, you would have many views as to what is needed to secure peace in our neighbourhood. If we could identify problem areas, we would still have differences over assigning priority. Someone in Manipur may say Myanmar is a bigger problem, than a person sitting in Jodhpur who is worried about Pakistan.

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3 Purposes of an NSS

In essence there are three purposes that a national security strategy must serve:

First, to bring all of the government – which includes states and the Union-- onto the same page with respect to:

a) the national aims

b) the priority assigned to dealing with them

c) identifying and allocating resources for the purpose

d) assigning the responsibilities for the execution of various elements of the NSS.

Second, to prevent ad hoc responses and offer clear-cut functional ways of dealing with a situation. It provides for a “whole of government” (political leadership, bureaucracy, and concerned departments) approach towards dealing with situations, as well as putting in place capacities to meet the challenges before they can harm the country’s interests.

Third , to lay out the country’s red lines which are non-negotiable.

The NSS provides the means of messaging the red lines to a country’s adversaries, as well as signalling that the country has the means and will to respond to any breach.

Finally, considering that the NSS deals with government, security and policy, it may be a good idea for it to contain a classified portion as well.

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India's core interests may include:

1) Securing Indian borders and territory

a) Protecting against WMDs

b) Protecting against biothreats and pandemics

c) Thwarting terrorist activities

d) Securing cyberspace and India’s critical infrastructure

2) Promoting India’s internal stability

a) Promoting cooperative federalism

b) Avoiding policies that divide people in the name of religion, region and caste

c) Updating the Union-State government compact to prevent needless confrontation

3) Promoting the Indian economy

a) Adopting industrial and agricultural policies to trigger sustainable economic growth

b) Promoting trade relations with others on the basis of fairness and reciprocal commitments

c) Providing impetus for research in basic sciences, technology development and innovation

4) Promote Indian influence in the region and near abroad

a) Pursuing regional economic integration through SAARC and BIMSTEC

b) Taking an active role in promoting multilateral institutions like the UN, World Bank, IMF, WHO etc.

c) Building and participating in plurilateral institutions and coalitions like the Quad, I2U2, or the India-Australia-Japan trilateral to push policy

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Prioritising the response

A crucial element of any NSS is to prioritise the challenges that the nation confronts. No country can meet all its challenges in the same manner at the same time. After identifying the action areas, it is important to weigh the issues carefully, assign clear-cut priorities, and allocate appropriate resources for dealing with them.

Clearly, the integrity of the country’s borders and territory have the highest priority in any NSS. This involves multi-pronged action ranging from countering WMDs, deterring external adversaries, and thwarting terrorism and separatism.

In India’s case, large chunks of the border are disputed. When and how to settle the disputes are matters of policy which may be contained in a classified part of the NSS. However, the NSS could give a broad direction on the need to harden all borders, not just with Pakistan and China. Land borders with Bangladesh remain porous, as do maritime boundaries with Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

Prioritising has to be done in accordance with the resources available.

There may be some threats and challenges for which the country does not have adequate resources to deal with at a point in time. But in the future, they may be available. Instead of wasting time and money, the NSS can propose strategies to defer an issue. For example, in some instances, diplomacy may be used to postpone decisions, and in other instances for outright deception. This is what China did in the case of the Sino-Indian border in the 1951-1959 period.

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Maintain and sharpen Instruments of national security strategy

An NSS may be about the nation as a whole, but the policies that are needed to preserve the country’s security are the responsibility of the government of the day. It is, therefore, the responsibility of the Union government to work out a National Security Strategy in collaboration with the constituent states, and then to publicise it to reassure the country and warn the adversaries.

The government has various instruments at its command and it is its duty to ensure that that they are provided with adequate resources for the tasks assigned to them.

Second, it must clearly identify when and how which instrument is to be used.

Third, it needs to constantly review the efficacy of the use of particular instrument. There is a famous saying that “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

In other words, the NSS should have the flexibility of devising hybrid solutions and instruments, that is:

a) Military

Is obviously a vital component of the NSS as it is the ultimate guarantor of the territorial integrity and security of the nation.

b) Paramilitary

Paramilitary forces continue to play a vital role in preserving the internal security of the country from separatists and terrorists.

c) Defence Industrial system

Is a historic problem area. Unlike China, India is unable to emerge as a major arms supplier to neighbours because it lacks an effective defence industrial base.

d) Nuclear forces

India’s historical posture is of no-first-use, it is important to maintain its credibility which rests on the country’s ability to warn adversaries of assured retaliation in the event of an attack.

e) Space

Space is important for both development and defence.

f) Cyberspace

This again has two aspects, one in relation to development and the other to security.

g) Intelligence

This is an important instrument of state policy which must be used carefully to advance Indian interests and to defend against covert attacks on the country

h) Diplomacy

Effective diplomacy can be a useful tool of promoting national security strategy. In circumstances of resource constraints, it can be used to delay, and deflect challenges.

i) Information management

Today, perceptions are as important as reality. Effectively marshalling information can be a huge force multiplier for the country security strategy. At the same time, countering disinformation is an important task for information professionals.

j) Finance and revenue system

At the end of the day, the entire national security strategy rests on the ability of the country to marshal its monetary resources and to use them effectively to sharpen the instruments of policy which are vital for the defence of the nation, as well as the economic health of the country whose well being is what the National Security Strategy is all about.

Given the past experience with the NSS, it would be best to wait and see how things pan out. Having the government consider and approve of an NSS draft would be a major development which would enhance the country’s security. But if the past experience is a guide, it is best to keep your fingers crossed.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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