NEW DELHI: The Pathankot Operation has unleashed a wave of discussion amongst senior bureaucrats and defence officials. And placed additional strain on civil-military relations that are just about civil in the best of times. It is no secret that both the civilian bureaucracy and the military officers regard each other with suspicion, and while the first insists that the defence sector is unduly pampered by political governments, the second is equally adamant of being discriminated against by the bureaucracy.

The decision by the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval to bring the control of the Pathankot Operations under the civilian authority, bypassing the military despite the terror attack being on an Air Force base in Pathankot cantonment has invited adverse comment from senior retired officers of the defence services, some of which have been reported by The Citizen over the past few days. A particularly castigating missive was from Lt General H.S. Panag with questions being raised about civilian ‘incompetency.’

Significantly this debate has been joined now by senior bureaucrats as well, many of them divided about the role of the NSA that is under unofficial scrutiny. In an email former Home Secretary Dhirendra Singh who also was chairperson of a government committee for amendments to the Defence Procurement Procedure, speaks of the NSA system exercising power without responsibility.

Singh, in the email a copy of which is with The Citizen, writes, “We hence see all over the decline of the Cabinet system and the emergence of the Prime Ministerial form , a poor cousin of the Presidential form. This has been bolstered by quick means of communication and a media which prefers to highlight personalities rather than issues.

So we have summits of all kinds being frequently organised in which a set of Presidents and PMs are always attending, a cozy arrangement which suits the few. The rest of the Ministers do not matter and in fact even the Foreign and Defence Secretaries of Great Britain , Japan or for that matter any country you take are not known and do not actually matter . This has willy nilly brought in the spoils system without the rigour of the US checks and balances system . There is unlike in the US very little Parliamentary oversight on security related issues.

The NSA system is not backed by any legislative provisions and so there is a lot of power being exercised by this office without any responsibility. In fact our system also does not provide for any forum which is formalised in which the NSA can express his opinion and which can be challenged by the civil service institutions. Thus his views do not appear in any file which can be the subject of Parliamentary scrutiny. It is only the GOI Ministers and Secretaries who remain responsible and have to answer to Parliament either in Committees( Secretaries ) or the House ( Ministers). Because of this structural defect ( and the concomitant decline of formal arrangements like the Crisis Management Group) the system can never deliver results and will always create unforeseen problems. It has nothing to do with individuals some of whom could be mediocre and some brilliant.”

The strain of this system is impacting on the defence forces that find themselves on the other side of the civilian authority yet again. After the breach under former Defence Minister A.K.Antony was mended somewhat, it has re-emerged over the gross mishandling of sensitive issues like One Rank One Pension, and now the Pathankot operation where the military has not only found itself marginalised, but also placed in the dock to answer for an attack for which it does not see itself as directly responsible. And as senior defence officers now retired have been pointing out from the day of the attack, if the security had been left to the Army that has 50,000 troops stationed in Pathankot cantonment, the five terrorists would “have been dealt with” in what is described as a “simple operation” for the military.

Former Revenue Secretary M.Sivaraman in an email, again a copy of which is with The Citizen, writes, “We have also the 30 odd DGPs and hundreds of ADGPs in the states plus the multiple central police organisations . The police forces in the states have become hydra headed because of the promotion policies and so are the IAS ( perhaps more joint secretary level officers than collectors mostly counting linen) and other services resulting in a total loss of command and control. Some states may have more ADGPs than Superintendents of Police.I was told by my batchmate of the IPS that Madhya Pradesh has 45 ADGPs and several DGP level officers even though there is no provision.We also have the RAW,MI and probably similar set up in the navy and the IAF.

We have other set ups like the NSA, the NTRO and I do not know how many others. We have the ED, the DRI,the DG investigations of the IT,EIB and FIA,with the Revenue Secretary which also had the NCB till Advani transferred it to the police a very unusual step as this is not the case in most developed countries ( since then India has witnessed a surge in Cocaine smuggling and cross border smuggling).Crores of rupees are spent on intelligence gathering under the secret service funds not subject to audit.

What has happened since (Brajesh) Misra became the NSA is another power centre has come up to be the pointman of the PM whose shadow falls on many departments with consequences.

Duval has been an outstanding police officer no doubt and may be he is trying very hard to be useful to the country.

Government has to think what all these organisations and high and mighty officers are doing while the terrorists have a merry time here.”

Brajesh Mishra, the first NSA in India, would make it clear that the clout of the office was directly related to the incumbent’s relationship with the Prime Minister. He himself was a close friend of then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee and both worked closely together. As he had told this writer at one point, he would carry slips of paper informing the PM about an issue, and seeking a quick ‘yes’ to act. He said that this way he ensured that no matter how busy Vajpayee was he would be always informed about what the NSA was doing.

NSA Doval is seen to be very close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and while not a ‘friend’ in the strict sense of the term, enjoys his confidence. He has been given full freedom, sources said, to handle the intelligence apparatus and take decisions on security related issues. In the Pathankot case, he used this power to take direct charge of the Operations, placing the military on the periphery. The government has not taken note of the murmurings in the defence services about this, with the media focus having been made to shift to the role of the Punjab government instead, and the security failures to secure the Air Force base even before the attack.