Who is India's National Security Advisor and why did Putin decide to meet him one on one?
The recent one-on-one meeting between India’s National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Kumar Doval and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow underscored the growing stature of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s key resource for troubleshooting both back home and in key foreign capitals.
Putin took some foreign policy experts by surprise by making time to meet with Doval, India’s fifth NSA and a retired Intelligence Bureau (IB) chief. Their hour-long meeting took place on the sidelines of an Afghanistan conference, organized under the aegis of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Doval is only the second Indian NSA to have had an individual meeting with the Russian president. The first such meeting was the inaugural NSA Brajesh Mishra, back in 2001. Of all Indian high-ranking officials, only Prime Ministers have ever had direct meetings with Putin. Even the country’s External Affairs Ministers have been excluded, including the incumbent Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.
Doval’s claim to fame
Doval retired as the IB chief in 2005, having only served in that capacity for 18 months, prior to the introduction of a compulsory two-year tenure for the post. He then founded a nationalistic think-tank, Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF). In 2014, he became NSA after Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected.
Soon after, Doval hit the headlines. In June that year, he negotiated the release of 46 Indian nurses who were trapped in a hospital in Tikrit, Iraq, which was reeling under an Islamic State (IS) onslaught. On July 5, 2014, the nurses were brought back to India. The success of the operation was among the first of his achievements as NSA, which marked his rise to power and influence.
A lifelong counter-insurgent
Born in India’s state of Uttarakhand – which was then part of the United Provinces in pre-Independent India – Doval joined the Indian Police Service in 1968. He played a prominent role in anti-insurgency operations in Mizoram and Punjab throughout the late 1970s and 1980s.
Doval was one of the key figures in gathering intelligence for “Operation Blue Star” to eliminate Khalistani, or Sikh, militancy in 1984. He went to Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) in 1990 and convinced hardline militants to become counter-insurgents, which set the stage for holding polls in the troubled border state in 1996.
At the end of 1999, Doval as Additional Director in the IB, was one of the three negotiators for the release of 155 passengers from Indian Airlines Flight 814, hijacked in Taliban-controlled Kandahar. The seven-day hostage drama was masterminded by Pakistani terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed, and Doval accused Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence of supporting the hijacking. Besides this incident, he has successfully resolved at least 14 other hijackings of Indian aircraft since 1971.
Doval’s meteoric rise
Doval is an ultra-nationalist with a subdued work style and a no-nonsense approach to what India perceives as security threats – and his threat perception is fully in line with the Modi government’s. The imprint of Doval’s strategic vision was in the public domain long before he became NSA.
In a 2011 paper titled ‘Internal Security: Need for Course Correction’, Doval wrote, “The 26/11 terrorist action at Mumbai depicted a new order of lethality in Pakistan’s unabated covert offensive against India. For almost three decades, India has passively accepted such provocations. It has failed to retaliate in a proactive manner that could raise costs for Pakistan and compel it to roll back its anti-India terrorist infrastructure. India ceded the strategic and tactical initiative to Pakistan some three decades ago and needs a course correction before it poses an existential threat.”
No wonder his views have resonated with those of Modi, who made him one of his key confidants in the neighborhood policy watch – from Myanmar in the north-east to Pakistan and China at the western and northern frontiers, respectively – coupled with New Delhi’s relentless fight against cross-border terrorism and internal security threats.
Doval headed a successful military operation in Myanmar in 2015, along with the then-Indian Army Chief General Dalbir Singh Suhag, against the proscribed National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) militants.
India’s recent cross-border attacks into Pakistani territory – the 2016 “surgical strike” on militants’ launch pads and the 2019 airstrikes on alleged terrorist training camps – were conducted under Doval’s supervision. He also helped end the Doklam stand-off between Indian defense forces and China’s People’s Liberation Army in 2017.
He is known to have spent seven years in Pakistan gathering intelligence on active militant groups.
India’s most powerful bureaucrat
In October 2018, the Modi administration decided to revive the Strategic Policy Group – an agency tasked with advising the PM on matters of national security and strategic interest – with Doval as its chairman. The group was tasked with assisting the National Security Council and helping with a long-term strategic defense review. The move made Doval the most powerful bureaucrat in India since 1998 when the NSA post was created.
