Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval led the way in talks with China over a heated border dispute. Photo: AFP/Tauseef Mustafa

MUMBAI – It takes nerves of steel and a cool wit to negotiate a truce in the face of a grave provocation – such as the brutal killing of 20 soldiers – and getting two nuclear-armed rivals to pull back from the brink of a full-scale confrontation.

But that’s what Ajit Doval, India’s national security adviser, managed to do as he walked a diplomatic tightrope in recent talks with Chinese officials.

Before he was beckoned, India’s Defense Ministry was busy getting its forces ready for any eventuality and the Foreign Ministry was pulling out all stops to get crucial support from major powers.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trusted team of Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Home Minister Amit Shah owe thanks to Doval for the de-escalation agreement announced with China on July 6.

The two sides agreed not to allow differences to become disputes and to de-escalate tensions in border areas by pulling back their respective troops and creating a buffer zone to prevent a recurrence of violent clashes.

It took Doval and his team days of delicate negotiations peppered by conflicting claims and counterclaims. The pressure increased only days before the agreement when Modi launched a surprise rhetorical attack and lashed out at China’s “expansionism”, calling it a threat to world peace.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks to troops during his visit to Nimu in the territory of Ladakh. Photo: AFP / Indian Press Information Bureau

However, some say that fiery speech was aimed mainly at India’s domestic audience, which China apparently took onboard in following through on the agreement.

Doval, a former spy, has now emerged from the shadows and firmly established himself as a key player in Modi’s government. Despite keeping a low profile, Doval is known to have impeccable contacts in New Delhi, say observers.

A decorated officer from the premier Indian Police Service, Doval had a six-year stint in Pakistan as an intelligence officer and also worked as a minister in the Indian High Commission in the United Kingdom.

He was appointed as director of the Intelligence Bureau in 2004 by the Congress-led government, a fact that speaks to his ability to negotiate domestic political currents.

“His wide experience across a variety of different and difficult assignments gives him an edge,” said Nandan Unnikrishnan, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. “His on-the-ground experience gives him a judgment that’s practical and not just on the drawing board.”

The Ladakh agreement clearly has Modi’s stamp of approval. And Doval had the advantage of getting input from Modi’s closest lieutenants, Singh, Jaishankar and Shah.

Doval is known to have an overlapping vision with Modi and the advantage of a long-standing personal relationship. Like Modi, he too has been a hands-on man, working at the grassroots level for most of his life.

He was awarded a Police Medal within six years on the job, something that is usually only awarded after 17 years of service. Crisis management, observers say, is his forte. In his police role, he learned from experience how to wear down opponents through persevering in negotiations.

Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval is being credited for talking India and China back from the brink of a possible armed conflict. Image: Twitter

Doval is widely credited with negotiating the rebel Mizo National Front back into the mainstream in 1986. He also dealt with Sikh terrorists in 1988 and Kashmiri separatists in the early 1990s.

Moreover, he was instrumental in dealing with the hijackers of an Air India plane with 171 passengers aboard in 1999, haggling down the number of terrorists to be exchanged from 40 to three in that high-stakes crisis situation.

During the historic and controversial step to remove Jammu and Kashmir’s special status in August 2019, his years of firsthand experience in the state helped to manage unrest that threatened to spiral out of control.

During communal riots in Delhi while US President Donald Trump was in the capital, Doval was the one to douse the flames.

Delhi-watchers see him as a force multiplier, an official who can cut across the bureaucratese and formal protocols ministers must maintain. With an office next to the all-powerful Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), he is known to have Modi’s ear.

That by no means understates the power and roles of other members of Modi’s quartet. Defense Minister Singh is an old party hand, who in 2013 as president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) picked Modi to lead the party in the 2014 election. Singh is No 2 in the cabinet, although Modi has a natural affinity with Shah, his long time associate from his home Gujarat.

Foreign Minister Jaishankar, with a four-decade career as a distinguished diplomat – including four and a half years as ambassador to Beijing, ambassador to the US, and foreign minister since May 2019 – he carries a wealth of experience. Yet some have asked why it was not Jaishankar who signed the truce agreement with China?

Indian border security force soldiers keeping vigil near a military bunker along the Srinagar-Leh National highway on June 17, 2020. Photo by Faisal Khan/NurPhoto

According to New Delhi-based analysts, it was partly due to the Modi government’s habit of having ministers double up for each other, and partly because talks with China over the past two decades have been conducted through appointed “special representatives” from both sides.

For India, Doval was the special representative, while for China it was Foreign Minister Wang Yi in the recent negotiations.

Following China’s killing of 20 Indian army troops on June 15, Jaishankar reportedly protested in strong terms in a telephone call with Wang on June 17. The Chinese thus may have perceived him as a tougher nut to crack in any talks, say Delhi insiders.

A minister who signs an agreement is also answerable to queries in parliament, under Indian law. The prime minister, on the other hand, can handle questions about agreements signed by his appointed national security advisor.

This may be crucial since the agreement is seen by some analysts and opposition leaders as unequal, with some claiming the deal cedes Indian land long-occupied by China in exchange for peace. Modi’s government has vehemently denied the charge.

The tone and content of China’s July 6 statement articulated its still hard-line stance, whereby it has blamed India for the deadly skirmish and escalating tensions.

“Both sides should adhere to the strategic assessment that instead of posing threats, the two countries provide each other with development opportunities,” said the Chinese statement. “The right and wrong of what recently happened at the Galwan Valley in the western sector of the China-India boundary is very clear.

“China will continue firmly safeguarding our territorial sovereignty as well as peace and tranquility in the border areas.”

Some critical voices in India feel that successive governments have bowed to China at a time it is intimidating many of India’s neighbors, including most recently the tiny mountain kingdom of Bhutan.

“Bite by bite, China has been nibbling away at India’s borderlands, even as successive Indian PMs have sought to appease it,” Brahma Chellany, a renowned security analyst, recently wrote in the Hindustan Times. “When political calculations trump military factors and a nation lives by empty rhetoric, it can win neither war nor peace.

“The present path risks locking India in a ‘no war, no peace’ situation with China and imposing mounting security costs. This path aids China’s time-tested strategy of attrition, friction and containment to harass, encumber, encircle, deceive and weigh India down,” he wrote.

But if bilateral tensions mount again, a distinct possibility, expect Doval to be in the middle to negotiate a new peace.

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