If Manohar Parrikar wants unvarnished advice, he need not look beyond the late Brajesh Mishra, who served as the national security adviser to former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Or he could remind himself of what George Fernandes, who was defence minister in the Vajpayee Cabinet, used to think aloud about bureaucratic inertia and its impact on defence preparedness. For, what they said then remains valid today.
In the winter of 2009, Mishra sought to impress upon an audience comprising some of the best minds in the Indian strategic community that a disproportionate emphasis on economic growth could blindside New Delhi to the threat posed to it by the possibility of a two-front war with China and Pakistan. The government-of-the-day’s single-minded focus on achieving and maintaining a near double-digit annual growth would be rendered meaningless if it is not able to defend itself from external aggression on two fronts, was his blunt advice to decision-makers.
Mishra looked at defence preparedness against China, for instance, in conjunction with acquisition of military hardware and capabilities. In his estimation, if the gap continued to widen, militarily and economically, between India and China and it got reflected in Chinese adventurism or belligerence along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that separates the two countries, then it behoved of India to take pre-emptive measures. The recent skirmishes along the LAC only seem to reinforce some of Mishra’s concerns.
Another of Mishra’s worries was a perceived lack of defence preparedness, which he attributed in no small measure to the ghost of the Bofors scam, which discouraged successive governments from making timely military purchases. “(Decades) after Bofors, the burden is still on the shoulder of politicians (and they are) afraid to take decisions,” this writer recalled Mishra as saying — a view that has been endorsed by some of those who were privy to the shortage of military hardware during the 1999 Kargil conflict with Pakistan.
Mishra’s remarks echoed Fernandes’, who famously said that the fear of attracting allegations of corruption was to be blamed for the delays in procurement of military hardware. A Tehelka report (Defenders of the indefensible, 25 September) quoted Fernandes as saying in 2003, “There is hardly any official in the ministry who would like to put his signature for anything that has to be purchased. He would like to postpone it. He would like to put it off. He would like to do whatever he has to do because he thinks that is the best way for him to survive.” He amplified the political class’ anxieties by saying that “the court is not going to listen to that and if a political activist or minister does it, then the man who is his rival or opponent is not going to accept that. It is a terrible world”.
Former army chief Gen (retd) VK Singh, who is now the minister of state with independent charge of the statistics and programme implementation ministry in addition to being the minister of state in the ministries of external affairs and overseas Indian affairs, had presented a grim picture of India’s defence preparedness and cautioned the upa government to act without delay.
Parrikar’s predecessor Arun Jaitley had sounded a note of caution, too. He warned the defence ministry apparatus against being “very defensive” and asked it to shed its conservatism in the acquisition of weapons. Jaitley sought to make amends for the erstwhile upa government’s questionable track record on defence acquisitions by okaying certain key projects worth several tens of thousands of crores, such as the indigenous development of six submarines at a cost of Rs 50,000 crore, a Rs 3,200 crore deal for the purchase of Israeli anti-tank guided missiles, procuring surveillance aircraft from the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and inviting the Indian private sector to participate in the production of transport aircraft. In the Union Budget, Jaitley had raised the cap for foreign direct investment (FDI) in defence from 26 percent to 49 percent in order to give a boost to the indigenous defence-industrial manufacturing base. Jaitley had hoped that not only would the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) turn into a manufacturing hub but regular meetings of the Defence Acquisition Council could go a long way towards speeding up the purchases, besides giving a fillip to Modi’s “Make in India” slogan.
For his part, Parrikar has said that it would be his endeavour to fast-track defence purchases. Top on his list could be to take the multi-billion dollar medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) project to its logical conclusion by okaying the purchase of 126 French Rafale jets for the Indian Air Force. “I have realised that if someone properly heads the defence ministry, then we need not worry about Pakistan and China. We are strong enough… we have to build our capability over the next two-three years,” he said upon his return to Goa after assuming the office of defence minister.
Parrikar attributed the delays in some acquisitions to vested interests or corruption. For the metallurgist from the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, restoring the delicate civil-military balance would be an important task, too.
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