SecurityInterrupted-Intelligence I



Its been a while.

Today, I want to talk about an important facet of Indian governance that no political party will focus on during the run-up to 16 May 2014. While that list of ‘important concerns’ is endless, the idea for this blog stems from some recent research that I have been involved in.

Security Policy is an important topic, for a multitude of reasons. Exploring this in totality requires a macro-examination of the broad issues that impinge on a nation’s well-being. Analysing and predicting this is a major exercise no doubt, but where ‘Intelligence’ comes into its own is the ‘depth’ with which it pursues this agenda and the power it exhibits in ‘shaping’ events.

My focus today is but a brief glance at the Accountability mechanism overseeing India’s Intelligence Community (IC) – comprising agencies like the IB, R&AW, etc. This element is a critical measure in examining the IC’s effectiveness and in assessing the ‘legality’ of its conduct – protecting fundamental rights of all citizens versus fulfilling their intrusive requirements.

The IC is responsible for providing the nation’s policy/decision-makers with crucial inputs enabling them to channel the nation’s diplomatic, defence, economic and social policies, by digging under the surface of various domestic and international developments. It would not be wrong to say that policy-makers see development, social inclusiveness, economic growth, diplomacy and fiscal policies collectively under the garb of ‘security’, usually pitting these with overt manifestations of conflict. The ‘depth’ and ‘shaping’ criteria that ICs pursue towards addressing these demands require them to indulge in clandestine, covert and other ‘dark’ actions. In terms of the crucial aspect of legality (ever important in a democracy), the IC is provided with an added dimension of ‘discretion’. Though this entails a certain leeway, the IC’s ultimate ‘grand’ goal of preserving ‘democracy’ demands that their actions be constitutionally acceptable, giving legal authority to their mandate and enforcing oversight and transparency in keeping with the spirit of democracy.

India falters badly on this account. And the basic reason for this is a lack of sensitivity on the part of the population to ‘persistent discretionary’ practices within the corridors of governance. There’s a lot of talk about 1962, Kargil, 2002, 26/11, etc. generally revolving around intelligence failure, non-disclosure of classified documentation and lack of/pressing need for reform. This indicates that while there has been a knee-jerk, peripheral examination of the symptoms, no one has yet addressed the underlying causes, pointed out by the numerous fault-finding commissions whose findings are hidden from public view, mired in dust.

Unfortunately for the citizens, repeated failures haven’t pushed them into openly questioning the role of these agencies and the way they are run. For instance, while the IB, R&AW and the military intelligence agencies justifiably don’t find but a passing mention in the open media, the lack of credibility of an allied agency like the CBI (I guess IB + CBI can be equated to the FBI in the US – the difference being that intelligence and law-enforcement is separated in the Indian context) evidenced by their poor portrayal in the media, may be used to symbolise the performance of the entire IC – their actual performance being compared to the potential they hold in addressing the nation’s security concerns.

Putting right this issue of ‘legality’ and ‘effectiveness’ necessitates an examination of the IC ‘oversight’ mechanism. In India’s case, the IC comes under the sole purview of the Executive, which has the final call on transparency and accountability. For a coalition-prone federal political system as ours, the IC is unfortunately rendered as a mere tool in the hands of the ruling party. I say ruling party, because the IC cannot expect adequate coordination and cooperation from the various states that are controlled by different political interests. More often than not, this secret-slush fund-enabled community finds itself performing house-cleaning services for the party in power. ‘Survival’ of the party as the foremost concern. Expecting the party in power to relinquish this genie-in-a-bottle sometime in the future, the likely successors from the political arena find it tempting to continue this ‘eyewash’ – after all, its far more preferable to concentrate such power in a few hands rather than dilute it by handing its reins over to a multi-party parliamentary oversight committee that balances the need for secrecy with the imperative for accountability.

All is not so hunky-dory for the Executive, though. The events of the past decade culminating in the 26/11 attacks have brought ‘insecurity’ into every individual’s personal space. With security impinging on a citizen’s daily activities, IC affairs cannot continue to follow the ways of yesterday (when nations enjoyed a monopoly over the use of force). The citizen’s are going to demand greater accountability from the government in matters of security, and if not addressed, this may result in alternative ‘intelligence’ mechanisms (mercenary IC communities) within society, as an extreme case. With most cutting edge technology applicable to the IC community available in the open markets, be it in the cyber, communication, encryption domain etc., this is not altogether an impossible supposition. And that would seriously undermine a state’s effectiveness in satisfying the most basic demand of its inhabitants – Security.

Maintaining a narrow political focus while national security comes under assault from an ever increasing list of sources is a disturbing trend. If India were to continue on this path, the results could be grim indeed given its unique geopolitical and cultural vulnerabilities. Enabling an effective oversight mechanism for India’s Intelligence Community is but the first step in revitalising India’s strategic decision-making capacity.

Intelligence is too vital a tool to fritter away given contemporary challenges. More on this later.