The first United Progressive Alliance government’s most substantive failure was in the area of security. Its most obvious manifestation was in the horrific Mumbai attack last November, but there were equally worrying signs in the poor handling of the Naxal problem, or the management of the country’s defence portfolio.
Mumbai happened. The Naxal issue was left to fester. As for defence, the armed forces were simply not ready to act against Pakistan in the aftermath of 26/11.
The Mumbai terror attack did bring the UPA-I government back on to the track. But since only a few months were left of its tenure, all it could do was to take some urgent measures — which it did — and hope for the best.
P. Chidambaram’s appointment as Union Home Minister for the UPA-II government is a good sign. The tough measures that UPA-I was finally compelled to adopt after 26/11 will continue. Mr Chidambaram may have his faults, but the lack of decisiveness is not one of them. And the one thing that the humongous Home Ministry desperately requires is leadership.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of A.K. Antony who returns as the Union Defence Minister. Saint Antony’s honesty is an important attribute for a ministry which has been dogged by huge scandals and which is likely to issue some high-value equipment contracts in the coming years.
But our defence management does not require honesty alone. We need a political leader who will undertake drastic and decisive reforms that ensure that we have efficient, battle-ready forces at all times and against all adversaries.
The biggest danger that the country confronts in the coming period is the threat of another Mumbai-type terrorist attack. Knowing how the terrorists operate, it is more than certain that the next attack will not be anything like the last.
Mumbai has initiated action on one front at least. Under the new maritime security plan, the Navy is now the “designated authority” for overall maritime security. The most important task, one that will take years to accomplish, is to be able to knit together all the elements that constitute the maritime security system — the Coast Guard, state marine police forces, the state and central intelligence organisations.
Besides ships and boats, the system will require a comprehensive infrastructure of air, sea and land-based radar and data management systems that track every ship and boat in our waters.
The reform of our intelligence system is long overdue. The Research & Analysis Wing and the Intelligence Bureau have successfully deflected the effort to reform them by the National Democratic Alliance government. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should not waste any time in undertaking a deep restructuring of the intelligence system.
The system is in dire need of modernisation. The IB must be prodded to abandon its colonial-era task of spying on political parties. By now it should be clear to all that this benefits no one but the intelligence bureaucracies.
There is need to make the R&AW more productive, get the National Technical Research Office going and set up new institutions to exploit internet and space-based systems. The most difficult and important task is to knit together all the elements of the intelligence system — IB, R&AW, NTRO, the Financial Intelligence Unit, the Narcotics Control Bureau and the state intelligence agencies.
There is also need to address our weaknesses in foreign languages and international studies programmes which result in poor utilisation of hard-earned intelligence data.
The way forward in defence has been laid out partially by the NDA’s Group of Ministers proposals which had been given Cabinet approval. The UPA-I’s failure to appoint a Chief of Defence Staff has blocked all efforts towards integrating the armed forces. This integration is vital if we are to exploit the Revolution in Military Affairs which, in our times, means the fusing of sensors to obtain total information on the adversary and the ability to employ the most effective and appropriate force to neutralise him, regardless of whether the weapon “belongs” to the army, navy or air force.
India will spend some Rs 170,000 crore on its defence forces this year. This roughly comes to the entire sum the Union government will spend on Health (Rs 18,808 crore), Home Affairs (Rs 38,601 crore), Rural Development (Rs 62,615 crore), Roads (Rs 19,764 crore) and Human Resource Development (Rs 41,978 crore).
The country with the highest rate of infant mortality and malnutrition in the world cannot, or should not, be able to afford this. But the issue is not the size of the expenditure, but its efficacy.
Twice in recent times — in the wake of the Parliament attack in December 2001 and after Mumbai last November — the government needed to use coercive diplomacy with Pakistan. But it soon realised that its principal instrumentality of coercion — our armed forces — were simply not up to the task.
This is not to argue that the government should have attacked Pakistan. What the government did need was the option of the efficacious use of force. Here it is not enough to say, well, our Air Force was ready to go. The government would have been irresponsible if it sent in the IAF for a so-called surgical strike without being prepared for a wider conflict in which case, as it turned out, our army was not quite prepared.
In all this we have not even factored in China. In a recent statement the Air Force chief Fali Major declared, “We know very little about the actual capabilities of China, their combat edge or how professional their military is.” This is a pathetic admission of our weakness. It echoes the defeatist talk that was common in the early 1960s when Chinese and Indian forces began to face-off across the Himalayas.
Clearly India desperately needs to do something about its defence management system. But there are no indications that it hopes to do something about it. In UPA-I, neither the National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan nor Mr A.K. Antony showed any inclination to touch the subject of the reform of the armed forces and the intelligence services.
Unfortunately, this work can only be done by people like them, the political class. Left to themselves the defence bureaucracy — civilian and uniformed — will do nothing about it because they have it good anyway. When disaster struck, as it did in Namka Chu in 1962, and in Mumbai in 2008, jawans, policemen and civilians died, but it is the political class that was held accountable.
UPA-II is in a grace period. The electorate did not buy the BJP’s critique of the UPA-I on security because it was patently self-serving, coming as it did, from a party with a longer list of failures.
But the people may not be so forgiving the next time. Especially if it appeared that the UPA had been wilfully negligent.
This appeared in Mail Today May 28, 2009