Editorial 1
Editorial 2
Shadows of Kargil


Waiting game

Power is not only seductive but also has its own compulsions. This explains the shift in the attitude of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh on the issue of lifting the ban on government servants joining the RSS. This decision of the Gujarat government has become a major stumbling block for the government led by Atal Behari Vajpayee and also a source of embarrassment for the National Democratic Alliance. The RSS leadership has eased matters somewhat by paving the way for the Gujarat government to rescind its order lifting the ban on government employees becoming members of the RSS. The chief of the RSS, Rajinder Singh, declared that the RSS would not be affected in any way if the Gujarat government withdrew the order and reimposed the ban. Singh reiterated the cultural character of the RSS by saying that it “would like to be outside the vortex of contentious politics”. Singh was concerned that the opposition parties were using the RSS as a pretext to stop proceedings in Parliament and thus hinder the government’s functioning. Singh’s statement has two signals implicit in it. First, it tells the Gujarat government that the RSS will not stand in its way if it decided to withdraw the order. Second, the RSS leader does not want the BJP-led government in New Delhi to be in any way in trouble over the RSS. Clearly, the RSS has chosen to privilege the survival and functioning of the NDA government over its own ideology.

Singh’s announcement is important because a few weeks ago the RSS had wanted the Central government to follow the Gujarat government and allow Central government employees to join the RSS. Vajpayee had persuaded the RSS to climb down on this matter. It would be simplistic to read Singh’s statement as a change in the RSS’s overall position and as an indicator of a general softening in its attitudes. Singh’s announcement is dictated by expediency. It records a recognition of the importance the RSS gives to the BJP staying in power in New Delhi. The BJP can do this, at the moment, only by keeping the NDA alive. Rocking the NDA boat is synonymous to sinking for the BJP. This means putting in the back burner all the aspects of the BJP ideology which are seen to be communal and disruptive.

Vajpayee emphasised this in the national executive of the BJP in Chennai where he said that coalition politics was more important than Hindutva. The allies are not keen on Hindutva and the BJP has decided to go with the allies. This had initially caused some dismay within the sangh parivar which sees Hindutva as paramount. But the RSS has come round to seeing sense in Vajpayee’s position. The tension between ideology and power will continue to plague the sangh parivar. But for the nonce Vajpayee and the allies have technically won round one.    


Hold the line

Cutting subsidies for fertiliser and food was sure to be among the politically most sensitive acts of the 2000 Union budget. The finance minister, Yashwant Sinha, is now under considerable pressure from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s allies to revoke these cuts. Leading the fight is the Telugu Desam Party and the Janata Dal (United). The Telugu Desam’s stance is hypocritical. N. Chandrababu Naidu knows the importance of fiscal rectitude more than most and is a past master of making subsidy cuts politically palatable. Sinha is probably hoping Naidu is posturing because of this week’s municipal elections in Andhra Pradesh. The case of the Bihari parties is even weaker.

The subsidy regime in Bihar reaches almost no poor people at all. The state does not bother to offtake two thirds of the food it is eligible for. Almost all of the subsidised food it takes goes to those above the poverty level or is simply stolen. Sinha should block his ears to the howls of these local satraps. The budget has produced a two tier price structure for those above and those below the poverty level. Though both will pay more, the poor will get wheat and rice at half the commercial rate. The budget proposal will simultaneously ease the Centre’s financial burden and help ensure more of the subsidies goes to the poor. At present the biggest beneficiaries are the corrupt — 60 per cent of ration shop foodgrain is stolen.

The allies who are calling the subsidy cut “anti-poor’’ are simply lying. The main beneficiaries of their stance are black marketeers. A similar story exists for the fertiliser subsidy which every finance minister since 1991 has dreamed of cutting. The money goes largely to the fertiliser industry, with the remainder going to wealthy farmers. In addition, the subsidy for urea has been disastrous to the environment. Overuse of nitrogenous fertiliser has ruined thousands of acres of farmland.

Not only should Sinha resist such irresponsible populism, he should start giving serious thought to raising the price of kerosene and diesel. World oil prices continue to rise and the oil pool deficit is heading for a nine year high of Rs 80 billion. It is absurd for the government to have fixed prices for a product whose cost it has absolutely no control over. A financial crisis over the oil pool is now an annual affair. It is time for New Delhi to give up the ghost and let oil price tags float with the international price. Subsidies are always self-defeating. They end up being cornered by the middle and upper classes. They help feed the black market more than the poor. Finally, they wreck the government’s finances and trigger inflation. And it should be remembered that nothing hurts the poor more than inflation.    

