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Army ‘right-sizing’

Editorial |

When politicised legal-eagles arrogate to themselves the right to pass judgment on matters on which they have little expertise the outcome can be disastrous.

With all due respect, Abhishek Manu Singhvi has made a mess of trading his gown and bans for a brass hat when flaying the Army’s move to reduce unnecessary manpower and its related expenses by his asserting that if the money spent on the Prime Minister’s foreign visits were transferred to the defence budget there would be no need for cutting back on the jobs of an estimated 150,000 “uniforms”.

There has to be some limit on political loose-talk, and the lawyer-MP would do himself a world of good if he reads the findings of expert studies aimed at the clichéd “leaner, meaner army” before pontification for inexpensive publicity. And recall that even 25 years back then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao had expressed misgivings over the “tooth to tail ratio”.

Or note that when Gen VP Malik was army chief, recruitment of 50,000 troops was “suppressed” to free-up funds to augment the arsenal. The conflicting interest between high force-levels and state-of-the-art weaponry is a plague that will not be addressed by inexpensive political sniping. Not that better management of the defence budget will pay political reward.

While it would be premature, indeed foolish, to endorse or commend the plans the defence ministry has yet to announce, it must be noted that this time around a degree of debate has preceded moves to “right-size” ~ not simply downsize ~ the Army. And proposals will be looked at in detail at the next Commanders’ Conference.

Alas, with so many brass hats now marching to a political drumbeat, suspicions will abound, and the professionalism of any decision will be queried. Maybe Nirmala Sitharaman could consider setting up a team of former military specialists and finance experts to review the proposals the Army might put forward.

It would also be worthwhile to invite think-tanks (the USI, IDSA etc) and select universities in the exercise. The fallout of a troop reduction is too farreaching to leave the decision to those operating under prevailing pressures.

For years now the Army has stated that manning long, disputed, borders and simultaneously tackling insurgencies militates against the oversimplified theory that hi-tech can replace “boots on the ground”. What is also important is where the cuts will be imposed ~ the forces are decidedly topheavy, a re-working of “headquarters” would be preferable to slashing the number of unsung footsloggers.

An old joke had dubbed the army “the greatest confidence-trick in the world ~ the thicker the pay-packet the farther from the fighting”. Yet any reduction of perks (luxuries?) would be robustly resisted ~ remember the furore over roads in Cantonments being opened to civilian traffic. A leaner Army must trickle down to less-elaborate lifestyles for those flaunting gold braid.