The group has become the main mechanism for inter-ministerial coordination in forming national security policies and his uninterrupted access to the PM makes him much more powerful than many of the ministers in the Modi cabinet.
In 2019, Doval was reappointed as NSA for five more years and given a Cabinet rank in the second term of the Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government.
Wooing foreign powers
In their book, ‘Spy Stories: Inside the Secret World of the RAW and the ISI’, British journalists, Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, describe how India’s security infrastructure became more flexible and sensitive under Doval’s watch. “The perception game and narrative control became far more sophisticated, selling the story of India to foreign partners,” they said.
“Under Doval, foreign powers traditionally suspicious of India were wooed... When to fight, and how to fight, and who would read about it were all indices in Doval's calculations,” they added.
It is estimated that the Doval Doctrine has been a success in containing internal security challenges in J&K. The average lifespan of a hardened separatist after appearing on the defense forces’ radar has been reduced to only 4-12 weeks from an earlier estimate of six months to two years.
A nationalist ‘hawk’ with unbridled taste for power
Several columnists, defense analysts and Doval’s former colleagues have branded him a hawk. He has also been criticized for deliberately pushing hard-line nationalism in tune with the policy of India’s ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party and the influence of which is being felt in its foreign policy. His statements on Pakistan and China, in particular, have been cited as India’s “muscular Hindutva narrative”.
Doval has also been called out for his vaulting ambition. Amarjit Singh Dulat, who headed India’s espionage agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) between 1999 and 2000, recently told The Wire in an interview that “Ajit (Doval) is very good at sniffing power and yeah, he tries to stay on the right side. He would stay on the right side. But I won’t say that he doesn’t have his preferences. That’s why I said he has never possibly been happier in his career than he is today because he and Modi are just made for each other.”
He has often drawn flak from his detractors for his purported disregard for conflict management and alleged human rights violations. He has been accused of being quick on the draw in ordering the elimination of separatists posing internal security challenges in parts of India, including J&K, which has been a victim of cross-border terrorism by non-state actors from neighboring Pakistan.
However, he has also found praise from unexpected quarters and high places.
Doval’s prominent role in foreign policy was emphasized by former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In his book, ‘Never Give an Inch: Fighting for the America I Love’, he recalls Doval’s general acceptance from Washington to Moscow.
Pompeo, who was the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director in the Trump administration from 2017 to 2018 and then served as the Secretary of State from 2018 to 2021, wrote: “On the Indian side, my original counterpart was not an important player on the Indian foreign policy team. Instead, I worked much more closely with NSA Ajit Doval, a close and trusted confidant of PM Narendra Modi.”
Official information about the substance of Putin and Doval’s conversation is mostly limited to generic statements that the two “had wide-ranging discussions on bilateral and regional issues” and “agreed to continue work towards implementing the India-Russia special and privileged strategic partnership”.
It is significant, however, that the meeting came close on the heels of Doval’s visits to Washington and London, which are leading the Western coalition to support Ukraine against Russia’s military operation. It is believed that Doval and Putin’s talks went beyond the strategic ties between Russia and India, as the NSA purportedly briefed the Russian leader about the mood in Washington and London, according to an official in the Ministry of External Affairs.
India, while having no direct stake in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, has to tread the middle ground between its partnerships with Russia and the US, at the same time seeking a more prominent global role for itself as the leading voice of the Global South. The rare one-on-one chat between the Russian president and one of New Delhi’s most influential figures, coupled with the latter’s preceding tour of the “other camp” in Washington, could be indicative of India’s attempts to carve out recognition and influence that would come by playing a role in ending year-long conflict that has been rocking global politics.
Russia, on the other hand, wants to maintain and further develop its partnerships after the sanctions and restrictions effectively cut it off from much of the Western markets. The Putin-Doval meeting, besides whatever its more practical implications may be, can be seen as a sign of special trust. As a former KGB officer, Putin may feel a greater degree of kinship with Doval, an added bonus to the sheer practicality of having a direct line with Modi’s most trusted aide. Their surprise meeting indicates that both understand the importance of unscripted diplomacy at a time when the US bid to solidify a unipolar world structure is being resisted by Moscow, Beijing and the Global South.