NEW DELHI: Is National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, the sleuth seen to be an expert in covert operations across South Asia, losing his clout? In that, is his hard line policy towards South Asian neighbours, particularly Pakistan and Nepal, now in the process of being reversed by the government?

The foreign policy establishment of serving and retired officials in Delhi seem to think so, following the government’s decision to move for talks with Pakistan despite Doval’s known advocacy for hard action, and a shift from the ‘defensive’ to the ‘offensive-defensive’ stance that he has effected over the 17 odd months of the NDA rule. To the point where the Ministry of External Affairs was being eclipsed by the Prime Ministers Office with foreign policy more part of Doval’s domain, than Foreign Secretary Jaishankars preserve.

Indian diplomats welcomed the decision to resume the dialogue with Pakistan, with many pointing out that the hard statement from Ufa was the NSA’s doing. The consensus seemed to centre around the understanding that Doval had engineered the statement on terrorism on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Russia, and “did not leave space for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif” who was then pressured by the Pakistan Army to drop the talks altogether. “Now clearly this line has been seen as faulty, and a realisation that diplomacy cannot be strait jacketed seems to be seeping in,” a retired diplomat said.

India has come under tremendous pressure from the world to resume talks with Pakistan. Paris clinched this with both the US and UK urging Prime Minister Narendra Modi to break the ice. Backroom talks prepared the ground for the ‘pull aside’ under 3 minute meeting between PM and the Pakistan Prime Minister. This was followed by the NSA, Foreign secretary level talks with Pakistan, and has now resulted in the participation of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in the Heart of Asia dialogue in Islamabad on Afghanistan.

Significantly Doval is also being seen as responsible for the “mess” in Nepal, with relations between Kathmandu and New Delhi stretched to almost breaking point over Nepals Constitution that rejected the concept of Hindu rashtra for a secular state. India moved to blockade fuel and essential goods leading to what the world has recognised as a humanitarian crisis in Nepal, that is facing a severe winter without fuel, gas, and suffering a massive shortage of essential medicines and commodities. The Nepal government, however, refused to yield with the world wide pressure now forcing India to try and mend relations. Doval has been speaking with the Madhesi groups who, according to the Nepalese government, were being propped up by New Delhi to agitate and block the trucks at the borders. But Sanghiya Samajbadi Forum-Nepal Chairman Upendra Yadav, has shunned the mediation, making it clear to Doval that the Madhes-based parties would continue to hold their ground, as the demands they have put forth were not new. “These are not our new demands; we have launched a movement to get the demands, which were already agreed upon, fulfilled,” Yadav told Doval. Yadav also said that Madhes-based parties will continue their protests at border points.

The Madhesi delegates on Tuesday also met Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar. Sources said that these meetings constitute efforts to bring India-Nepal relations back on track, but given the anger in Kathmandu this might not be so easy to achieve.

Doval is said to be largely responsible for the heightened tensions between New Delhi and her neighbours. However, the criticism seems to be flowing from the foreign policy establishment with little or no indication of his current relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Doval has been widely perceived, both in government and the party, as the Prime Ministers Man in the PMO and has enjoyed---at least till date---an exorbitant say in all crucial matters of foreign policy and national security.

It was not long ago that he warned Pakistan “If you (Pakistan) do a Mumbai, you will lose Baluchistan”, in a rather uncharacteristic comment from the NSA. He is a master of covert operations and has a string of ‘achievements’ that establish him as such. He was undercover in Pakistan for seven years posing as a Muslim in Lahore. And he himself has recounted an experience from those days on record saying how he had gone to a mazhar in Lahore, and found a man with a white beard sitting in a corner, who then asked him “are you a Hindu.” Doval denied it, and then the man said come with me, and he walked along, and the man took him into a small room and shut the door. And then asked him again whether he was a Hindu. Doval said he told him he had converted to Islam, and the man said, ‘no you are not a convert.’ And pointed to Doval’s ears pierced when he was a child as per a local Indian custom, as proof. And then the man went on to tell him, Doval said, that he himself was a Hindu initially, that his entire family had been killed by “these people” and that he was now accepted as a respected religious person of the area. In recounting the incident Doval also pointed out that the man had idols of Durga and Shiva in the small room where he had taken him.

Doval is also credited with posing as a Pakistani spy during the insurgency days of the Khalistan movement in Punjab, where he mixed with the militants in the Golden Temple in Amritsar for information.

His policy has been to make it unaffordable for Pakistan to counter India at any levels with the ‘thousand cuts’ approach that he is said to be a strong advocate of.

As NSA a coup largely credited to him was the defeat of former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Citizen had reported at the time, “the covert operations followed assessments that Rajapaksa had moved into China’s camp. The former President visited China seven times since 2005, and relations between Colombo and Beijing were gathering strength, but the final straw for India was the permission for the Chinese submarines to dock on two different occasions without informing India as per the provisions of a bilateral maritime pact. This was perceived by New Delhi as a threat with Doval and his team moving in to stitch together a veritable coup.” Full details can be found at Doval.

Currently, however, the NSA seems well ensconced with the shift in policy towards the neighbours not seeming to threaten his position. Rumours of senior officers in government, like Doval or the Foreign Secretary, being ‘cut to size’ are part of the Delhi bureaucratic grapevine and not necessarily true, except for the fleeting moments of transition.