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Defence minister with vision needed

The recent bizarre defence of the MoD against denial of Non-Functional Upgradation to the armed forces on the pretext of palatial houses, army schools and other facilities including Military Service Pay has enhanced the divide between the MoD and the armed forces expected to operate under them.

Harsha Kakar | New Delhi |

In his eulogy to Manohar Parrikar, Nitin Gokhale writes of a conversation with him soon after he took over as the defence minister. Parrikar stated, “In these two-three months that I have been here (MoD), the most striking aspect I noticed is the all-pervasive atmosphere of suspicion. Everyone is looking over his or her own shoulder. There is very little coordination; the overwhelming tendency is to first say ‘no’ to everything.” It was this that he had tried to overcome. These words are the closest to the truth concerning the errant MoD that any politician has made.

His words were echoed by the MoS defence, Subhash Bhamre in a presentation to the PMO in December 2017, when he stated, “Of the total of 144 schemes contracted during the last three financial years, only 8-10 per cent fructified within the stipulated time period. The average time taken by these schemes was 52 months, which is more than twice the laid down duration of 16-25 months stipulated in the defence procurement policy.”

He added, “There is the evident lack of synergy between the stakeholders that is amongst various departments of the MoD. The departments appear to be working in independent silos driven by policy/procedures.” It is the silo approach which has led to the MoD being not only distrusted but also a failure in many ways.

For over seven decades, while the world has moved forward, integrated the armed forces with the ministry responsible for them, India hesitates. The reason is the illogical fear of a coup. Consecutive Indian governments have failed to trust their own armed forces on which the nation has complete faith, despite it never letting them down. This distrust has been fuelled by a bureaucracy which is hesitant to dilute its control.

The MoD is a bureaucratic ministry responsible for all aspects of the military. No one who is posted to the ministry has ever had a day’s military service, remains unaware of what he must deal with and yet desires control over the services. In such an atmosphere the ministry will remain a stumbling block.

Demands for equipment projected by the armed forces take years to fructify. There is never any rush or a desire to push cases. They remain under process for ages. As a policy every case file must be returned multiple times with queries which could be handled in minutes. The reason – delay, deny and avoid decision-making so as not to become a part of a controversy.

The cases are only processed once the armed forces raise hue and cry. The impact on national security is of no concern to the bureaucracy as they remain unanswerable for lack of capabilities. Criticism by every single parliamentary committee on shortfalls in defence preparedness are ignored. Such inaction only adds to distrust.

The recent bizarre defence of the MoD against denial of Non-Functional Upgradation to the armed forces on the pretext of palatial houses, army schools and other facilities including Military Service Pay has enhanced the divide between the MoD and the armed forces expected to operate under them. None of the reasons bear logic as has been projected on multiple social media platforms.

The misuse of canteen profits to fund civil services facilities including schools specifically created for their wards, their medical treatment and availability of five-star civil services clubs with everything subsidised has been ignored. These bizarre claims only highlight the venom existing within the MoD against the armed forces they are duty bound to serve. A recent example of existing hatred was the tweet by the MoD spokesperson targeting a decorated ex-Naval Chief. In such an environment there can only be dislike.

The Home Minister upgraded the risk factor for the CAPFs operating under them from R1H2 to R1H1 post Pulwama, which implied an enhancement in monetary terms. The bureaucracy is already at a much higher grade. A simple comparison indicates that while an army officer receives Rs 16,900, the CAPFs obtain Rs 25,000 and the bureaucracy is granted Rs 50,000 for the same risk factor. The MoD has yet to resolve the anomaly, despite the defence minister claiming she micro-manages the ministry. Such actions imply the armed forces are treated as second class citizens by their own ministry.

The MoD put forth an illogical proposal to equate the Armed Forces HQ Civil Cadre with the armed forces, while ignoring similar equivalence with the IAS. It led to the service chiefs creating a hue and cry, compelling the MoD to back down. Similar has been the case with the bureaucracy attempting to grab armed forces establishments including the Canteen Services Department. Such actions lead to service chiefs devoting more time battling internal enemies than external. In such an environment, can there be unity in approach?

Within the nation and especially amongst the military community there is a growing feeling that the armed forces are a political tool to garner votes but dumped thereafter. No defence minister has had the foresight to consider reorganisation of the MoD to cater for modern threats and enhancing joint operations. This, despite recommendations of every committee formed by every government in independent India’s history. Clearly, lack of foresight is a feature of our political leadership.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley admitting post the budget and prior to elections, that the defence budget is low and should be enhanced, is another vote garnering gimmick. He had been defence minister twice in this government, was aware of every shortcoming, yet failed to act. Stating the same after the chicken has flown the coop is a poor reflection of the understanding of his government.

Can the armed forces, deployed in the worst of conditions, battling threats everyday trust any government and the MoD to provide them even essentials? The answer is an emphatic no. This distrust will remain unless some government, in the coming days appoints a defence minister with vision, capability and a desire to reform the MoD by taking the bull by its horns. Does India possess someone with such a capability? A point to consider.

(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)