How is it that, with the advent of the Narendra Modi government, there has been so little substantive change in India’s foreign and military policies? The short answer is that political leaders don’t decide either the direction or content of policies; it is the “permanent secretariat”, comprising senior civil servants, diplomats,and the military brass, that configures policies according to its bureaucratic lights. That’s because the elected political leaders have little interest in these areas and no clear ideas or, as in the case of Modi, believe in an “empowered” bureaucracy to conduct the business of state. Hence, the implementers of policy in the Indian system by default end up shaping policy and its contents. This is particularly conspicuous in the national security sphere.
Deciding which country (China or Pakistan, for instance) constitutes the main threat is a manifestly political decision, as is the sort of war the armed services should prepare to fight — “limited aims, short duration” conflicts or “total war for victory” — which, in turn, will determine whether it is a “war of manoeuvre” that will be prosecuted or “war of annihilation”. This will require the military only to orient itself to the designated threat and alight on the appropriate plans to achieve the politically desired strategic aim. But this policymaking role has been expropriated by the armed services. It is an arrangement that is now sought to be formalised. Surprisingly, there’s no fuss about it.
The committee of experts headed by former Home Secretary Dhirendra Singh, appointed to suggest amendments to the Defence Procurement Procedure 2013, submitted its report on July 23. It tried sneakily to legitimate the authority of the armed services to configure defence policy. The intention to remove the political leadership from the defence policy loop is stated upfront.
In the first paragraph of its lead chapter, the report asserts “that whereas primacy has to be accorded to policymakers in strategic planning… the balance of advantage needs to shift to the armed forces in the matter of the choice of the characteristics of defence systems and equipment based on user preference and tactical and operational doctrines”. It doesn’t explain why this should be so. Further, “strategic planning” is dismissed as a mere accounting of “domestic compulsions (including resource allocations) and international relations”, and the “political executive” is turfed out of the business of defining and grading threats and imposing the parameters of war by subsuming these seminal tasks under the rubric, curiously, of military “modernisation”.
“Modernisation”, the report claims, “is not merely induction of new types of equipment, but a mix of strategy and security perceptions and optimum use of hardware to achieve stated national objectives” before affirming plainly that “Services should lead the initiative for modernisation”. This is hugely muddled thinking, considering that the process of perceiving threats and alighting on strategy is based on national vision. With no vision document from the government to guide the defence forces and this entire policy field ceded by the political masters to the military as its professional domain, it is little wonder that the entire policy domain has been reduced to making hardware choices.
In the event, the government is supposed to merely meet the military’s needs already decided by the armed services. The report advises against disaggregated buys of equipment as financial resources may allow, recommending instead the purchase of armaments as a “total package” for full theatre-level warfighting capability, whether or not the country can afford it. In this respect, the document mentions not China, the principal challenge but, implicitly, the perennial punching bag, Pakistan, a “threat” that justifies the most capital-intensive, least-likely-to-be-used fighting assets: the massive armoured and mechanised forces constituting a powerful bureaucratic vested interest.
Such “total” packaging of acquisitions may not dent the Pakistan army in war, but the wrong military emphasis is guaranteed to leave the country vulnerable to China, and financially sink India. After rejecting the lead chapter of the report, only such parts of it ought to be accepted as relate to improving the defence procurement process and system — an ongoing national disaster.
The writer is professor, CPR, Delhi