Repair the ramparts

Corruption in the armed forces is merely the symptom of a cancer embedded in our polity

Written by Arun Prakash | Published: April 4, 2012 12:17 am

Corruption in the armed forces is merely the symptom of a cancer embedded in our polity

Shekhar Gupta’s gallant attempt (‘Ministry of Indefensible’,Indian Express,March 31) to salvage the sullied reputation of the armed forces,after the recent media-battering it has received,was as commendable as it was unexpected. Sadly,the damage done to a grand edifice,and the wound inflicted on the psyche,self-esteem and esprit de corps of a million-and-a-half young officers,soldiers,sailors and airmen go deep and may not mend soon. Equally mortifying to the nation was yet another reminder,through a leaked letter,that the emperor has no clothes; this in the presence of the Chinese leadership.

The ability to introspect is not a national strength,but we must face the reality that the continuing drama,as it unfolds,reveals merely the symptoms of a cancer whose roots are embedded in our polity and which has entered the national security system. In a democracy such as ours,the answers will come,not from shrill TV anchors haranguing emotional and intemperate veterans,but from the political leadership.

As we seek a panacea,let us examine some facets of this hydra-headed disease.

A major contributory factor has been political detachment from and indifference towards matters relating to national security,because this is not an issue that can win or lose votes for the politician. Such is the intensity of political activity in the country that,even with the best intentions,it leaves the Raksha Mantri (RM) inadequate time for defence and strategic affairs. The writer has often sat across the minister’s table to brief him on an important issue,only to be interrupted by the incessant ringing of his four mobiles and three phones in rapid succession. These were,no doubt,urgent calls relating to the business of Parliament,party or constituency,but once the allotted time was up,one had no choice but to leave the RM’s office,knowing that the defence secretary would be summoned later to fill in the blanks.

The ministry of defence (MoD) is unique,in that it demands of the minister not just a comprehension of complex security issues and expeditious decision-making,but also frequent interaction with the military hierarchy. A degree of familiarity with the senior military leadership coupled with some self-assertion would enable the minister not only to seek their expertise and advice,but also to provide guidance and exercise political supervision with a friendly but firm hand. Unfortunately,such a level of comfort has rarely prevailed in South Block. The armed forces leadership and the country’s political establishment are simply ill at ease with each other,and a yawning chasm has developed between them. This gap is bridged by the bureaucrat,but as we can see,things tend to drift.

The politician should have,by now,realised that he is not dealing with British blimps or Prussian herrenvolk,but proletarian armed forces. The Indian officer corps is drawn increasingly from the middle and lower strata of the Indian middle class,whose first instinct is to defer to civil political authority. Had the RM and the chiefs established an equation of mutual respect and confidence,the current crisis could have been resolved behind the closed doors of his office. It is now obvious that dialogue in South Block has been taking place first on files and then via the media.

The next important factor is the almost total reliance that the RM has,in the current system,on the MoD bureaucracy for advice,routine decision-making,problem resolution and crisis management. While the comfort level in this relationship may be higher,the delegation of “civilian control” to the bureaucracy,while excluding the armed forces from these functions,amounts to dereliction of responsibility by the political establishment.

While many accusations against the bureaucracy,of obduracy,stonewalling and even malice,may be overstated,one thing that they have certainly achieved with great deliberation is to stubbornly resist all attempts at change. The writer is currently serving on a task force on national security reform. As the sole relict of a similar task force constituted by the NDA government in 1999,I have an eerie sense of déjà vu as,13 years down the line,I hear,with a sinking feeling,the same logic and arguments being used to stall yet another attempt at reforms.

The estrangement between the service headquarters and MoD has not just created an atmosphere of bitterness and mutual recrimination,but also led to systemic dysfunctionalities. Two examples from the recent controversy are enough to demonstrate the level of stasis. First,in the midst of all the ranting about corruption surrounding the supply of Tatra trucks,no one has thought of asking the MoD why,after importing thousands of these trucks over 40 years,our vast defence-industrial complex has not been able to produce an indigenous version. The ammunition shortages revealed by the army chief’s letter refer to the reserves which the service is supposed to maintain in order to fight a war of 30-45 days’ duration. Since wars do not always give notice of their approach,how is it that the RM,defence secretary and chief did nothing about these shortages all these years?

A critical factor,and the root of much of the corruption we see all around,is the fact that political parties,across the board,see the arms import business as a veritable “golden goose” for election funding. This may explain the lackadaisical pursuit of indigenisation as well as corrupt individuals. We have witnessed,since the 1980s,virtually every single major defence contract getting embroiled in allegations of corruption and kickbacks,often made by commercial rivals. The net result of these controversies is that the modernisation plans of the armed forces have slowed down drastically,and the nation’s capability to produce weapons has stagnated. Dare we hope for a bold political consensus that would declare defence purchases “holy cows” and off-limits for exploitation?

The final factor that needs to be addressed is the steep and calamitous decline in the ethical standards of the armed forces. There is obviously a deep subliminal urge,among officers,to “keep up with the Joneses” in other sections of India’s rapidly prospering society. This has led some of us in the senior hierarchy of the armed forces to adopt ostentatious customs and lifestyles; either by misusing official funds,or by adopting other unethical means. Such is the change in mores that,till it became an overnight “scam”,the owner of a swank Adarsh apartment certainly evoked more admiration than someone living in a downmarket three BHK flat.

Blaming this decay on our polity and our society is not a good enough excuse; the armed forces used to be the exemplars of rectitude,ethics and morality for the Indian society. After all,we invented phrases such as “officer-like conduct” and “an officer and a gentleman”. Moreover,the current pay,allowances,perks and pensions allow serving and retired personnel to live in dignity and comfort. It is time for deep introspection at the senior levels of the military. The rot can only be stemmed if we can teach our young officers to develop disdain for filthy lucre and show them,by example,how to live in spartan and soldierly dignity.

The writer is a retired chief of naval staff

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