Government by spasmshttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/government-by-spasms/

Government by spasms

Unrealistic as it may sound in today’s climate,our defence apparatus should be spared petty politics.

Unrealistic as it may sound in today’s climate,our defence apparatus should be spared petty politics.

The harm we insist on inflicting on ourselves through the ways in which we have come to handle our affairs endangers many underpinnings of our nation,most alarmingly national security. Just because nobody is about to start a war with us doesn’t mean we can let things slide. We will pay incalculably tomorrow for today’s faults. Foresight is not our custom,only crisis compels decision,long after better options are lost. Given the childish relations between parties,and the small-mindedness within them,any thought of constructive consensus must seem like a pipe-dream. All the more reason to think about the problem.

In law,malfeasance,misfeasance and nonfeasance mean,roughly,doing what you should not do,doing something you legally may but in a wrong way,or not doing what you should. We are guilty of all three. Two current illustrations should suffice. Telangana presents a cruelly complex challenge; separating it from Andhra is debatable,but the abrupt decision,without debate,for temporary party calculations,is a disgrace to statecraft. Withdrawing the egregious ordinance on criminals in legislatures,howsoever welcome a correction,was so badly done as to equate with the original sin as wrongdoing. The introduction showed even most respect-worthy leaders bowing to low politics; the withdrawal,at one man’s bafflingly belated outburst,shows how readily they all surrender their minds,reverting to our old tradition of darbari obedience. T.S. Eliot’s Becket observed: it is “the greatest treason: to do the right thing for the wrong reason”. It is no less heinous,one must also say,to do a right thing in a wrong way. Such government by spasms is frightening for our future.

The couple of shocks forming part of independent India’s experience of security challenges have induced some awareness of strategic needs,but far too limited to overcome general obliviousness. Our prime minister’s meetings with his American and Pakistani counterparts,and his visit to China,collectively point to our principal security concerns. His additional Bangladesh meeting symbolises the need for more constructive interactions with our neighbours. Would that all this reflected a well-thought-out national scheme to meet our external challenges and opportunities. He and the other few people in Delhi in ultimate charge of our interests doubtless want one,but what they can do is severely limited by our pernicious politicking. They are further stifled by the spreading unreliability of our entire apparatus to handle the affairs of state.

An efficient defence establishment might at least keep a finger in the dyke. Unfortunately,its actual condition only increases worries. One of our proudest achievements has been the complete loyalty of our armed forces to our Constitution — the one state to have evolved since colonial rule without a whiff of military interference. Not that there have not been significant dissatisfactions in the military,or significant tensions between them and our civil power. Problems due to faults on both sides need full attention,but are not even noticed. Civil control of the military is a constitutional relationship,requiring mutual respect and understanding. If there is disdain among the military at the way civil authorities function (hardly unjustified),the latter resentfully think the military consider themselves a breed apart. Status consciousness,emoluments and service conditions all need correction,but are pinpricks compared to the feeling in the armed forces that they have no say in such policymaking as there is about our defence posture,or our planning for eventualities which they will have to handle. It is hard enough to find any arrangement for strategic thinking in our defence ministry. Worse still,neither political leaders nor the permanent governmental establishment seem at all aware that something needs to be done,both to improve civil-military interaction and to make ourselves ready for clear and looming dangers.

One stark reality encapsulates both needs: both in our northwest and in our Northeast,the writ of India,such as it is,runs to a very large extent thanks to army deployment. Elsewhere,also,the army is often called upon to come to the aid of the civil power. Our governments let problems simmer till they boil over,when no solutions can be attempted without first using force,again too often turning to the army. Added to the all-important requirements of external defence,this make it all the more imperative to keep our military preparedness under the best possible guidance. Tragically,we seem headed to get even less.

The world is in flux,power equations change,terrorism and technology pose threats states can’t find answers for; but India turns further into itself. Not even the return of LoC conflicts in Jammu and Kashmir,warning of worse after Afghanistan is left open to destabilisation,can goad our system out of internecine irresponsibility. Elections mean almost a year before any government can focus on anything,assuming we’ll get one better positioned than today’s. We cannot afford such waiting idly. Yes,war is not about to erupt,but to ensure it never will means constant preparedness. Gearing up our defence establishment and finding ways to equip our military appropriately and speedily are clear and present imperatives. Military procurements cannot be political free-for-alls. Making life difficult for governments is doubtless a political must for parties,but in any country aspiring to seriousness,some issues are sacrosanct. Unrealistic as it may sound in today’s foul climate,our defence apparatus should be spared cheap politics. Our masters must wake up to this responsibility. Outsiders watch more carefully than we do,and will treat us according to our vulnerabilities.

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The writer is a former ambassador to Pakistan,China and the US,and secretary,external affairs ministry