On Rajnath’s plate: Review of strategic defence

The MoD will now have a full-time senior minister, as was the tradition since Independence when stalwarts like Baldev Singh, YB Chavan, Jagjivan Ram, Sharad Pawar, George Fernandes, Pranab Mukherjee and AK Antony held charge.

Maj-Gen Ashok Mehta
Former GoC, IPKF, Sri Lanka

PRIME Minister Narendra Modi posting the second-most senior minister of his first Cabinet to defence of the realm means he wants to remove the widely held perception that while he may worship national security and the soldier on the altar of elections, he is far less serious about its functioning at other times.

 In Modi's previous stint, there were four defence ministers in five years, two of whom were political lightweights; and defence allocation did not exceed 1.5 per cent of the GDP, the lowest since the 1962 war. In 1985, defence received 3.5 per cent of the GDP. Modi has tried to cover these lapses with an imperfect OROP — which has been taken to court —- and air and ground strikes against Pakistan, with the former replete with the potential to escalate into war with the capability to fight one conspicuously deficient due to holes in inventories of deterrence.

If nothing else, Rajnath Singh will bring political heft and longevity to his office. His term can prove transformative if he can manage the bureaucracy and arrest and roll back the expansive reach of the elevated NSA, Ajit Doval. Singh did not reflect such zeal as Home Minister. 

The MoD will now have a full-time senior minister, as was the tradition since Independence when stalwarts like Baldev Singh, YB Chavan, Jagjivan Ram, Sharad Pawar, George Fernandes, Pranab Mukherjee and AK Antony held charge. The pecking order of ministers, their chemistry with the Prime Minister and clout in North Block would reflect the size of the defence budget and heft of ministry. 

Jagjivan Ram oversaw the 1971 war. He was a no-nonsense Defence Minister and despite differences with Gen Sam Manekshaw, maintained sound civil-military relations. I saw him at the College of Combat, Mhow, attending a war game chirpy and questioning.

Sharad Pawar held office in the early 1990s when civil-military relations were ruffled by an Army Chief, who in an interview with the The Pioneer, called some countries 'bandicoots' and  sought  good governance. A furore followed in Parliament, with Pawar assuring the House that the   chief had agreed to apologise. In those days, relations between the ruling Congress and the Opposition parties, including the BJP, were convivial, not shrill and adversarial like today. Pawar drove to BJP MP Jaswant Singh's residence, seeking his military advice and felicity of the English language in crafting a statement admonishing the General which Pawar read out in Parliament.

George Fernandes became the messiah of Siachen and the bane of bureaucrats who blocked Siachen files. It was he who secured the use of the only foreign air base at Ayni in Turkmenistan and brought home martyrs' bodies from Kashmir allegedly in overpriced aluminium coffins leading to allegations of a scam. A sting operation implicating his party forced him to step down as External Affairs Minister and friend Jaswant Singh doubled up as Defence Minister till Fernandes was rehabilitated.

 In the eight years of Antony's stewardship, probity trumped operational preparedness as not a single modernisation project fructified under his watch, including Rafale. In an embarrassment for the government, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh conveyed through his NSA Shiv Menon to Antony that he should take action against Army Chief Gen VK Singh for taking his government to court over his age row. Antony refused, saying the Army Chief was too big a person to be disciplined by him. It was Gen VK Singh who leaked his letter to Prime Minister Singh to the media about the critical hollowness in the  Army inventories which persist to this day. Similarly, Antony declined to get his bureaucrats to implement recommendations of the Naresh Chandra Task Force that included the appointment of a permanent Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and other crucial defence reforms like integration of ministry with 

military officers for jointness. 

The Modi 1.0 government did some tinkering with defence reforms but nothing on the scale that was expected. Manohar Parrikar had publicly promised to appoint the CDS and at least one presentation was made to Modi, but the idea was aborted .The NSA became the de facto CDS. 

Once Nirmala Sitharaman became Defence Minister, her primary mission was to defend Modi against the Rafale flak both inside and outside Parliament. Doval's encroachment of the MoD had started in 2015 when he became principal adviser to Modi on Rafale and opened parallel negotiations with the French Government. No NSA, till date, has directed military operations as Doval has — from Pathankot to surgical strikes to air strikes, his stamp was on them. In early 2018, the Defence Planning Committee (DPC) of the 1950s was rejigged under Doval, with the Service Chiefs reporting to him. 

Rajnath Singh has to claw back the turf lost to NSA and scrap the DPC, which like the National Security Council, has rarely met. Whenever in recent times defence ministers have changed, the cri de coeur is familiar:  more funds for modernisation. But money is only the secondary problem. The primary issue for Singh is fixing the broken down higher defence planning and management system, surviving on ad-hocism. He needs to start from scratch: order a strategic defence and security review, derive a national security strategy and, from it, a national defence strategy. 

The imponderables of a two-and-a-half front war, 42 or 45 Air Force squadrons, 200- or 250-ship Navy and a 13- or 15- Corp Army should all fall in place. Residual defence reforms languishing since 2001 require implementation: CDS and theatrisation, restructuring the MoD, defence planning and budgeting with predictable sums for capital account and a fast-track depoliticised procurement process reliant on indigenisation where probity is subordinate to defence-readiness. 

If Sitharaman says she has no money, opening a national defence fund is the last resort. I had hoped Modi would constitute an empowered committee on defence in addition to the ones on employment and growth.

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