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Missing a defence minister

National security management needs a comprehensive review.

The issues that need attention range from the armed forces’ poor material state to frayed civil-military relations. The issues that need attention range from the armed forces’ poor material state to frayed civil-military relations.

The Narendra Modi government is under a 100-day review. The manner in which defence and related military challenges have been addressed is instructive of the complex issues ahead.

Prime Minister Modi got off to a visually spectacular start when he made his maiden defence-related visit to the aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, less than a month after being sworn in. He sailed down the coast of Goa and recalled India’s rich but long-neglected maritime heritage and assured the armed forces that their many inadequacies would be addressed. He assured veterans that the long-festering “one rank, one pension” issue would be resolved in a satisfactory manner. Maintaining this tempo, the PM commissioned INS Kolkata, an indigenously designed and built warship, visited Leh and addressed the troops there, and exhorted the scientists of the DRDO to work with greater dedication to enhance India’s indigenous defence production capability. For a 100-day period, this is an impressive track record.

But the challenge lies in implementing new policies in the ministry of defence and addressing the many imbalances that were inherited from the UPA. The greatest handicap is the absence of a full-time defence minister. Though undoubtedly competent, Arun Jaitley can only do so much.

The spectrum of issues that need urgent attention range from the poor material state of all three armed forces, particularly the shrinking ammunition stocks of the army, and a burgeoning import bill with no credible alternative to frayed civil-military relations and the disturbing perception of a decline in moral fibre of the military.

The professionalism and apolitical character of the military has been a distinctive characteristic that has enabled the Indian democratic trajectory. This was perhaps most evident during the Emergency, when the military apex refused to be co-opted into the constitutional excesses that were at play.

Paradoxically, the challenge of higher defence management received progressively less political attention and some of the revelations in recently published books point to petulant impulsiveness as the defining trait of higher defence decision-making. Sri Lanka and the IPKF is a case in point. The normative compulsion was replaced by what may be best described as the Bofors-HDW syndrome, where scandals and charges of turpitude at the highest levels of government became the dominant perception.

The transition from Rajiv Gandhi to the current incumbent marks a quarter century and the challenge for the 100-day-old Modi government is herculean — the defence/ military stables have to be cleaned, the entire edifice of the management of national security has to be comprehensively reviewed and rearranged.

A brief review of the military challenges of the last three months reveals the following. The Supreme Court found it necessary to caution the government for the manner in which it had dealt with the sale of non-service pattern weapons by senior army officers. A finger was pointed at the internal judicial processes of the military and the steady erosion of personal values and institutional ethos. Intense, no-holds-barred jockeying for higher ranks, indiscipline within units, poor officer-men relations, aspersions of sexual intimidation (mercifully rare but still deplorable), and most recently, the phenomenon of spouse-related interference in what ought to be purely service matters are cases in point. An intrusive and aggressive media focus has made instant transparency and information dissemination the new norm in the armed forces. Thus, what was in the past confined to the cantonment or the barracks is “breaking news” — and the perception of a military that is internally disarrayed is growing.

This state of affairs is compounded by the complexity of the security challenges that have to be addressed. Given the rough geo-strategic environment, with two nuclear-armed neighbours, a tenuous internal security situation that can be exacerbated by corrosive ideologies, and a modest fiscal outlay, the PM’s challenge is to create adequate national security capacity across the board. The 1962 war, the Kargil surprise and the Mumbai attack of 2008 are part of the collective memory and need to be preempted.

The current inflexible silo system among the armed forces, a poor techno-industrial base within the country and an intellectual gene-pool in higher defence management that shuns any new stimulus and has resisted even the most feeble of changes are part of the prickly gauntlet that Modi has to pick up. On board INS Vikramaditya, the PM asserted: “This government is not just about promises”. The next 1,000 days will be a reasonable period for the Modi government to translate optics and rhetoric into reality and ensure that national security is appropriately bolstered. A good start would be to appoint and empower a full-time defence minister.

The writer is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi

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