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MANIFEST VAGUENESS

- Political parties’ manifestos mean little for the armed forces

The eagerly awaited election manifesto of the principal opposition party is now in the public domain and it is natural for students of national security to look at it in some depth since opinion polls tend to indicate that the next government at the Centre could possibly be led by that party. Whether or not this indeed happens is for political pundits and psephologists to ponder over, but viewed from the perspective of the national security community and more so the armed forces, the document was eagerly anticipated.

The chapter on security is titled “Secure Indians — Zero Tolerance on Terrorism, Extremism and Crime”. Within it are proposals under the broad headings of Internal Security, External Security, Defence Production and Independent Strategic Nuclear Programme. The chapter’s title and the definition of comprehensive national security within it would appear to indicate that not just the traditional national security components of power — namely, military, economic, cyber and energy — but even those related to terrorism, extremism and crime are proposed to be brought under the national security umbrella. Further, even social ones like food, water and health have been added for good measure.

In general terms ‘national security’ refers to the country’s external national security interests and is hence broadly associated with defence, foreign affairs and intelligence. Internal security issues like law and order, terrorism and extremism, on the other hand, come under the home ministry. Whilst there are bound to be some overlapping areas, the message coming out now is that there would be a much broader national security architecture extending beyond just the two. The problem one sees with this definition is that management of traditional national security will then encompass diverse sections of the government, thus diluting the focus of higher defence management. This at a time when there already exist serious organizational and management challenges, which have defied solution precisely because of divergent interests and views.

The manifesto has attempted to pre-empt this reservation with the rider — that national security cannot be compartmentalized with multiple power centres and needs a clear road map to address it head on which, in turn, involves radical systemic changes. Since neither the prescriptive systemic changes nor the associated road map have been further articulated, it is difficult not to draw the conclusion that these are good intentions yet to undergo the rigour of in-depth study and analysis. Since these are issues of wider complexity, for the present, the discussion is limited to the external security aspects and will touch on other aspects only peripherally.

The ills affecting our national security establishment and management are not only well known but have been the subject of many a recent expert study covering higher defence management, defence research, defence production and other allied subjects. Rather than draw on these for possible prescriptions and offer preferred policy options, the manifesto chooses the middle path — possibly because there continue to be sectional interests and divergent views at play. Here are some obvious examples. On the long deliberated and vital issues like the appointment of a combined defence services/permanent joint chief of staff, ensuring greater participation of the armed forces in the decision-making process and the integration of the services headquarters with the ministry of defence, whilst the need has been accepted, the political will has been wanting. It is disappointing to see that the manifesto is silent on any definitive prescriptions. More so, as many of these were thought processes that owe their birth to the post -Kargil conflict period when the last National Democratic Alliance government was in saddle.

The manifesto talks about modernizing the armed forces, fast tracking defence purchases and increasing research and development in defence with the goal of developing indigenous defence technologies. These are mantras that have been played over and over again and have never been in dispute. What has been missing is the will and the innovative solutions to meet these complex challenges. Modernization of the armed forces is an immediate operational imperative because of decades of neglect and ever worsening external security challenges. Enhancing defence R&D and promoting indigenization are equally important, but can bear fruit only in the longer term after we have taken steps to overcome current weaknesses, such as, prioritizing investment in selected areas of defence R&D, rationalization of defence production by streamlining defence public sector units, taking on board the private sector which has been straining at the leash for nearly a decade and innovative technology sharing and partnership arrangements with international leaders in the field. Again, no prescriptions are forthcoming.

Whilst many of the above issues of greater indigenization would need structural reforms and will mature in the longer term, the immediate modernization needs of the armed forces need fulfilling. If these urgent modernization wish lists of the armed forces, along with making good serious deficiencies in combat equipment, are taken together, one fact that will stare even the uninitiated in the face is that the bill is simply not affordable. The manifesto obliquely admits that “with the financial situation worsening, the issue of national security can acquire a horrifying dimension”. What it fails to admit is that this horrifying dimension is already upon us, presumably because then it would need to offer some bitter though inevitable tonic. And that is not the stuff of sweet-smelling manifestos.

The proposal to revisit India’s nuclear doctrine and revise and update it, to make it relevant to the challenges of current times is unexceptionable for two primary reasons. The first is that the international security scenario is highly dynamic and no security doctrine worth its while can remain static and yet expect to remain relevant. The second is the changed scenario of Pakistan that has inducted tactical nuclear missiles alongside its existing ‘first use’ policy. Any Pakistani belief that tactical nuclear weapon use to neutralize a superior Indian conventional force will not, in international and even Indian eyes, amount to nuclear escalation, needs to be belied through urgent review and modification of the doctrine.

One hopes that the commitment to “maintain a credible minimum deterrent that is in tune with changing geo strategic realities” also includes a review of the need for further verification and testing of our thermo nuclear device, considering that serious differences exist in our scientific community on the complete success of our only test. In any such decision-making, it is also imperative that the military is involved, as it is they who are responsible for the final operational use should such an occasion arise.

One of the biggest challenges facing the national security edifice is actually the very poor state of civil-military relations bordering on lack of trust and even occasional hostility. That the armed forces continue to be pushed down the ladder in terms of their status compared to their civil service counterparts and that the veterans have been deprived of whatever little respect is due to them are prime reasons that the youth of India, of the calibre that the armed forces need, are not coming forward to join. One can only regret that the manifesto is silent on the issue of civil-military relations — issues on which will finally rest the entire edifice of democratic India’s national security.

The recognition that the increasing shortage of commissioned officers in the armed forces needs to be addressed is a welcome development. Unless, however, the underlying causes of why the armed forces are not attractive any more are analysed and recognized, this will remain a pious intention. The armed forces are short of the right calibre of officers primarily because we have by our own shortsighted policies made this an unattractive option. Let us pause and reflect. What significant respect or honour are we according to the right-minded youth whom we would want to spend months on the lonely Siachen heights, or in submarines and combat aircraft that have outlived their lives and yet be willing to give their life for flag and country? Again, there are no thoughts on how this fundamental weakness is proposed to be handled.

It is also surprising that the solution being offered to make good the shortage of officers is to “set up four dedicated defence universities”. In military parlance defence universities are places of higher professional learning in matters of security strategy and resource management and are for senior military and civil officers who will then shoulder higher level national security policy, planning and management responsibilities. Only a very few countries have one such university each. Our own National Defence University has been over a decade in making, and its foundation stone was laid only in 2013. Does one sense that the specialists formulating the manifesto were unaware of what a defence university signifies?

Finally the commitment to build a “war memorial to recognize and honour the gallantry of our soldiers” is welcome, but a firm pledge to do so on the Central Vista in New Delhi is sadly missing. It is a crying shame that the babus of the ministry of urban development and assorted jholawala interests have had a veto on this very natural location for the national war memorial.

As a historic national election gets going and political parties prepare for the mother of all political battles, a perusal of party manifestos and promises of the two principal political parties conveys the impression that ‘national security’ is an unwanted baby and the armed forces the orphaned child.