New Delhi, May 19: A minefield of security issues awaits the Narendra Modi government, set to be sworn in at an inflexion point in South Asia after a victory in which the constituency of former soldiers has supported him strongly.
For the first time, a former army chief, retired Gen. V.K. Singh, has been elected an MP. The general, Modi’s candidate in Ghaziabad, won big — by over 5 lakh votes in a margin comparable to that of the Prime Minister-designate himself in Vadodara — over the Congress’ Raj Babbar.
The irony of the general, who had as army chief challenged the Manmohan Singh government in the Supreme Court in an age dispute, walking into South Block in a different capacity would be striking. But in the record of past transitions, defence ministers have usually maintained continuity and not tinkered with the security establishment.
The risks of appointing V.K. Singh defence minister may be too much — even for a government with a single-party majority such as Modi’s — because of questions over conflict of interest. Current army chief Gen. Bikram Singh and army chief-designate Lt Gen. Dalbir Singh Suhag have been accused by V.K. Singh’s supporters of having vested interests.
But the BJP enjoys a traditional rapport with men in uniform. The country also last went to war (or a mini-war) under the BJP-led government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Kargil in 1999.
Two years later, after an attack on Parliament, the military was mobilised and sent to the western front where it was face-to-face with Pakistani troops for a year in “Operation Parakram”, the brainchild of Vajpayee’s national security adviser, the late Brajesh Mishra. It was when the troops were mobilised that the burning of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra happened, followed by the Gujarat pogrom.
This time, Modi’s choice of defence minister will be shaped not only by the candidate’s proximity to him but also the individual’s grasp of the subject.
Within the armed forces under the UPA government, a constant refrain had been that A.K. Antony was either unwilling or unable to tackle military issues deftly.
Vajpayee had chosen George Fernandes, who was an ally in the NDA and not from his own party.
Congress-led governments have almost always kept the defence portfolio for a senior member of the party (Pranab Mukherjee, followed by Antony under the UPA). Modi doesn’t have the compulsions of a coalition to choose someone from outside his party.
The name of Rajnath Singh is counted among the probables. The BJP president is said to have been instrumental in drafting V.K. Singh. Ghaziabad, from where the former general won, is Rajnath’s former constituency.
The choice of a national security adviser — a post that gained importance under the Vajpayee government — would also be indicative of the direction foreign and security policies may take. In the school of security policy wonks, the hawks have usually inclined towards the BJP.
In the months ahead, when US troops withdraw from Afghanistan through Pakistan, New Delhi’s relations with its western neighbour are likely to re-enter a cycle of turbulence. Islamabad itself may have set the ball rolling last week by expelling the only two Indian journalists accredited under a government-to-government arrangement.
The list of to-do’s for Modi’s defence minister is long. Topping it are proposals for military modernisation, the air force’s need for 126 multi-role combat jets, which could cost over $20 billion (around Rs 120,000 crore), and a second line of six submarines for the navy.
In one of his first campaign rallies, accompanied by V.K. Singh, Modi had addressed ex-servicemen and held out hope that he would implement a uniform pension scheme. Antony said he had done this but veterans disputed his claim.
Also on the to-do list are proposals for defence reform. Many of these originated under the Vajpayee government. One plan, for instance, was to have the chief of defence staff as a single-point military adviser to the government. Antony had cited lack of political consensus to delay its creation. Modi, with a majority, will not have that excuse.