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Brajesh Mishra: India's first intelligence tsar

October 04, 2012 15:49 IST

Brajesh Mishra was without doubt an iconic figure. This was due not merely to the enormous influence he wielded with former Prime Minister Vajpayee but also because of his clarity of thought, his intellectual eminence, his can do spirit and his ability to command the loyalty of those who worked with him, notes Satish Chandra.

Many before him have exercised great influence on an Indian prime minister but no one's influence has been so extensive particularly in foreign policy and security related areas. This was, perhaps, an inevitability given his close personal friendship with Vajpayee dating back to the latter's days in the opposition, his simultaneous occupation of the key offices of principal secretary to PM and the National Security Advisor, his foreign policy expertise, and, of course, his aforementioned qualities of head and heart.

Mishra was no ideologue but was rather the supreme pragmatist. Accordingly, he could easily accommodate the imperative for a better relationship with the United States with the requirement of a modus vivendi with China. That India under the Vajpayee regime was able to make much progress in revamping our relationship with both the USA and China, and that too after our nuclear tests which were distasteful to both, is testimony to Mishra's diplomatic skill.

Not being a rigid ideologue Mishra had the propensity to zero in on the best possible outcome on any issue that the political leadership could collectively live with and to manoeovre a decision in that direction.

This may not have been the ideal solution or even his own preferred choice but was one which carrying near consensus was the most practicable under the prevailing circumstances.

The three areas in which Mishra left an indelible imprint were India's nuclear policy, its security systems and its foreign policy.

Given the fact that as the Bharatiya Janata Party's foreign policy spokesman, Mishra had unequivocally made known that if elected to power the BJP would make the bomb, it is no surprise that he presided over the nuclearisation of India. It is tribute to him that he ensured that India's nuclear tests were successfully conducted within weeks of the NDA government's assumption of office and that the veil of secrecy so necessary to facilitate their conduct was duly maintained and not lifted till completion of the tests.

Having tested, it was Mishra who oversaw the country's nuclear weaponisation and put in place viable systems and structures not only to manage this process but also to ensure the effective use of these weapons, should the need arise, in accordance with prescribed policies and directives. Indeed, India's nuclear doctrine, its nuclear command and control system and its increasingly more effective deterrent are to no small extent due to Mishra's exertions.

Being the prime minister's pointman on security, in his capacity as the NSA, Mishra was inevitably involved in all security related issues both internal and external. One of his most important contributions in his role as NSA was to build a host of new security related institutions and structures. It was thus under his direction that the National Security Council system (comprising the National Security Council, the National Security Council Secretariat, the Strategic Policy Group, the National Security Advisory Group, and the office of the National Security Advisor) was set up designed to cope with both existing and emerging security challenges as well as to fuse and coordinate intelligence.

In addition, an Intelligence Coordination Group was created to task the intelligence agencies and ensure their accountability, a National Information Board was established for national level policy formulation on information warfare and information security and an apex techint agency was set up.

All these newly created entities and structures were assiduously nurtured by Mishra and had begun to find their feet by the time he demitted office. He, however, candidly admitted that while the NDA government had embedded these entities in the Indian security firmament they would take years to fully establish themselves and accordingly their future would depend upon whether or not succeeding governments would continue to similarly support them.

It may be mentioned that by virtue of his position as the NSA and his heading the Intelligence Coordination Board, Mishra in effect became India's first intelligence tsar who regularly interacted with all the intelligence agencies and sought to exercise effective oversight over them and to ensure proper intelligence sharing.

In the realm of foreign policy, Mishra's role, given his background as a professional diplomat, was considerable. It is, therefore, not surprising that after having gotten over the downturn in our ties with the USA and China following our nuclear tests India generally had good ties with countries all across the globe during the NDA regime.

As mentioned earlier improved ties with the USA coincided with better relations with China, relations with countries like Russia and France were refurbished, and we had robust links with both Iran and Israel at the same time.

Both Mishra and Vajpayee showed little hawkishness on either Pakistan or China and presumably there was no perceptible difference of approach between the two. Nevertheless it is significant that former Pakistan President Musharraf declared a ceasefire across the LoC and in the India-Pakistan joint statement of January 2004 negotiated by Mishra provided an assurance that he would "not permit any territory under Pakistan's control to be used to support terrorism in any manner." It is also significant that it was during the NDA regime that the Chinese authorities shared maps pertaining to their claims in the middle sector.       

Mishra also deserves unqualified credit for the upturn in India-US ties. After the damage done to the relationship as a result of the US reaction to our tests had been arrested, Mishra made it plain to his US interlocutors that ties between the two countries would never be able to achieve their full potential unless there was cooperation on the trinity issues notably high technology commerce, civilian nuclear energy cooperation and civilian space collaboration. To its credit the US in turn recognized the substance of this argument and sought to rectify the situation which led to the blossoming of ties between the two countries.

All those privileged to work closely with Mishra would testify to the fact that he was an ideal boss. Always accessible his decisions were quick and instructions precise and clear cut. While not one to suffer fools easily he was quite willing to permit one to take a position not in consonance with his own. He was big enough to take an honest difference of opinion in his stride and not allow it to come in the way of a productive professional relationship geared to promoting the national interest.

All this taken together with the complete backing and support provided by him to those who worked with him in fulfillment of their mandate explains the unflinching loyalty and trust that he inspired from them and helped him in achieving as much as he did.   

The author is a retired diplomat and former Deputy NSA of India       

Satish Chandra