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Mainstream, VOL LV No 41 New Delhi September 30, 2017

Defending India: Challenges for the New Defence Minister

Friday 29 September 2017


by Bhartendu Kumar Singh

Defending India is a challenge for our Defence Ministers. As Nirmala Sitharaman familiarises herself in the new role, she is expected to emerge as a defencer pacis for the country’s security problematic. The basketful of newspapers’ advisories notwithstanding, she would be running against time since general elections will take place in less than two years.

The Minister starts on a wicket with a lot of spadework done by Manohar Parrikar. That included commissioning of the Shekatkar Committee for wide-ranging military reforms. While Arun Jaitley must be credited for agreeing to the committee’s numerous recommendations, setting the ball for India’s most comprehensive military reforms, the onus would be on the incumbent to sustain the military reforms momentum. Similarly, many big ticket capital procurement decisions were taken in the last two years. The Pritam Singh Committee was tasked to study procurement problems. The jury is out and its recommendations need debate for streamlining the procurement regime in the next two years. Unless we do this, many procurement decisions would be subjected to multiple revisions imposing the ‘cost of lost opportunity’ on the taxpayers. Similarly, expansion and consolidation of the domestic military industrial complex (MIC) under the ‘Make in India’ scheme needs fast-tracking since the after-effects of many policy-decisions would be visible only in the long term.

As the Minister may soon appreciate, the reform philosophy in defence matters needs reconsideration since some committees like the Shekatkar Committee (led by an insider) or the Raman Puri Committee for Ordnance Factories and the Pritam Singh Committee (led by outsiders) have not completely understood the issues and some of their recommendations are shallow and unimplementable. Also, the big-bang approach does not work in a complex and vast domain like defence where there is too much of knowledge gap and any ‘top-to-down’ reform proposal may boomrang. For example, the suggestion on the introduction of the financial advice system in ordnance factories is not working even on a ‘pilot basis’.

Similarly, some opinions on defence matters are ‘militarised’ and ignore the lateral feedback from audit or finance. For example, when the Minister’s portfolio was declared, welcome articles in many newspapers harped on the oft-quoted hypothesis that ‘there was no money to buy submarines, guns and aircrafts for the services’. However, this dim prognosis ignores two vital issues. First, there are little attempts amongst the services towards resource-sharing through joint usage and trimming the revenue expenditure. Also, many archival practices in the services amount to sheer wastage of manpower. Therefore, revenue expenditure has ballooned beyond control (57 per cent of total defence budget), leaving little resources for capital expenditure. Similar wastage of manpower is there amongst services being paid from the civilian estimates of the MoD. Second, revenue generation in the armed forces remains grossly neglected. However, it is a cardinal sin to even suggest this. If properly harnessed, it can fill the coffers to some extent. Two years are not a bad period for inducing a turnaround if they are brought under ministerial supervision.

There are also wider national security challenges where a lot can be done in the next two years. We need a constructive debate on security. The present debate is under-developed, lopsided and emotional. It doesn’t discuss the cost-benefit analyses of the defence vs development or guns vs butter debate. India is a developing state where human development indices are miserably poor; even Bangladesh fares better on some indices. When many farmers die due to agricultural insecurity and children die due to lack of basic facilities like oxygen, we need to ask ‘whose security?’ With an academic background in economics and ministerial experience of finance, corporate affairs and commerce, the Minister may be sensitive on human security and facilitate its inclusion in the national security strategy (NSS).

The resultant NSS could be a conceivable task in the near future. Presently, the MoD’s annual report is largely a summation of defence activities in the fiscal year. Since there is near-unanimity amongst strategic thinkers about the desirability of a documented and well-publicised national security strategy, this would facilitate long-term defence planning, resource distri-bution, synchronisation of defence activities with development concerns and, above all, ensure India’s rise as a military power in a cost-effective manner.

The Minister can also play a pivotal role in the prevention of a Doklam-type crisis with China or Pakistan. China and India may have negotiated out of Doklam, but uncertainty and unpredictability drive the enemy to take advantage and impose crises and war-like conditions. Therefore, defence diplomacy needs to be strengthened along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China and the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan. For example, positioning of professionalised interlocutors with language skills in Mandarin and Tibetan amongst the ITBP and Armymen on the LAC can avert a number of issues with China. At the higher level, India’s defence diplomacy needs a further push to maintain communication with neighbours and allow the country to focus on development without any geopolitical or resource distractions.

It is true that Ms Nirmala Sitharaman would be hard pressed on the above agenda. But considering such issues would enable her to defend India in a cost-effective way, those would help uplift the morale of the armed forces thereby earning her a good name in India’s military history.

The author is in the Indian Defence Accounts Service. The views expressed here are strictly personal.

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