SPG rejig gives more power to Ajit Doval, handle to PMO
A rejig of the key Strategic Policy Group (SPG) gives National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval an unprecedented role in the process of planning India’s security strategy, and the Prime Minister’s Office an absolute handle on the issue.
The SPG is not a new creation. It was set up in 1999 under the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government and was earlier headed by the Cabinet Secretary. It was considered the first level of the National Security Council (NSC) structure. The SPG is mandated to publish the Strategic Defence Review — a draft of short-term and long-term security threats and defence matters for consideration of the apex body.
Sources said replacing the Cabinet Secretary with NSA in the new format of SPG made the group an adjunct to the Prime Minister’s Office. A former home secretary said, “The Cabinet Secretary is a seasoned government servant and has more institutional sanctity. Unlike the Cabinet Secretary, NSA is a political appointee. The NSA chairing such a group suggests concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office. An informal power structure has been formalised.”
The Cabinet Secretariat is responsible for administration of government, including transaction and allocation of business. It assists in decision-making by ensuring inter-ministerial coordination and ironing out differences among ministries and departments and, when required, setting up standing or ad hoc committees of secretaries to evolve consensus. It was for this reason that the SPG was earlier chaired by the Cabinet Secretary, explained a former finance secretary.
Besides the Cabinet Secretary, other members of the SPG are Vice Chairman of NITI Aayog, who holds the rank of a Cabinet Minister, the Cabinet Secretary, three services chiefs, RBI Governor, Secretaries of External Affairs, Home, Defence, Finance, Defence Production, Revenue, Atomic Energy, Space and National Security Council Secretariat, besides the Scientific Advisor to Defence Minister, Secretary (R) in Cabinet Secretariat and the Intelligence Bureau chief.
A former Cabinet Secretary during the UPA tenure said the SPG did not meet frequently. “The meeting was called on particular issues. It dealt with left-wing militancy, terrorism, and different aspects of security, including fake currency.” The Cabinet Secretary also reported to the Prime Minister, he said, adding that a particular dispensation may decide how to structure processes or groups such as these.
A senior Defence Ministry official pointed that the SPG under the Cabinet Secretary held few deliberations. “With so many agencies, government departments, RBI, it was difficult to coordinate,” he explained.
Doval also heads the Defence Planning Committee set up in April 2018. The DPC was earlier chaired by the Defence Minister and had the chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, the three service chiefs, secretaries of the Ministries of Defence, Expenditure and Foreign Affairs as its members.
Another former cabinet secretary said the present government has not been able to demonstrate any tangible action on national security and integrate the forces.
A former army chief said, “As NSA enjoys a rank equivalent to MoS, it will help overcome protocol issues in chairing a meeting of the chiefs and secretaries.”