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Ominous precedent

Editorial |

An immediate political situation might have been “managed” by the defence minister citing secrecy clauses in the contract for Rafale fighters from France as preventing compliance with the Congress’ demand for a detailed disclosure on the price being paid for the 36 jets ~ as Rajiv Gandhi once said, a Prime Minister does not have to respond to “every dog that barks”. Yet in a more sober ambience Mrs Nirmala Sitharaman would possibly admit to having set a dangerous precedent.

The Indian people are entitled to know the quantum of taxpayer’s money being expended on military acquisitions, and surely the government’s financial watchdog ~ which functions under parliamentary supervision ~ cannot be prevented from getting more than a “ballpark” figure. The armed forces are funded by the taxpayer, it runs contrary to basic democratic values if commercial-confidentiality, or secrecy clauses, are cited to deny people a basic right to information. Such clauses can be given blanket application: the “holy cow” image of defence will thus be reinforced.

Worse, members of both the armed forces and the general public will not be made aware of the cost of maintaining national security: that could result in wasteful expenditure by the forces, as well as irresponsible public demands for military action against adversaries. Does the National Democratic Alliance honestly believe that people have to be kept in the dark on such a critical issue? Particularly when India imports 65-70 per cent of its military hardware, and has the dubious distinction of being among the world’s highest importers of defence stores.

Without in any way adding weight to the suspicions of Opposition parties ~ nothing more than suspicions at present ~ the government’s failure to authenticate its claims that it had secured more favourable terms for the 36 jets in a crash programme than what the UPA was negotiating for 126 Rafales, and the insistence on secrecy does fuel misgivings. More so since the minister had told the media she would provide relevant details.

So too the defence ministry abandoning its tradition of staying aloof from political controversy and issuing a detailed statement joining issue with the Opposition in general, and the Congress party in particular. Even the BJP president has admitted that parties switch from Treasury to Opposition benches, and officials would be well advised to refrain from political muckraking. Alas, the government and its ministers are so focused on immediate political issues that they refuse to “see” a bigger picture, and equate good governance with electoral success.

The apolitical dimension of national security has thus been compromised by both Government and Opposition, and Mrs Sitharaman ~ possibly “under instructions” ~ has contributed to that erosion of core values. That will not be a highlight of the legacy of her tenure in South Block: handling defence calls for more than “political proficiency”.