It is a reflection of our misogynist mindset that almost the first comment about Nirmala Sitharaman’s appointment as Raksha Mantri (RM) — a political double-promotion by any standards — relates to gender and is followed by the anxious query of whether a woman will be able to handle the defence portfolio. As one who participated in Indira Gandhi’s victorious 1971 Bangladesh War and observed, from a Royal Air Force base in the UK, Margaret Thatcher’s 1982 Falklands triumph, I dismiss such commentators as neanderthals.
There is no doubt that by assigning the defence portfolio to Sitharaman, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reposed profound confidence in her political, intellectual and administrative abilities. But he has also placed a “crown of thorns” on her head, given the precarious national security scenario and the six-month hiatus during which the “locum tenens” RM hardly had time to spare for the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
Even as the new RM tackles pending and current problems, she has to find the time and capacity to address long-term national security issues and formulate an agenda and “action plan” for her relatively short tenure in office. National defence has suffered neglect for decades because it is a 24×7 job that brooks no pause for constituency, electioneering or politics. Advice will not be in short supply for the RM but if she tries to do everything she may end up doing little or nothing. A quick “reconnaissance of the terrain” may help her in orientation and deciding her priorities.
One has to start by facing the unpalatable truth that our current national security dilemmas are almost entirely of our own making — a consequence of political indifference and bureaucratic lethargy resulting in egregious neglect of national security. Procrastination on defence reforms, delay in border-road construction, dithering on the purchase of arms and ammunition and leaving the MoD headless for months have all been perceived as signs of weakness and a lack of resolve by adversaries.
It needs to be understood that, apart from army, naval and air operations, the MoD controls every aspect of defence that is the responsibility of the three service chiefs. Military operations, too, are dependent on financial, material, personnel and infrastructure support — all of which require approvals from the MoD bureaucracy. The fate of our military (and survival of the nation), thus, depend on a MoD which is run exclusively by civilian officers of the IAS and Indian Defence Accounts Service (IDAS).
IAS officers are the elite cadre of civil servants who take pride in being versatile “generalists” and who can flit effortlessly from job to job, in assignments as diverse as management of rural development to running PSUs to manning UN posts. Service in the MoD, however, demands domain knowledge which comes with years of experience in arcane areas of force-planning, capability acquisition and weapons procurement.
Itinerant IAS officers rarely stay long enough to gather significant expertise on such matters. IDAS officers, designated “Integrated Financial Advisers”, were presumably positioned at various levels of the MoD to assist in budgetary planning and help expedite financial decision-making. Having long abandoned the “advise” function, they prefer to lie in ambush as “auditors” and wait for someone to make a mistake before pouncing.
An acute lack of military expertise in the MoD and an absence of collegiate consultation between civilians and Service HQ have ensured that all discussions take place — languidly — through file notings. This Kafkaesque modus operandi has served to jam the wheels of the MoD and examples abound (jet trainers, artillery guns, submarines, fighters) where vital military hardware has taken 10-15 years to acquire. Unconscionable delays in financial sanctions have led to ships running aground in silted harbours and life-expired batteries self-igniting on board submarines.
In the irreverent words of Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, anyone connected with defence must be able to tell “A mortar from a motor, a gun from a howitzer and a guerrilla from a gorilla.”
Urgent consideration needs to be given to the creation of a sub-cadre within the IAS, formally trained in the management of national security issues and earmarked for service in the MoD, PMO, MEA, MHA and elsewhere. While considering long-overdue defence reforms, the gradual induction of uniformed staff into the MoD, starting with the RM’s own office, would enhance expertise and reduce friction.
It seems incredible that 30 previous RMs, over 70 years, lacked the vision and initiative to sow the seeds of self-reliance in military hardware. This, despite a vast defence-industrial complex comprising of sophisticated DRDO laboratories and huge production facilities of the defence public sector undertakings (DPSUs). The latter has delivered thousands of fighters, tanks, aero-engines, and missiles, falsely claiming “transfer of technology” and “indigenisation” while actually assembling imported kits. Heads should have rolled for this huge failure but the MoD’s Department of Defence Production resolutely shields its wards.
PM Modi’s Make in India project has the potential to lift the nation out of its dangerous dependence on arms imports and bestow genuine “strategic autonomy” on it while providing a huge boost to industrialisation, skill development and job creation. The holy grail of defence indigenisation will take years to attain but a start must be made at the earliest with the disaggregation of the DRDO and DPSUs and their re-constitution in strategic partnership with private sector centres of excellence.
The task of restructuring our defence-industrial complex must not be left to the government bureaucracy or scientists, bent on protecting turf and status quo. It must be assigned to a reputed professional from business or industry.
Sitharaman need have no doubts that she will receive the unambiguous obedience and deference owed to a minister as well as regard and courtesy from the service chiefs. On her part, the RM needs to have the “1961 GoI Rules of Business” urgently amended to ensure that the three service chiefs find mention as designated functionaries of the Government of India, responsible to the PM and RM for the defence of India’s land, maritime and aerospace domains.