In my long years of service, and afterwards, I have never stopped admiring India’s soft power: its culture, values, traditions and ethos. To the people outside, we are a complex nation and an enigma. The last election and the very democratic choosing of Manmohan Singh as the new prime minister, no doubt the best possible choice, would have added to their woes in understanding our country.
It was yet another complexity that is India!
I cannot claim to know Manmohan Singh that well. In fact, I had never met him till I became Chief of the Army Staff, in October 1997. At that time, he was leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha. He had already built a formidable image as a person of high integrity, the gentle, soft-spoken former finance minister and economic reformer. My predecessors who had met and known him had endorsed these impressions. But they also noted his decision to exercise substantial cuts in the defence budget — from 3.5 per cent of GDP to 2.5 per cent — to conserve foreign exchange, stabilise the national economy and move towards economic reforms. We were told that this was only a temporary tightening of the belt. Till the situation improved, we must accept minimum possible reserves and modify our operational plans accordingly.
Having worked in the Military Operations Directorate and the Operational Logistics Directorate, I understood the military implications better than most of my colleagues. Unfortunately, despite improvement of our national economy and several changes of government in the next few years, the low defence budget trend never improved. That situation continues till date.
Back to my first meeting. I saw Manmohan Singh standing alone in a corner in the Rashtrapati Bhavan lawns during the Republic Day reception in January 1998 and walked across to introduce myself. We greeted each other. Having faced difficulties in planning and modernisation for so long, I could not help reminding him about the substantial cut in the defence budget initiated by him, supposedly temporary but which was still continuing. It was partly a complaint but more to seek budgetary support for the future. He appeared a bit surprised, but listened to me patiently, sympathised and then explained the circumstances that compelled him to take that step.
Looking back at that incident, I now feel slightly different and only partially justified in my complaint. With experience, I have realised that between budgetary allocation and procedures for procurement, it is the latter that has bogged down defence modernisation. For several years, we have had enough funds for capital expenditure. I myself created some by suppressing the army strength by 50,000. But these funds, mostly on capital account, had to be surrendered due to indecision and procedural hurdles and delays in the Ministry of Defence and Service Headquarters. The recently established Defence Acquisition Council and Procurement Board and institution of the Defence Modernisation Fund are steps in the right direction. But the whole defence planning system and procedures still require close monitoring to expedite the much-needed modernisation.
The second incident took place some time during or immediately after the Kargil war when our political parties started campaigning vigorously for the next general election. The ruling alliance attempted to exploit its position and the military victory. There were some embarrassing incidents such as party workers putting up posters of service chiefs, and a cabinet minister, without my knowledge and concurrence, calling a military briefing in a party office in Parliament. The opposition parties attacked the ruling alliance and also questioned our apolitical standing and image. We had not got over the war yet but were now caught in a different kind of political crossfire. “Leave us alone,” I said at a press briefing in August 1999. I approached the prime minister also. He agreed, graciously acknowledged the wrongdoings of the alliance party workers and others, and advised me not to be extra sensitive. I spoke about this predicament to a retired senior and friend, and asked him how to get across to the opposition parties. On his advice, I accompanied him on a Sunday morning to meet Manmohan Singh, leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha.
Manmohan Singh was extremely courteous. He appreciated the adverse consequences of the armed forces getting caught in a political crossfire. He felt that the prime minister ought to call an all-party meeting on the issue and advised me to speak to him. I did so. However, like so many other issues in the government that are discussed and agreed to, this too was not acted upon. I do hope that the lesson will not be forgotten.
In concluding this reflection, I would like to mention that Manmohan Singh is not only a politician but also a highly acclaimed technocrat. We can hope that in the government there will henceforth be less of political manipulation and improved governance. Best wishes to him!
The writer served as Chief of the Army Staff and is currently President, ORF Institute of Security Studies, New Delhi