The afternoon shadows come early in Kargil and surrounding areas. The mountains on the west of the town rise tall and sheer to 15,000 feet. The setting sun disappears behind the ridge not long after midday. The mountains cast long shadows and the hardy Kargilis start winding up for the day soon thereafter. Kargil has also cast a long shadow over the country. Since 1999, Kargil has become a metaphor for trust betrayed, for the heroism of our soldiers and for the suffering of the people in that area.

It is also a metaphor for intelligence misjudgments and for the mishandling of defence matters. Kargil caused a political earthquake in Pakistan. The military took over governance. Relations and dialogue between India and Pakistan are at a low ebb. The Kargil inquiry is complete. The Kargil budget has recently been presented.

In some ways Kargil is also getting to be a metaphor for a cover up by the Indian government. The Subrahmanyam committee, appointed by the government to look closely into the Kargil episode, has submitted its report. Extracts from the report have appeared in the press. The response to the report is generally of disappointment. The public has been given the human costs — over 400 killed and more than a thousand wounded and maimed — and wants to know why Kargil was allowed to happen.

Who let the nation down, who are culpable and what is being done about it? The Subrahmanyam committee report does not have much to say about it. It attributes Kargil to systemic failure. The government tabled the report in Parliament and said the issues raised in the report will be looked into. Matter closed, metaphor complete.

Let us look at the Kargil inquiry first. It is in many ways a unique document. It is the first public report of a military conflict since independence. It is to the credit of the committee that it insisted on the government making the report public. Perhaps for the same reason, the report is more a discourse on what is wrong with the system than what went wrong. At one place, the authors make a candid admission. After scores of meetings, interviews, visits to battle locations, and numerous briefings, that confession is a telling one.

They feel that even if all the information they now have had been available before Kargil, it would not have been possible to conclude that Kargil would take place the way it did. The most that would have been possible was to know that Pakistan was upto some mischief.

It is extraordinary that with an intelligence empire of the size the country pays for, the best that can be got in matters of national security is an educated guess. An uncharitable comment could be made to the effect that the government might as well employ some astrologers for the purpose. That aside, the fact remains that the intelligence apparatus was found wanting. To the credit of the intelligence agencies it must be said that a government gets the quality of intelligence it seeks. If the government does not give the right lead to the agencies, they tend to look all over and merely get information of no consequence.

Before the Yom Kippur war, the Egyptian army was training right in front of the Israelis for some months. The Israeli high command’s assumption that the Arabs cannot take to an offensive made the intelligence look at other issues at hand. In 1998, the United States satellite surveillance had all the pictures of the increased activity in Pokhran. The official belief that the Indians dared not test after the caution given them, allowed the pictures to be incorrectly interpreted. Intelligence interpretation is a special skill requiring all possible information.

Intelligence is the art of fitting the many pieces of information into a mosaic. What one agency may have missed another can provide. The need is for a central element to make a total assessment. There is no one to do it in India. Each agency tries to do the best on its own without a central guiding hand. The Subrahmanyam report highlights this and that is one of its merits. It remains to be seen if the respective ministries will let go of the total control they now exercise on such agencies.

The budget for 2000-2001 is in every sense driven by the Kargil experience. It has a dominant defence component. It also has the single largest annual increase in defence allocation.

The shadows of Kargil are reflected in it. The finance minister explained his difficulty in planning this budget. In his address to the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry after the budget, he mentioned that the fiscal deficit could not be reduced further because of the defence expenditure needs.

He admitted that Kargil had taken up all that he mopped up in income this financial year. There is massive increase in the defence budget. It has led to some disquiet about not enough being done for the social sector. Amartya Sen’s warning that defence cannot be allowed to overtake the needs of health, education and such needs is still fresh in our minds.

There is a large increase in defence allocation. The army chief has however said he cannot effectively spend the moneys allotted to him, due to bureaucratic procedures. This is borne out by the fact that in the last 10 years or more the defence forces could not entirely spend the limited funds that were given to them. We shall have to wait and see if things change.

Military disasters never happen all of a sudden. They remain in the making a long while. Political apathy, organisational fault lines, financial neglect, social standing and the value which society places on its military, all contribute to military failure. The skill of the general is to ensure that his army goes into battle with the assured superiority of forces to win. The test of the political leadership is in making that superiority financially possible. The national defence effort needs an integrated approach and not ad hoc arrangements. That is what the shadows of Kargil tell us.

The author is director, Delhi Policy Group, and former director-general military operations    


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