Given the prevailing gung-ho sentiment and its focus on military muscle, there could be some who might feel disappointed that after a decade India has been demoted from the top of the list of the world’s top arms importers, as tabulated by the universally reputed Swedish think-tank SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), a few might even salivate over Pakistan figuring way down that calculation. Yet the reality remains that despite a strong industrial base (particularly when compared with Saudi Arabia the new leading importer), India still has some distance to travel before attaining the desired level of self-reliance in defence production. And that pertains not just to the smart bombs the IAF used when targeting the JeM training facility in Balakot recently, for even less-sophisticated hardware would be included in the 9.5 per cent share of the global market that SIPRI estimates is India-bound. In fact that estimate points to India having slipped on its list because international suppliers, Russia among them, did not adhere to delivery schedules. “Make in India” and “defence industrial corridors” sound great on paper, translating them into reality requires more. Have we come even close to PV Narasimha Rao’s mid-1990s target of reversing the 70-30 per cent imported-indigenous ratio in defence supplies? To be fair, during NDA-I George Fernandes broke down many barriers that discouraged private industry from defence production, AK Antony was lacklustre and NDA-II is more style than substance. To illustrate that point: regularly does the Defence Acquisition Council announce the clearance of projects but seldom cares to follow that up with information on the stage of their progress, or what new equipment has reached the troops. Most of the recent inductions were items negotiated during the UPA regime.
The defence ministry has had four ministers in five years. On two occasions it was an “additional charge”, the first full-time minister preferred to return to state politics. And Nirmala Sitharaman is so tasked with political firefighting ~ and given to gimmicks like asking army engineers to construct railway over-bridges, or opening roads in cantonments to the general public ~ that core defence issues tend to be neglected. True that under the prevailing system all power is concentrated in the PMO, but of late Mr Narendra Modi has come around to accepting that his external affairs minister has capabilities of her own. Mrs Sitharaman, alas, has had few such opportunities. And while Pulwama and Balakot brought military affairs to the front pages with loads of jingoism, the core issue of modernisation and re-equipment has received limited priority. And sick political controversy has plagued the Rafale deal. Do our soldiers, if not some of their generals, merit more meaningful management? Powerful forces are built, not bought and as the SIPRI study confirms, our defence industry is in dire straits. A rifle factory in Amethi may shoot down a political target but it won’t do anything more substantive.