NEW DELHI – New Prime Minister Narendra Modi has chosen a daring former spy with years of experience in dealing with Pakistan as his national security adviser, a move that officials say signals a more muscular approach to New Delhi’s traditional enemy.
The choice of Ajit Doval, alongside former Indian Army chief Gen. V.K. Singh as a federal minister for the northeast region, underscores plans to revamp national security that Modi says became weak under the outgoing government.
The two top-level appointments, reporting directly to Modi, point to a desire to address what are arguably India’s two most pressing external security concerns — Pakistan and China, both of which, like India, have nuclear arms.
Doval, a highly decorated officer renowned for his role in dangerous counterinsurgency missions, has long advocated tough action against militant groups, although operations he has been involved in suggest a level of pragmatism.
In the 1980s, he smuggled himself into the Golden Temple in the city of Amritsar, from where Sikh militants were later flushed out, and he infiltrated a powerful guerrilla group fighting for independence from India in the northeastern state of Mizoram. The group ultimately signed a peace accord.
Doval was also on the ground in Kandahar, Afghanistan, when an Indian Airlines plane from Katmandu was hijacked by Pakistan-based militants on Christmas Eve in 1999. The crisis was resolved when top militants were freed in exchange for hostages.
“Doval is an out-of-the-box thinker,” said an Intelligence Bureau officer with long years of service in Kashmir and other Indian hot spots. “Expect him to shake things up.”
The official said he expected the new security team to push for a rapid expansion of border infrastructure and a streamlining of intelligence services, which still function in isolation and often impede one other.
Singh has declared his priority is to develop the northeast in order to narrow the gap with Chinese investment in roads and railways on its side of the frontier.
India is also creating a new mountain corps and beefing up border defenses, although that initiative has stalled.
A secure India is a long-standing goal of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the new prime minister himself wants strong borders so the country can focus fully on giving economic growth a much-needed boost.
He won the election in May in a landslide victory largely on economic pledges that India’s 1.2 billion people hope will secure jobs and raise living standards.
But with most foreign troops withdrawing from Afghanistan by the end of this year, India is concerned that Islamist militants fighting there will turn their sights toward the disputed Kashmir region, which is also claimed by Pakistan.
India and Pakistan have fought two of three wars since independence over the Himalayan territory, and their armed forces are separated there by a rugged, mountainous Line of Control that militants have the capability to cross.
Doval, 69, formerly head of the Intelligence Bureau domestic spy agency, will be national security adviser, only the second officer from the intelligence community to hold the post.
Doval did not say what his priorities will be after his job was announced Friday, but in conversations previously as head of a right-wing think tank in New Delhi, he said the new government must lay down core security policies, one of which will be “zero tolerance” for acts of violence. He was referring to operations by militants who India says cross from Pakistan, like the gunmen who killed 166 people in Mumbai in 2008 in a brazen assault that brought tentative peace talks between the South Asian rivals to a juddering halt.
Modi’s other key appointment, Singh, may inject new urgency into India’s plan to establish a corps of 80,000 troops along its border with China.
A massive program to build roads and upgrade airfields in the remote area was also cleared by the ousted Congress party but has lagged.
Singh, who won a parliamentary seat for the BJP in the election, is expected to accelerate the process, helped by a direct reporting line to the all-powerful prime minister.
“Development of the northeast will be my top priority,” he told reporters Thursday.
China claims more than 90,000 sq. km (35,000 sq. miles) of land disputed by New Delhi in the eastern sector of the Himalayas, including most of Arunachal Pradesh state, which China calls South Tibet.
“As China continues to refuse to recognize Arunachal Pradesh as an integral part of India, and builds military-grade highways that can rapidly move tanks and heavy artillery to India’s border, it’s absolutely the perfect stratagem to put a former army chief in charge of the region,” wrote commentator Sandipan Deb in the Mint newspaper.
But in another sign that Modi is keen to defuse regional tensions, he spoke to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Thursday and extended an invitation to President Xi Jinping to visit India.