The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The UPA’s plans for defence and the armed forces look promising

Thanks in large measure to pollsters and psephologists, one had not bothered even to take the trouble of going through the manifestos of the two main political contenders, convinced that change was not on the cards. Now that the morning after has dawned, students of national security have been left to look at what this change of dispensation may mean to issues concerning national security. It is useful to look back at the Congress manifesto for the 2004 elections, now that a rainbow coalition headed by the Congress is in power.

Under the heading “Defence, National Security & Foreign Policy”, the manifesto had this to say: “The Congress will ensure that all delays in the modernization of our armed forces are eliminated and that funds budgeted for modernization are, in fact, spent to the fullest. The Congress is committed to maintaining a credible nuclear weapons programme while at the same time it will evolve demonstrable and verifiable confidence-building measures with its nuclear neighbours. The welfare of ex-servicemen will occupy urgent attention and plans will be expeditiously prepared for involving them in crucial nation-building tasks. A new Department of Ex-Servicemen’s Welfare will be set up in the Ministry of defence. The long-pending issue of one-rank, one-pension will once again be re-examined and the satisfactory solution arrived at expeditiously. The Congress will make the National Security Council a professional and effective institution. It will immediately have a discussion in Parliament on the Subrahmanyam Committee report on Kargil and move resolutely to implement its recommendations to strengthen our intelligence networks.”

The sentiment about eliminating delays in modernization of the armed forces and the utilization of budgetary allocations will be welcomed not just by students of national security, but in officers’ messes, ward rooms and crew rooms across the three services. What is not clear, however, is whether the new government will put in place a phased plan to ensure that the gap of over ten years in modernization will be made good in a planned and phased manner and that this will be monitored effectively.

On the issue of delays, the problem is not really of allocation of resources, as the manifesto itself recognizes, but one of spending the allocation to the fullest. And it is here that we come to a political minefield. Ever since the Bofors episode, defence purchases have come to be considered fair political game. No political party can claim the moral high ground on this score. This writer recalls his tenure in the plans branch in the early Nineties when our urgent requirements were knocked about endlessly on the flimsiest of grounds. We referred to this as the Bofors syndrome. The very trainer aircraft whose need on safety and operational grounds was accepted in 1986 has been finalized only in 2004 — after needless loss of aircrew lives.

The new government will considerably enhance the nation’s security and spare the armed forces the spectacle of humiliation and worse if it can reach out for a political consensus on not making defence purchases the subject of political football.

The party has talked about maintaining a credible nuclear weapons programme. One hopes that the choice of words “credible nuclear weapons programme” is not deliberate as against a “credible nuclear deterrent”. If a highly developed nuclear weapons programme is not backed by the supporting operational, command and control and clear doctrine, its deterrent value will be perceived to be poor, thus negating the purpose of having a nuclear capability. Manifestos are not policy documents, but one wishes that such sensitive issues had been more carefully crafted.

It is encouraging to see that a political party has thought it fit to mention the concerns of ex-servicemen in its manifesto. As the manifesto itself recognizes, the issue of one-rank one-pension is indeed a long outstanding one. While the commitment to arrive at an expeditious solution is encouraging, this writer is not optimistic when there is intent to re-examine the issue. In our typical system, this will mean committees, examination on files and endless procrastination, even as many ex-servicemen face penury and worse.

Those in governance must reflect on the immensely difficult tasks that our armed forces are performing on a daily basis at risk to life and limb. Each of them is a potential ex-serviceman. Treating the latter with dignity and compassion is a moral obligation that no self-respecting nation can avoid. If indeed this obligation is to be honoured, then let the department of ex-servicemen’s welfare be manned by ex-servicemen alone. Only then will the commitment towards their welfare seem meaningful.

The sentiment of making the NSC a professional and effective institution is unobjectionable. This sounds rhetorical, as those holding the levers of power soon succumb to the temptation of controlling institutions and awarding loyalists with assignments. The NSC can only be professional and effective if the system of merit and suitability for posts is adopted as the sole guiding criterion in making appointments. This, in our environment, is a pipe-dream.

The manifesto talks about a discussion in parliament on the Kargil Review Committee report and promises to move resolutely to implement its recommendations to strengthen our intelligence networks. Does this mean that apart from intelligence, other far-reaching reforms are not considered a priority area' The Subrahmanyam Committee report was tabled in parliament, after which the government had set up four task forces to review management of defence, border management, intelligence and internal security. The recommendations of these task forces were reviewed by a group of ministers. The GOM’s recommendations were then put up to the Cabinet Committee on Security which approved these.

From all accounts, considerable progress has been made towards implementation of a majority of these. But changing systems of decades and, more important, changing mindsets is not an easy task. What one fails to understand is how, at this juncture, will discussion in parliament on the Kargil Review Committee recommendations help. The fear is that this may well give the status-quoists a lever to go slow on implementation of the ongoing reforms. One would like to get an assurance that the process of implementation will be continued and be completed in a timebound manner.

Two specific recommendations need mention. The nation was told that the appointment of a chief of defence staff, though accepted by the CCS, would need political consensus. This has been hanging fire for over two years. In the interim, a vice-chief of integrated staff, along with staff from all the services, has been established and from all accounts doing good work. The nation needs to gather the political will to take this logical and long overdue step, if we are not to fall further behind in our endeavours to face new security challenges.

Another issue is that of setting up a national defence university. Across the world it is well recognized that national security management and planning are now becoming complex and, for them to be handled professionally, policymakers, both civil and military, need to be suitably educated. The purpose of the proposed national defence university is to educate national security leaders on all aspects of national security strategy, national military strategy and national resource strategy through teaching and research. A proposal to set up such a university has been under consideration of the government for over two years. Considering that benefits to security management will only start to accrue many years after such an institution is established, the government will send a clear message of its security intents by implementing this proposal urgently.

Fortunately, national security is one important facet of governance that has traditionally found unanimity across the political spectrum in India, perhaps because it brooks no lapses. But those who put government policy into practice, and have done so and retired, having given their best years to the nation, unfortunately, have no political godfathers. Is it too much to expect the government to lay out a road map with clear targets for achievement of various goals' The message to the uniformed fraternity will be both positive and heartening and the impact on national security positive beyond measure.

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