He spent seven years undercover in Pakistan, recruited rebels as informants in disputed Kashmir, and once disguised himself as a rickshaw driver to infiltrate a militant group inside India's holiest Sikh temple. Now some consider Ajit Doval the most powerful person in India after Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Modi picked Doval as his National Security Advisor, a position that holds more sway than the ministers of defense and foreign affairs. It puts Doval in charge of talks with arch-rival Pakistan. He visits arms manufacturers to discuss strategic capabilities, and orchestrates the response to militant attacks, liaising daily with Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar, the nation's top diplomat.
Since Doval took the job, he has supported a nationalist agenda while adopting a tougher line against hostile neighbors. That has growing economic ramifications as China funds a $45 billion trade corridor through Pakistan that bypasses India and as both China and India eye resource-rich neighbors in central Asia like Afghanistan.
"Every strategic issue in this region involves security in a way that it doesn't in other regions," says R. K. Sawhney, a former director general of military intelligence who's known Doval for nearly two decades. "As the profile of the country grows, the profile of the national security advisor grows."
Short, trim and bespectacled, Doval shuns the limelight and rarely appears in public. His office said he wasn't available for an interview. Six people who have known him personally for years—some of whom requested not to be identified because he dislikes publicity—said Doval is overseeing India's most delicate diplomatic issues.
Shortly after taking office, Modi sent Doval as his special envoy to Afghanistan and brought him on his first foreign trip to Bhutan. He's also special representative in charge of talks with China over a disputed border, a task made more difficult as China plans to invest millions into transportation links through Kashmir, an area claimed by both India and Pakistan.
In December, Doval flew to Bangkok for a secret meeting with his Pakistani counterpart in an effort to restart peace talks between the two nuclear-armed nations.
"He's known as an Indian James Bond—he has this larger than life persona," said Sadanand Dhume, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "There are tales and stories and legends attached to him that are very unusual in a national security advisor."
Among the most famous concerns his part in the 1988 military operation that flushed Sikh separatists from the Golden Temple in Amritsar in northwestern India. According to Karan Kharb, a retired army officer who was one of the National Security Guard commandos involved, Doval posed as a rickshaw puller to gain entry to the temple. He convinced the militants holed up inside he was a Pakistani operative who'd come to help them in their goal of establishing an independent country called Khalistan.
Indian commandos had stormed the temple twice in the previous four years, including an assault in 1984 that left hundreds of soldiers and pilgrims dead, prompting outrage among Sikhs worldwide and triggering the assassination of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who ordered the strike.
This time, police had estimated there were no more than 40 people inside the temple, but Doval revealed there were at least 200, convincing the government to drop plans for a raid and instead cut off the water and electricity amid scorching heat, according to Kharb. Nine days later, the militants surrendered.
"Generally, in India, people are very particular, they're sticklers to the rules," said Kharb. "Doval sees the spirit in the rule. That's where he's different. He's very innovative and an out-of-the-box thinker."
Doval's influence with Modi has drawn criticism from opposition politicians and fueled discontent inside Modi's administration.
"The country wants to know who is running foreign policy? A spy called Doval or diplomats?" tweeted Ashutosh, a leader from the anti-graft Aam Aadmi Party, after Modi flew to Lahore to meet Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif in a surprise visit that local media said was orchestrated by Doval. "The country is not safe with a spy running diplomacy."
Calls for Doval's replacement intensified after Home Minister Rajnath Singh suffered a politically embarrassing trip to Pakistan in August that Doval pulled out of at the last minute, according to press reports. A spokesman for the prime minister's office declined to answer questions about Doval.
"The best experts on how to deal with terrorism, how to think about diplomacy and foreign affairs—they are not being consulted," opposition politician Rahul Gandhi, son of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, said in January. Doval's job is "strategy, not tactics."
No government website carries Doval's profile. A biography provided during a lecture he gave in August 2015 in Mumbai stated he was born in 1945 in Garhwal, in a northern region now called Uttarakhand, and graduated with a master's degree in economics from the University of Agra in 1967 before joining the police force.
In 1972, he moved to the Intelligence Bureau, where he spent three decades, including stints in the restive regions of India's northeast, Jammu and Kashmir, and the U.K. Doval is fluent in Urdu, the main language used in Pakistan. He told an audience in November 2014 he had lived in Pakistan for seven years, getting plastic surgery to remove signs his ears had been pierced—an indication of his Hindu roots.
"I haven't seen anyone else at his level who would continue to come into the field," said S.S. Virk, former director general of police in Punjab who was shot during the Golden Temple operation and says Doval visited him at the hospital. "He was an outstanding operator."
Those who know him describe him as a heavy smoker with an almost insatiable thirst for knowledge, taking guests at his home in Noida near New Delhi for drinks in a library in the basement lined from floor to ceiling with hundreds of books.
After retiring from the Intelligence Bureau, Doval founded the Vivekananda International Foundation in 2009. In its red sandstone and concrete headquarters in a tony district of Delhi, Doval has courted foreign diplomats and high-ranking defense officials, striking hawkish, nationalist views that resonated with Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party.
"Doval wields more influence than previous national security advisers in part because of his credibility and experience in intelligence and security matters," said Sameer Patil, who served in the prime minister's national security council secretariat under the previous Congress government. Patil said it was long rumored that Doval advised Modi even before he was elected prime minister in 2014.
In papers published during that time, Doval argued for a more assertive foreign policy and a beefed up military. He warned of India's "eroding maritime preeminence" in the Indian Ocean, of Pakistan's attempts to influence Afghanistan and the Taliban, and said China's development was "not an assured peaceful rise."
"India has a mindset that, where it hits, it punches below its weight," he said at the August 2015 lecture. "We have to increase our weight and punch proportionately."
—With assistance from Iain Marlow and N. C. Bipindra