Modi@4: Govt’s Defence Policies Leave a Lot to Be Desired
The process of military politicisation began with the surgical strikes.
Spearheaded by none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, defence, national security and welfare of veterans were the key pillars of his election campaign.
Amongst defence reforms, he promised the moon, pledging to pursue a muscular policy against Pakistan. On the fourth anniversary of his government’s tenure, Modi’s score card is not as impressive as was expected or is made out to be.
Rather, in his achievements was a subterranean effort at politicising the military in the guise of nationalism by agencies and organisations integral and linked to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
OROP, Rafale Deal & Other Policies
The most outstanding achievement that Modi does not hesitate to acclaim is OROP, though some veterans remain disappointed due to its residual imperfections.
OROP accompanied by the Seventh Pay Commission award, which, not surprisingly has its usual quota anomalies, has made a big dent in the defence budget where salaries and pensions have impaired funding for defence modernisation – allocation for 2018-19 being the lowest at 1.57 percent of the GDP.
The Ministry of Defence has remained unstable by the frequent switching of defence ministers: Nirmala Sitharaman being the third minister.
The resultant turbulence adversely affected consummation of major defence reforms like integration of service headquarters with MoD, strengthening and expanding Integrated Defence Staff, creating combined theater commands and appointing the elusive CDS (which Manohar Parrikar had vowed would “definitely happen”) to name just a few.
Instead the government appointed yet another superfluous organisation called the Defence Planning Committee through which NSA Ajit Doval, at heart a policeman, was indirectly anointed as the CDS.
While ministers played musical chairs, ad hocism crept in, crowned by Modi unilaterally cancelling the 126 Rafale fighter deal in the making and summarily ordering the acquisition of 36 Rafale aircraft from France just before his visit there.
Two years later, the MoD revived the ‘abandoned process’ of acquiring another fighter aircraft to make up for the crisis of dwindling number of fighter squadrons in the Indian Air Force.
This is cruel joke on the IAF. The Navy has its own sorry story of diminishing submarines and other warships and the Army only recently – after two decades of tinkering – caught the bull by the horns: equipping Rifleman Bhoop Singh and the infantry, the sword arm of the service, with a modern assault rifle and contemporary protective gear.
All this, thanks to the relentless efforts of General Bipin Rawat.
Were Modi to invest a little prime time in defence and remove the silos and minefields that have been created by the bureaucracy, we could get the right bang for the buck and a more effective fighting force.
Fighting a Two-Front War
Right-sizing the Army is vital and Rawat is at it.
About the situation in Kashmir, BJP’s Ram Madhav said “all is fair in love and war”. But according to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on defence, the Army is not ready for war. It is high time for the Modi government to shift the focus from fighting elections to preparing to fight for a two-front war after carrying out essential defence reforms whose use-by date is periodically extended.
Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray has correctly observed that Modi should focus on conflicts with Pakistan and China rather than on fighting electoral battles.
Which takes Modi’s defence capsule to the start of Team Modi’s innings and the politicisation creep targeting the services.
Former Army Chief General Dalbir Singh who had been mistreated by General VK Singh became the political football between the victorious BJP government, which insisted on announcing and appointing the next chief even as the outgoing UPA II argued it was its prerogative to do so.
With VK Singh having stormed the elections and having become a BJP MP, the Congress feared the incoming government might not make Dalbir Singh chief under VK Singh’s pressure.
Fortunately, justice prevailed. Fast forward to Gen Bipin Rawat’s appointment.
Superseding two senior Generals, however much justified, created a political stir along party lines. The last time two Lieutenant Generals were overlooked was when Gen KS Thimayya was made Army chief.
He was recently in the news during the Karnataka elections for the wrong reasons. The government, which need not have attributed any reason for super-session, issued a note saying Rawat’s counter-insurgency experience was richer than that of the other two Generals, just as Gen AS Vaidya in 1983 stole a march over Lt Gen SK Sinha because he had distinguished himself in wars and gallantry awards won.
The Indian military’s sterling assets are that it is apolitical, secular, professional and under civilian political control and has successfully weathered political storms. Born from the same womb, the Pakistan Army next door chose a different direction and destiny. The Indian Army’s motto taken from Field Marshal Chetwode is etched on every officer’s mind: the safety, honour and welfare of the country come first, always and every time; the honour, welfare and comfort of the men you command come next; your own ease, comfort and safety come last always and every time.
The process of politicisation began in earnest with the surgical strikes which became a political metaphor for the Modi government’s political courage and boldness.
How Modi Has Changed the Army’s Apolitical Identity
In the UP election the BJP crossed the red line by printing on political posters, pictures of an Army General – Lt Gen Ranbir Singh, the DGMO alongside pictures of Modi, Amit Shah and Manohar Parrikar. The latter became famous by telling stories about how he instilled the Hanuman spirit in the Army.
Modi has not missed any opportunity to invoke surgical strikes, OROP and even Doklam. He failed to consider the negative consequences of using military operations to garner political dividends especially when these could politicise the Army given that the strikes were contested by the Opposition on grounds of their utility in stopping cross-border terrorism.
Undeterred Amit Shah said that demonetisation and surgical strikes would be key planks in the five poll bound states last year.
Modi messed up his Indian military history during the Karnataka elections, while narrating episodes about two military icons from Coorg – Gen KM Cariappa and KS Thimayya.
He or his script writers did disservice to these legends who laid the foundations for the post-colonial Indian Army by portraying them as victims who suffered under the Congress government when the opposite is true.
Many other BJP leaders have by design or otherwise, attempted to claim ownership of the shine of the Army. Their colleagues in the VHP and RSS have conspicuously been out of step. Praveen Togadia (VHP) has reportedly said that stone pelters in Kashmir should be bombarded and has passionately advocated war to break up Pakistan.
RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has praised his pracharaks’ and swayamsevaks’ preparedness for war, even saying they could mobilise faster than the army. The BJP’s Vinay Katiyar has allegedly made some uncivil comments about Muslims, unaware there are many Muslims in the military.
While the RSS’s Hindutva fervour is laudable why can’t they be like the Army – good and patriotic, Hindus, Christians or Sikhs or whatever, and still be secular?
When a recruit graduates to become a soldier in his passing-out parade, s/he is blessed by a panditji, moulvi, granthi and a priest. In many mixed class regiments, multi-faith prayers are held under one roof.
This is the idea of India and its Constitution that soldiers imbibe, profess and protect. No political authority should eve tinker with the country’s last bastion of democracy.
Modi has another year before the next elections to show he is serious about keeping the armed forces shipshape and apolitical.
(Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta is a founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, the forerunner of the current Integrated Defence Staff. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.