Thursday, February 04, 2010

Diplomat Menon can handle security as well

Every time I pass through the sleepy railway station at Ottapalam on
the banks of Kerala’s legendary river, Bharathapuzha, I wonder about
the air and water of that little town, which seems to nourish national
leaders. Nothing seems to change in Ottapalam. The Gulf boom of Kerala
has left it unscathed and it still looks like an overgrown village,
with lush greenery.

But successive Prime Ministers, from Jawaharlal Nehru to Manmohan
Singh, look for talent there when it comes to crucial national
positions. No government in New Delhi has ever been without the
Ottapalam touch. At one time, K.R. Narayanan, who once represented
Ottapalam in the Lok Sabha, adorned the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The appointment of Shiv Shankar Menon as the National Security Adviser
(NSA) is the addition of just another “Mallu” to the corridors of
power in New Delhi for the envious power brokers.

“Menongitis” is a disease they have learnt to live with since the time
of V.K. Krishna Menon, V.P. Menon and K.P.S. Menon.

But many have not noticed that Ottapalam has produced two super
spooks, Sankaran Nair and M.K. Narayanan, already and Shiv Shankar
Menon should be able to combine diplomacy with security as the other
two from his hometown have done with distinction in the past.

If Nair and Narayanan could succeed as diplomats, there is no reason
why Menon cannot do justice to his security role.

Institutions rather than personalities should be the focus when
matters of national importance are discussed. Brajesh Mishra, J.N.
Dixit, M.K.Narayanan and Shankar Menon were appointed National
Security Advisers by the respective Prime Ministers, not because they
belonged to one particular service or another, but because they had
competence and integrity to serve in that office.

The hue and cry about the need for a change in the role of the NSA
consequent upon the appointment of Menon, therefore, is wishful
thinking to dilute the institution and to detract from his exceptional
abilities. It is heartening that the Prime Minister has not altered
the NSA’s job description as yet and he is not likely to do so even
after the projected revamp of the anti-terrorism machinery.

Home Minister Chidambaram was wise in not bringing the NSA into the
discussion on the new structure he envisaged to meet the challenge of
terrorism. He made it clear that it was for the Prime Minister to
assign tasks to the NSA to get the best possible advice on national
security matters and that he would not suggest any changes in the role
of the NSA.

This is the right approach to take and nothing should come in the way
of the ability of the NSA to have access to external and internal
intelligence, without which he cannot render the right advice to the
Prime Minister.

What he requires is access rather than control over the intelligence
agencies. It is more useful for the NSA to be a consumer of
intelligence rather than its czar. Having used intelligence in
Islamabad, Beijing and Colombo for effective diplomatic practice,
Menon will not be a babe in the woods when it comes to handling

Even if the Prime Minister takes special interest in foreign policy
and makes use of his NSA to convey the right messages to the world, it
is the Foreign Secretary who has to implement foreign policy and
administer the missions.

Foreign Secretaries played their role even during the Vajpayee-Mishra
era. Having been a Foreign Secretary himself, Menon will be
particularly sensitive to the proper functioning of the Foreign
Secretary. He will not be blamed as Brajesh Mishra was that the latter
had nursed a grievance that he did not become the Foreign Secretary

Lack of respect for institutions is evident also in speculation that
Menon will make dramatic changes in foreign policy and that he will be
partial towards the countries he served in. Such speculation also
tends to question the logic of our foreign policy, dictated as much by
history as by geopolitics.

Menon was not inattentive to the neighbourhood as Foreign Secretary
and it was not any omission or commission on the part of India that
determined the course of events in our neighbourhood.

Personalities do matter in the making of foreign policy, but to
attribute changes to the Foreign Secretary or the National Security
Adviser is to challenge the decisive role of the political leadership.

The “menon-hunt” that was launched after Sharm el- Sheikh was actually
an attack on the Prime Minister himself, but the attack was on Menon
as he was considered vulnerable. Policy must remain with the political
leadership in any democracy. By appointing Menon as the NSA, the Prime
Minister has taken the responsibility for Sharm el Sheikh. He did not
need a scapegoat.

Menon is neither a hawk nor a dove when it comes to Pakistan and
China. He has won laurels in his assignments by remaining within his
brief and using his enormous diplomatic skills to secure results. His
deep knowledge of China is an asset to the government because he is
not swayed by personal prejudices or preferences.

He will be an ideal adviser to the Prime Minister as he has the unique
ability to present the pros and cons without pushing a particular
point of view. Whether it is diplomacy or security or both, Menon will
be able to do full justice.

The writer is a former Ambassador and member, National Security
Advisory Board, New Delhi

The Tribune February 4

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