For five years now, UPA 2 has been pilloried for ruining India’s economy, and deservedly so. But what has remained relatively out of sight is the damage it has done by weakening both external and internal security systems. It’s very fortunate, and so is India, that there hasn’t been a major security challenge since November 26, 2008, and we have also had an unusual decade of external peace, only the second in our independent history. That is why the UPA seems to be getting away with the greatest muddle-headed damage it has done. But tragedies like the navy’s earlier this week remind us not to be forgiving.
It is consistent with the UPA’s diminution of the authority of the prime minister, his office and the cabinet system itself, but the really serious harm it has done to internal and external security leadership has severe implications. In our cabinet system, the most important and powerful body is supposed to be the Cabinet Committee on Security, or CCS. It includes the most powerful ministers — home, defence, finance and external affairs, besides the prime minister — but the UPA has reduced it to inconsequentiality. You take a poll even in a college on the UPA’s most incompetent ministers. The winners, and by some distance, will be its home (Sushilkumar Shinde) and defence (A.K. Antony) ministers. One reason Salman Khurshid may not do too well in this vote is that in these distracted times, many may not even be conscious that he is our external affairs minister, and not a sex and virility specialist. He has ably carried forward his predecessor S.M. Krishna’s tradition of reducing this to the office of India’s chief consular officer, who competes for airtime with the ministry’s spokesman any time an Indian student is beaten up in Australia or a maid dares to complain against her boss in an Indian mission.
But think about this. Here are three of the five members of your venerable CCS. One can’t ever take a decision (Antony), one should never speak in public as the republic’s home minister (Shinde) and the third, Khurshid, is inconsequential.
The rot is not personalised, but systemic, institutional and political. From the day the UPA came to power in 2004, it somehow decided to use the CCS as a kind of attic to hide its castaways. Between P. Chidambaram and Pranab Mukherjee, the finance ministry at least had two ministers who exercised authority. All of the other three ministries were cursed from the very beginning. I have to thank the head of Express News Service, Pranab Dhal Samanta, who is arguably India’s best-informed reporter on politics and governance, for helping me put this embarrassing decade in perspective. The Congress chose Shivraj Patil (can you forget him?) as its first home minister because it was said Sonia Gandhi trusted him so much, she may even have made him prime minister. He was a disaster as the Indian Mujahideen gathered strength under his watch, armed Maoists grew into a real menace and he kept lecturing us on root causes. It is an unkind thing to say, because personally he is a genuinely warm politician, but probably his only contribution was that he made the home ministry’s aircraft available to Sonia often enough. Each time a terror incident happened, Sonia travelled with him. It took 26/11 to remind the UPA that the home minister’s was a serious job. It moved Chidambaram there. But just as things seemed to be improving, it figured the crisis in finance was more pressing and brought in Shinde. He simply turned the clock back. He joined Antony in opposing even cosmetic improvements in the AFSPA, thereby changing the home ministry’s line. He also mothballed the NCTC and any other anti-terror initiatives, and has reminded us of his existence lately by promising to crush electronic media. We have never heard him hold out such a threat to the Lashkar-e-Toiba, Indian Mujahideen or, to be more politically correct, Abhinav Bharat or the RSS.
If for seven years out of 10 the home ministry has been drifting, external affairs has done only somewhat better. But just about. The UPA started with Natwar Singh (remember him?), who was a family faithful and Nehruvian commissar, to bring back ideological purity and save all mankind — not just India — from Westoxification. Until Volcker outed him. He had such a rude wake-up call, his son is now a BJP MLA in Rajasthan. Mukherjee held the job briefly but let everybody know his heart was not in it. Then came S.M. Krishna, who scored an unforgettable first for India’s diplomacy by picking up the Portuguese foreign minister’s speech at the UN General Assembly and continuing to read it until a distraught Hardeep Puri (then our ambassador to the UN and now in the BJP) nudged and saved him — and us — further embarrassment. Krishna was not given the job because he was most suited for it. It was to keep him out of Karnataka. Between rebuilding the party in that crucial state and leading India’s foreign policy, the Congress had its priorities in place. As it showed subsequently, by moving a reluctant Khurshid up the ladder into the same job. After the UP debacle, it seems he wanted to leave the cabinet and help Rahul Gandhi with party work and the prime minister wanted a law minister of his choosing. The most convenient thing was to move Khurshid from law to external affairs. On such profound considerations were the members of the UPA’s CCS chosen. It must be our funniest government ever. It reigned by sidelining the prime minister and kicking its nobodies upstairs to the most exalted decision-making body of all.
Defence has had just two ministers. One of them, Antony, is India’s longest serving in that position. You can write a very sad book on the woeful state of preparedness and equipment in our defence forces, the naval tragedies being a recurring and unfortunate reminder. He was put there for his clean image, which, in fairness, has stayed intact. But his proven track record for indecision also remains unblemished. He banned three-fourths of the world’s armament manufacturers on mere rumour. Yet his ministry got hit by a mega scandal in Agusta helicopters and several others, from Eurocopter to Tatra.
Sure, there was no Bofors repeat. But you want to talk about a scandal bigger than Bofors under his watch? It is his ministry’s failure to induct a single new artillery gun in 10 years. And his record has three other firsts: a service chief taking his government to court, the sinking of a large submarine in harbour and now the resignation of a serving navy chief.
As their government winds up to go home, all you can say now is that if Manmohan Singh or Sonia Gandhi decided to write their UPA memoir, it would be a bestseller just for its chapter on national security. Of course, they will have to be just a little honest and truthful.