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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

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The Government and the Military

An exasperated defence watcher, former Colonel of the Armoured Corps, Ajai Shukla, in his blog, Broadsword, calls on India's Defence Minister A K Antony to 'Go' because in Shukla's reading, "It is harder to determine what this country pays to perpetuate Defence Minister A K Antony's reputation for honesty, but the monetary penalty alone is thousands of crores per year." The minister, he says, is holding up acquisitions for the necessary preparedness to deter Pakistan.

Another knowledgeable defence commentator, Manoj Joshi, in his blog, referring to the Comptroller and Auditor General's report informs, "The Army's towed artillery is a quarter century old, two-thirds of its tank fleet comprises outdated T-72s which joined service some 30 years ago. The Army has no self-propelled artillery or attack helicopters, and mobile air defence in the form of Tunguska systems is limited." Consequently, he too is no fan of the defence minister, and this is evident from his view that, "A great deal of blame for this state of affairs must fall on Union Defence Minister A K Antony. His leadership of the department since 2005 has been uninspiring, if not downright disastrous. His sole aim, critics say, is to preserve his image as "St Antony", the honest.'

Clearly, there appears a disconnect between what the military desires and the government is willing to deliver. While each service has drawn up its wish list, the government has wrapped these up in procedures that would only deliver the capability over a considerable length of time. For instance, the Army's list will materialise in full only by 2027.

Why is the ministry going much slower than the services would like? One answer is that it is being careful not to have a repeat of its infamous scams - dating back to 'Bofors' and 'coffins for Kargil martyrs'. Once bitten by exposure in the Bofors case, the ruling party for certain is twice shy or doubly wary. But is the ministry only being wary that such scams should not repeat themselves, or are there other reasons too? Since the ministry itself is not saying, it is impossible to know for sure.

Since the government intends spending over US $50 billion over the coming half decade under the defence capital account, there is a considerable push among those in the arms industry - that includes the private sector these days - to steer matters their way. This is partially behind the bad press coming Antony's way.


One reason the ministry is going much slower than the services would like may be that it is being careful not to have a repeat of its infamous scams like Bofors.


Another possibility is that the ministry is not too happy with the strategies for defence articulated by the services. As Joshi informs, the Cold Start strategy, which is the basis of the Army's demands, has not received political blessing yet. But even in this case, the ministry should not be dragging out the purchases of the services, to slow down their agenda. Instead, as Manoj Joshi concludes, "the political leadership [should] closely work with the armed forces to evolve a strategy to deal with Pakistan ... to work with them on all aspects of a strategy that will deter Islamabad." A viable strategy for the nuclear era is clearly needed.

The earlier promise that nuclearisation would result in a peace dividend was rudely contradicted by the Kargil War. The military has come up with its own answers to the strategic problem posed by Pakistan. The political leadership is obliged to consider the military's 'solution'. In case there are qualms over the proposals, or other ideas that have come up elsewhere, the government needs to bring these out as well. Hiding behind procedural rigmarole as it appears to be currently doing is to disregard its authority to over rule the military. So why is the government not taking a stand?

First, do no harm

Firstly, at the heart of the government is in an accommodationist solution to India's Pakistan problem. Therefore, it follows a carrot-and-stick policy requiring a mix of containment through intelligence operations, military coercion, diplomatic pressure and political incentives. This way it prefers to keep the lid on the India-Pakistan relationship, to prevent it from boiling over and scalding India's growth trajectory, on which the national grand strategy depends. Pakistan, cognisant only to the pressure applied on it, is unresponsive to carrots, knowing it can compensate for Indian pressure through external balancing, such as leaning on China and the US.

Secondly, the government has lost the initiative to hardliners. The government, once bitten by the reaction to Sharm-el-Sheikh joint statement, is now twice shy in appearing accommodationist. It is forever watching its back against allegations of a 'sell out', using which the opposition right wing that is currently down and out might claw its way back into the political reckoning. The strategic community, dominated by vocal and telegenic hardliners, keeps the government on the defensive. Their latest salvo has been on India's marginalisation in the Af-Pak arena at the London Conferene, despite the significant financial and other contributions the country has made.

Lastly, the government is possibly persuaded by the logic ranged against military options in the nuclear age. Since escalation cannot be ruled out, the risk of military action is unwarranted. It is easy for strategists to talk endlessly on escalation control and the viability of deterrence. It is a much graver matter for political leadership to take decisions on the issue. For decision makers, life and death issues cannot be replicated in academic exercises, wargames and intellectual constructs.

To work its way out of the conundrum the government needs to do three things. One is to make Pakistan an offer it cannot refuse. This has already been done through the back channels, both during the Vajpayee era and during Manmohan Singh's first term. However, since the government has never officially acknowledged this exchange, it has not built the political ballast necessary for seeing the initiative through. Secondly, it needs to build the conditions necessary to get Pakistan - and more importantly, its Army - to bite. And lastly, it needs to proceed with a public information campaign to bring the public round to accepting the unavoidable necessity of a political solution. This would require political investment on the part of the party.

Taking the bull of strategic doctrine by the horns is important lest the government continue to be in the cross hairs of critics, some of whom may well be in the pay roll of arms companies waiting for the windfall. Flush with funds from continuing growth, India is presently comfortable with spending on arms. This also achieves the political objective of not appearing 'soft'. The irony is that when these weapons are used tomorrow, they will endanger the very prosperity that enables their purchase today. The government needs to take a call on whether it is persuaded by the logic of the purchases it is set to make. Antony has enough ammunition to outlast his critics! ⊕

Firdaus Ahmed
06 Mar 2010

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