It was a long time ago. A.K. Antony was minister for civil supplies in P.V. Narasimha Rao’s government. The Sunday newspaper, which I was in charge of bringing out, had published an in-depth exposé on the state of the public distribution system in the country. On Monday morning, Antony’s office called the newspaper to arrange a meeting between the civil supplies minister and the article’s author about his findings, which had been spread over a whole broadsheet page the previous day. As it happened, the reporter who wrote the piece was travelling: but Antony straightaway put up the article for discussion at a meeting of his ministry’s top officials, none of whom had any idea of the journalist’s findings. Nor had any of them read the article.
Much of the public discourse about Antony’s appointment to the defence ministry in the latest cabinet reshuffle has dealt with two of his character traits: his obsession with probity in public life, and his propensity to quit public office rather than face charges of omission or commission. Hopefully, the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and Sonia Gandhi have not been entirely swayed by these public perceptions alone in their surprising choice of India’s new defence minister. If so, it may come as a bolt from the blue for the prime minister and the Congress president that Antony is no push-over in the defence ministry, one of the few ministries in the Union government which needs a minister with a mind of his own. The stakes of not having one are far too high.
Antony takes over as RM or “raksha mantri”, as he will be known in bureaucratic and diplomatic jargon, at a time when India’s defence establishment, to use a cliché, is truly at a crossroads — for only the second time in independent India’s history. The first was when V.K. Krishna Menon, the other Keralite to hold the job, had to quit the defence ministry for not being able to find the right way and was stuck at the crossroads where he found himself after the border war with China.
A measure of how Antony is already being misjudged has come from across the border. It is no accident that Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, Pakistan’s foreign minister, has suddenly begun emphasizing the imminence of a solution for the Siachen dispute during the series of bilateral meetings with India that have just been scheduled. It came on the heels of a statement by Pervez Musharraf, in which he raised hopes of “substantive” progress in the dialogue with India. Pakistan has repeatedly misunderstood and misjudged the domestic political situation in India and tailored its India policy to fit such misjudgement. Antony will recall that around the time he was civil supplies minister, Islamabad had so badly judged the strength and resilience of the Narasimha Rao government that its military general headquarters in Rawalpindi and a compliant political leadership in Islamabad thought that Kashmir would fall into their hands like an overripe apple if they suitably calibrated the violence in the border state that was being exported by the Inter-Service Intelligence. Many years later, in another of several such miscalculations, Musharraf plotted his diabolical strategy for the ill-fated Agra peace talks. There is at least one ‘top secret’ cable in South Block received from an Indian ambassador in a Gulf state with close links to the Pakistan military, which offers insights — with evidence — of how Musharraf’s mind was working at that time.
In Islamabad and Rawalpindi, the same mindset is active once again. Musharraf and the ISI are mistakenly equating a reassertion of their identity by Indian Muslims — thanks to George W. Bush and the neo-conservatives in Washington — with a softness towards Pakistan. Indian Muslims may feel for their brothers in faith who are suffering in Iraq, Afghanistan or Palestine, but that does not automatically translate into any sympathy for Pakistan.
Kasuri’s statements in the last few days reflect a belief in Pakistan that, with elections in Uttar Pradesh not too far off, Pakistan can be converted into a domestic political issue — at least beneath the surface — in some state elections in India. His statements after the cabinet reshuffle reflect a belief — once again mistaken — that Antony can be persuaded to make concessions on Siachen and declare progress in relations with Pakistan as a quid pro quo for the Congress to regain its strength in Kerala, where it was reduced to a pathetic state in recent elections. With a defence minister from Kerala, who must regain his base in the state, Kasuri and others like him across the border are under the illusion that Kerala’s 23 per cent Muslim vote-bank can be used as pawns in Islamabad’s dangerous games on the sub-continent.
But India has always had its ways of dealing with such perfidy from Pakistan. Sometimes the methods have left much to be desired, as in Agra in 2001, but the country has always got the better of Pakistan. So the challenge from across the border in the garb of peace negotiations may not eventually be the biggest of Antony’s worries.
He takes over the defence ministry at a time when there is a full onslaught on India’s defence production capabilities, its indigenous research and its efforts since the days of Jawaharlal Nehru for self-sufficiency, at least to a degree that is realistic. With the slick salesmen from America’s military-industrial complex making New Delhi their temporary second home in a bid to lure big ticket orders for their products, it has become fashionable in India to run down domestic efforts in defence production, design and conceptualization. Even the president, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, has not been spared for his life-long efforts to strengthen the domestic defence research and production sectors: this columnist has listened to official delegations to Washington criticize Kalam in what can only be interpreted as efforts to curry favour with their American hosts.
What India is facing today is a rerun of what Russia was up against after the collapse of the USSR: a major objective of the West then was to discredit, cripple and eliminate Russia’s — and the Warsaw Pact’s — considerable ability to produce world-class weaponry. As Antony looks at this ongoing assault on Indian self-reliance in defence, he must ask for the nearly 15-year-old defence ministry files detailing how India subsidized and prevented from collapse Russia’s defence industry after the dissolution of the USSR, partly to ensure continued supplies to India, partly because of Narasimha Rao’s belief that countries like India will suffer if the choices available to them in arms procurement were limited and the West was allowed to have its way in this sphere.
Another country, which followed the same course as India then was China. Together, India and China considerably enabled the Russian arms industry to survive in the Nineties. Ironically, India’s domestic capabilities in defence production are today in need of similar support. Hopefully, the new defence minister will not be found wanting.
Antony lacks experience in the ministry that has been thrust on him. What he needs is back-up in people he can trust, people who share his idealism and yet know how to work the system in the defence ministry, which has turned out to be a snake pit for much more astute politicians. For most of his career, he has relied on a core of civil servants, who have given him objective advice, be it in New Delhi or in Thiruvananthapuram. Antony must bring those civil servants into the defence ministry so that he is not manipulated by those who are trying to change the contours of India’s defence procurement policy. Unless he does so, Antony may find that there are ample excuses for him to resign, as he has done in the past, as the cliché goes, at the drop of a hat.