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A DISAPPOINTING SHOW

- UPA-II has fulfilled few of its promises to the armed forces

Writing in these columns when the United Progressive Alliance II commenced its innings (“Through Thick and Thin”, June 3, 2009), one was optimistic that the new dispensation would not sit idle whilst the nation’s armed forces continued down a slippery slope. This hope was driven by the belief that the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, who had earlier not shied away from bold decisions, would again not hesitate to look for innovative solutions to save the one institution on which rests the entire security edifice of the nation state.

On the morrow of the release of the Congress manifesto for the forthcoming elections, it is appropriate to reflect on how the armed forces have fared against the optimism then expressed by this writer. To put no gloss on it, one must admit that from the earlier slippery slope, the armed forces are now on the edge of the proverbial precipice with only their tenacity and grit holding them from the unknown. And judging by the recent resignation of the chief of naval staff on moral grounds and the vulgar haste with which the government accepted, it would seem that this tenacity has also reached breaking point.

In the interim, we have had the spectacle of an open war between a serving army chief and the ministry of defence with the former taking the unusual step of approaching the highest court. The extent of distrust is exemplified by media allegations of a secret military intelligence unit formed by the chief, purported to be snooping on conversations of officials in the ministry, and of unexplained army movements close to Delhi, with unsaid hints of the dreaded word, ‘coup’. Strangely, none of these stories have as yet been satisfactorily explained and put to rest, thus leaving not only a festering wound in civil-military relations, but also a sulking army deeply hurt by the open lack of trust in the institution itself.

When two of our soldiers were killed at the line of control and one beheaded by elements across the border, we had the unusual occurrence of emotional outpourings by relatives of the one mutilated when the bodies were brought home, but not one leader of significance was at hand to provide the families and the army with a healing touch. More recently, when five soldiers were ambushed and killed on the LoC, which, according to the army was the work of the Pakistan army, the defence minister told Parliament that they were “terrorists along with persons dressed in army uniforms”, thus offering Pakistan a readymade alibi.

In the operational domain there are not only severe shortages in armaments, but modernization is severely handicapped for various reasons, not least because of allegations of corruption, the blacklisting of various companies, and bureaucratic lethargy. A severe shortage of officers in all the three services continues with perhaps the army facing the severest shortages at the operational levels.

When allegations of corruption surfaced in the AgustaWestland helicopter purchase, the defence ministry was quick to order an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation and later cancel the contract. But months have elapsed and it is now learnt that the CBI still awaits the president’s nod to question two governors, who, in their earlier appointments, were party to the decision making process. Clearly there appears little urgency to get to the bottom of the case. Let us bear in mind that the case itself came to light not because of a deft effort on our part, but because of investigations in Italy where it is the subject of a trial. Italian prosecutors suspect that kickbacks worth almost $67.6 million were paid to Indian officials to secure the contract.

We continue to pay lip service to indigenization and to cast aspersions on the armed forces for their love of imported hardware, but we make no effort to address policy, and structural and management issues that plague our defence research and production systems, which are archaic and not accountable. The issues are all too well known and are the biggest impediments to the introduction of a healthy measure of authority associated with accountability. Indeed, reports of committees like the Rama Rao committee on measures to improve the functioning of the Defence Research and Development Organization, the Kelkar committee on the acquisition process and the enabling of greater private sector participation and the Naresh Chandra task force on reforming the national security system have met the same fate as many earlier such attempts.

It is in this bleak backdrop that one was looking for some light at the end of the tunnel in the form of a national security manifesto from the ruling party that would at least provide the institution of the armed forces of India a ray of hope for the future. Sadly it is a disappointment.

The manifesto lists achievements of having hiked the defence budget from Rs 60,066 crore in the financial year 2003-2004 to a mammoth Rs 2.03 lakh crore in the financial year 2013-2014, of announcing India’s biggest defence modernization plan and giving India the fourth generation plus Tejas and our biggest warship, INS Vikramaditya.

It is disingenuous to claim credit for programmes that have been in the pipeline for decades and have had their share of cost and time overruns, amongst a host of other issues. The Tejas MK 1, for example, is still to obtain full operational clearance, which is not due soon whilst the MK 2 is not in sight. The INS Vikramaditya, originally slated to cost around $ 800 million, ended up at some $2.3 billion. Long Term Perspective Plans are periodic exercises and are by themselves no cause for breast beating. The true test is not making plans, but being able to implement them. Here the government’s performance has been patchy at best. Whilst there have been some notable procurements, most of these are through the government-to-government route with the United States of America; when it comes to purchases through global tenders, our lily white consciences balk at the slightest whiff of corruption, thus freezing the procurement system in its tracks. It is hence no surprise that all the three services are on oxygen as far as their modernization status is concerned.The manifesto may try and make the point that the financial year 2013-14 defence budget is a ‘mammoth Rs 2.03 lakh crores’, but this needs to be tempered with the fact that of this Rs.1.17 lakh crore is revenue expenditure, which is needed just to keep today’s armed forces afloat. Inflation, the steep fall of the rupee and rising costs of men and material all add to make the return on what the manifesto terms a mammoth increase, barely modest. That the defence budget as a share of the gross domestic product was a mere 1.79 per cent in 2013-14 and has dropped further to 1.74 per cent in 2014-15 explains why not just modernization of the armed forces, but even current war fighting inventories are under stress. As a point of reference, the strategic community feels that for India this figure should be pegged at 2.5 to 3 per cent.Two other aspects of the manifesto need brief mention. On the strategic front, the commitment to “maintain a credible minimum deterrence and second strike capability”, whilst being laudable, need to be matched with action. If one winds back to the heady days of UPA I’s crowning achievement of the Indo-US nuclear deal and the 123 Agreement and India supposedly having been admitted to the nuclear club, it will be recalled that this came at the heavy cost of India foregoing voluntarily the option for further nuclear tests. The fact that there was a difference of opinion amongst the scientific community at large and between the DRDO scientists and the Bhaba Atomic Research Centre specifically, on the partial success of the thermo nuclear device tested during Pokhran 2 forever leaves a question mark on the credibility of our strategic deterrence. This seems to have been forgotten. These issues were discussed in these columns earlier (“The Bang and a Fizzle”, September 14, 2009 and “A Nation and its Toothless Nuclear Doctrine”, October 2, 2008). Its time our security managers revisited these issues in the absence of which those we wish to deter are happy for us to live in a make believe world of our deterrent capability!

The last is a promise to set up a national commission for ex-servicemen. One has no hesitation in saying that this last decade has seen the worst humiliation of the veterans of the armed forces by none other than their own government. They have been forced to resort to holding public dharnas and returning their medals to their supreme commander who has not even given them an audience. Adding insult to injury, when the Supreme Court issued directions for Pay Commission anomalies in favour of veterans not only has the MOD gone into appeal but on losing, continues to procrastinate in implementing the honourable court’s directive. In another first, the veterans have approached the honourable court with a contempt petition against the MOD, which stands admitted. With this history, any promises made to veterans sound not only hollow, but also look mocking. So much for the manifesto of the party whose one-time prime minister coined the phrase. “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan”. One wonders what surprises the manifesto of the principal Opposition party now holds for the beleaguered armed forces of India.