While the PM’s address to a joint conference of the armed forces candidly outlined the growing threats we face, there was also a clear hint that the defence budget may be reduced
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s address to the combined conference of the senior commanders of the all three armed forces was remarkable also for three main reasons. First, he was unusually candid and, at times, blunt in underscoring the growing threats and challenges this country faces and will continue to face, both within the neighbourhood and because of the global environment, in which both economic clout and strategic problems have moved from West to the East.
While talking about the neighbourhood, he made no bones about his belief – based obviously on privileged information he is privy to – that there are likely to be attempts from across the border to disrupt the elections, and he wanted the armed forces to be “alert.” Evidently, he was referring to the elections to the Lok Sabha due next summer, not to the current assembly polls in five states that are nearing their end. His punchline on the subject was: “There is no doubt we will continue to face formidable challenges.”
What Singh left unsaid was that threats of cross-border terrorism apart, the entire neighbourhood is going to be in deep turmoil and some of the strife there could spill over into this country. Elections in Nepal, far from solving the crisis that has lasted six years, have aggravated it. The new Constituent Assembly is hung, and the badly defeated Maoists are threatening a fresh revolt.
In Bangladesh, India-friendly Sheikh Hasina is almost certain to lose the January election, bringing back to power her rival Khaleda Zia, ever inimical to this country. Islamic extremists, enraged by the death sentences awarded to some of their leaders for their treachery during the country’s war of independence, are Begum Zia’s staunch allies. The threat of jihadi terrorism through that country, suppressed by Sheikh Hasina, will therefore get a new lease of life. Problems with Sri Lanka have already worsened because of the Prime Minister’s unfortunate decisions not to go the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo.
To the west and northwest of us, uncontrolled conflict would not only add to terrorism and sectarian warfare but also endanger the livelihood of seven million Indians living and working in the Gulf region.
Secondly, there was a brief and discreetly-worded reference in Singh’s speech to the great and growing importance of maritime power. “Our strategic horizons,” he said, “should include the need to protect our global seaborne trade in goods, energy and minerals.” This must be read together with his remarks on security in the Asia-Pacific region. Without mentioning China even once, he drew attention to the “increasing contestations over the seas to our east” and wondered whether these would be settled peacefully. However, this was a challenge his audience “must grapple with.”
The induction of INS Vikramaditya, formerly Admiral Gorshkov, has added to India’s maritime muscle, but it would be a grave error to underestimate China’s rapid expansion of its naval power.
The third crucial feature of the Prime Minister’s forthright talk to military leaders was an emphatic plea to “build a strong domestic defence industrial base.” He urged the ministry of defence, the armed forces and the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) urgently to review the reports of various task forces the government had initiated to “achieve a higher indigenous capability in military inventory production.” He wanted the military establishment to put to use both international help, as well as the “full potential of India’s own public and private capabilities.”
All this is unexceptionable. But the trouble is that more often than not, there are glaring contradictions between the government’s words and its actions. For instance, the most important Task Force (TF) the government has appointed so far was the one headed by Naresh Chandra, a former cabinet secretary, with a mandate comprehensively to review national security and suggest how best to reform it.
On the arena of defence production, the TF has made several useful recommendations, which the government leaders seem inclined to accept, but have not been able to do so for one reason or another. (Other more important recommendations in operational areas that the government has practically rejected will have to be discussed separately.) One of the TF’s suggestions for augmenting the quantity and quality of defence production is to increase the proportion of foreign investment in the defence sector. Foreigners bringing in advanced technology and Indian public and private units could then set up efficient joint ventures under the supervision of the National Technology Council the TF wants to be formed. As it happens, the defence minister, A K Antony is opposed to any increase in the current limit of 26 per cent on FDI.
The TF has also pointed out that the head of the DRDO has too much on his plate because he is also Scientific Adviser to the defence minister and in charge of all the defence laboratories. But no one seems to be paying any attention to this.
As for the TF’s recommendation that the reckless “blacklisting” of suppliers must be ended, most policy makers consider it as sound. But, in the words of a highly placed source, “the ghost of Bofors is still haunting us”. This is cruel irony. When the Bofors gun proved extremely useful during the Kargil War, we had to buy ammunition at thrice the normal price because of thoughtless blacklisting of every entity associated with Bofors. It was around that time that we also “discovered” that the Swedes had transferred all the technology of Bofors to us. We lost more than two decades before embarking on indigenous production of this howitzer.
One brief word needs to be said about the Prime Minister’s clear hint that the defence budget might have to be reduced. Presumably because he is better aware of the state of the economy and the resources available to the state, he is repeating the old
adage: “We must cut the coat according to the cloth”. This is unfortunate. For our defence budget is less than 2 per cent of the GDP and we need to make up the great and growing gap in China’s military might and ours.