reportage Government

Undercover

Ajit Doval in theory and practice

By PRAVEEN DONTHI | 1 September 2017

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“INDIA’S JAMES BOND”

PRIME MINISTER Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump addressed a joint press conference at the Rose Garden of the White House on the afternoon of 27 June. This followed the first meeting between the two leaders, and now each stood at a lectern with his prepared remarks. Trump addressed the audience first. “I’m proud to announce to the media, to the American people and to the Indian people, that Prime Minister Modi and I are world leaders in social media,” he said, drawing some laughter, before plunging into the usual diplomatic boilerplate. As Trump plodded on—“I look forward to working with you, Mister Prime Minister, to create jobs in our countries”—a gust of wind swept away some of Modi’s papers.

Ajit Doval sprang into action. From his seat in the front row—where he was seated alongside the Indian foreign secretary, the Indian ambassador to Washington and other high officials—the National Security Advisor rose faster than any of his fellows to gather the loose sheets from the lawn, bundle them together, and hand them back to his boss on the podium. Before he retreated, the compact 72-year-old, dressed as usual in a studiously nondescript suit and tie, also attentively replaced the cover on Modi’s glass of water—another victim of the wind. Modi later delivered his speech without incident.

The Press Trust of India issued a short dispatch describing the incident. This was soon published by a host of India’s major media outlets, each adding to it a dramatic headline: “How NSA Doval rescued PM Modi at White House event,” “When Ajit Doval saved Modi from embarrassment at White House,” and more in the same vein. These were passed around on social media—the NSA has several fan pages on Facebook and Twitter, with tens of thousands of followers between them. News channels broadcast footage of the scene. Before the day was done, Doval’s heroics had become a minor sensation.

AJIT DOVAL is India’s most powerful security bureaucrat. Appointed by and answerable only to the prime minister, he heads the National Security Council, an advisory body that includes the ministers of home, finance, defence and external affairs. A step lower down in the organisational hierarchy under the NSC is the Strategic Policy Group, which includes the secretaries of each of the ministries represented on the council, the heads of each branch of the armed forces, and the heads of India’s primary intelligence agencies—the Intelligence Bureau, or IB, and the Research and Analysis Wing, or RAW. The National Security Advisor is responsible for planning and coordinating the government’s efforts in pursuit of a coherent strategy for India’s protection, domestically and internationally. He also acts as the main filter of security-related information and advice between government organs and the prime minister, particularly when it comes to intelligence. On top of that, as the chairperson of the executive council of the Nuclear Command Authority, he recommends action on the control of India’s nuclear arsenal to the NCA’s ultimate authority, a political council chaired by the prime minister.

Those are the official bounds of Doval’s power. The real bounds of it are unclear, especially given the cloak-and-dagger nature of his work, but many familiar with the inner mechanics of the government are convinced that these transcend the official limits. Doval is among the few to constantly have the ear of a prime minister who has centralised power more than any of his predecessors in decades. An analyst who has worked with the NSA told me he has immense influence over the home ministry, the defence ministry and the ministry of external affairs. A former member of the cabinet secretariat said that Doval bypasses the command structures of India’s intelligence agencies and deals directly with their operatives. He also said that Doval acts as one of Modi’s main diplomatic counsellors, rivalled only by the foreign secretary. A Bloomberg report in 2016 stated that “some consider Ajit Doval the most powerful person in India after Prime Minister Narendra Modi.”

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Praveen Donthi is a Staff Writer at The Caravan. He is trained as a researcher in modern Indian history and became a journalist by accident. He has previously worked for Tehelka, Hindustan Times and Deccan Herald.

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