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A rare, unprecedented case

By Inder Malhotra

It is no surprise that in the heat, dust and noise generated by the Lok Sabha elections already, few have taken notice of the Vajpayee Government's rather remarkable decision to give the Secretary of the National Security Council (NSC), Satish Chandra, a second two-year extension.

In 1997, when the retirement age of civil servants was raised from 58 to 60, a "no extensions" doctrine was simultaneously proclaimed. But there have been numerous exceptions to this rule since. However, up to now the extensions were usually for a year or so. In several cases, superannuated bureaucrats were "re-employed" for specific assignments for limited periods or given political posts such as Governor or Ambassador.

Mr. Chandra's is a rare, if not unprecedented, case. What makes it all the more notable is that instead of engendering a howl of protests, it has been generally welcomed by his peers and even more by the capital's expanding strategic community. For this, there are at least two good and overlapping reasons.

In the first place, though the NSC has been in existence for well over four years, its working has yet to be streamlined. The process of decision-making on security-related issues has also to be institutionalised fully. It is not enough to rely largely on the personal role of the National Security Adviser and Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, Brajesh Mishra, that is currently central.

That is where the second reason — Mr. Chandra's experience and the expertise that he has acquired during the last four years as the NSC's Secretary since its inception and as Deputy National Security Adviser — comes in. Unlike in other democracies, the NSC here is a recent innovation and not many bureaucrats are familiar with its requirements.

The decision to extend Mr. Chandra's services is thus connected with the Government's feeling that the NSC needs to be revamped, with a view to removing its deficiencies, and that this task should be taken in hand immediately after the polls. That the BJP-led Government is confident of returning to power is not a heavily-guarded secret. But even if there is an upset in the elections and the rival combination takes over, the need to reinvigorate the NSC would remain urgent.

Come to think of it, the Government's newly-acquired respect for expertise is a refreshing change from the firmly established pattern, inherited from the Raj and inexplicably continued for all the 56 years since Swaraj. Under it, all members of the bureaucracy must be generalist and should be rotated from one job to another all the time. So much so that the Group of Ministers (GoM) appointed in the wake of the Subrahmanyam Committee's report on Kargil — to devise a comprehensive scheme to reorganise and improve the higher defence and national security set-up — blithely rejected one of the soundest pieces of advice given to it by a task force, headed by N.N. Vohra, a highly experienced civil servant.

The task force's recommendation, brushed aside by the GoM, was for the formation of a separate pool of officers of the IAS, IFS and others all-India services to deal with the mounting problems of internal security that require specialisation and periodic retraining.

Another instructive instance of the prevailing culture is that some time ago, a senior NSC officer considered suitable to be the Director of the Government-funded Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) because of his expertise in national security affairs was not appointed to that post.

For, some in the higher echelons of the Government had thought that his services would be needed as a future Defence Secretary. In the event, the officer never got that job. He was made a Secretary in the Ministry of Finance, instead.

All this is exactly in consonance with how things were more than three decades ago. On the last day of 1970, Indira Gandhi suddenly decided that top officers who had stayed for a long period in any Ministry should be shifted to another.

Consequently, Harish Sarin, who had spent most of his career until then in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and was then Defence Secretary, was transferred to the Steel Ministry.

K.B. Lall, another highly-respected civil servant who died at the age of 88 recently, was appointed Defence Secretary although he had never before served in the MoD. He had made a name for himself in the Ministry of Commerce and Foreign Trade and had served as Commerce Secretary as well as Ambassador to the European Common Market, as the European Union was then known.

As it happened, however, the changeover proved highly propitious. Sarin, for all his ability and skills, was not on the best of terms with General (later Field-Marshal) Sam Manekshaw. Lall, by contrast, had an enviable capacity to get along with everyone.

The result was that when the Bangladesh crisis erupted less than three months later and led to a 14-day clash of arms later still, Lall's stewardship of the MoD contributed materially to the smooth conduct of, and spectacular victory in, the 1971 War.

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