Last week I wrote, perhaps a shade effusively, about the achievements of the Manmohan Singh government — the performance of the economy under its watch, the legislation it has passed and so on. On security issues, however, the comments were more by way of negative achievements — that no event like Gujarat or Kargil had marred its record.
Unlike in other fields, the government has little to show by way of positive achievement in the area of defence and security. In the last four years the country has not faced any major threat to its security. This was even more reason why the government could have taken the opportunity to reform and restructure the defence and security apparatus of the country. But that has not happened and in the main we must blame the political leadership for this. As the experience of the National Democratic Alliance revealed, so huge is the task that it can only have been done by the political class. The United Progressive Alliance government inherited a positive impulse in this area in the form of decisions taken by the NDA based on the recommendations of a Group of Ministers which looked into the issues of defence management of the country. The recommendations of the GOM were well thought out and reflected a system-wide consensus.
But the UPA government has not just dithered, they have simply ignored any effort towards reform. The key area in which they were to have taken a decision was that of a Chief of Defence Staff who would be the chief military adviser to the government, along with the Defence Secretary who would be the senior-most civilian adviser. The CDS would have channeled all defence purchases to ensure there was no unnecessary duplication of effort. More important, his appointment would have initiated the process of integrating the three wings of the armed forces into a single fighting unit. This is crucial because the technological imperatives of the revolution in military affairs are already upon us. The RMA, based on new technologies of situational awareness and precision strike, cannot be effectively exploited unless the services fight as an integrated unit.
In the hands of the UPA, the GOM has become an instrument of blocking or evading decisions. The one major opportunity that the UPA had for defence reform related to the Defence Research and Development Organisation, but that was wasted by having a review committee headed by a former scientist of the organisation itself and some other former defence officials. In other words, the opportunity to make a decisive break from the organisation’s unfortunate history has been wasted.
It is not as though that the services have been starved of funds and equipment. Things may work slowly, but the Indian armed forces are being equipped with the best money can buy and the UPA government has not stinted on this score. The charge against it, however, is that it has not bothered to monitor how and why the money is being spent. The government has paid little attention to the larger issues of restructuring and reforming the services. The steady attrition of the army’s officer corps, with the best officers putting in their papers, and fewer signing up, is not a consequence of their pay alone. The problem is of a wider loss of esprit de corps of the force, manifested by instances of corruption and moral turpitude.
Other reforms pertained to the intelligence services. Most of the recommendations of the task force led by former Research & Analysis Wing Chief G.C.(Gary) Saxena were classified, but it is known that they called for extensive reform of the system. The 244-page paper given to the GOM was prepared by, among others, current National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan, former Foreign Secretary K. Raghunath and former R&AW official B. Raman.
It called for the creation of a new integrated Defence Intelligence Agency, a new agency called the National Technical Research Office which would own all the high tech assets of the intelligence services, and new data handling and inter-agency coordination systems. But in the four years of the UPA implementation of the recommendations have been fitful. They have been actively sabotaged by bureaucratic vested interests and undermined by inter-agency wrangling. The country’s ability to tackle the mutating terrorist threats is seriously in doubt, notwithstanding the hype about the recent SIMI captures. The key failure arises from the very fountainhead of the system — the National Security Council and its support bodies which were supposed to supervise this change. The NSC rarely meets and its support bodies are left to carry on routine tasks. Key decisions such as empowering the NTRO have not taken place. Neither have steps to ensure meaningful coordination among the MEA, IB, R&AW, the DIA and the state police intelligence services.
The primary reason for the failure in both the defence and security fields has been political. With the passing of J.N.(Mani) Dixit, the government lost whatever impulse it may have had to reform any part of the system. Former Intelligence Bureau chief Narayanan who succeeded him has been unable to overcome the limits of his own background and has been content to allow things to drift. But it is not his fault. He is by background a bureaucrat, accustomed to managing the system as it is. The onus for change lies with the political authorities. Unfortunately, this is where the problem lies. The Prime Minister, his other senior ministers and the chairman of the United Progressive Alliance are good people concerned about aam admi, social justice and India’s image abroad. Like Jawaharlal Nehru, they are not temperamentally inclined to bother about issues relating to security, especially since a threat does not appear to be imminent. The two key ministries dealing with security and defence have had very poor leadership. The less said about Mr. Shivraj Patil, the better. But equally both Mr. Pranab Mukherjee and Mr. A.K. Antony have proved to be failures in handling the defence ministry.
The NSC system had been set up not to deal with the problems of today, but to anticipate those of tomorrow and initiate policy measures to counter them. In these circumstances, the past four years would have been a good time to push for restructuring the armed forces and the intelligence services. In these years, a new future has already come upon us. The Maoist threat does not have the capability of overthrowing our system, though it is exercising its ability to debilitate the country enormously. But all that the UPA has done is to acknowledge that there is a problem, not solve it. Terrorism has struck new and different roots in the country, expanding into urban centres in the South. For years there was an assumption that the situation in Tibet was stabilising and that the Indian agreements with China would lead to a border settlement. But recent events have belied that. The Tibetan rebellion and the Chinese response indicate that the region could remain a flashpoint in Sino-Indian relations for some time. The Maoist sweep in Nepal elections has introduced another area of uncertainty in our northern and unprotected border.
In the past decade or so, the Chinese have built up a formidable logistical capability in Tibet, including a railroad. In addition, the People’s Liberation Army has been completely modernised and restructured. Their Indian counterparts have not wanted for money or equipment, but they have not had the political guidance or leadership to take the steps needed to meet the challenges of tomorrow.
This article appeared in Mail Today April 16, 2008