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Ajai Shukla: A full-time job in South Block

The new defence minister must stand up to the military and chart his own course

Ajai Shukla 

Ajai Shukla

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken five months to appoint a full-time defence minister. Now Manohar Parrikar will oversee the defence of India, dealing with a potential "two-and-a-half front" challenge from Pakistan, China and several internal insurgencies. He will be constrained by limited funds since the government's primary ambition to boost the economy allows for only modest increments to defence spending. Nor can Mr Parrikar, a newcomer to defence, draw upon any existing vision for transformative change. All he has to guide him are slogans from a myopic strategic community, which apparently believes that military readiness consists of bluster, threats, backward shuffles and the unhindered disbursement of vast sums to international arms vendors.

On the plus side, the new defence minister will have a full day to devote to his charge, unlike his predecessor, Arun Jaitley, who was unfairly saddled with this job in addition to his own full-time assignment as finance minister. Mr Parrikar, furthermore, is a metallurgist from the Indian Institute of Technology, an outstanding qualification for a man who will be expected to boost indigenous defence research and development (R&D), and manufacture. As chief minister of Goa, he has proven his ability to administer and govern. Finally, he is reputed to be honest, a rare enough quality today to rate a mention. One hopes that like his Congress party predecessor, A K Antony, he is not both honest and indecisive.

The new defence minister could choose to function like most of his predecessors. This would involve ceding to the army, the navy and the air force chiefs the unfettered right to run their services as they deem fit; while the ministry controls the money and procures military equipment. This operating style - if so this abdication of ministerial responsibility can be termed - would be justifiable only in a security emergency so imminent that there is no place for long-term planning. This is clearly not so for India. Yet our paranoid public narrative of dire external threat, along with the crashing unfamiliarity of the political class with military matters, warps the higher management of debate. There is no explicit enunciation or discussion of outcomes that the military must ensure; and no evaluation of its readiness to achieve those goals. Instead, military preparedness is evaluated mainly in the currency of arms purchases. Mr Antony was never criticised when his service chiefs expressed their inability to retaliate militarily against Pakistan in the wake of the Mumbai blasts. Ironically, criticism centred on his failure to spend his ministry's capital budgets.

Mr Parrikar must start by reminding his military that they exist as an instrument of deterrence and that they must have plans pre-prepared to discharge that role. As the army chief in 1999, general V P Malik, famously said before the Kargil conflict, "We will fight with what we have got." Even when full-scale war is not feasible or desirable in response to, say, a major terrorist attack launched from foreign soil, or ingress into Indian territory, the defence minister must ensure that clear, pre-determined deterrent capability is in place for various eventualities and that the military is trained and equipped for those. If, in the face of dire provocation, the military chiefs merely look down at their shoes, this abject failure is the responsibility of the defence minister.

If Mr Parrikar goes by the BJP Election Manifesto 2014 that was released in April, he will only feel confused. Congress-like, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has viewed security in holistic terms - maintaining "social cohesion and harmony" as a component of national security along with "military security; economic security; cyber security; energy, food and water and health security". The promise to "revise and update" India's nuclear doctrine will presumably create more deterrence, placing less reliance on an unaffordable conventional build-up. Another part of the manifesto inverts cause and effect, by promising to "modernize armed forces, and increase the R&D in defence, with a goal of developing indigenous defence technologies and fast tracking of defence purchases".

Instead, Mr Parrikar should start afresh, read extensively, consult independently and think far outside the box, because all those who would brief him are deeply invested in the status quo. While fast-tracking procurement sounds good in a manifesto, the embarrassing truth is that our pockets are empty. Of this year's capital allocation of Rs 94,588 crore, over 90 per cent is pre-committed towards instalments for contracts concluded in previous years. Instead of grandstanding over unaffordable purchases like the $20-billion Rafale fighter, Mr Parrikar should initiate a project to increase the operational availability of the Sukhoi-30MKI fleet from the current 50 per cent, to a more respectable 80 per cent. That alone will put 80 Su-30MKIs into the sky, dramatically eroding the argument for the Rafale. Simultaneously, a strategic decision to promote the indigenous Tejas fighter would implement the "Make in India" directive, while also making up fleet numbers with cheap, utility fighters. Just as rejuvenating the Indian Railways network comes before expensive bullet train lines, existing weapons systems should be revitalised rather than buying expensive new kit.

The new defence minister will surely ask how the army hopes to be a modern warfighting force while spending just one rupee out of five on equipment. With 82 per cent of the army's Rs 1,13,334-crore Budget going on revenue expenditure, of which Rs 65,808 crore goes on the payroll of 1.2 million soldiers, just Rs 20,665 crore is left for equipment modernisation. This is becoming even more lopsided with 80,000 more soldiers sanctioned for a new mountain strike corps, and the Seventh Pay Commission already considering wage enhancements. Contrast this with China, where 1.7 million soldiers were demobilised to free up funds for modern equipment.

Raising new divisions lets peacetime governments appear muscular and defence-oriented. Only during war - as in 1962 - does the folly of ill-equipped soldiers translate painfully into national humiliation. For too long, defence ministers and generals have served out their time, keeping their fingers crossed that the music does not stop while they are holding the parcel. Mr Parrikar has the opportunity to scorn populism and drive the fundamental restructuring that India needs.

Twitter: @ajaishukla

First Published: Mon, November 10 2014. 21:50 IST