After their surgical strikes across the LOC had been fully exploited as a political scalpel, the armed forces had hoped they would be rewarded in the shape of budgetary provisions aimed at honing their cutting edge. Yet the financial blueprint presented in Parliament on Wednesday points to a reluctance of Modi sarkar to put its money where its’ mouth is. Juggle the numbers as much as Mr Arun Jaitley may like, the reality remains that an outlay of Rs.2,74,114 crore for defence in the coming financial year is only a token increase ~ particularly when contrasted with the levels of defence-spending by unfriendly neighbours ~ and may just about suffice to cope with domestic inflation and fluctuations in exchange rates: critical in a high-import arena. One popular conclusion is that the much-hyped strikes were negated by the finance minister having to take measures to remedy negative aspects of the “big bang” on 8 November: the priority-scale was re-drawn, and as usual the faujis lost out. There is little need to pay heed to the assessments of politicians lauding or lambasting Mr Jaitley’s allocations, they speak from pre-conceived positions. The minister actually slammed himself when he had nothing more to highlight in his budget speech than an upgraded system of pension-disbursement, and a more convenient system of railway reservations. By no means a pointer to enhanced firepower; nor anything positive about addressing the need for more fighter planes, submarines and state-of-the-art rifles, etc.
Allocations are not all that matter. It is clear that the Jaitley-Parrikar combine has made no dent in the imbalance between revenue expenditure and capital outlays, and that there has been a repetition of that cardinal sin in the management of defence finances ~ money earmarked for new acquisitions in the capital account having to be “returned” or “diverted”. That this has happened earlier too is no alibi, the BJP has ever trumpeted its commitment to boosting military might. The least that was expected was a special thrust on Research and Development and indigenous production ~ at least budgetary provisions to facilitate that. It is conceded that a budget speech does not spell out minute details, hopefully there will be a full-fledged defence discussion when the demands for grants are processed. And since payments for defence imports are spread out over a long period the modest allocation for capital expenditure is not necessarily a dampener ~ provided the bureaucratic bottlenecks choking various acquisitions projects are expeditiously addressed. Going beyond money matters, the forces are in need of categorical assurances on several issues, sadly the defence minister has declined to be forthright on some of them. Could that be because the “verdict” on 11 March could determine his tenure in South Block?